South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility

Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger
Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY 2017
Hardback, 303 pages

Reviewed by Reta Halteman Finger

South Of Forgiveness Book Cover“And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Though not overtly religious, this memoir exemplifies the most thorough experience of interpersonal forgiveness I have ever read or heard of. It demonstrates in minute detail how true healing came for a victim of rape as well as for the perpetrator.

In 1996, the primary author, Thordis Elva, a citizen of Iceland, was sixteen and involved in a somewhat casual adolescent relationship with Tom Stranger, an eighteen-year-old exchange student from Australia. At a festive event one evening, Thordis was drinking too much and headed for the bathroom to vomit. Tom went in after her, picked up her barely-conscious body, took her home to her own bedroom, removed all her clothes, and raped her for two hours.

Readers do not learn these details until later. The book opens with an email from Tom to Thordis in 2005, responding to a message from her about the rape eight years earlier. They then correspond through gut-wrenching emails for another eight years until 2013, when Thordis proposes a face-to-face meeting halfway between Iceland and Australia. They meet in Cape Town, South Africa, the country that had attacked legal apartheid through truth and reconciliation—but, as Thordis and Tom learn, is now known as the rape capital of the world.

This struggle for forgiveness is told in nine chapters, one day at a time in excruciating detail, as Thordis and Tom meet, sight-see, and confront the demons of their past. They visit Robben Island, where both Nelson Mandela and their tour guide had learned to forgive while in prison. A travel agent happens to suggest they visit the Upside Down Tree of Life—as close to an other-worldly experience as this book gets. As they tell each other their life stories, piece by piece, we share in the sixteen-year emotional torment both these individuals had suffered. Even though both came from homes where they were loved and cared for, shame and guilt prevented each from confessing to family or friends what had happened.

As a blossoming writer, Thordis took the lead in confronting her pain. Growing awareness of feminism sharpened her anger at male presumptions of superiority and lack of awareness of the emotional devastation rape can cause. For his part, Tom’s feelings of shame had locked him up emotionally, and he was neither married nor in a stable relationship when he and Thordis met in Capetown.

Two secondary characters in this story enable the face-to-face forgiveness. When Thordis sets out to meet Tom, she leaves behind her beloved partner, Vidir and their three-year-old son. Vidir remains a magnanimous and steady support for Thordis during her intense week with Tom. And her love for their son is boundless. She buys wedding rings for herself and Vidir, and when she returns, they agree to marry. Soon after Tom returns to Australia, he meets Cat, a woman well suited for him, who assists in the task of putting this memoir together.

For me, there were several take-aways I will not forget. First is the devastating, long-term impact even one rape can have on both victim and perpetrator. There is guilt, shame, secrecy, self-loathing, and self-recriminations on the part of both individuals; the victim’s anger at men and patriarchal privilege—each of these was confronted time and again during the nine-day journey.

Second, the naked honesty in this lengthy memoir highlighted both the tremendous persistence involved in reaching genuine forgiveness and the knowledge that there really is no other way for true healing to take place. Forgiveness is intensely communal and needs the cooperation of various parties. To do it thoroughly may take years.

Third, although the characters in this memoir are not religious in any conventional sense, their actions confirm that the theological concept of forgiveness at the core of Jesus’s gospel in the New Testament is neither unattainable idealism nor “cheap grace.” True forgiveness involves radical honesty and humble admission of guilt or anger. It is lengthy and hard-won, but it is the only way to healthy and holy living for both victims and perpetrators.  Indeed, Tom’s last entry in this book captures part of what, for him, proved to be a transcendent experience:

There is something up there. Don’t be concerned about what shape or form it holds, just be grateful that your soul is in communication with it. . . . Exerting power over another is a display of fear, greed, or self-interest. . . . With enough shame/guilt and self-judgment, you can block memories and black out your involvement in past events. But with love and patience you can go back there and uncover yourself (p. 293).

After I finished the book, I discussed it with the friend who had lent it to me. Her questions penetrated more deeply. Is this account more powerful because it was not religious? What about counseling programs for rape victims that do not encourage forgiveness of the rapist? Can such forgiveness and reconciliation happen when those involved do not come from solid, loving, middle-class families?

What do you think?

 

© 2017 by Christian Feminism Today

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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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