Taryn de Vere reads South of Forgiveness by Thordis Elva and questions whether the author’s personal account of ‘forgiving’ her rapist sets an unhelpful and problematic precedent
CN: This review includes references to and descriptions of rape, sexual assault/violence and harassment.
South of Forgiveness follows on from the controversial TED talk ‘Rape and Reconciliation’. Where the talk sensationalises the story of how rape victim Thordis Elva manages to forgive her rapist Tom Stranger, the book they co-wrote is a much more nuanced account. I read it with trepidation, having been a very vocal opponent of the TED talk. However I tried to keep an open mind while reading. The additional revelations in the book and the way the encounter between Elva and Stranger in Cape Town is framed left me feeling uncomfortable, with more questions than answers.
South of Forgiveness is primarily Elva’s account, though it is interspersed with diary entries from Stranger, and copies of some of the emails they sent each other. It starts as Elva is about to set off for Cape Town; the place where she has agreed to meet Stranger. After eight years of correspondence Elva asks Stranger if he will meet her to talk in person about the events of the night when she was 16 and Stranger, her boyfriend at the time, raped her. Elva suggests a few different cities around the world to meet. One of them is Cape Town. Stranger responds that he has always wanted to go there and so that is where they decide to meet. As a victim of rape myself I found it hard to reconcile the idea that their meeting place was determined by where the rapist fancied a holiday.
Cape Town has been described as the “rape capital of the world” such is the amount of sexual violence that occurs there. Elva and Stranger talk in their book and their TED talk about how Cape Town is the perfect place to meet because of its history as a city of reconciliation. That two middle class white people travel to a country where white people slaughtered, raped, abused and oppressed black people, and where the healing from that experience is still an ongoing process – particularly for a purpose like Elva’s and Stranger’s – is the height of white privilege. Similarly, for any white person to draw comparisons of their problems with the systemic murder and abuse of an entire race of people is despicable. Elva and Stranger make passing remarks about their privilege in South of Forgiveness, but they do not reflect on how offensive it could be to some black victims of racism or sexual violence that two wealthy white people choose to use the suffering of people of colour as a canvas on which to paint their story.
There are many other examples in the book where Elva pays lip service to understanding her privilege but clearly does not.
“I’m aware of how broke I’m going to be in the months to come,” she says of the costs associated with the trip to Cape Town, despite staying in the Ritz Hotel and shopping for diamond rings in the city. Later in the book she talks of enjoying a ‘grittier’ part of Cape Town: “It’s good to finally feel grounded by graffiti and locals on their way to work, as opposed to whitewashed tourism.” Meanwhile, the locals heading to work in that economically disadvantaged part of Cape Town are unaware that they are being seen and used as an instrument for ‘grounding’ by a middle class white woman.
Early in the book alarm bells started clanging at some of the things Elva says. She refers to “sending shit in a shoebox” to a man who had let her down but doesn’t express any regret over this or demonstrate any awareness that there might be a better way to deal with such a situation. Later when she is lamenting her decision to meet Stranger in Cape Town Elva says, “Why oh why didn’t I just get myself a therapist and a bottle of vodka like normal people do?” as if there is a ”normal” way to respond to being sexually assaulted. Everyone reacts in different ways, but suggesting that most people get a therapist and take to drinking alcohol is both dangerous and offensive. It makes a poor joke of a serious situation that the UN says will affect one third of women at some point in their lifetime. That Elva works in the field of sexual violence education makes this comment extra disturbing.
Some internalised misogyny pops up a few times in the book, shocking me each time as Elva is considered an expert in her country and she educates school children on the topic of sexual assault and consent. Elva uses the phrase “lost her virginity” – a made-up patriarchal concept used to control women’s sexuality. Elva also asks Stranger at the end of their trip to convey to his mother that she doesn’t blame her for Stranger raping her – as if Stranger’s mother would be responsible for his actions (and with no word about his father).
In the book we also find out that Stranger and Elva had met up in 2000, four years after the rape. This is not mentioned in the TED Talk. When talking about what happened that weekend in 2000 Elva says:
You tore away from me and prepared to disappear into the night … Once again, I’d be forced to chase after you, ruining my chances at having even the slightest bit of fun on my birthday trip. So I lost it. That was the first time I’d ever said it out loud: ‘How dare you treat me this way? After raping me!’
Stranger and Elva had a number of sexual encounters that weekend that left Stranger feeling humiliated. Elva remembers that her goal was, “to reclaim the control he’d stolen from me four years prior. I was going for power in a calculated, emotionally detached manner.” She admits that she was, “wanting to hurt Tom”. Stranger says of sex with Elva in 2000:
You wasted no time. Ordered me around. I didn’t even have the imagination for some of the things you had me do. Some of it was, well, humiliating. Took me way out of my comfort zone. And it felt at times uncomfortably cold and impersonal. Mechanical almost. Or … rough. Like you were trying to shock me.
“I wasn’t above revenge,” is how Elva frames the encounter.
On reading this particular part it is clear that Stranger felt violated by Elva in 2000. Elva and Stranger do not explore this in the book, so the reader is left to wonder just what did happen during that time and is Stranger also a victim of sexual violence? Speaking of the power dynamic between himself and Elva, Stranger says, “I admitted to myself a long time ago that I’ve found her intimidating … It’s the pattern whereby she’s the assigned leader and I’m the meek, under-confident follower.” In the book we also discover that Elva attempted to meet Stranger again in 2005 and was rebuffed.
The relationship between the Stranger and Elva is further complicated by their ongoing attraction for each other. During their time in South Africa they both openly admit they are attracted to each other and at times the dialogue in the book suggests flirtation. Stranger playfully teases Elva and Elva admits to worrying about wearing a bikini in front of Stranger given the changes in her body since he last saw her naked. It makes for uncomfortable reading.
South of Forgiveness is filled with an unbelievable number of coincidences and supposed divine occurrences. The book on the shelf happens to be Stranger’s favourite book, the song that comes on in the church has a deep significance for Elva and Elva says things like, “I’m not surprised that even the laws of nature are changed after this week in Cape Town.” Some of these events are such a stretch that it is hard not to feel that Elva is searching for signs and talismans to confirm for her that meeting Stranger in Cape Town is a good idea.
The danger of Elva and Stranger’s original talk is that TED talks are branded as “ideas worth spreading”. In order to spread this idea there would have to be other people who have experienced this exact set of circumstances. How many women have been raped by their partner at 16, met up with them at 20 and had sex many more times in ways that were “humiliating” and “rough” for the man (and possibly not entirely consensual for him either) then corresponded for eight years before meeting in a foreign city for a week so that the woman can forgive the man? As a victim of two rapes, both from men I thought were my friends, I found the promotion of Elva and Stranger’s journey as one that should or could be replicated alarming and irresponsible.
The idea that a rape victim should ‘forgive’ their rapist is a dangerous one to promote. For me acceptance has been much more important than forgiveness. In my opinion, forgiveness can not happen until the person who has harmed you has clearly articulated all the harm they did, recognised the detrimental effect that has had on your life and made efforts to repair the damage they have done. This happens so infrequently that acceptance is a much more accessible healing tool for many victims of sexual assault. I can accept that the men who hurt me have not repaired the damage and are unlikely ever to. I don’t need anything from them in order to heal.
Elva however, seems to have a deep need to forgive Stranger. It is a forceful need that she pushes time and again. She tries in 2000 to find it, she tries in 2005 to meet him in Australia, she tries over eight years of correspondence and finally she attempts it once more in Cape Town. Many women do not have the time, energy or money to keep pursuing their rapist in such a manner. Nor indeed do many rape victims want to pursue their rapist in order to forgive them.
South of Forgiveness offers deeper levels of understanding into the circumstances covered in the corresponding TED talk, but it fails to explore the underlying issues; Stranger’s socialisation in a deeply macho and misogynistic culture gets the barest of mentions in the book, Elva’s own internalised misogyny is exposed and her glossing over the events of 2000 keep the book centred on her as the only victim, which is ironic as she especially doesn’t like labels.
“I’ve been raped. That does not make me ‘a victim’,” Elva says of herself.
Again this seems to me an alarming statement to promote when being identified as a victim of sexual violence can carry such stigma. There is no morality attached to being a victim but Elva seems to attach judgement to the word, making it sound like being a victim is a bad thing. Would she do this if she was a victim of car theft I wonder? While there are undoubtedly many complex and individual reasons for people avoiding the term ‘victim’, I have personally noticed a certain tendency to reject this term in relation to sexual assault or intimate partner violence (as Elva does). Why is that? Why is it when men hurt women that women feel a need to distance themselves from the word victim?
Elva is equally uncomfortable with labelling Stranger a rapist. We live in a world where the majority of sexual assaults are dismissed, negated and ignored. It is extremely difficult to get a rape case to court, let alone get a conviction, but instead of focusing on these areas Elva and Stranger are touring the globe to promote the idea of humanising the rapist and doing away with labels.
South of Forgiveness is surprising, unsettling, sad and at times infuriating. I felt disappointed by its unfulfilled potential. It could have used Elva’s journey to explore men’s entitlement to women’s bodies, how rape is framed in society and the path to healing. Instead I was left with many questions about Elva’s behaviour and actions, shaking my head at how much unacknowledged privilege both Elva and Stranger had and feeling disappointed by what could have been. I did not expect to finish the book wondering if Stranger had been Elva’s victim. The cynic in me wonders if the door has been left open for book two.
South of Forgiveness by Thordis Elva (and Tom Stranger – attributed on the cover) is published by Scribe. More information on the book can be found HERE.
The image used is the cover of South of Forgiveness which was obtained from goodreads.com. It is a simple cover with a brown background and a white ‘silhouette’ image of a tree in the centre. The title appears below the tree image followed by the author Thordis Elva in slightly smaller font, and then Tom Stranger in smaller font still.