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‘South Of Forgiveness’: On Survival, Rape And Reconciliation


Thordis Elva is the lead writer of ‘South of Forgiveness’, a book that documents a journey between herself – a survivor of rape – and the perpetrator, Tom Stranger. They are currently touring with the book, and their unprecedented story of rape and reconciliation. In this personal piece, Chloë Maughan discusses the controversial tour, and pens an open letter to critics on her own experiences of survival.

[CW: rape, sexual abuse, suicide]

One to ten. One to ten. It is the rhythm of survival.

Thordis Elva and I share something in common. In our formative, teenage years we both found ourselves harmed by rape committed at the hands of someone we trusted.

Like Elva, I know what it is like to count the seconds on a clock. Often when I am anxious beyond nausea, or stuck in a public space choking on air, or desperately searching for an exit point within my own head, I find myself counting. One to ten. One to ten. It is the rhythm of survival.

Elva’s story of survival takes an atypical turn, however. Nine years after Stranger’s act, Elva addressed her first letter to him. A letter that resulted in an admission of guilt from Stranger, eight years of correspondence, and an eventual meeting in South Africa. Following their meeting, the pair have penned their journey of rape and reconciliation, in a collaborative project between survivor and perpetrator that is completely unprecedented.

Their tour arrives in Bristol today [Monday, 13th March 2017], as part of the Festival of Ideas. The news of which struck a chord in me that I didn’t know how to unravel.

The news of which struck a chord in me that I didn’t know how to unravel.

I spoke to survivors who told me they were disgusted by the news at my volunteer shifts with a rape crisis centre. I read articles about attempts to shut down part of their tour in London. I saw countless blog posts tarring the move as rape apologism. And I felt uneasy. But perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.

Thordis has found something that for so long I have craved as a survivor: forgiveness and catharsis. And her journey should not be one that I or anyone else shuts down.

It is not unusual for survivors like myself to think about their rapists. It is not unusual to want to see them humanised, particularly where they were loved ones who never mapped on to the image of perpetrators we were fed by the media.

The effects that my rapist’s actions have had on me are some days all encompassing. I have been tortured for half a decade with night terrors, flashbacks and suicide – a pull that clings to me like a shadow. But my feelings toward him are not as simple as anger and hatred. Like Stranger he is not just that act, he is a person clothed in three dimensionality – some things good, some bad.

The biggest question mark that hangs over my head is not why it happened, but whether he knows that it did. I wonder does he look back on what happened between us as rape or as sex?

We have not had contact in 5 years. We have not spoken of what passed between us. And with that, he does not walk with the knowledge of how that relationship altered my path. He knows not of the disruption, the mental health breakdown, the years of therapy, or the pain. He knows not of the relationships his act has ended, nor of the job loss, and waiting lists. And with that, it feels the burden remains mine alone to carry.

We have not spoken of what passed between us.

Elva and Stranger’s story is not, as it has been tarred by some writers, a story of rape apologism. It is not a story of forgiving Stranger, or praising him – though the depiction of him in the years since is admittedly somewhat sympathetic. But their project is not about absolving him. It is about shifting the burdens of sexual violence, and you only have to look into their eyes to see that it does. Perhaps I am projecting somewhat, but in the TED Talk that discusses their story, Elva’s eyes appear to me full of clarity and strength, and Tom’s heavy with responsibility. It is as though the burden has quite literally lifted from Thordis’ shoulders to Tom’s.

Elva is clear that she does not attempt to prescribe a method for survival. But restorative justice has been revisited time and time again as a reimagining of justice that has the power to bring survivor’s at the very least a sense of validation – something so many of us crave.

Where women are overwhelmingly socialized to believe they play a part in their trauma if they were voluntarily in their abuser’s company, or where they had been drinking or walking alone, that validation is an incredibly powerful tool. It has the power to take the self-doubt and blame and absolve us for the actions of our abusers. It places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.

Indeed, women have spoken time and time of the benefits restorative justice proceedings have played in their survival process. Joanne Nodding, for example, talks of how a meeting with her attacker gave her ‘complete closure’. Something that is all to often ignored in criminal court proceedings, where women instead find themselves called to the stand and subject to accusations and judgments from judge, jury and counsel.

The thought of Stranger taking to stage may make you feel uneasy – it should do. But it is the chance to recast the perpetrator through the eyes of the survivor, not as a monster, but as someone human to its darkest depths.

The thought of Stranger taking to stage may make you feel uneasy – it should do.

Engaging with dialogues around rape and consent in this way has the power to really alter the ways we talk about perpetration. A dialogue that is more honest to survivors like me – who know that their rapists are much more multifaceted than the folk-devils presented by news reports. And this gives a chance to men who are at risk of perpetration to engage with a dialogue that challenges them. Men at risk of perpetration are far more likely to identify themselves with men like Stranger, than they are with the harshness of the term ‘rapist’, which to many echoes of seedy bars and strangers, not their best friend, brother, or themselves. And yet statistically these men are far more likely to be perpetrators, as the vast majority of perpetrators are known to their victims.

Whether or not you agree to giving Stranger a platform, I ask you to consider the voices of women like me, who stand to gain more from this talk than from it being shutdown. I ask you to stand with me, not for me, on assumptions of what survivors would or should want.

That is not to say that I expect my experience is all-encompassing. Indeed, many survivors will disagree with me, and are entitled to. But that does not entitle any of us to shut down a method that for women like Elva and me could finally bring peace.

I just hope one day I’ll find the courage to pen a letter of my own.

If you have been affected by any of the themes in this piece and want someone in Bristol to talk to, please check out these helpful organisations on the Rife Guide

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