What is this about?: South of Forgiveness is well, about forgiveness. Thordis Elva was raped by her then boyfriend Tom Stranger when she was 16. This book chronicles their meeting in Cape Town, South Africa and their attempt to find their peace and their forgiveness.
What else is this about?: Rape culture, about date rape, about the effects of it and the struggle to get past it. Thordis is brutally honest in her accounts of what Tom did and how it changed her. And, here’s what I never thought I’d be typing: so is Tom.
Blurb: A woman, a man, a rape, and a hard journey from violence to reconciliation.
One ordinary spring morning in Reykjavik, Thordis Elva kisses her son and partner goodbye before boarding a plane to do an extraordinary thing: fly seven thousand miles south to meet up with the man who raped her when she was just sixteen.
Meanwhile, in Sydney, Australia, Tom Stranger nervously embarks on an equally life-changing journey, wondering whether he is worthy of this meeting.
After exchanging hundreds of searingly honest emails over eight years, Thordis and Tom decided it was time to speak face to face. Coming from opposite sides of the globe, they meet in the middle, in Cape Town, South Africa, a country that is no stranger to violence and the healing power of forgiveness.
South of Forgiveness is an unprecedented collaboration between a survivor and a perpetrator, each equally committed to exploring the darkest moment of their lives. It is a true story about being bent but not broken, of facing fear with courage, and of finding hope even in the most wounded of places.
Rape is an action that is about power, about a man (or woman) taking what they want sexually without consent. It’s terrifying and unforgiveable.
But, what South of Forgiveness has taught me is that I, we, have no right to judge how survivors cope with rape. It’s not about what we think, it’s about what makes it possible for them to go on every day, to find peace or solace or … whatever they are seeking for their sanity. As their loved ones, we have to let them take that journey, support them and love them and let them know they’re safe.
I judged it, you will too
Before opening the book, I had judged it, Thordis and Tom. But by the end, I knew that I might never truly understand their relationship, but I could not help but admire the strength of them both in putting their story out into the world. Let me be clear, Tom raped Thordis, and this is not a defence. Telling his part in the story does not diminish what he has done or absolve him of it, but he is telling his story in an effort to ensure people learn from it.
It took a long time for me to understand my reaction to him in this book.
South of Forgiveness is told by Thordis and Tom, in alternating chapters that chronicle their past together and their meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. This is about how they journeyed towards a sense of peace between themselves and in themselves and most importantly, it’s their story. You will ask what happened that fateful night, and why he wasn’t arrested and while they are touched on in the book, it’s not the important part of the story.
As a whole, there is a big difference in the way Thordis and Tom write, for she is an accomplished author in Iceland. Her chapters are filled with the details of the world around them in Cape Town, of Tom physically, and her noticing a group of men watching her intently in Cape Town. Tom’s chapters are turned inward, to where his grief and self-loathing exist in an effort to make his peace with it, in a way, something Thordis does want for him. But both are essential to understanding their story.
South Africa is called the Rape Capital of the World, so it is ironic – or apt – that they find themselves there in an effort to find peace and reconciliation between themselves. When the book opens, it’s been eight years of emails before they decide to make this trip, and both are filled with trepidation. Thordis describes her fiance’s reservations and her parents, but also their support. Tom is a nomad of sorts and he is already there in Cape Town when she arrives.
Their meeting is strained, and the book follows them as they wander through the city, telling each other of life before they met and life after. Thordis traces her failed relationships and her decisions back to Tom and his raping her, while Tom does the same. Her story looms large for me, as I think she is a remarkable, strong woman (and not to mention Woman of the Year in Iceland in 2015). While Tom’s story seems lesser within the chapters in the book, it isn’t. I’m not quite sure how to talk about him, but I focus on the fact that Thordis forgives him.
Tom does not know why he raped her. He couldn’t really acknowledge what he did do to her for a long time. He is anchorless in the book, looking for something (forgiveness) before he can make himself stop, and allow himself a life and someone else to love. It’s clear he wants to give Thordis whatever she needs from him in their conversations, but it is harder still for him to acknowledge that she doesn’t need the pedestal he’s placed her on as the person who was wronged int heir relationship.
How do you forgive?
South Africa is the country in which I was born and lived until I was 18. South Africa is also a country whose history is steeped in inequality and apartheid, and the country bears its wounds in their society and culture, and their art and writing. It’s ironic to read of Thordis’ caution and her noticing the men in Cape Town staring at her, while she is in Cape Town with the man she knew that raped her. This history is interspersed in their travels in Cape Town until it comes to a head in Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela lived for 27 years. On a tour there, it emerges their guide is a former prisoner, tortured and imprisoned for 7 years there. They ask him if he could forgive his jailors, and his answer is simple: Yes. Because that’s how you move forward.
Until this point I have never been able to understand how Mandela, or any prisoner could forgive, but in that moment, reading that line I did.
With the agreement to share their story and their situation, there is nowhere for Thordis or Tom to hide within the pages of this book. As a result, the writing here is brutally honest, for to be any less would be a disservice to each other. These chapters are stark and uncompromising, each relating how difficult it is to meet, and how nervous they are. This journey and their relationship (through emails) isn’t a journey without fights and arguments, but it’s also clear how hard they attempt to make this work for both their sakes.
Slowly, as the book progresses there’s a certain ease that creeps into the chapters, as they pass each milestone for instance, like Thordis noticing their knees touching in a bus, or Tom sharing that he told his parents and their reactions. As a result, there is an overwhelming sense of progress, of a long journey that is on it’s way to an ending of sorts for both of them. It charts how their writing evolves, from chapters filled with tension to one that are fragile almost, for by the time they leave, they are these new, different beings heading out into the world without the rape hanging out about their necks. They do not let it define them anymore, and the choice to go public, to teach others of their experiences is them both taking their control back from that night.
Tom Stranger raped Thordis Elva. There is no changing that fact, or the horror you may find at feeling yourself understand this man (or you may hate him more, that’s fine too). But Thordis and he are standing on the world’s stage telling their story and if someone, anyone learns something positive from it, learns to change, I think it’s a story worth telling – and we’d have both of them to thank for that.