This Woman Reunited With Her Rapist To Share Their Story

There is no "right" way to react after experiencing a sexual assault or rape. As with any traumatic experience, how one copes and learns to come to terms with what's happened is unique. There is no set path to follow and it's impossible to know how you'd respond until it happens.

For some, eliminating all thoughts of the perpetrator may be crucial in order to move on. Others, meanwhile, may want to learn to forgive and be reconciled with them. Thordis Elva, from Iceland, is among the latter group.

Elva was just 16 when she was raped in 1996 by her then-boyfriend Tom Stranger, 18, an Australian foreign exchange student visiting Iceland for a year. Now, more than two decades later, Elva and Stranger have shared their story of rape, reconciliation and how they came to write a book together, South of Forgiveness, which is released in March.

In a moving 19-minute TED Talk, filmed last year at TEDWomen2016 in San Francisco, the pair describe the impact of the rape on each of their lives, and how they jointly came to evaluate Stranger's actions and ensure the blame was transferred from Elva to him. Their message is not that others should follow their example, but that reconciliation after sexual assault is possible.
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The pair recall how they had been dating for "a month or so" when Stranger raped Elva in her home after the school's Christmas ball. Elva, who describes having tried rum for the first time that night, said she remembered thinking Stranger was her hero after he put her to bed. "It was like a fairy tale, his strong arms around me, laying me in the safety of my bed," she said.

But the night took a sharp turn for the worse, "as he proceeded to take off my clothes and get on top of me," Elva recalled. "My head had cleared up, but my body was still too weak to fight back, and the pain was blinding. 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," she added.

Stranger said he didn't consider his actions at the time to be rape, adding that he only has "vague memories of the next day". "To be honest, I repudiated the entire act in the days afterwards and when I was committing it. 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," he added.

The pair broke up a few days later and Stranger went back home to Australia. Meanwhile, Elva was reluctant to label her experience as rape. "Despite limping for days and crying for weeks, this incident didn't fit my ideas about rape like I'd seen on TV. Tom wasn't an armed lunatic, he was my boyfriend, and it didn't happen in a seedy alleyway, it happened in my own body."

Nine years later, at the age of 25, Elva was "headed straight for a nervous breakdown" and "consumed with misplaced hatred and anger that I took out on myself." It was then that she sat down in a cafe and began writing a letter to Stranger. She soon realised that she wanted to forgive him and that writing was her "way out" of her suffering.

She posted the letter and the pair began an eight-year-long email correspondence. They agreed to meet in Cape Town, a mid point between Iceland and Australia, to trade life stories and talk about the incident that took place nearly 16 years earlier. It was a meeting that proved transformative for both parties.

"All I wanted to do for years is hurt Tom back as deeply as he had hurt me," she said, adding that their reconciliation in South Africa had been life-changing. "Light had triumphed over darkness... There is hope after rape."

Understandably, many have shared concerns about Stranger's right, as a perpetrator of rape, to speak out about the subject via such influential platforms as a TED talk and a book. In a follow-up Q&A after their talk, Elva tackled this point head on. "I understand those who are inclined to criticise me as someone who enabled a perpetrator to have a voice in this discussion," she said.

"But I believe that a lot can be learned by listening to those who have been a part of the problem — if they’re willing to become part of the solution — about what ideas and attitudes drove their violent actions, so we can work on uprooting them effectively."

Indeed, Elva pointed out that sexual assault is a human issue, not a "women's issue" and men – the most likely perpetrators – have a responsibility to work with women to prevent violence and help create safer communities.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
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