It’s unimaginable—the experience that one goes through, and the suffering that comes from, being a victim of rape. Many spend their lives struggling to overcome the trauma of such a horrific event. Thordis Elva is one of those victims. She has found peace by coming face-to-face with the man who raped her.
In 1996, Elva attended her school’s Christmas ball with her then 18-year-old boyfriend, Tom Stranger. He was an Australian exchange student in Elva’s hometown in Iceland. It was on that night when Elva tried rum for the first time but became sick at the dance from drinking too much. She began vomiting, and said she could feel herself “drifting in and out of consciousness.”
The school’s security wanted to call her an ambulance, but Stranger insisted that he would take care of his then-girlfriend. As Elva put it, he “acted as my knight in shining armor,” and offered to take her back to her house.
Back at her home, Stranger lay beside Elva in her bed, and made her feel safe as he took care of her.
“It was like a fairytale, he wrapped his strong arms around me, laying me in the safety of my bed.”
What seemed like a Prince Charming scene from a romantic film, quickly turned to the most horrific memory Elva will ever have.
Stranger got on top of her and began to remove every bit of her clothing. Though she tried to fight back, Elva was too weak to stop him.
She counted the seconds that passed until her real-life nightmare would end.
“In order to stay sane, I silently counted the seconds on my alarm clock. And ever since that night, I’ve known that there are 7,200 seconds in two hours.”
In the days that followed the dance, and the worst night of Elva’s life, the couple broke up. Little did they both know that the night of the Christmas ball would follow each of them for the rest of their lives.
Stranger said he tried to convince himself that what happened was not rape—just drunken sex with his girlfriend.
“I have vague memories of the next day. The after effects of drinking, a certain hollowness that I tried to stifle. Nothing more. But I didn’t show up at Thordis’s door. It is important to now state that I didn’t see my deed for what it was.”
“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. And this is a lie I’ve felt spine-bending guilt for.”
While Stranger struggled with his own demons, Elva believed that what happened that night was her fault—a feeling that many rape victims take on themselves.
“I was raised in a world where girls are told 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.”
For nine years after the night that changed everything, Elva found herself consumed with anger and hatred. She was livid at Stranger, and what he did to her.
Almost a decade had passed since the two had spoken when Elva finally decided to write Stranger a letter. She described the pain, anger, guilt and suffering she had lived through since the night of the dance.
“All I wanted to do for years was hurt Tom back as deeply as he had hurt me.”
Shortly after sending the letter, Stranger contacted his ex-girlfriend, and the two decided to meet face-to-face. They met in the middle. Each flew halfway across the world to Cape Town, South Africa, and discussed how the events of that night had permanently shaped their lives.
Entering their meeting with anger, Elva was surprised to find herself overwhelmed with the feeling of forgiveness. Through their talks, she was able to feel free again.
“Light had triumphed over darkness… There is hope after rape.”
She explained it as the realization “that something constructive could be built out of the ruins.”
Following their meeting, Elva returned home to her husband and child, and Stranger went back to Australia.
As she continued writing, Alva found herself continuing to think about their meeting—but now, her thoughts were filled with hope.
She began writing a book, which Stranger would come to co-author. In no time, the unlikely pair had written their entire story from beginning to end—from darkness to light.
They called it South of Forgiveness.
The book was released last March, and they recently shared their story in a powerful TED Talk:
As Elva and Stranger have been traveling to promote their novel, they’ve continued to share their story in hopes that it would bring optimism, inspiration and healing to those who have struggled through similar circumstances.