Please note that this review discusses sexual violence and may be upsetting to some people. I use the term “victim” and “survivor” interchangeably throughout this review.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of Lost Magazine. I first became aware of this book, and the controversy surrounding it, when I watched the International Women’s Day episode of Q&A earlier this month. I was pretty taken aback by the premise: an author touring Australia with her rapist to talk about the book they have written together? Before I had even seen the book I was conflicted.
“South of Forgiveness” by Thordis Elva and the somewhat befittingly named Tom Stranger (in slightly smaller writing), is a recount of a week that they both spent together in Capetown, 17 years after Stranger raped Elva when she was 16 years old. While finishing high school in Iceland in 1996, 18 year old Australian Stranger met Elva and they started dating. Very early in the relationship Stranger brutally raped Elva while she was completely incapacitated by alcohol then broke the relationship off shortly afterwards. A number of years later, long after Stranger had moved back to Australia, Elva reached out to Stranger by email to talk about what had happened. After 8 years of emailing, Elva and Stranger agree to meet in South Africa to see if they can finally achieve what they both long for: Elva’s forgiveness.
Where do I even start? I found this book to be incredibly problematic in a plethora of ways and I have a lot of very complex thoughts about it. From the outset, this is a very difficult and uncomfortable book to read. I found myself many times sitting there with the book next to me procrastinating on my phone – not because the book was badly written (Elva is a spirited and eloquent writer) – but because I was so reluctant to dive back into the incredibly raw, challenging and morally ambiguous conversations.
Having some knowledge of justice systems and restorative justice programs, I was quite appalled that Elva would embark on a journey like this at all. Due to the Icelandic statute of limitations, the length of time that had passed and issues of evidence, there was no possibility of Stranger being charged for his crime. As a consequence, Stranger is caught in this awkward grey area of not being a convicted criminal but being remorseful for his actions nonetheless. Living on opposite sides of the planet doesn’t help, and access to joint counselling, mediation or any kind of formal process is impractical and ultimately never raised. I think my biggest reaction in this regard was wondering how Elva could feel safe spending a week with her rapist. As the story unfolds it transpires that this is not the first time that they have met up since the incident, but even so, it made for some very intense reading.
However, it’s not just physical safety that could have been a concern – it was also emotional safety. Sexual violence is about power, and Elva is clearly driving this bus. In fact, even from the writing it is clear that Elva is a very strong, determined person and Stranger seems much more hollow and unsure. The difference in tone between Elva’s parts and Stranger’s parts is clear. Nevertheless, it made me wonder: what kind of message is this sending for other rape survivors? I’m conflicted about the idea of recommending that people forgive their rapists generally, let alone over the course of a week of intimate discussions in a country not your own. One of the biggest obstacles for most victims, obviously, is actually having a rapist who feels remorse for their actions. I don’t think that forgiveness is essential for everyone’s survival. Elva decided that this was what she needed to do to let go of her trauma, but I don’t think that this is going to be the path for everyone. Everyone deals with suffering in their own way, some people could be seriously retraumatised by having to face their attacker. This is one point where I think it’s important to reiterate that this book is not and should not be taken as prescriptive.
Another message I had concerns about was the message for perpetrators. As I mentioned earlier, Stranger essentially got off scot-free, and I worried about this sending the message to rapists (or potential rapists) that a) they were unlikely to ever be prosecuted, and b) that their victim would forgive them eventually. I had concerns about the extent to which this book could be interpreted as being apologist, but I think ultimately that was not the case. The book is divided into 7 sections, one for each day in Capetown, chronicling Elva’s experiences and their conversations, and then finished with a brief summary from Stranger. Despite never having faced the law for his actions, Elva’s observations and Stranger’s sections show that he has been wracked with guilt. Although my knee-jerk reaction was for someone to throw the book at him, on reflection that is probably against my core beliefs when it comes to the justice system. Sentencing by courts typically have one or more of three main purposes: punishment, community safety and rehabilitation. Despite my initial desire to see Stranger punished, ordinarily, that’s not the purpose I subscribe to and I prefer prisons and sentences to be more about community safety and rehabilitation. After reading this book, I was left with two questions to answer: did I think that Stranger was safe to be in the community and did I think that he had been rehabilitated? My answer to both was yes.
I think that this raises two important points. The first is that legal systems worldwide are still extremely flawed when it comes to sexual violence, both in the laws and their application. Maybe if circumstances had been different, Stranger would have gotten a conviction, maybe he wouldn’t have. I recoil from ideas of vigilante justice, but I acknowledge that the legal system frequently does not get it right. The second point is what Elva calls the monster effect, and I think this is the most important message of the book. Sexual assault isn’t always done by some stranger down an alleyway, sexual assault can and is done by people known to the victim. This is in some ways even more traumatic because of the enormous breach of trust. Most people who know Stranger probably consider him a “good guy”. There are probably millions of men around the world like him who did a similar, once-off thing and kept going when their partner said no, or took advantage while their partner was not able to give consent. This raises further moral questions about to what extent people are and should be judged on a once-off action. Most casual rapists probably never think of it again, while the impact on the victim can be lifelong. I think this book treads a fine line between raising awareness of this different kind of rapist and inviting the reader to believe that people can change and be “on the right side” again.
There was one part of the book that made me deeply uncomfortable. Towards the end, Elva and Stranger visit a rape crisis centre together and although Elva seemed completely fine with this, Stranger and I were not. While I appreciate (as I’ve said above) that Stranger was never convicted of a crime, I think in my heart a rape crisis centre is a safe place for survivors to seek assistance. This was one point in the book where I felt like Stranger and Elva’s reconciliation was put before the best interests of others. It was almost like a betrayal of the CEO’s trust. Without any criminal convictions, there was nothing apart from Stranger’s own guilt stopping him from being there but eventually Stranger grew so uncomfortable that he left. I felt as though if this had truly been about Elva networking, she could have gone alone but there was a sense that this was more about proving a point.
I think another thing that felt a bit incongruous with the core subject of the book was how much of this book seemed to be a joyful celebration. I think I described this book to my partner as something along the lines of “misery porn meets travel blog”. The beginning of the book in particular feels like it’s leading up to a hugely traumatic event, but the rest of the book had a bit of a summer holiday by the beach feel with Elva and Stranger doing a lot of their discussions on various tourist activities. Elva has quite a whimsical writing style and there is a fairly strong spiritual undertone to this book with references to the “playwright in the sky” and a lot of credence given to signs and serendipity. They both laugh a lot, and they both cry a lot. I think this serves to highlight just how complex the relationship between Elva and Stranger is with years of history and trauma between them, but also a fragile friendship. I think again it would be incredibly unrealistic for most rape survivors to have a fun holiday with their rapist and talk it out heart-to-heart.
My final problem with this book is a problem with money, and I think ultimately I would not have bought this book myself. In Australia especially, it is illegal to profit from your crime, however again Stranger finds himself in the grey area of having admitted to a crime but never having been convicted. Technically, the proceeds of the book go towards him for having done a bad thing rather than having done a crime, but I think my reaction is still the same. There has been some call for him to donate any profits he makes and I understand Elva said that she would be receiving the bulk of any royalties anyway.
My main message to people who are considering reading this book is to not take this as a recommendation for how to respond if you have been sexually assaulted or sexually abused, or you yourself are a rapist. This book depicts an extraordinary situation with two very privileged and educated people that would be completely out of reach for most. I think that the correct way to take this book is as a thought experiment to unpack some of the moral and social issues around rape. It is an incredibly challenging book to read and ultimately I’m not sure where I fall on every moral conundrum, but I think anyone who reads this book should read it with caution.
If you have experienced sexual violence, either as a survivor or a perpetrator, please report and seek assistance through your local services.