Thordis Elva And Tom Stranger: How Do You Move Forward After Sexual Violence?

May 12, 2017
Originally published on May 12, 2017 10:46 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Forgiveness.

About Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger's TED Talk

Tom Stranger raped Thordis Elva when they were dating in high school. Years later, they started a painful and painstaking dialogue about accountability and reconciliation.

About Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger

Thordis Elva is a writer, journalist and activist. Her work focuses on gender equality, fighting online bullying, and ending the silence associated with sexual violence. She has spoken to the United Nations and the Nordic Council of Ministers. Thordis is a co-author of South Of Forgiveness, a non-fiction dialogue between her and the man who raped her in high school.

Tom Stranger is the co-author of South Of Forgiveness. He hopes that telling his story will contribute to the growing public discourse about sexual violence. Tom will be donating all his profits from the book to a women's shelter in Iceland.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Forgiveness, ideas about its power and when to forgive yourself and whether you should forgive others.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIC NOISE)

RAZ: Sorry about that, Tom, if that was in your ears.

TOM STRANGER: Oh, that's all right. I'm awake now.

RAZ: OK.

Thordis?

THORDIS ELVA: Hello?

RAZ: This is Thordis Elva in Stockholm, Sweden.

STRANGER: Hello, Thordis. I can hear you also.

ELVA: Can anybody hear me? I can hear an echo of myself now.

RAZ: And Tom Stranger.

STRANGER: I'm here in London. Hopefully, you can hear me loud and clear.

ELVA: Yes. Can you hear me?

RAZ: Oh, good. Yes, I can.

ELVA: Oh, fantastic.

RAZ: So even though the three of us were talking to one another from three different countries, Thordis and Tom have actually known each other since they were teenagers. Thordis grew up in Iceland, and Tom, who's from Australia, spent some time there through an exchange program in 1996. They became friends. They started dating. And about a month into it, something happened.

ELVA: Something like this - a trauma of this nature that marks you so deeply will, of course, always be a part of you. It's never going to be something that I can just, you know, cut away from my existence.

STRANGER: This was something that I kept hidden. This is something that I wasn't willing to share with anyone for a long time.

RAZ: Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger tell their story from the TED stage. And just a quick warning - this talk does include some graphic language and descriptions of sexual violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

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, and 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 have known that there are 7,200 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 have stopped me from being raped that night is the man who raped me, had he stopped himself.

STRANGER: I have vague memories of the next day - the aftereffects of drinking, a certain hollowness that I tried to stifle, nothing more. But I didn't show up at Thordis' 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 have, 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 acknowledgement 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.

RAZ: Tom and Thordis didn't really talk much after that, especially about that night. And at that point, they were living at opposite ends of the world, with Tom back in Australia and Thordis in Iceland.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ELVA: 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 cafe where I asked the waitress for a pen. I always had a notebook with me, claiming that it was to jot down ideas and 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELVA: It was a detailed account of that night. It was a chronology of what had happened and what he'd subjected me to. It was also a description of the consequences it had had on my life since then. And then it concluded in this wish of mine to find some sort of release from this. I didn't want to be a prisoner of my past any longer, but I wanted to make him aware of the hurt he'd caused.

RAZ: Tom, when you when you first read Thordis' letter to you, what went through your head?

STRANGER: There was memories triggered. And it was a - it was a horror learning what I did, learning what I subjected her to, learning what I was capable of, reliving that night in a way that I had refused to do up until that point through an unconscious denial and essentially refusing to revisit that night and to see my act as rape. And it felt like to push it away would have caused more pain, so I replied shortly thereafter and asked, where to from here?

RAZ: I mean, you immediately acknowledged and called it what it was? I mean, you understood that what you had done was rape, was sexual violence?

STRANGER: I should state that I sunk this in a black box for a long time. I did not want to face up to it and own the fact that myself, from a well-raised background with a self-perception as a decent guy, was capable of this. So yeah, that was the beginning of trying to comprehend it. But then it took me a long time for me to understand the ramifications and the depths of the pain that I'd caused.

RAZ: Thordis, why do you think that you were seeking forgiveness? I mean, you wrote those words in that letter. You wrote, I want to find forgiveness. Why did you think that you wanted to try to forgive somebody who did that to you?

ELVA: In my mind, forgiveness is absolutely not about laying your blessing over the hurt that was caused. On the contrary, forgiveness underlines the hurt that was caused but that you yourself don't want to be weighed down by it anymore. I didn't want to have this dictate my life. I didn't want to have it taint my self-image anymore or my future chances at happiness or inner peace.

So for me, forgiveness is not something sacrificial that you give to someone else. It's very much an act of self-interest and an act of self-empowerment. And, first and foremost, release - release from negative emotions that, in my case, were very emotionally taxing and were taking a toll on all of my relationships and also on my own well-being. But I also want to make it clear that I do understand people that find other emotions empowering, such as anger. For some people, lingering in anger is a place where they feel empowered.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELVA: So this is very much a personal, individual kind of connection that people have with these concepts, whether it's forgiveness or anger or reconciliation or revenge. Any of these are highly personal concepts.

RAZ: During their correspondence, Tom wrote to Thordis that he thought he should be punished.

ELVA: But by that time, the statute of limitations for this crime had passed in Iceland because, in 1996, having non-consensual sex with someone who was unable to fight back wasn't even classified as rape. It was classified as a form of sexual misconduct.

STRANGER: I felt like the only right way, amongst a lot of wrong, was for me to do time in jail. You know, and in me speaking to this, I certainly don't want to sanitize the act. I don't want to even be seen as rewarded in any way for simply admitting publicly to what I did. It's a case of I completely believe that taking responsibility for hurt you've caused should be a natural course of action.

RAZ: But even after writing back and forth with Tom for years and, in a way, moving on with her own life by getting married and having a child, Thordis still felt that she needed something more.

ELVA: I had stated the things I wanted to state and asked the questions that I wanted to ask, and I still didn't feel entirely fulfilled in a sense. And I realized the writing format is, after all, silent.

RAZ: So Thordis proposed an idea, meet face to face with Tom halfway between Iceland and Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STRANGER: And 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When you saw Tom in Cape Town, what did you do? Did you shake his hand? Did you hug him? Did you just sort of keep your distance and say hello? How did you respond to him when you saw him?

ELVA: Well, the whole idea was of course ridden with doubt. I mean, I had multiple doubts along the way. I had nobody's footsteps to follow in. This was, in very many ways, a scary but - I felt - also a necessary step for me to take. And when I say scary, I don't mean in the sense that I was afraid of Tom. I would never have undertaken this journey if I would have thought that it posed a risk to my physical safety. But it was scary to face up to some of the pain of the past and to try and set myself free from it - and thinking that it might not work. It might not be successful in the way that I am hoping.

But when I did see Tom, that again was another, like, I guess, overwhelming moment in my life. It was basically 16 years of history just coming, rushing back to me. And the first thing that actually ended up happening after we greeted each other was that we walked down that street where the hotel was located. And just moving - just not standing with 16 years' worth of history weighing down on my shoulders was relief but also, I guess, symbolic for wanting to move forward with my life.

RAZ: Were the moments during that week in Cape Town where you thought, maybe this is a mistake?

ELVA: Yes. There were such times. There were times where we simply felt like we were speaking in different languages, and we were unable to see each other's point. And at such times, I did have moments where I thought, what the hell am I doing? This has been one crazy failed mission, and I just want to get on the next plane home to my husband and son.

But we managed to work through them and find common ground again. So the end result of that journey was a feeling of accomplishment. And it had resulted in questions that had haunted me for years being actually answered face to face. So it did result in a feeling that perhaps something constructive could be built out of the ruins of the past basically.

RAZ: Tom, when you talk about this act of violence that you perpetrated, do you think of that 18-year-old as a different person, or was it you? Was it the person I'm talking to now?

STRANGER: There's no disassociation with 18-year-old Tom. There's been an excavation of my mind space that night and trying to understand who I was, what influences were around me. You know, I wasn't impervious to influences from - whether it be media, whether it be peer group, whether it be the culture that I grew up in and notions of Australian masculinity. You know, I've tried to understand the environment that I grew up in to locate where this misconception and where these attitudes came from and what drove my behavior that night. But it's a very fine line to walk because it is undeniable that I made choices that night and that there was agency and that I made decisions. So I don't want to give too much weight, I guess, to external factors or influences. But I do hope that's where the discussion is born out of, me telling my part in that night.

RAZ: Would you characterize what you experienced with Tom as a form of forgiveness or reconciliation or closure, or are those just too simplistic?

ELVA: Our story on TED is called "Our Story Of Rape And Reconciliation." But I think both of us went into this process for reasons that had to deal with placing the responsibility where it belonged. And I think that was necessary for Tom as well as it was for me because that in itself is a form of reconciliation. I think the pain that hurts the most in life is the pain that you can't reason with, that you don't understand.

And for me to be able to pose questions, to state truths, to explore this part of my life that had caused so much pain - it resulted in a deeper understanding that helped me let go of self-blame and shame and questions that were keeping me up at night. So in that sense, it's symbolic of this journey that I undertook to hand over responsibility that I wrongfully shouldered for many years to the person to whom it rightfully belonged so that I could move forward into a future that was as deeply marked by the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger - they wrote about their story in a book called "South Of Forgiveness: A True Story Of Rape And Responsibility." Tom, by the way, will be donating all of his profits from the book to a women's shelter in Reykjavik, Iceland. You can see their full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about Forgiveness. And in a moment, why it could be the key to happiness. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.