Decades after she was raped by her boyfriend, Thordis Elva met up with her attacker to discuss the horrifying sexual assault that would change both their lives forever.
But this is not a one-dimensional story of a rape victim and an evil assailant. This is a tale about two young people embarking on adulthood who did not fully understand consent.
Twenty years after Elva, from Iceland, was raped in 1996, she reached out to the young man who had assaulted her, Tom Stranger, from Australia, and their reconciliation resulted in a unique collaboration between a survivor and perpetrator of rape.
The narrative begins with Tom, who moved to Iceland as an 18-year-old exchange student when he met Thordis, who was 16 at the time.
The youngsters started dating and, after a month, attended their school’s Christmas dance together. On that night, Tom raped Thordis.
Thordis recalled she’d been drinking for the first time that night and had become ‘very ill, drifting in and out of consciousness in between spasms of convulsive vomiting’.
After explaining that Tom had taken her home and laid her on her bed to recover – like ‘a Knight in shining armour’ – Thordis detailed the ordeal for the TED Women audience, saying her gratitude turned to horror as Tom started to undress her and got on top of her.
My head had cleared up, but my body was still too weak to fight back, and the pain was blinding. I thought I’d been severed in two.
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.
Days later, Tom and Thordis broke up. In the immediate aftermath, Thordis, who said she was ‘limping for days and crying for weeks’ struggled to come to terms with her rape.
The young woman could not reconcile what she had suffered at the hands of her boyfriend with the kind of rape that she had seen depicted in mainstream media.
Tom also admitted that, initially, he couldn’t reconcile his actions with those of a rapist, saying:
I have vague memories of the next day; the after effects of drinking, a certain hollowness that I tried to stifle. Nothing more.
It is important to now state that I didn’t see my deed for what it was. The word ‘rape’ didn’t echo around my head as it should have and I wasn’t crucifying myself of memories of the night before.
My definition of my actions completely refuted any recognition of the immense trauma I’d caused Thordis.
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.
Nine years down the line, Tom had long returned to Australia and Thordis, a 25-year-old woman, was ‘heading straight for a nervous breakdown’ over feelings of misdirected anger and a lack of self-worth.
Her years of silence were broken after an argument with a loved one. In Thordis’ fit of despair, she wrote a letter to Tom in Australia in the hopes of ‘finding forgiveness’.
Thordis’ healing began with a powerful realisation:
Regardless or not of whether he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over.
Much to Thordis’ surprise, she quickly received ‘a typed letter from Tom, full of disarming regret’.
For eight years, the pair conducted difficult but candid correspondence, and broke their crippling silences in turn. Eventually, they met in person and they could both begin their path to closure, with Tom ‘whole-heartedly owning up to what he’d done’.
It is very hard to not be moved by the power of Tom and Thordis’ words, their reconciliation and their determination to right past wrongs by campaigning for a deeper understanding of consent.
The fact remains each rape and sexual assault survivor is different; a fact that sadly the criminal justice system is not yet equipped to gauge.
Elva, the Icelandic Woman of the Year in 2015, has since founded an equality campaign that sparked a national debate about equal rights and has worked tirelessly to reinvent the approach to violence prevention and sex education in Icelandic schools.