Our story of rape and reconciliation | Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger

Our story of rape and reconciliation | Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger


[This talk contains graphic language
and descriptions of sexual violence Viewer discretion is advised] Tom Stranger: In 1996,
when I was 18 years old, I had the golden opportunity to go
on an international exchange program. Ironically I’m an Australian
who prefers proper icy cold weather, so I was both excited and tearful
when I got on a plane to Iceland, after just having farewelled
my parents and brothers goodbye. I was welcomed into the home
of a beautiful Icelandic family who took me hiking, and helped me get a grasp
of the melodic Icelandic language. I struggled a bit with the initial
period of homesickness. I snowboarded after school, and I slept a lot. Two hours of chemistry class in a language
that you don’t yet fully understand can be a pretty good sedative. (Laughter) My teacher recommended
I try out for the school play, just to get me a bit more socially active. It turns out I didn’t end up
being part of the play, but through it I met Thordis. We shared a lovely teenage romance, and we’d meet at lunchtimes
to just hold hands and walk around old downtown Reykjavík. I met her welcoming family,
and she met my friends. We’d been in a budding relationship
for a bit over a month when our school’s Christmas Ball was held. Thordis Elva: I was 16
and in love for the first time. Going together to the Christmas dance was a public confirmation
of our relationship, and I felt like the luckiest
girl in the world. No longer a child, but a young woman. High on my newfound maturity, I felt it was only natural to try drinking
rum for the first time that night, too. That was a bad idea. I became very ill, drifting in and out of consciousness in between spasms of convulsive vomiting. The security guards wanted
to call me an ambulance, but Tom acted as my knight
in shining armor, and told them he’d take me home. It was like a fairy tale, his strong arms around me, laying me in the safety of my bed. But the gratitude that I felt
towards him soon turned to horror as 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. I thought I’d be 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. 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 bed. By the time I could identify
what had happened to me as rape, he had completed his exchange program and left for Australia. So I told myself it was pointless
to address what had happened. And besides, it had to have been my fault, somehow. I was raised in a world
where girls are taught that they get raped for a reason. Their skirt was too short, their smile was too wide, their breath smelled of alcohol. And I was guilty of all of those things, so the shame had to be mine. It took me years to realize that only one thing could have stopped me
from being raped that night, and it wasn’t my skirt, it wasn’t my smile, it wasn’t my childish trust. The only thing that could’ve stopped me
from being raped that night is the man who raped me — had he stopped himself. TS: I have vague memories of the next day: the after effects of drinking, a certain hollowness
that I tried to stifle. Nothing more. But I didn’t show up at Thordis’s door. It is important to now state that I didn’t see my deed for what it was. The word “rape” didn’t echo
around my mind as it should’ve, and I wasn’t crucifying myself
with memories of the night before. It wasn’t so much a conscious refusal, it was more like any acknowledgment
of reality was forbidden. My definition of my actions completely
refuted any recognition of the immense trauma I caused Thordis. 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. I broke up with Thordis
a couple of days later, and then saw her a number of times during the remainder
of my year in Iceland, feeling a sharp stab
of heavyheartedness each time. Deep down, I knew I’d done
something immeasurably wrong. But without planning it,
I sunk the memories deep, and then I tied a rock to them. What followed is a nine-year period that can best be titled
as “Denial and Running.” When I got a chance to identify
the real torment that I caused, I didn’t stand still long enough to do so. Whether it be via distraction, substance use, thrill-seeking or the scrupulous policing
of my inner speak, I refused to be static and silent. And with this noise, I also drew heavily
upon other parts of my life to construct a picture of who I was. I was a surfer, a social science student, a friend to good people, a loved brother and son, an outdoor recreation guide, and eventually, a youth worker. I gripped tight to the simple notion
that I wasn’t a bad person. I didn’t think I had this in my bones. I thought I was made up of something else. In my nurtured upbringing, my loving extended family and role models, people close to me were warm and genuine in their respect shown towards women. It took me a long time to stare down
this dark corner of myself, and to ask it questions. TE: Nine years after the Christmas dance, I was 25 years old, and headed straight
for a nervous breakdown. My self-worth was buried
under a soul-crushing load of silence that isolated me from everyone
that I cared about, and I was consumed
with misplaced hatred and anger that I took out on myself. One day, I stormed out
of the door in tears after a fight with a loved one, and I wandered into a café, where I asked the waitress for a pen. I always had a notebook with me, claiming that it was to jot down ideas
in moments of inspiration, but the truth was that I needed
to be constantly fidgeting, because in moments of stillness, I found myself counting seconds again. But that day, I watched in wonder
as the words streamed out of my pen, forming the most pivotal letter
I’ve ever written, addressed to Tom. Along with an account of the violence
that he subjected me to, the words, “I want to find forgiveness” stared back at me, surprising nobody more than myself. But deep down I realized that this
was my way out of my suffering, because regardless of whether or not
he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over. Before sending the letter, I prepared myself for all kinds
of negative responses, or what I found likeliest:
no response whatsoever. The only outcome
that I didn’t prepare myself for was the one that I then got — a typed confession from Tom,
full of disarming regret. As it turns out, he, too,
had been imprisoned by silence. And this marked the start
of an eight-year-long correspondence that God knows was never easy, but always honest. I relieved myself of the burdens
that I’d wrongfully shouldered, and he, in turn, wholeheartedly
owned up to what he’d done. Our written exchanges became a platform to dissect the consequences of that night, and they were everything
from gut-wrenching to healing beyond words. And yet, it didn’t bring about
closure for me. Perhaps because the email format
didn’t feel personal enough, perhaps because it’s easy to be brave when you’re hiding behind a computer
screen on the other side of the planet. But we’d begun a dialogue that I felt was necessary
to explore to its fullest. So, after eight years of writing, and nearly 16 years after that dire night, I mustered the courage
to propose a wild idea: that we’d meet up in person and face our past once and for all. TS: Iceland and Australia
are geographically like this. In the middle of the two is South Africa. We decided upon the city of Cape Town, and there we met for one week. The city itself proved to be
a stunningly powerful environment to focus on reconciliation
and forgiveness. Nowhere else has healing
and rapprochement been tested like it has in South Africa. As a nation, South Africa sought
to sit within the truth of its past, and to listen to the details
of its history. Knowing this only magnified the effect
that Cape Town had on us. Over the course of this week, we literally spoke
our life stories to each other, from start to finish. And this was about analyzing
our own history. We followed a strict policy
of being honest, and this also came
with a certain exposure, an open-chested vulnerability. There were gutting confessions, and moments where we just
absolutely couldn’t fathom the other person’s experience. The seismic effects of sexual violence
were spoken aloud and felt, face to face. At other times, though, we found a soaring clarity, and even some totally unexpected
but liberating laughter. When it came down to it, we did out best to listen
to each other intently. And our individual realities
were aired with an unfiltered purity that couldn’t do any less
than lighten the soul. TE: Wanting to take revenge
is a very human emotion — instinctual, even. And all I wanted to do for years was to hurt Tom back as deeply
as he had hurt me. But had I not found a way
out of the hatred and anger, I’m not sure I’d be standing here today. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have
my doubts along the way. When the plane bounced
on that landing strip in Cape Town, I remember thinking, “Why did I not just get myself
a therapist and a bottle of vodka like a normal person would do?” (Laughter) At times, our search
for understanding in Cape Town felt like an impossible quest, and all I wanted to do was to give up and go home to my loving
husband, Vidir, and our son. But despite our difficulties, this journey did result
in a victorious feeling that light had triumphed over darkness, that something constructive
could be built out of the ruins. I read somewhere that you should try and be the person
that you needed when you were younger. 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. 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. Given the nature of our story, I know the words
that inevitably accompany it — victim, rapist — and labels are a way to organize concepts, but they can also be dehumanizing
in their connotations. Once someone’s been deemed a victim, it’s that much easier to file them away
as someone damaged, dishonored, less than. And likewise, once someone
has been branded a rapist, it’s that much easier
to call him a monster — inhuman. But how will we understand
what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize
the humanity of those who commit it? And how — (Applause) And how can we empower survivors
if we’re making them feel less than? How can we discuss solutions
to one of the biggest threats to the lives of women and children
around the world, if the very words we use
are part of the problem? TS: From what I’ve now learnt, my actions that night in 1996
were a self-centered taking. I felt deserving of Thordis’s body. I’ve had primarily positive
social influences and examples of equitable
behavior around me. But on that occasion, I chose to draw upon the negative ones. The ones that see women
as having less intrinsic worth, and of men having some unspoken
and symbolic claim to their bodies. These influences I speak of
are external to me, though. And it was only me in that room
making choices, nobody else. When you own something and really square up to your culpability, I do think a surprising thing can happen. 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. Put simply, something you’ve done doesn’t have
to constitute the sum of who you are. The noise in my head abated. The indulgent self-pity
was starved of oxygen, and it was replaced
with the clean air of acceptance — an acceptance that I did hurt
this wonderful person standing next to me; an acceptance that I am part of a large
and shockingly everyday grouping of men who have been sexually violent
toward their partners. Don’t underestimate the power of words. 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. TE: What we did is not a formula
that we’re prescribing for others. Nobody has the right to tell anyone else
how to handle their deepest pain or their greatest error. Breaking your silence is never easy, and depending on where
you are in the world, it can even be deadly
to speak out about rape. I realize that even the most
traumatic event of my life is still a testament to my privilege, because I can talk about it
without getting ostracized, or even killed. But with that privilege of having a voice comes the responsibility of using it. That’s the least I owe
my fellow survivors who can’t. The story we’ve just relayed is unique, and yet it is so common with sexual
violence being a global pandemic. But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the things that I found useful
on my own healing journey is educating myself about sexual violence. And as a result,
I’ve been reading, writing and speaking about this issue
for over a decade now, going to conferences around the world. And in my experience, the attendees of such events
are almost exclusively women. But it’s about time that we stop treating
sexual violence as a women’s issue. (Applause) A majority of sexual violence
against women and men is perpetrated by men. And yet their voices are sorely
underrepresented in this discussion. But all of us are needed here. Just imagine all the suffering
we could alleviate if we dared to face this issue together. Thank you. (Applause)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *