How to deal with being raped: two incompatible points of view.

7 Mar


On ABC Qanda last night, Icelandic writer Thordis Elva spoke about how she had, over a seventeen year period, communicated with and finally forgiven Australian Tom Stranger, who raped her when she was sixteen and he was eighteen.

Stranger raped Elva as she lay literally paralytic from the effects of alcohol, in her own bed. He’d taken her home from a party, where friends were so concerned they’d wanted to call for medical assistance. Stranger undertook to protect and watch over her until she recovered. The rape took place over two hours, and so damaged Elva she was unable to walk properly for some time.

The two have since given a TED talk on their many email encounters, which were initiated by Elva and culminated in a physical meeting in Cape Town. Stranger remarks on the suitability of this country for their purpose, given the truth and reconciliation project of the Mandela government that sought to address crimes against humanity during decades of apartheid in South Africa, employing a process that involved admissions of guilt, and subsequent forgiveness by victims.

Stranger and Elva have written a book about their long experience of seeking a resolution to their victim/perpetrator relationship. They finally reached a point where Stranger was able to take responsibility for his actions, and name himself as a rapist. This ownership of his behaviour has allowed Elva to find relief from her feelings of hatred, rage and desire for revenge.

While I don’t find it at all difficult to imagine the relief and liberation I’d feel if a perpetrator admitted his crimes against me, I do find it difficult to imagine wanting a relationship with him that would see us co-authoring a book, and travelling the world together, sharing a stage.

As Elva notes, and I agree, forgiveness is something victims do for ourselves, not for the perpetrator. However, what I couldn’t extrapolate from the TED talk or Qanda, or interviews I’ve read, is how she moved emotionally and intellectually from regarding Stranger as an assailant, to interacting with him as a colleague.

Or perhaps not so much how, as why? Releasing myself from dark feelings and desires so as to get on with my life is both sensible and healthy. But keeping the rapist in my life?

I can forgive the perpetrator for my own sake, but that doesn’t mean I ever want to see him again.

Also on the panel last night was Josephine Cashman, Indigenous lawyer and business woman. Ms Cashman’s take on rape is situated at the opposite end of the continuum, and she was rather dismissive of Elva’s story. Ms Cashman stated unequivocally that sexual assault should be dealt with by the legal system, women must go to the police, the perpetrator must be charged, tried, convicted and incarcerated.

Which in theory sounds quite logical, however, as this must-read article by Jane Gilmour points out, that apparently logical process is rarely the outcome of sexual assault allegations. The legal system can be brutal to victims of sexual assault, and conviction rates are notoriously low.

I admit to feeling not a little creeped out by Mr Stranger when I watched the TED talk. I was unable to get past my knowledge of him as a man who had cruelly  and opportunistically raped an entirely helpless woman, over a two-hour period. I didn’t really care what he had to say about his later realisation, self-evident to me, that at the time he’d been more concerned about his wants than Ms Elva’s needs and safety.

In the spirit of truth and reconciliation I tried quite hard to find a point of contact with Stranger. All I felt was dizzy and sick. Yes, I can imagine the miserable, criminal psychopathy of a man who rapes a very ill and barely conscious woman he’s promised to care for. Yes, I can pity it. I just don’t want it or him anywhere near my life.

It seems to me on reflection, that both Ms Cashman and Ms Elva are unrealistic. For very many victims of sexual violence and other violence against women, engaging with the perpetrator is the very last thing we want to do. Taking the legal option is often described as being raped all over again, and it is disingenuous of Ms Cashman to pose that option as a logical process that results in justice. It isn’t, and more often than not, there’s no justice to be had.

It is possible to achieve a state of comparative peace or forgiveness without any involvement with the perpetrator, and preferably with help and support from others.

A woman is forever changed by the experience of sexual assault, and it’s impossible to recover the self who existed before the attack. This is just one of the many losses caused by rape: the loss of who I was before.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as “closure” or “resolution.” There is only finding a way to live your life as fully as you can, in spite of what has happened to you. There’s no formula for this. There’s no prescription.

It’s the victim’s task, and how unfair it seems, to find her way through the hell of rape. It can take a lifetime. And nobody can or should tell a woman how she must do it. If you don’t do it Ms Cashman or Ms Elva’s way, you haven’t failed. You’ve succeeded in searching for and finding your own way to take back your life. And you might have to do it more than once.





17 Responses to “How to deal with being raped: two incompatible points of view.”

  1. laurareflected March 7, 2017 at 7:05 pm #

    I’ve been following this story closely and I still don’t know how I feel about it. I would like for my attackers to admit what they did but I don’t want to have to be the ones to counsel them to that place. At the same time I do agree with what she says about not treating them like a monster because it dehumanises them and attributes their actions to something not human; when they are in fact very human and all the more terrifying for it… thought provoking article, thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson March 7, 2017 at 8:47 pm #

      Thanks Laura. As you say, the most frightening thing is realising that those we’d rather think of as monsters are human.
      I don’t know how or why I’m still shocked by this, but I am.

      Liked by 2 people

      • jo wiseman March 30, 2017 at 12:26 pm #

        There is something very repellent about an abused person continuing to associate with their abuser. My instinct, which I put forward as nothing more or less than my instinct, is that it makes the abused person more likely to suffer continued abuse. Perhaps not the same type of abuse, but abuse nonetheless. It’s feels as if the abuser has some kind of ongoing power over the abused. For example, the woman in, I believe, Germany, who was bequeathed a house by the man who kidnapped and raped her as a child and continued to hold her prisoner for many years. Last I heard she was living in that house where she was raped and held prisoner, and it feels … wrong.
        One thought is that “people” want someone who is abused to move on, and that continuing the outward association is a pushback against that pressure to act as if nothing ever happened.


  2. Andrew Collins March 7, 2017 at 8:34 pm #

    I am a victim of childhood sexual assault. My abusers were clergy, and over the last few years I have found out a lot more about them. Some of the things I have found out are terrible, and I feel sorry for them, but I would never ever have any form of relationship with them. I would rather see them dead. But I admire what Thordis has done. It takes a strong person to be able to do this. She has taken Stranger and used him to reach a bigger audience, including men who may not have found a reason to listen. Perhaps he has changed, or maybe he hasn’t. But remember that he is there day after day being seen as the villain – he hasn’t ran away into the shadows, and that’s a hard thing to do. But that’s not important. What is important is that she has used this terrible thing in her life and taken it and turned it into something that will help others. That’s courage. That’s an example to many people who have been through adversity, that its not all over.
    I agree that not every victim can take the legal avenue. The court system is not about justice. Its a legal process. It is a terrible thing to have to go through. You are essentially put on trial, and the process goes on and on, especially if the abuser pleads not guilty. Then there can be deals done, and judges are not known for giving fair sentences for rape.having been though the courts, I question if all of the stress was worth it. Sometimes I think that I would have had better satisfaction had I of taken the law into my own hands. And that’s the reality. Life isn’t like a TV law and Order show. There is no closure. Its just one day after another, and you can never go back.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Jennifer Wilson March 7, 2017 at 8:57 pm #

      Andrew, you make a good point about how Thordis has used Stranger, and how his guilt (or desire for notoriety, who knows which) makes him acquiescent.
      I think most perpetrators would not, do not engage as Stranger has with their victim. I’m not sure what that’s about on his part. I guess I just don’t want to think survivors feel they ought to deal with things as Thordis has, because for most of us, it’s impossible and undesirable.
      You’ve been through it all. I hope you have some peace, some respite.
      Thank you for your post.
      my best to you.


    • Elisabeth March 7, 2017 at 9:29 pm #

      Thank you Andrew for having the courage to write about your experience. I can understand your inability to form a relationship with any of the clergy who abused you.
      I suspect it might be harder, as in the case of a daughter abused by her father or mother, or a son abused by his mother or father, to discontinue a relationship with their abuser, though it happens and sometimes necessarily so, for the sanity of the person abused.

      And sometimes people can find a way through the morass of their experience to make contact with their abusers and not in some awful sadomasochistic, Stockholm syndrome-type way, but in an attempt to reach closure.

      I hear this in Thordis’s account.

      I also admire, if that’s not too strong a word, the courage it must have taken for someone like Tom to acknowledge and declare himself as a rapist.

      He behaved appallingly. In the eyes of our law, he behaved illegally. He was eighteen years old and a long way from home. Drunk, out of control and feeling the privilege of ownership and possession.

      I’ve said this elsewhere on another forum where I reiterate, I have no wish to exonerate this behaviour, nor justify it, but I think we need to look to circumstances and also to consider a person’s response to the things they’ve done.

      I’m not a rapist, but I’ve done things I’m ashamed of. Things I would not want others to know and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

      If we can continue to allow these sorts of discussions in all their complexity, we might well begin to be able to deal with the systemic socio-cultural long held historical causes of these types of behaviours and begin to change them.

      But if we get into polarised positions of right and wrong, good and bad at their extremes and don’t seek out nuance and complexity, I reckon we’re doomed to go through it again and again.

      My father was a sexual abuser. I have not forgiven him, but I think I understand something of where he came from. His behaviour was appalling. It had many factors feeding into it, but he was not simply a bad man. He was a troubled, at times a cruel man, a tortured and a tragic man, and many more things beside.

      Let’s not split life into the simplicities of right and wrong. Let’s understand our rage, our distress when we’ve been abused and cruelly treated but let’s not sledge it all in one direction.

      Sorry to go on so long, but I’m troubled by the degree to which this couple’s attempts at highlighting their experience and attempts to work their way out of it, leads some folks to want to condemn one or the other of them.

      I commend them and everyone else who’s also trying, especially you Jennifer, to open up these areas for discussion. The more we tease these things out, the more things might change.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jennifer Wilson March 8, 2017 at 6:59 am #

        Thank you, Elisabeth, for your post.
        I’ve been trying since Monday evening to unpack, tease out, work through the complexities of my feelings about this situation, and am still in the process.
        What I keep coming back to is while I can think of abusers without rage and desire for revenge, I can’t think of them without a strong sense that I do not want them in my life, and that for me, living a life without them in it is freedom.
        I just don’t want any engagement with someone who has used me, and treated me as a source of their gratification no matter what the cost to me.
        I don’t want anyone in my life who has treated me as less than human.
        I guess that’s what it boils down to for me.
        Best to you.


  3. Sabine March 8, 2017 at 12:31 am #

    I, too, feel somewhat disturbed by this. I first read about Thordis in last weekend’s Guardian.

    It brought me back to the time when I found out that my beloved grandfather, an intelligent and published scientist, someone who filled my childhood days with joy and love of nature, had been a member of hitler’s ss and had been in hiding after the end of WWII to avoid denazification procedures. The day I had the proof – a copy of his ss records from the national archive – in my hand, and with it the realisation that the whole family was as active as he had been, all I could feel was disgust and rage. Hate arrived shortly afterwards. And helplessness.

    I had to hate him – and the other family members – quite differently to the way I despise and hate any old nazi mass murderer, obviously. But that hate was important for quite some time.It kept me sane.
    Until it disappeared in a way I can, now, years later, only explain as transcending. After a lot of research and reading and talking and fighting, with myself, my younger family and people in similar situations.

    I feel free of this hate now but I remain unforgiving and in this way, I feel for Thordis. I do believe she remains unforgiving of her rapist but that she has transcended the hard, life threatening, all engulfing hate this horrible experience had burdened her with. It required strength and I admire her for it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson March 8, 2017 at 7:09 am #

      I’m interested in your comment that you don’t think Thordis has forgiven Stranger, Sabine. I also wondered about that, and if her appearances with him on the global stage have a punitive aspect. I can imagine there are satisfactions in watching and hearing your rapist humble himself over and over again in front of an appalled audience.
      On a very visceral level, I am repelled by the situation and I have to own that as my reaction, and not an assessment of either Thordis or Stranger.

      As for your family secrets, Sabine: I can only imagine the shock and betrayal and distress you must have had to deal with. It sounds like a discovery that throws your entire life into question:the past is suddenly not what you believed it to be, and there’s no solid ground on which to stand. That’s how I imagine it.
      My best to you. Thank you.


      • paul walter. March 8, 2017 at 12:19 pm #

        Perhaps it is a case of forgive, but not forget.

        It is how I deal with things I can’t resolve to the extent of a warm rosy glow.

        She doesn’t have to forgive him anyway although I think the point is that the two have reviewed what happened after a gap of nearly twenty years, now as adults not immature teenagers.

        I think in Hajordis case it is about being able to move on in thelight of an understanding of Strange’s inexplicable behaviour towards her., perhaps assisted in that provided that Strange has sufficiently matured to communicate his remorse and resulting epiphany. Is he is a victim of his own conditioning and condition and does he reject her help in being unable to humble himself. She will still do the better of the two since she is not the guilty party and given the chance to understand himself better, but if he made the requisite effort it would help her through an understanding of some thing that has baffled her.

        For him fessing up is about understanding that whatever discomfort he feels it’s something he brought upon himself for his stupid choice as an eighteen yo-there is consequence- when he was a child in a man’s body. He has developed the empathy since or remains devoid of emotional maturity until a later time, which is desolate.

        Out with friends last night a woman about my age told of a incident, an affair gone wrong in which she behaved badly as a young woman. After all these years by accident she ended up at the grave of one of the people she felt she had hurt. Thing is, this happened in its own time, over a long time. Only after a long long time does she understand how her behaviours caused others and herself grief, as it seems might also be happening with Strange, but it can be long process, the breaking down of denial and being able to face up, perhaps as part of a maturing process. Understanding how it all happened may be the consolation for any work that has to go into it.

        I thought about it on the way home, thinking of the grief I caused people as a young person and marvelled that I could come to terms with some of it this later age at all, considering the nature of some the wrongs I committed.

        Thing is, you may think you have walked away from a wrong you have done, but that wrong becomes part of your self and even if others move on or not, you cant do that yourself until a penalty is exacted in life that finally has you recognise the nature of your own harms.

        I am well past sixty now and much of my life has passed me by, as a consequence of my early behaviours and my inability through lack of experience or emotional depth to recognise them and deal in the appropriate remorseful and sympathetic way and acknowledge my manifest capacity for failure and worse.

        I thought I escaped life’s consequences, but life has had other

        Hadn’t intended to rave on but it is done and will allow others to make what they will of the above.

        I had tried to duck the issue but ended up seeing the QA clip and then reread JW’s posting.

        I feel Andrew and Elisabeth offered quite remarkable comments to shed light on things that go to the very core of what it to be fallibly even darkly human, also Sabine and others.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Jennifer Wilson March 8, 2017 at 4:04 pm #

          Great post, PW, thank you.

          Wise words: you/I think we’ve walked away from, got away with a wrong, but it’s not that easy.
          Did you ever watch True Detective? I recommend it as an exploration of how people handle regrets and remorse and failings. There’s no such things as closure, says the anti hero.


  4. Arthur Baker March 8, 2017 at 4:05 am #

    Do any of the profits from the sale of this book go to the rapist? If so, why would anybody buy a copy? If not, where do the profits go?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson March 8, 2017 at 7:11 am #

      This was discussed Arthur, and I didn’t get a clear impression of the situation. I think Stranger is donating some of his profits to charity, how much & to whom I don’t know.
      I think the rest of the royalties go to Thordis, as she is the main author. But their contactual agreements aren’t known to me.


  5. townsvilleblog March 9, 2017 at 9:00 am #

    I was raped when I was 17 I did not enjoy the experience at all, basically 1 woman held me down while the other raped me. I am now 61 years of age, and never forgotten the experience. The woman doing the raping had been my girlfriend, and she said to me that she had to have sex with me one last time, which I thought was ridiculous. Its no fun being forced into sex against your will, though I was thankfully able to take it in my stride, I am extremely opposed to being forced into sex against your will.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jami Carder March 13, 2017 at 4:00 am #

    I’ve watched the TED talk and also have conflicting feelings. While I can appreciate his honesty, I just can’t feel any sincerity coming from that stage

    Liked by 1 person

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