All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back
Bri Lee
Allen & Unwin
2018, 358p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

EGGSHELL SKULL: A well-established legal doctrine that a defendant must ‘take their victim as they find them’. If a single punch kills someone because of their thin skull, that victim’s weakness cannot mitigate the seriousness of the crime.

But what if it also works the other way? What if a defendant on trial for sexual crimes has to accept his ‘victim’ as she comes: a strong, determined accuser who knows the legal system, who will not back down until justice is done?

Bri Lee began her first day of work at the Queensland District Court as a bright-eyed judge’s associate. Two years later she was back as the complainant in her own case.

This is the story of Bri’s journey through the Australian legal system; first as the daughter of a policeman, then as a law student, and finally as a judge’s associate in both metropolitan and regional Queensland-where justice can look very different, especially for women. The injustice Bri witnessed, mourned and raged over every day finally forced her to confront her own personal history, one she’d vowed never to tell. And this is how, after years of struggle, she found herself on the other side of the courtroom, telling her story.

Bri Lee has written a fierce and eloquent memoir that addresses both her own reckoning with the past as well as with the stories around her, to speak the truth with wit, empathy and unflinching courage. Eggshell Skull is a haunting appraisal of modern Australia from a new and essential voice.

I’d heard a lot about this book before it was announced as part of the Stella Prize Longlist last week. It’s been getting a lot of praise and attention in the blogging circles I frequent and I’d been curious about it. In my determination to read as much of the longlist as I can, I requested it from my local library.

This is not an easy book to read and it would be a massive, massive ***trigger*** for anyone who has ever experienced sexual abuse or assault and also self-harm and disordered eating. And the book deals with a lot of sexual assault and trauma to children as well, both from Bri’s own past and through her job as an associate to a Judge for the Queensland District Court. With her boss, the Judge, Bri travels around Queensland to various locations for him to sit in court and hear and adjudicate on criminal matters. A lot (an overwhelming number really) of these cases relate to sexual abuse and assault of children and Bri is party to all of the often gruesome details.

Now obviously identifying things have been changed but this book is still graphic enough to be upsetting and it’s a shocking realism of just how many cases there are of sexual abuse. And how difficult it is to get a conviction. Bri’s anger is palpable as case after case goes not guilty with no closure or recognition of their trauma for victims. The constant flow of cases also brings back to the surface memories of the incident she experienced as a child and her decision to finally confess it to the relevant people in her life and press charges in an attempt to find that closure and move on and make sure that if anyone else ever complains about her abuser in the future, there is already a conviction against him.

Speak to pretty much any woman and it’s likely you’ll find they have a story of an incident in their past that made them uncomfortable, or that crossed a line, or that escalated into violence or even rape. This is Bri’s experience as well, after she spends a year working with the Judge and after she decides to bring charges on her abuser. So many women have stories, most of them are kept inside. Bri knows the system, she’s a law graduate who has worked within it. She has patience and determination I think, to go through years of adjournments and delays when many people may have just decided to give up, make it all go away. Bri has a strong case and she’s an adult when she goes through the process – many victims are children going through giving statements and evidence and even being subject to cross-examination.

This book does little to endear defense lawyers to me. I know everyone is entitled to a fair trial but it’s infuriating to read about women being questioned on how much they drank, what they were wearing, why they waited to tell people of their abuse. None of these things fucking matter. Or even worse, children being questioned on their memories, on what happened, on whether or not they imagined it or made it up. What a harrowing experience for anyone to have to go through. The defense also regularly challenges women on juries of cases featuring sexual abuse or assault, trying to limit their voice and impact as much as possible. Bri Lee is frank about how much of an emotional toll the process takes on her over the several years it takes to get to trial when it becomes obvious that her abuser is not going to plead guilty and I think about young children or teens going through that, standing up against an adult. There are a huge number of cases where it’s young girls accusing their stepfather or stepfather-type figure. It was exhausting at times, reading about the number of times they were told not to tell their mother or they (or the mother) would be hurt, or the relief at when abuse stopped only to find it was because the abuser had moved onto their younger sister or the times they told their mother and weren’t believed, or it was dismissed because the abuser was supporting the family financially. So much of sexual abuse or assault is a ‘he said/she said’ type of case, often where there is no real concrete evidence because it can be years before it is reported. Even when there is clear evidence (the Brock Turner case comes to mind where he was literally caught in the act by two individuals) the reporting is skewed in favour of the abuser and the sentences can be woefully inadequate. It’s all about what it will do to the abuser’s life and prospects, not about what it has done to the victim’s.

This is a powerful, emotional and often disturbing read. I read it over two days because I needed a bit of a break from the things it was making me think and the pictures it was putting in my head. And I’m just reading it, not living it. I can put the book down and walk away…..the victims cannot do that.


Book #30 of 2019

This is the 3rd book read of the Stella Prize Longlist and the 12th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019