Photo by Marla Aufmuth/TED

Thordis Elva was 16 when she was raped in her hometown in Iceland by her then boyfriend Tom Stranger, an 18-year-old exchange student from Australia. After several years of torment she wrote to Tom to tell him of the pain he had inflicted on her. This marked the start of an eight-year correspondence culminating in the two of them meeting in Cape Town in 2013.

Thordis Elva

When I was 16, I thought sexual assault was something that took place in dark alleys by knife wielding psychopaths. I had no idea you could be raped by the person you loved.

Tom was my first love and I felt like the luckiest girl alive to be going with him to the school Christmas dance. However that night was also the first time I drank rum, and as a result I became violently ill, drifting in and out of consciousness. Acting as my knight in shining armour, Tom offered to take me home.

I felt so grateful to him as he lay me in the safety of my bed. But that gratitude soon turned to horror as he proceeded to take off my clothes and rape me. The pain was blinding and in order to stay sane, I silently counted the seconds on my alarm clock. Ever since that night, I’ve known that there are 7,200 seconds in two hours.

Two days later when I was still limping, Tom dropped by my house to end our relationship. The rape tied me to a block of cement and the rejection pushed me over the edge. The shame and confusion made me withdraw from my friends and family who presumed I was suffering from my first heartbreak. Over the following years I was wading up to my knees in self-hate. I struggled with eating disorders, alcohol, and self-harm. Despite all my achievements, I doubted everything: my career choices, my romantic choices, my own self-worth.

By the age of 25, after nine years of bottling up my pain, I knew I had to do something to break the cycle – and so I reached for my pen. Then I watched in wonder as these words addressed to Tom streamed out, forming the most pivotal letter of my life. Along with an account of the violence that he had subjected me to, I saw the words, ‘I want to find forgiveness’ staring back at me.

They felt like a healing balm because by now I knew that regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace.

I was expecting a denial from Tom or no response at all but instead, to my amazement, I received a typed confession, full of disarming regret. It turned out that he too had been imprisoned by silence. This was the start of a long correspondence which, although helpful to my healing, still didn’t bring me any real closure. So, after eight years of writing, I mustered the courage to propose a wild idea: that we meet up and face our past together – in Cape Town. It just so happens that my home in Reykjavik and Tom’s hometown of Sydney are on opposite sides of the planet, and Cape Town turned out to be right in the middle.

At times, our search for understanding in Cape Town felt like an impossible quest, and all I wanted was to give up and go home to my loving husband and son. But despite our difficulties the journey resulted in a victorious feeling that finally something constructive could be built out of the ruins.

I told Tom I didn’t want either one of us reduced down to just what had happened that night. Limiting ourselves to the labels ‘victim’ and ‘rapist’ didn’t cover a fraction of the truth about who we are as people, both of whom have done good and bad things in our lives.

I also told Tom that I forgave him and that he must forgive himself, if for no other reason than his guilty conscience wasn’t helping me one bit! My forgiveness is not selfless, sacrificial or heroic. It doesn’t come with an angelic chorus and a fuzzy feeling, nor does it offer the other cheek. My forgiveness is an act of self-preservation, it comes white-hot from the whetstone and its purpose is solely to sever the ties.

Tom Stranger

I have searched my soul for years trying to find the answer as to how I could betray Thordis on that night in 1996. I have vague memories of the following day: the after effects of drinking, a hollowness that I tried to stifle. At that point the word ‘rape’ didn’t echo around my mind as it should have done, and I wasn’t crucifying myself with memories of the night before.

And yet I broke up with Thordis a couple of days later, and every time I saw her during the remainder of my year in Iceland, I felt a deep heavy heartedness. I knew I’d done something immeasurably wrong but I buried the memories, and then tied a rock to them.

What followed was a nine-year period of denial and running. I refused to be static and silent and distracted myself with substance use and thrill-seeking. In developing my identity I 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.

When Thordis sent me that email in 2005, explicitly naming what I had done to her, my deceitful trickery eroded like a sandcastle as the tide comes in. Her words took me back to that room nearly a decade earlier. They told me what really happened and revealed the effects my actions had on her. Words cannot convey how it felt to realise what I had put her through, and recognise my own past brutality. To deny my deed now seemed impossible and so began many years of correspondence as I faced up to the damage I’d done.

During our week in Cape Town, we spoke our life stories to each other. We followed a strict policy of being honest, and this also came with a certain exposure, an open-chested vulnerability.

I thought I’d buckle under the weight of culpability but instead, when Thordis urged me to really own what I’d done, I found that it didn’t possess the entirety of who I am.

After Cape Town I came back a different person. I recognised that I couldn’t detach from my past but also I found I was using it less as something to beat myself up with out of shame and guilt and self-flagellation.

It has been a long journey for me to be able to totally acknowledge that it was rape, and to comprehend how Thordis has had to live with the effects of my actions. Who knows if forgiveness carries the weight we’ve put on it. All I know is that Thordis gave me something that sends me skyward with hope.

Thordis and Tom’s raw and painful healing process and journey towards forgiveness is documented in their book South of Forgiveness, and in a TED Talk viewed over four million times.