Many sexual assault survivors fantasize about confronting their perpetrators. Perhaps the goal would be to express how much pain they had caused, hurt them back, hear the perpetrator take responsibility for their actions, or even explore whether forgiveness is the gift of freedom it is often promised to be.
Most such confrontations, if they do move from fantasy to reality, come nowhere near reaching any of those goals. Most often, it seems, perpetrators continue to deny what happened, deny their responsibility, and/or blame the victim. Seldom do victims come out of such confrontations reporting that the experience was healing.
That’s not the story told by Thordis and Tom. Thordis was giddily in her first love at age 16 when Tom, an international exchange student she was dating, viciously raped her. Both of their lives veered off-course. Thordis drank, got involved in risky relationships, and struggled horribly with shame. Tom, while still not fully admitting what he had done, nevertheless kept himself apart from others and himself, not believing he deserved love or acceptance.
Nine years after their fateful encounter, Thordis decided to contact Tom. Not expecting an answer, she was surprised when he not only did respond, but took responsibility for what had happened and encouraged more discussion. That email discussion lasted eight years. It culminated in a heart-breakingly courageous decision to meet up somewhere neutral to try to finish the conversation face-to-face.
South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility (written by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger, published by First Skyhorse Publishing in 2017) tells the story of that week-long trip to Cape Town, South Africa, home of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the half-way mark between Thordis’s Iceland and Tom’s Australia. Beautifully written by both of them in alternating chapters, the book explores both psychic and geographical terrain. Both share their life stories and how that one night had disfigured those trajectories. They also explored whether new self-images were possible in the wake of their painful and sometimes exhilarating discussions.
We won’t share more of the book itself except to point out that besides ending up writing the book together, Thordis and Tom are now speaking publicly (see their TedTalk at https://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconciliation#t-1194365) about what they have done to and with each other. As they point out, “How will we understand what it is in human society that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?” It won’t be every survivor’s cup of tea, but for those brave enough to look, their story may provide a ray of hope and inspiration.