Meet Thordis Elva: The Rape Survivor Who Teamed Up With Her Rapist to Write a Book

Meet Thordis Elva: The Rape Survivor Who Teamed Up With Her Rapist to Write a Book

Rape is a crime that is rarely discussed or portrayed in the media. While robbery,domestic violence, and even murder are crimes depicted frequently on prime time television, it is quite rare to see the same with acts of sexual assault.

One possible reason for a lacking in the public discussion of rape may be because of the frequent misplacing of blame for the act. Thordis Elva, a 36 year old native of Iceland, is attempting to change that.

Elva has recently released a book, South of Forgiveness, with her rapist Tom Stranger.

Elva, who was 16 when the incident took place, first met Stranger when he was a one year transfer student in Iceland at her high school. 

Elva recounts when Stranger, who was her boyfriend at the time, invited her over. She states that she drank with Stranger and he forced himself on her and raped her while she was inebriated. 

Elva states:

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 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 room.

Following the incident, Stranger and Elva felt that their relationship was beyond repair and they stopped having interactions before Stranger went back to Australia. 

Elva recounts that for years she was on the verge of falling apart over the incident until she on day decided to reach out to Stranger when she was 25.

It's then that she sent Stranger a letter about what she was feeling, which spurred an eight-year-long email correspondence that culminated in the two meeting for the first time since they were teens to spend a week in Cape Town discussing the rape and its impact on their lives, nearly 16 years after Stranger committed it.

Elva and Stranger began a dialogue with each other.

"When the plane bounced on that landing strip in Cape Town," Elva states, "I remember thinking, Why did I not just get myself a therapist and a bottle of vodka like a normal person would do?" But she calls her time in Cape Town with Stranger transformative and so does he. For several years after the sexual assault, he says, he "gripped tight to the simple notion that I wasn't a bad person ... It took me a long time to stare down this dark corner of myself and to ask it questions."

"My actions that night in 1996 were a self-centered taking," Stranger adds. "I felt deserving of Thordis's body ... Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself and with her, but mostly importantly the blame transferred from Thordis to me." Elva says that it took her years to realize that the only thing that could have prevented her rape "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."

Haley Macmillen of Cosmopolitan writes on the controversial pairing:

Many will find watching the survivor and perpetrator of a rape share a stage deeply unsettling. I did. Stranger's use of influential platforms — as a TED Talk presenter, as the co-author of a book, as a speaker on tour — raises serious questions about the rights of assaulters to have their voices heard on the topic of assault, and these voices' roles in and relevance to the conversation. Some of these issues Elva and Stranger sought to address in a Q&A followup to their talk posted today on TED's website: "I understand those who are inclined to criticize me as someone who enabled a perpetrator to have a voice in this discussion," Elva says. "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." Sexual assault, she points out, is not a "women's issue" but a human issue, and perpetrators — the vast majority of whom are men — have not only the power but the responsibility to reshape the social forces that encourage assault in the first place. As jarring as it is to see a self-professed rapist take the mic, I agree with the point, and I'm both eager and apprehensive to read Elva and Stranger's book when it comes out next month.