Monday, August 21, 2017

South of Forgiveness

Thordis Elva. Credits - Oli Hardar  
Thordis Elva is an author, a playwright, a screen-writer, an entrepreneur and a motivational speaker.  Her recent book, "South of Forgiveness" is a non-fiction narrative that talks about the story of how she was raped at the age of 16 by her first boyfriend, Tom Stranger, who co-authored the book with her. Following a TED Talk with Tom in October 2016, Thordis has, since, addressed worldwide audiences through her book and a Q&A that offers up answers about her story, the crafting of their talk and why the two of them do not prescribe their actions as a path for others to follow. Here is Thordis' story in her own words.

I was sixteen, and I was living in Iceland, which is my home country. I fell in love for the first time. The boy that I fell in love with was this Australian exchange student who charmed me with his worldly ways and exotic accent and I was swept off my feet and I had this, I guess, typical teenage romance that was consensual and lovely, and lasted a few weeks. He met my friends and my family and it all progressed in a fairly normal and consensual manner, and romantic in every sense of the word, until the night of the Christmas dance.

Thordis as a 16 Year Old, when she met Tom
I was high on this newfound maturity of mine, feeling like a young woman for the first time in my life, now that I had a boyfriend take me to the dance. So I felt it was only appropriate to take yet another step into the realm of adulthood and try drinking rum for the first time that night. But that backfired because I became very ill. My body was not equipped to handle alcohol at that tender age. So, instead of enjoying myself at the ball, I spent that entire evening in the bathroom, convulsively vomiting and started drifting in and out of consciousness. To my surprise and relief, Tom appeared to rescue me from that situation. I was grateful that I had this 'knight in shining armour' to take me home. I also remember feeling frustrated by my incapacitated state because I couldn’t move a limb or utter a word. So, I wasn’t effective in assisting him in any way when he picked me up from the floor. I couldn’t utter a word of thanks when he got me out of this predicament. He took me in a taxi, took me home. My head was clearing up really fast but my body didn’t follow. When we got back to my place, these feelings I had of gratitude and relief for him, took a very sharp twist to horror and betrayal as he proceeded to take off my clothes, and basically have his way with me, and rape me, for what turned out to be two hours. And the reason why I even know that is because the way I lay in bed, my head was turned toward the alarm clock. What I could do for the duration of it to stay sane and to focus on something outside of my body and this pain that I was experiencing was to count seconds. I’ve spoken to many survivors who have described similar coping mechanisms – some recounted telephone numbers to themselves in their head, some went through an alphabetical order of various concepts to focus on something outside of the horrific event they are experiencing.

After that night, our relationship came to an abrupt end. We went our separate ways without exchanging a word about this dark deed that had preceded our breakup. I could not put into context what had happened to me for various reasons. First of all, I was a sixteen year old kid and hadn’t given much of a thought to sexual violence, and secondly, the little bit that I did know about sexual violence was basically stereotypical notions that I had borrowed from television shows and movies. I also have to note that this was twenty years ago – when the public discourse on sexual violence was underdeveloped compared to today. So basically my notion of sexual violence was perpetrators were armed lunatics that lurked in a bush and jumped at you. It didn’t occur to me that it could be your boyfriend and that it could happen in your own bed. So, it took me a long time to dismantle these myths in my head. By the time I had, and I could identify that I had been raped by my first boyfriend, he had left the country because his exchange program had come to an end. He was as far from me as he could possibly get, on the planet, because Australia and Iceland are at literally on opposite ends.  
I think that a part of the reason why it took me a while to face what truly happen that night was also reluctance. It was a really painful thing to come to terms with and to face – that the first time I gave my heart away, it would result in abuse. I wanted to retain my faith in human relationships and my trust in other people. It was also something I shied away from for some time, but, when it fell into place in my head, with Tom being on the other side of the planet, with my physical injuries having healed, with the fact that I didn’t have any witnesses, it didn’t occur to me as a realistic option to go and press charges. I had no hope that it would lead to anything productive for me. I did what a majority of people do statistically – they try to move on after an event like this. I fell into the majority, the norm in that sense. I tried for nine years to push it away and move on and not think about it.

It turned out to be increasingly hard because a part of me needed to confront this, a part of me needed to heal. Suppressing it became a very demanding task. I became an over achiever in the sense that I filled my schedule around the clock so I wouldn’t ever have to stand still and reflect on the past because that was too dangerous and invited too much self-reflection. I also resorted to destructive coping mechanisms. I struggled with eating disorders, there was just a lot of negative behavioural patterns in my life. This was causing stress and tension in my relationships not only with other people, but also myself, ultimately. So nine years later, I guess I had hit somewhat of a rock bottom, and I had a fight with someone that I loved and I stormed out of the door, and drove in tears to a café, and stormed inside. I asked the waitress for a pen, so I could doodle in my notebook to calm myself, but then, this letter streamed out of my pen, addressed to Tom, who had abused me all these years earlier. It was very much a surprise because I hadn’t been consciously thinking about him.

I guess this was a testament to how this had been brewing in my subconscious and how I needed to get it out. So, I was faced with a decision. What was I going to do with this? Would I send it?  I had no idea if he was still using this old email address of his that I had from almost a decade earlier. I had no other contact information – and this was before the age of social media. Of course, my mind went on with all kinds of possible outcomes. If I did send it, and if he'd react negatively, if he'd accuse me of lying, or simply ignore it and not respond to me, how would it affect me?

Having thought about all these different outcomes, I came to the conclusion that even the worst possible ones would still be worth a shot because I felt that I needed to reclaim this voice of mine that had made such a daring appearance. These words that had broken through the surface deserved to be spoken or written. I decided to fire off the email and didn't expect a reply. The only outcome I had not prepared myself for mentally was the one that I got – which was Tom’s typed confession. He sent me this email where he unwaveringly owned up to his actions without making any excuses and without minimizing them in anyway whatsoever.

This sparked a correspondence which was definitely not part of my plan. I had never even entertained that notion that it would lead to a correspondence. When I got the opportunity to ask all these questions that had been haunting me for so many years, it was too valuable not to take it. And I think that’s also a very human characteristic – it is something that is shared by many survivors, this million dollar question of “Why?” I think the pain that is most difficult to bear in life is the pain you can’t really reason with, the pain you don’t understand, because there is something that is really healing about being able to put your suffering into context. I guess that’s what drove me to embark on this correspondence. It became apparent to me that Tom needed it for the same reasons, because he too had been haunted by his actions and his guilty conscience and he too needed to voice his thoughts to me.
For eight years, we analyzed the causes and consequences of that fateful night, but it was never too friendly or familiar. It was not a pen-pal-ship. It was a strict analysis of all those years and we never strayed from the subject because after all, I never intended to become Tom’s penpal. That was not the aim of this communication. It was more to seek answers and put in context how the event had shaped my life, hoping that it would lead to healing. I guess I had to communicate some of the consequences to him in order to hold him accountable for them.

After eight years, I had written everything I wanted to write, and had posed the thoughts I wanted to pose. Yet, for some reason, it felt incomplete.

That’s when I realized that after all, the written format is silent. There is something very powerful about giving actual voice to the most fateful experiences of life that have marked you the deepest. It is a literal way to break your silence. There was this notion that I needed to face it in person – the past, to prove to myself that I wasn’t a prisoner of it anymore and that it wasn’t going to dominate my future, and it was a way to put a full stop to that because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life writing emails about the violence Tom subjected me to. I suggested that we meet up and once and for all give voice to this part of our past that had ended up shaping our lives more than anything and it would hopefully result in something constructive that would enable a brighter future and a deeper level of understanding. Tom was nervous and scared when I presented the idea. I’d be lying if I say I wasn’t nervous about it too – after all, it was quite radical.

I had no precedent, no one’s footsteps to follow, so I decided to follow my heart and my heart was adamant about this being the way to move forward. I suggested that we meet in the middle, on neutral ground. A wild coincidence followed – South Africa was smack in the middle of Sydney and Reykjavik, and it was remarkable because South Africa is one of the countries that has done the most work when it comes to facing the past, speaking the truth and seeking reconciliation. It was highly symbolic in many ways.

That’s where we ended up meeting, sixteen years after that fateful night, in 2013. It took me three days just to get there since it was a long journey and there were no direct flights. I decided it didn’t make sense to go there for less than a week. That's why we spent a week there, basically talking through our lives, because violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Violence happens because people’s actions are shaped by all kinds of social influences – they’re shaped by things that they witness, ideas that they take on, notions that they believe in, and they have consequences that extend far beyond just the four walls of the room where, for example, this violent incident took place. Of course, you carry it with you for the remainder of your life.

I felt it was important to talk through our lives with that in mind. What was it that shaped the person that decided to do this to me despite being a privileged western, educated, middle class white boy who had all the opportunities in the world and was raised in a balanced family by loving parents that taught him about equality, what could make him commit a crime like this? I had to hear how it had affected him to live with this, post incident. How had it shaped his self-image to integrate this part of himself into his being and face up to his deeds, and to illustrate to him how he had affected my life. This was a key element in the entire process, to communicate it to him in order to free myself of the shame and self-blame I had wrongfully shouldered. It was a symbolic act in transferring the responsibility and the burden that I had taken on, onto Tom, to whom they rightfully belonged. I wanted to heal and to try enable a brighter future for myself, but also give him a chance to apologize and make up for his wrongdoing.

Of course I had doubts along the way. There is no manual for how you do this, but I never thought this journey would put me in physical danger. I wouldn’t have taken such a risk given that I had found a partner that I was happy with and had a child. I wouldn’t have risked any of that if I thought that Tom posed any danger to me. When I say I was scared or doubtful, I don’t mean that I feared Tom as someone who would be abusive again, but more in the sense that I didn’t know if this exercise would result in healing or in further understanding, or if it would be a mission impossible, or an overpriced farce for nothing that would perhaps result in more emotional damage. There were emotional risks involved, but despite it being a difficult week, there were also some fantastic discoveries and some life changing talks that were had. Some conversations called for vulnerability that is so raw that you are left feeling skinned. Those were challenging talks to have, but having said that, I know that they permanently changed my view on my past and myself. By the time we left Cape Town, there had been a shift. A crazy hope was born in me – that by sharing what we'd learned, this pain and suffering could be potentially transformed into something useful. For me, and for other people who are locked in their own silence, not knowing how to proceed, or people that had blamed themselves the way that I did, or people that are struggling to take responsibility for hurting another person, like Tom. There are multiple hopes attached to going public with this story.

There was also a level of realism that it would be met with the whole spectrum of reactions. The notion of seeing or hearing a perpetrator of sexual violence speaking is uncomfortable for a lot of people. I have a strong belief that the invisibility and lack of accountability on part of the perpetrator is a part of the problem. I think that by making perpetrators visible, accountable and responsible and looking into the toxic notions that drive their violent behavior, we can learn a lot. That can be a step in the direction of uprooting those toxic notions that foster abuse.

Our story is not a manual or methodology intended for others to follow. We are two individuals with a personal story that we’re offering up for discussion. However, I don’t think that the shame and blame that I shouldered is unique to me. I think it is common among survivors. Likewise, I don’t think that the notion of entitlement that made Tom believe he was entitled to my body – because he was my boyfriend, because we’d been out partying together – is unique to him. They are shared by a lot of people and that has to end. We have to begin somewhere, and I’m hoping that by sharing this story, it can spark a discussion about consent, boundaries and the universal human right to decide when you engage in sexual activity and with whom – because there’s still a long way to go in that area.

Thordis and Tom at their TED talk  (Credits: Marla Aufmuth)
We wrote a book together called South of Forgiveness. Tom and I both made that decision unanimously, as we shared the belief that there was a potential for our story to help other people, who had been in the same situation we were in. That was another whole part and a new chapter in this story. Ironically, when I went to South Africa, it was because I didn’t want to write about the past anymore. And the first thing I do when I return from South Africa is to fly into writing about our analysis of the past that week and what it resulted in.

I read somewhere that you should be the person you yourself needed when you were younger, and I know that it would have saved me years of silent suffering had I heard a story like this, earlier in my life. That hope fuelled me. South of Forgiveness came out this spring, and with the word 'forgiveness' being in the title, it has gotten a lot of focus in the public discourse about our book. It has opened my eyes to the fact that forgiveness is a highly individualized concept, and in many people’s eyes, forgiveness is almost like a sacrificial thing - as you giving another as a form of blessing. But my view of forgiveness is the counter opposite of that. I see forgiveness as an act of self-interest, and I saw it as a way for me to let go of the shame and self-blame I wrongfully shouldered. Forgiveness is not laying your blessing over the hurt, but underlining the hurt, while stating that you don’t want to be weighed down anymore. It was a way for me to sever ties with this past that had weighed me down for so long.

I understand those that don’t share my opinion, but that is my view. It was my process towards a brighter future that was not dominated and dictated by what had happened to me – because I am much more than what happened to me.