Content Warning: Discussion of rape, abuse, difficult emotions

South of Forgiveness is a project by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger and one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. It follows the story of Elva and Stranger meeting almost 20 years (2013) after Stranger raped Elva.

The circumstances were “bare bones” if a rape could possibly be such. Elva and Stranger were dating in college at the time (1996) and Elva had gotten herself drunk, having not drank much in her life up until that point. Elva was heavily intoxicated, to the point that the security on their campus asked if she was OK as Tom brought her out and back to her dorm with him.

As he brought her back into her dorm room and on her bad he began undressing her. Stranger then got on top of Elva and one of the most painful memories for Elva was born. The book picks up with these two having gotten back in touch through email in 2005 and are now planning on meeting in person, in 2013.

It’s an emotionally heavy book and there’s no way around that. But it’s also a testament to how much abuse and trauma we as humans can go through. We can be changed so much by just a single moment or series of moments from decades ago.

I bought this book not to punish myself but as a way to think about what forgiveness means. Not only for people who have perpetuated sexual violence (as I have) but for people who want to forgive those people and what that can look like.

To clarify, I don’t think everyone needs to be or should be forgiven. As toxic as I think things like bitterness, hatred, regret, shame, etc. can be for the human spirit I absolutely understand on an emotional and biological level why folks have it.

It makes sense to hate your rapist and especially if you think there’s no hope for them. For a long time Elva didn’t think there was any point of contacting Tom and held off for almost 5 years before seeing him at an event and telling him what he did. And it wasn’t another 5 years or so until she emailed for more understanding.

The biggest part of this book for me was Stranger’s self-hatred. I empathized a great deal with his lack of personal identity, his crisis of who he was as a person after what he did to Elva and how he could become a better person. Is it possible?

The book argues that it is possible. Or, I should say, Elva and Stranger jointly argue that it’s possible for people who have made horrible mistakes to not only become better people but to forgive themselves for those horrible mistakes.

That second part is what scares me more than anything.

Having to take responsibility for sexual violence and committing to being better is a herculean task in of itself for some. But forgiving ourselves for our egregious violations of other people’s bodies seems like another matter entirely.

On this point Stranger speaks eloquently and often about his regrets and the way his interaction with Elva made him distance himself from the world around him. How he kept finding himself “happy” in relationships but ultimately trying to sabotage them so he wouldn’t hurt anyone anymore.

Elva is an amazing writer and an incredibly strong person. She’s strong in ways that I think are so important when it comes to feelings and critical thinking. Her willingness to forgive, however, doesn’t come from some superpower. It comes from nearly a decade of online communication and a final dedication to resolve things.

Although I find some solace in the old Buddhist saying, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” and applying that to hatred, anger can be a real motivator.

As Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine once said, “Anger is a gift.” Anger can be a powerful motivating force that leaves other emotions in the dust when it comes to getting things done for yourself.

But that dust is to be handled carefully. The way you kick up the dust with your anger, people often get that same dust stuck in their throats until they can’t breathe.

What does handling anger carefully look like though? For me, I don’t think there’s an objective standard. Should Elva still be angry with Stranger even after she (spoilers?) forgives Stranger for his sexual violation when they were younger?

In some cases it makes sense to let go of anger: When there’s nothing more to be done, when there’s bigger priorities, when it’s time to move on, when you’d rather be angry at something else, when your emotions change to sadness.

There’s too many variables here to name.

But the point being that anger, like hatred, like sadness, like sorrow, are all emotions that we have some degree of control over.

Some of us have less than we may want, but that doesn’t make us not responsible for our actions. I’m still responsible for being reckless, greedy, irresponsible and many other things even if I had good intentions at the time.

As Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES sings, “Good intentions/Never good enough”

I read this book to realize that I can forgive myself for my mistakes. I’m not there, not even close. I’ve been asked by multiple people what I would feel or say if the people I’ve harmed would do for me. Honestly, I don’t think it would change much.

I would cry, I would feel like maybe self-forgiveness is a more viable option. But ultimately their forgiveness can never erase the harm I’ve caused them.

Furthermore matters of justice are never that simple and South of Forgiveness proves that with a beautiful story of betrayal and mutual redemption. Forgiveness is a two-way street and as Elva argues, isn’t a purely selfless act. Most of all, Elva does this for herself and I can’t think of a more beautiful or convincing reason to forgive.

But for what it’s worth, I’m glad Stranger gets Elva’s forgiveness.

I’m certain he deserved it.

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