Vic­tim, per­pe­tra­tor re­live dark episode

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lou Hein­rich Thordis Elva Tom Stranger

“What peo­ple find re­ally hard to bear,’’ He­len Garner said in a 2015 speech on writ­ing about the mur­der of chil­dren, “is the sug­ges­tion that they them­selves might con­tain their share of hu­man dark­ness, hid­den in­side their souls.’’

When an act of vi­o­lence is com­mit­ted, our in­stinct is to de­hu­man­ise the per­pe­tra­tor; they be­come a ‘‘mon­ster’’. When a woman is raped, we ask: Why did she walk home alone? Why did she drink so much? Why did she make her­self vul­ner­a­ble to the mon­ster’s attack? Garner calls this grasp­ing for re­spon­si­bil­ity a ‘‘shield against dark­ness’’; a psy­cho­log­i­cal de­fence. But these ‘‘whys’’ place blame on the vic­tim.

Thordis Elva’s South of For­give­ness is not a typ­i­cal mem­oir of trauma, sur­vival and jus­tice. It ven­tures into con­fronting ter­ri­to­ries, and may prove too raw for some readers.

Ad­dress­ing so­cial nar­ra­tives about as­sault, the Ice­landic writer was taught that girls get raped for a rea­son — their skirt length, their drunk­en­ness — and that sex­ual as­sault is com­mit­ted in dark al­ley­ways by psy­chopaths.

‘‘I, like mil­lions of other girls, was taught from an early age how dan­ger­ous it is sim­ply to be a girl,’’ she writes. ‘‘[But] most rapes don’t take place in the cir­cum­stances we’re meant to avoid. Most of them take place in the pri­vacy of our homes, and are car­ried out by peo­ple we’re sup­posed to trust.’’

In 1996, she fell in love with an Aus­tralian ex­change stu­dent, Tom Stranger, when he at­tended her Reyk­javik high school. Their teenage ro­mance dark­ened when she drank too much rum at a Christ­mas Ball, and Stranger took her, his girl­friend, home and raped her for two hours as she lay co­matose on her bed. Be­fore ei­ther of them came to terms with his act of vi­o­lence, he re­turned to Aus­tralia. She never pressed charges.

Af­ter nine years of self-in­flicted anger, Elva wrote a let­ter to Stranger, de­tail­ing her trauma. In re­ply, he con­fessed, and they be­gan a dia­logue that con­tin­ued over email, grap­pling with the ques­tion: if he loved her, why did he rape her? Nei­ther found clo­sure. Six­teen years af­ter the seem­ingly un­for­giv­able act, South of For­give­ness finds them meet­ing in Cape Town, the mid­dle point be­tween both home­lands.

In a book writ­ten with the sim­plic­ity of a travel nar­ra­tive, the un­likely cou­ple pour out their life sto­ries in a search for heal­ing. Their con­ver­sa­tions take place at Cape Town’s wa­ter­front and at restau­rant ta­bles.

South Africa is known as ‘‘the rape cap­i­tal of the world’’, mak­ing it a per­ti­nent lo­ca­tion to dis­cuss what led a young man to com­mit sex­ual as­sault. As well as this, Elva’s work as a speaker and ac­tivist means she is well-armed to dis­cuss the struc­tural in­equal­i­ties that cause wide­spread misog­yny.

Stranger is cred­ited as co-author of the book, con­tribut­ing diary en­tries to bal­ance Elva’s nar­ra­tive. His words are ex­cru­ci­at­ingly vul­ner­a­ble: ‘‘I pre­pared to walk with her into that dark cave, know­ing she would light up de­mons hid­ing in cor­ners of my­self ... The ques­tions of ‘ how’ and ‘ why’ have echoed down to the depths of that cave and no an­swer has re­turned, no mat­ter how loud I’ve screamed.’’

Be­yond the why, Elva asks: can a sur­vivor for­give? At its heart, this is a mem­oir of con­fronting fear and shame, and find­ing a way through trauma. Nelson Man­dela’s legacy of restora­tive jus­tice is clear as Elva seeks rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, not re­venge — and not a jail sen­tence.

South of For­give­ness reads like group therapy: deep pain is un­earthed and ex­am­ined like a jewel be­neath a light. Cru­cially, Elva has the hu­mil­ity to claim she has the same ca­pac­ity for dark­ness as Stranger, yet the priv­i­lege and power he is af­forded as a man means he is more in­clined to com­mit vi­o­lence.

Stranger is ar­tic­u­late in his con­fes­sions, and re­lat­able in his an­guish. It com­pels the ques­tion: should we give a rapist a plat­form? Does his voice negate or over­shadow the vic­tim’s story (which we must up­hold, many would ar­gue, for her to be trans­formed to a sur­vivor)? Should we min­imise the per­pe­tra­tors’ story in a so­ci­ety that pri­ori­tises ag­gres­sors over vic­tims in many of its in­sti­tu­tions?

‘‘Rape is a cri­sis of mas­culin­ity,’’ so­cial his­to­rian Joanna Bourke writes in her polemic on the sub­ject, Rape: A His­tory from 1860 to the Present. ‘‘Its erad­i­ca­tion is a mat­ter for men.’’

By own­ing the la­bel ‘‘rapist’’ and ex­plor­ing his mo­ti­va­tions, Stranger al­lows the myth­i­cal per­pe­tra­tor to be de­mys­ti­fied. The mon­strous shadow is given meek hu­man form, al­low­ing men’s ac­tions, not women’s, to be in­ter­ro­gated. And through her in­formed anal­y­sis of gen­der in­equal­ity, Elva re­veals the so­cial mech­a­nisms that cre­ate male sex­ual en­ti­tle­ment.

‘‘Rape is mun­dane,’’ she writes, de­stroy­ing the myth that all rapists lurk in al­ley­ways, and pierc­ing our com­mon de­fence against dark­ness. South of For­give­ness il­lus­trates that the rapist is not a mon­ster; he is likely some­one we know and trust. He is hu­man. and critic. is an Ade­laide-based fem­i­nist writer

and dis­cuss their book at var­i­ous events in Aus­tralia dur­ing the next week. De­tails: scribepub­li­ca­­sev­ents/events.

Co-au­thors Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger at a TED talk

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