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Author explains why she wrote a book with her rapist

Adelaide Festival

Adelaide Writers’ Week guest author Thordis Elva, who has co-written a book with the Australian man who raped her as a teenager, told last night’s Q&A that “forgiveness was never, ever for him”.

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Elva was assaulted by then-18-year-old Australian exchange student Tom Stranger when she was 16, and shared her experience on an all-female panel on the ABC program to mark International Women’s Day tomorrow.

About nine years after the 1996 incident, as she was “on the brink of a nervous breakdown”, Elva wrote to Stranger in a bid to come to terms with what happened to her, she told the audience.

The pair then corresponded for eight years before meeting and penning a book together.

Elva, who is in Australia to promote the result, South of Forgiveness, defended her decision to co-author the book with her attacker, saying their experience was not “proscriptive”.

“We are not putting forth our story as a manual for people,” she said.

“Secondly, survivors are continually told what they are supposed to do. It is part of a victim-blaming culture.”

Indigenous lawyer and businesswoman Josephine Cashman earlier said she was concerned Elva was sending a dangerous message to victims.

“The problem I am facing with this is that it is not going to work for most people, their rapists contacting them. It is not going to work,” she said.

“It is great that we have got a panellist here who has risen above, but are we opening the floodgates for rapists to contact victims because I know a few of them are really dangerous people?”

Elva was also asked if Stranger would benefit financially from the book, or whether he would donate his slice of the profits to survivors of sexual assault.

American feminist writer Lindy West said she would like to see him donate the money while also using his profile to communicate with other men about the issue.

“I think it reads much differently if he ends up profiting from it,” she said.

“We talked about this backstage. I think what would be really constructive for him to do, if he does want to be a man speaking out about sexual violence, is to spend his time talking to other men, talking to young men.”

Elva said she would “get the overwhelming royalties” as the primary author and that Stranger was looking at which charities he could support.

She told the audience that she wanted to be “clear that forgiveness was never ever for him”.

“It is an extremely misunderstood concept. People somehow think you are giving the perpetrator something when you forgive, but in my view, it is the complete polar opposite,” she said.

“Forgiving was for me so that I could let go of the self-blame and shame that I had wrongfully shouldered, that were corroding me and basically ruining my life.”

– This article was first published on The New Daily.

Thordis Elva and Thomas Stranger will be guests at two Adelaide Writers’ Week sessions this week at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden: Unspeakable, which will also feature author Decca Aitkenhead (All At Sea) at 1.15pm tomorrow (Wednesday) and Forgiveness, chaired by Writers’ Week director Laura Kroetsch, at 1.15pm on Thursday.

If you or a loved one are the victim of assault, you can contact the following family violence support services: 1800 Respect national helpline, 1800 737 732; Women’s Crisis Line, 1800 811 811; Men’s Referral Service, 1300 766 491; Lifeline, 131 114; Relationships Australia, 1300 364 277.
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