South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility
Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017)
Imagine calming the storm raging in every cell of your body. Many years after being raped by a young man she loved, Thordis Elva found forgiveness and solace.
She was an Icelandic kid, just 16, falling in love for the first time. He was an eighteen-year-old exchange student from Australia. One night went wrong with 72,000 seconds of rape, and years later, the two come together. South of Forgiveness is a journal of that week in both their voices.
Elva’s determination to go beyond “getting over” the rape drove her to write plays and a book on gender-based violence. Her ruthless quest for truths set her on the startling path of reconnecting and confronting her perpetrator. She and Tom Stranger spend several years emailing back and forth, going deeper into honest appraisals. She had survived years of self-harm and the reprisals of post-traumatic stress. He was entrenched in guilt and shame and, eager may not quite be the term, utterly willing to drive through this uncharted territory with Thordis. They decide to meet in Cape Town, South Africa, a global half way point and, starkly, considered the rape capital of the world. Elva and Stranger break boundaries, dare to consider reconciliation and restorative practices, as they shatter the silence of victim and perpetrator.
They walk through fires of remembering, clarify times they spent together after the rape, and focus some blurred memories. They are both brave and a little crazy to endure this process. But they know their lives are on the line. Their future healthy relationships, joy, and forgiveness are at stake. The result is a respect and responsibility and an intensity of awareness few mortals will come to know.
Rape culture, globally and in the United States, is pandemic. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), “Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.” Girls, women, boys, men, Native American, White, African American, Latinx, Asian American, all races and creeds, LGBT, military personnel, incarcerated populations— all among the victims. Underreporting of incidents, re-traumatization of victims during legal proceedings, mistrials, media and judicial bias toward perpetrators is blatantly obvious. The emotional and psychic costs to men, women and children, to the perpetrators and the victims, is beyond any known approach to accounting. Due to a shortage of staff, funding, or national initiative, in the United States there are 400,000 untested rape kits awaiting analysis.The long-term health effects, personal economic, social, and emotional costs of rape are staggering. The loss to the GDP and the national creativity and happiness quotient—unimaginable.
Freedom from rape is a civil rights and health issue—for both victim and perpetrator. Elva and Stranger sleuth their truths, which are hard and honest. Stranger does not know why he raped Elva that night, he cared deeply for her and it terrorizes him that that ability was within his nature. Where did it come from?
This is a book for all who desire to end rape culture. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all model but it does offer inspiration to challenge legal, institutional, and social dead ends. What new venues can we create? Restorative Justice? Peer mentoring? A 12-step approach? The VOEG (Victim Offender Education Group) model used by Insight Prison Project? Masculinity education programs? We need all our creative, inspired willingness and awareness to bring justice, love, and well-being to all who have been harmed. Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger offer us their story of finding a path to resolution and peace. Their book and TED Talk challenge and encourage us to find ours.