A Rape Survivor & Her Attacker Tell Their Story?—?Together

On the brink of a breakdown, Thordis Elva reached out to her rapist.

The journey to healing after sexual assault or rape is deeply personal and not open to judgement. While there’s no tried and true way to confront an attacker, Thordis Elva’s unorthodox journey to healing and closure brought her face-to-face with her rapist.

In 1996, 18-year-old Australian exchange student Tom Stranger raped his then-girlfriend and Icelandic native Thordis Elva, 16. The attack occurred in Elva’s own bedroom after she’d tried rum for the first time.

On Tuesday, TED posted Elva’s and Stranger’s poignant TED Talk, which they gave this past October in San Francisco. On stage together, the two took turns recounting the attack, the years of silent shame that followed and their process of reconciliation. The unlikely pair also co-penned the forthcoming “South of Forgiveness and will embark on a tour together in March.

In front of a silent auditorium, Elva recounts the attack: “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.”

Stranger and Elva saw each other a few times after the attack, before Stranger returned home to Australia. For years afterward, Stranger refused to acknowledge his guilt or own up to the fact that he’d raped Elva. He didn’t allow for a moment to reflect on the attack, so he kept busy. “I gripped tight to the simple notion that I wasn’t a bad person,” Stranger said. “It took me a long time to stare down this dark corner of myself and to ask him questions.”

On the other side of the world, Elva felt the pain of misplaced shame and absorbed the hatred herself. “This incident didn’t fit my ideas about rape like I’d seen on TV,” she said. “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.” She too, attempted to keep herself occupied.

At 25, Elva felt on the brink of a nervous breakdown. In a coffee shop, she wrote a letter to Stranger about her life after the rape and realized she needed to find forgiveness to free herself from the suffering. Stranger wrote back with a confession, and thus began an 8-year-long email correspondence culminating in a reunion in Cape Town, between their two homes.

Throughout the week, they had vulnerable, face-to-face conversations about the rape and its burden of inescapable silence. Stranger verbally confirmed to himself?—?and Elva?—?that he raped her. Most importantly, the conversations transferred Elva’s shame and blame to Stranger.

Elva and Stranger made clear they chose to share their story to add to the social conversation?—?not to propose a methodology or answer for how to deal with rape. Elva hopes to use her voice and platform to show there is hope after rape. She points out sexual assault and rape is more than a women’s issue—it’s a human issue.

South of Forgivenessaims to shine light on both ends of the experience—the perpetrator’s and the survivor’s. “It’s a story we would’ve needed to hear when we were younger,” Elva said.

It is uncomfortable to watch an attacker use a public platform to speak about sexual assault, and many critique Stranger’s visible role. In a follow-up Q&A with TED, Elva said, “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.” And Stranger realizes he’s no hero: “I believe owning one’s past choices should be viewed as neither brave nor heroic in any way, but instead a necessary obligation and acknowledgement of individual culpability.”

“Regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace,” Elva said.

Watch the full TED Talk below: