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Posted on 29 May 2018 in Non-Fiction |

BRI LEE Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

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Writing with raw energy and cool intelligence, in Eggshell Skull Bri Lee reminds us of the prevalence of abuse and injustice in our communities.

The first pre-trial hearing Bri Lee worked on as a judge’s associate in the Queensland District Court involved a teenage girl who’d been raped by her mother’s boyfriend while tied to a Hills Hoist. Reading the pre-trial documents, Lee pictured her grandparents’ backyard:

It was the only Hills hoist I knew of, so I couldn’t move the imagery of the offending elsewhere. It hit too close to home – literally, my grandparents’ home just down the road from where I grew up, where I still lived. The heinous snapshot had slid in through a crack between the layers of my life, like a slippery ghost, and something else tweaked inside me. A memory from my own backyard in grass green and sky blue.

Over her year as judge’s associate, many of the trials she worked on involved sexual violence against women and children. Empathising with each victim, each story, she came to see Brisbane and the regional towns where she often worked as a ‘constellation of crime scenes’. In her debut memoir, Eggshell Skull, Lee returns repeatedly to this image of the Hills Hoist not merely as banal, suburban Australiana, but also as an instrument of torture and brutality.

Working in the District Court forced Lee to confront the abuse she suffered as a child. She’d stayed silent for more than a decade, never admitting to anyone that a friend of her older brother had victimised her when she was in primary school. After recounting several trials she worked on and the impact of watching others face their abusers in court, Lee’s narrative shifts to the traumatic months and years as the police and then the Department of Public Prosecutions pursue her own case.

This is the bureaucratic underbelly of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The popular NBC drama, now in its 19th season, focuses on the police and prosecutors, leaving little time to delve into the ongoing trauma of the victims, who change every episode. Trials seem to happen instantly, perpetrators are almost always brought to justice, and the police and legal professionals are competent and empathetic. Lee’s memoir reveals the reality of sexual assault for victims. She highlights the plodding process of police investigations, the court proceedings leading to nothing but more court proceedings, and the rampant injustice women face, not only in the legal system, but throughout society.

Lee’s experiences, both professionally and personally, make clear the human fallibility and biases of the justice system, and how it is stacked against women. Women and children are often victims of crime in their own homes, and the perpetrators are people they know. But juries are unlikely to believe any woman who isn’t the ‘perfect victim’, a woman who appears chaste, is not on birth control, and is preferably attacked by a shady-looking stranger in public, not an average-looking bloke she happens to know, even casually. And if a complainant is inconsistent in her reports, if she becomes too emotional, she is less believable, even though these are normal responses to trauma.

If a woman does report a sex offence to the police, there’s less than a one in five chance it will result in charges. If her case is referred to the Department of Public Prosecutions, the prosecutor then has to decide on its probability of success. The complainant’s credibility is crucial:

Studies show that we actively dehumanise overweight people and people who we believe look different to us – how is an overweight woman of colour, for example, supposed to convince an all-white jury that she was raped, if a fit, white defendant says he wouldn’t want to have sex with her?

Only 30 per cent of people accused of sex offences plead guilty, far fewer than the 70 per cent who plead guilty across all criminal charges. Offenders think they can get away with sexual assault, and they often do. As Lee summarises:

Every case felt like a David and Goliath battle. ‘There’s no evidence apart from the complainant’s story,’ they kept saying, but what evidence was she supposed to bring? So many [complainants] were terrified, submitting to intercourse to avoid the punches or cuts that, ironically, would have helped them secure a conviction. So many took months or years to come forward – then, despite showing monumental strength in making a report, were cross-examined about their ‘inexplicable’ delay.

It comes down to a hard truth: people tend to believe women are liars. Lee wishes for better evidence of the epidemic of disbelief in women, and for the courts to prepare jurors accordingly. It could make a difference, she suggests, if jurors were warned: ‘There is a strong statistical probability that you will presume this woman is a liar. Be aware of the subconscious bias, and do not let it affect the duty you have to weight evidence evenly.’

Internally, Lee is fighting another battle, against the psychological trauma that grew over the years since her initial abuse. Throughout the book, she is mercilessly candid in revealing her struggles. The graphic details and painful emotions she is exposed to in her professional life are triggering. When she finally musters the courage to recount her trauma to a police officer, her mental health is further battered by the re-victimisation of the reporting procedure. The officer types her statement with two fingers, forcing her to repeat details multiple times, inadvertently prolonging her distress. She suffers nightmares, bulimia, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and the near-impossible challenge of seeking professional mental health assistance while working nine-to-five.

Yet she relates her internal maelstrom without self-pity, which makes it all the more heart-wrenching. Catching her reflection in a window, Lee thinks, ‘So big. So ugly. So fucking stupid. Such a shit daughter.’ She obsesses over her weight, in part because of her belief that the abuse she suffered lodged itself inside her, leaving her damaged, making her worthless. The only way to make herself attractive and loveable is to desperately starve herself. She believes a jury will find her more believable if she is thin and attractive. Despite being a self-described ‘furious feminist’, she cannot escape the feeling of her self-worth being directly tied to her appearance.

Added to this are Lee’s layers of guilt. She feels guilty for seeking counselling, convinced there are others who need those resources more than she does. She feels guilty for using police time for a ‘minor historical case’, and then for tying up the court system. She feels guilty for the emotional impact her revelation has on her parents and for being an overly needy girlfriend. As these feelings compound, Lee struggles through the motions of everyday life:

Why do we think there’s so much difference between physical and emotional pain – chronic, debilitating, emotional pain? It’s a sliding scale … A person choosing to end their physical pain is almost, kind of, sometimes okay. A person like me choosing to end an internal type of suffering is definitively not okay. I fell asleep with a box cutter in my hand.

Despite the toll her year as a judge’s associate takes, however, it is witnessing the courage of others facing their abusers in court that enables Lee to discover her own strength, fuelled by her anger. The legal principle known as ‘eggshell skull’ dictates that attackers must take victims as they find them: a victim’s weakness, such as an eggshell-thin skull, cannot mitigate the severity of a crime committed against her. But likewise, a victim may turn out to be a tough, smart woman who refuses to back down, who is still willing, after everything she’s seen, to seek justice. Lee ultimately decides to pursue justice not only for herself, but also for other women. She knows her attacker has victimised other women – he has told her this himself.

Lee’s perspective feels fresh, partly because she is so young, writing about events that were so recent (her case was still working its way through the court system in 2017). Her approach is also notable for its sensitive framing of sexual violence. While she recounts a number of cases involving women and children, she never makes a spectacle of their suffering. She includes the barest details of the crimes she discusses, including her own, shifting the focus from the sexual offence itself to the broader issues around it, both in the justice system and in society.

Eventually Lee is able to see a Hills Hoist as just another element of suburbia. It’s a hard-won victory. Written with raw energy and cool intelligence, Eggshell Skull reminds us of the prevalence of abuse and injustice in our communities, and demonstrates the immense courage and determination necessary to combat it.

Bri Lee Eggshell Skull Allen & Unwin 2018 PB 368pp $29.99

Ashley Kalagian Blunt has written for Griffith ReviewKill Your Darlings and the Sydney Review of Books. Her memoir Full of Donkey: Travels in Armenia was shortlisted for the 2017 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @AKalagianBlunt.

You can buy Eggshell Skull from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.