Screengrab via TED

Rape survivor delivers interesting TED Talk on forgiveness—with her rapist

There's a lot to unpack here.

May 13, 2020, 2:21 pm*

IRL

 

Samantha Grasso

The story of Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger is striking for its rarity. More than 20 years after meeting, and 10 years after being reunited, Elva and Stranger are co-heading a tour together for a book they co-wrote, South of Forgiveness, which debuts this March. It’s centered around rape—Elva’s rape, specifically—and the reconciliation between her and her rapist—Stranger, himself. 

In a TED Talk the pair delivered together in October titled, “Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation,” Elva and Stranger detailed the event which they’ve described as “the darkest moment of their lives:” She was 16 and living in Iceland, and he was 18, visiting from Australia via a student exchange program. 

They shared a “lovely teenage romance,” as Stranger said, and dated for a month before going to a Christmas dance together. At the end of the evening, during which Elva became sick after trying rum, Stranger offered to take care of her.

“It was like a fairy tale, his strong arms around me, laying me in the safety of my bed,” Elva said during the talk, Stranger watching her from his place onstage, several feet away. “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.”

Elva continued: “My head had cleared up but my body was still too weak to fight back, and the pain was blinding… In order to stay sane, I silently counted the seconds on my alarm clock. And ever since that night, I’ve known that there were 7,200 seconds in two hours.”

Stranger broke up with Elva days later. She limped for days, cried for weeks, and was unable to identify what happened to her as rape until he left for Australia. He compartmentalized the gravity of what he had done to deny any trauma he had caused.

The entire talk, a full 19-minutes-long, has the arc of any good-vs-evil “reconciliation” story, as its titled, and it’s worth a watch. It’s a story about a rape survivor who, after eight years of coping with the realities of her rape, finally confronted her rapist with a letter, which subsequently sent the pair on a journey of self-discovery. 

But it’s as much his story as it is hers—a narrative about the personal growth of a rapist who, despite trying to bury and forget his actions, learned to acknowledge that he raped someone who was once close to him, sending her life into a world of silence and isolation. 

And where it goes from sticky, uncomfortable even, to problematic lies in the message, which comes at the end of the talk. “When someone’s been branded a rapist, it’s that much easier to call them a monster, inhuman,” Elva said. “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?” 

She then pauses and the audience applauds. 

While having Stranger onstage is helpful to show that anyone is capable of committing sexual violence—even your traditionally good-looking boyfriend—the humanization of rapists as a whole is troublesome. It takes the focus off of rape itself as a violation and helps contribute to rape culture

Much how friends and family of rapist Brock Turner focused on his character and how the crime affected his personal life and his ability to eat, humanization absolves guilt and instead contributes to the argument that someone’s humanity makes them incapable of committing a deed as heinous as rape, that the crime itself isn’t a black and white act of violence. 

When we focus too much on Stranger’s guilt and his deep-pitted anxiety for his actions, instead of his responsibility for committing the rape (a responsibility he takes fully in the talk and in the Q&A posted to the TED blog), we effectively shift the focus from the survivor and perpetuate this idea that the rapist is someone to be pitied or championed for admitting fault.

Later, in her call to action, Elva poses a solution for sexual violence, saying we must include rapists in the conversation: “But it’s about time that we stop treating sexual violence as a women’s issue. 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.”

The reality, however, is that calling upon rapists is easier said than done when rape culture itself is inherently in their favor. As Elva mentioned, she was raised in a world where women are taught that they’re responsible for their rape, be it the way they dress, or how much they drink. How are women to engage rapists when rape culture predisposes society to believing rapists over survivors? When it allows rapists to believe that their actions don’t constitute rape, or that their lives outside of a rape absolve them from being a rapist in the first place? While Elva’s and Stranger’s story worked for them, Elva’s solution to include rapists is rooted in an ideal world, one where women’s safety is a given, one where rape culture has already been dismantled.

And then we have the simple fact that, ultimately, between the TED Talk, the eight stops on their book tour, and their book sales, Stranger is capitalizing on being a rapist. Though he faces his past head-on as a perpetrator and says his speaking out should not be seen as brave or heroic, being paid for talks or book deals sends the message that he’s being rewarded for good behavior, which appears to mimic a narrative of a rapist walking free of punishment. (The Daily Dot has reached out to Elva’s and Stranger’s representative to see if he could possibly be donating his revenue.)

Ultimately, Elva and Stranger’s narrative is one both survivors and self-aware rapists can learn from—it was not your fault you were raped, and rapists must take responsibility for their actions, regardless of the societal expectations and influences leading up to the attack. 

However, Elva is right to at least admit their particular story is not a formula for other survivors to work through, as most survivors don’t have the luxury of “reconciliation” out of for fear of retaliation, prosecution or ostracism. We can definitely benefit from men being a part of the conversation to stop sexual violence, but we’ll need a better playbook to decide how rapists can contribute to reversing the damage they’ve already done.

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*First Published: Feb 9, 2017, 6:30 am