Most victims of rape would never want to see their rapist again but one woman is turning that notion on its head.
Thordis Elva was raped in 1996 by her boyfriend, Australian native Tom Stranger, when she was just 16 years old.
But decades later, the two reunited to write a book together, titled South of Forgiveness, described as "an unprecedented collaboration between a survivor and a perpetrator, each equally committed to exploring the darkest moment of their lives” by the book's website.
Last October, Elva, a native of Iceland, and Stranger, reunited again, this time on stage for a powerful TED Talk about how they were able to heal after the rape.
Elva explained that after she was raped, she blamed herself — something that is very common among rape survivors — and felt "it was pointless to address what had happened."
Following a dance at which Elva drank rum for the first time, Stranger took her home, where "he proceeded to take off my clothes and get on top of me."
"My head had cleared up, but my body was still too weak to fight back, and the pain was blinding," she reflected. "I thought I'd been severed in two.
"In order to stay sane, I silently counted the seconds on my alarm clock. And ever since that night, I've known that there are 7,200 seconds in two hours."
Stranger recounted his experience after the rape as well, saying, "It is important to now state that I didn't see my deed for what it was."
"To be honest, I repudiated the entire act in the days afterwards and when I was committing it," he continued. "I disavowed the truth by convincing myself it was sex and not rape. And this is a lie I've felt spine-bending guilt for."
Nine years after the rape, Elva wrote a letter to her ex, which turned into an eight-year correspondence where they "dissect[ed] the consequences of that night, and they were everything from gut-wrenching to healing beyond words."
Nearly 16 years after the rape, the two met in person in Cape Town, South Africa, where they talked about the impact the rape had on Elva.
"I read somewhere that you should try and be the person that you needed when you were younger," Elva said. "And back when I was a teenager, I would have needed to know that the shame wasn’t mine, that there’s hope after rape, that you can even find happiness, like I share with my husband today."
She continued, “Which is why I started writing feverishly upon my return from Cape Town, resulting in a book co-authored by Tom, that we hope can be of use to people from both ends of the perpetrator-survivor scale. If nothing else, it’s a story that we would’ve needed to hear when we were younger.”
“When you own something and really square up to your culpability, I do think a surprising thing can happen,” explained Stranger.
“It’s what I call a paradox of ownership. I thought I’d buckle under the weight of responsibility. I thought my certificate of humanity would be burnt. Instead, I was offered to really own what I did, and found that it didn’t possess the entirety of who I am.”
"Don’t underestimate the power of words," he added. "Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself, as well as with her. But most importantly, the blame transferred from Thordis to me. Far too often, the responsibility is attributed to female survivors of sexual violence, and not to the males who enact it. Far too often, the denial and running leaves all parties at a great distance from the truth. There’s definitely a public conversation happening now, and like a lot of people, we’re heartened that there’s less retreating from this difficult but important discussion. I feel a real responsibility to add our voices to it."