Thordis Elva from Iceland was seeing Tom Stranger, an exchange student from Australia in the winter of 1996. After a school party, Tom accompanied Thordis to her place, where he raped her. Too weak to retaliate, Thordis emerged from the experience, badly scarred. They broke up and Tom moved on with his life.
As for Thordis, she went through a tumultuous period of bewilderment, guilt, rage and depression for nine years, after which she made a life-altering decision.
She wrote a letter to Tom, describing how she felt during, and after, the violation.
Tom, meanwhile, took quite a while to realise the gravity of his act. Confident of his upbringing rooted in ethical values, he could not reconcile himself to the idea of having raped a person.
On receiving Thordis’ email, however, he owned up to the act, much to the former’s surprise. What followed was eight years of conversations, exchanges, accusations and eventually, reconciliation.
Thordis shared the stage with Tom in a talk at the TEDWomen 2016 conference in San Francisco. They spoke of the experience, in an eye-opening, albeit deeply unsettling dialogue.
The video opens a Pandora’s box of uncomfortable questions. The first question that one might pose is regarding the authenticity of the entire narrative, which Thordis relates like a consummate storyteller, while a violator who affected her so immensely, stands right next to her. A slew of malicious comments on the video raise the same doubt, smelling a rat in the absence of any discomfort on her part.
What really needs to be asked is, does the “victim” necessarily have to take an accusatory, pity-inducing stance in order for her distress to be deemed as genuine?
Emotions work in inscrutable ways, and that includes forgiveness. Any woman who recollects such an incident feels blinding anger, and the necessity for retribution, as Thordis herself points out. But more than anything, every woman who goes through a harrowing experience seeks recovery and normalcy, and for Thordis, it was to come through a reasoned conversation with Tom.
People have also criticised the very idea of a rapist appearing on a TED Talk rather than serving time in prison. This begs the question: what is the purpose of incarceration?
Does the confinement of a criminal effectively ensure the alleviation of criminal tendencies? Is Tom Stranger, against whom Thordis pressed no charges, a threat to the safety of women? Is justice only legitimate when awarded by a judiciary?
Thordis highlights a crucial aspect about the entire discourse around rape: that calling a rapist ‘inhuman’ or a ‘monster’, excludes him from civilized society, and negates the idea of rape as something humans are capable of. It is because of this tendency that the likes of Tom would go to any lengths to rationalise their act- because one’s “upbringing” and “values” make them good, unerring humans- than admit that they committed a crime. This rationalisation is where rape apology, in its various forms, stems from.
It must take an exceptionally unfeeling person to dismiss the courage that Thordis must have had to gather to meet with Tom, and talk about her experiences before an audience. She recognized that the rape was not a cross she had to bear, and by limiting the discussion to the pigeonhole of “women’s issues”, one would be doing disservice to the many women whose circumstances do not allow them to speak up. Her acknowledgement of privilege and the realisation of the responsibility that entrusts her with, is the sign of an empathetic, thinking individual.
What we take away from this talk would be a function of our personal experiences, biases and belief systems, but one cannot deny that Thordis and Tom have set an example, however polarising, about an issue that is starved for more reasoned discourse.
Title image: tedblog