The Personalist Project

Yesterday I came across a remarkable article, which led me to an even more remarkable TED talk.

The headline was disturbing enough that I almost didn't click.

Australian man, 18, who raped a 16-year-old girl during student exchange trip to Iceland reunites with his victim years later... and now they share their story TOGETHER

I’m glad I did, though, because it offers an amazing account of reconciliation, a striking counter-example to the “dysfunctional forgiveness” problem I’ve discussed here before. It beautifully illustrates the crucial role of repentance in reconciliation—both in helping the victim of wrong recover from her injuries and in helping the perpetrator find real redemption.

For years, a man denied to himself that he had raped his girlfriend. "It wasn't rape; it was sex." He minimized his responsibility. During those same years, the young woman involved struggled wretchedly under a burden of pain and shame she couldn't control or expel.

Then one day, nine years after the event, she wrote a letter to her attacker. "I want to find forgiveness." For her, that meant confronting him directly, speaking her pain, and being honest about her need. 

Amazingly, wonderfully, admirably, rarely, he opened himself to her and responded. The two corresponded for eight years, but the healing wasn't yet complete. She wanted to see him face to face. They met in Cape Town, and agreed to be totally honest with each other. For a week they listened to each other's stories, and he fully owned what he had done.

'Don't underestimate the power of words. Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself, as well as with her. 

'But most importantly, the blame transferred from Thordis to me. Far too often, the responsibility is attributed to female survivors of sexual violence, and not to the males who enact it.'

Note—please note!—speaking the truth of what he had done accomplished real things. It changed his relationship with himself. He went from denial and illusion to acceptance and reality. And it transferred the blame burden from victim to perpetrator, where it belonged. 

Those real things became the foundation of their reconciliation and their common project of helping others achieve healing from sexual violence. They gave the victim the freedom and peace she needed to find the grace to forgive. 

Imagine for a moment that he hadn't answered to her letter. Or worse, that he had responded by telling her she needed to get over it and move on, like he had moved on. Suppose he had treated her as if she were emotionally weak or morally lacking for failing to forgive. Suppose he had told himself and others that the problem was that she had totally exaggerated what happened, that she was oversensitive and hysterical. Maybe he hadn't been perfect, but what he had done was nothing beyond what's normal for 18 year olds...

Maybe she would have found a way to forgive, even so. But it's harder to imagine, isn't it? And he would have missed out on the grace, strength, humility, and redemption that characterize his life now.

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