Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

17% of Australian women aged 15 years and over will experience sexual assault.

1 in 6 assaults reported to police result in a conviction (so this says nothing about all the cases that are not reported).

In a legal system where the accused perpetrator may choose to say nothing and the victim must relive their trauma over and over and over again in the witness-box; be cross-examined; and have their ‘story’ judged by a jury, you can only think, “Why would you go through it?”.

Bri Lee did. Eggshell Skull is her harrowing story.

In 2015, Lee began her first day of work at the Queensland District Court as a judge’s associate. The judge Lee worked with presided over a variety of legal matters, although cases of sexual assault and child abuse dominated his list. Lee quickly became disenchanted – it seemed that the victims were traumatized by the legal system; that convictions were rare; and that the accused had an air of entitlement (and no remorse) that was both astounding and frightening.

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 of them were terrified, submitting to intercourse to avoid punches or cuts that, ironically, would have helped them to secure a conviction. So many took months or years to come forward – then, despite showing monumental strength in making a report, they were cross-examined about their ‘inexplicable’ delay.

Within two years, Lee was on the ‘other side of the bench’, as the complainant in her own case. Her journey through the legal system (fighting two counts of sexual assault) exposes the gruelling and confounding process that victims must face.

The first half of the book focuses on Lee’s time as an associate. Details about individual cases are reported one after another – you quickly understand that the list of sexual assault cases is endless and that convictions with jail time are rare. It’s depressing and distressing.

Lee begins to hint at her own story, testing whether her circumstances were ‘as bad’ as what she was seeing in court, or whether she was ‘as brave’ as the complainants she observed.

The relentless waves of similar trials and sentences I saw that year finally eroded the absurd idea that my situation was somehow different or unique.

Meanwhile, her life aside from work goes on – living with her parents; a relationship with a guy named Vincent; and her cutting and purging. Trauma has all sorts of ways of making itself heard.

In the second half of the book, Lee reports her own assault. While the slow-reveal about the circumstances of her own story wasn’t entirely necessary (as a memoir, she knows what happened (!) and as a reader, the blurb reveals what happens), the slow-build about her feelings – the grand stage of the courtroom versus Lee’s internal debate – was extremely compelling.

As well as compelling, note that Lee writes really well – she’s quick and sure with character sketches – ‘I was that kind of youth: the angsty, self-important, skinny white girl with an XXL ‘Make Trade Fair’ T-shirt and a clarinet exam every six months’ and equally good at small details that provide a sense of place – ‘It was all very open plan. Very heels-click-on-marble’ and ‘Wigs sat on each end of the bar table like sleeping pets, waiting patiently for their masters’ return.’

It’s rare that I find a book almost too distressing to read but I did have to have little rests during this one. It’s not graphic, it’s just so incredibly harrowing. And frustrating. And reading about the way the legal system deals with victims made me furious. And all the double-standards made me even more furious. And the men that walked away from what the average person would describe as rape, with nothing more than a suspended sentence made me sick. And so, so sad for the brave victims that can’t ever live happily or normally burying their assault, but equally, can’t live happily or normally by re-living their assault.

Bravery can only exist in opposition to fear.

4/5 Although I reckon this book should be compulsory reading, I know that it won’t be for everyone.

We broke for morning tea and when the jurors finished their Monte Carlos, defence dug in. ‘Why didn’t you scream or cry out?’ ‘How do you know it was him if you were so drunk?’ ‘Are you sure you didn’t invite him into your room?’ I emailed Megan when defence got to the underpants part. It was all too exhausting…. I judged the defendant’s credibility because his conduct indicated he was deceitful; those jurors probably doubted the woman’s complaint because she was careless with laundry.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (August 15): Belfast 13°-22° and Melbourne 11°-18°.

28 responses

  1. We have similar low conviction rates here in the UK too – its absolutely infuriating. Hopefully memoirs like this will help change attitudes and with that, we might see some changes in the system too.

    • I think a lot of people would be surprised at how few cases actually make it to court – there are so many reasons (suitable evidence, how well the victim will stand up to cross-examination… – even writing this reveals how the system works against the victim) why cases are dropped in the early stages. Lee knew that no sentence would feel ‘enough’ but her determination to get it to court was so that he had a mark against his name and should it ever happen again, his next victim could take strength from that.

  2. This sounds a very tough read. I think things are a little ‘easier’ in the UK for those who report rape but I can’t be sure. We’ve had couple of cases collapse thanks to non-disclosure of phone evidence suggesting a possibility of consent or a realtionship between the defendant and victim, although that hardly precludes rape. On the other side of the investigation, I’ve often thought about how people whose work involves listening to this kind of testimony or trawling the internet for child abusers can possibly cope. It’s an horrific pschological burden.

    • I went back through the book because your comment reminded me of a quote I’d highlighted (where Lee is returning from court where she’d heard a case that wasn’t ‘as bad’ as the one earlier in the week) –

      “…I thought to myself, ‘This is the world you live in now: a world of awful context.’

      People who work in these environments need to be very good at self care (with organisations that support them) – working with trauma usually has about a seven year limit before burnout and bitterness takes over 🙁

  3. I’ve been wondering about this book, so I’m pleased to read this good, although guarded, review. I’m a little bit jealous that someone youngish has produced such a well-received book.

    • I was/ am guarded – I do find it difficult to review some memoirs, depending on the topic – who am I to judge another person’s story? Also, this book obviously comes with a tonne of trigger warnings. Anyway, the important thing is that it is very well written and thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to hearing Lee speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

  4. Sigh, this is depressing. Somehow, I hoped, without ever investigating, that conviction rates for sexual assault were better everywhere other then the U.S. Kind of like your gun laws- something we should have but don’t. Hearing about books like this is a disheartening reminder that women are a vulnerable community. Stats touting our gains mean little compared to the very real reality that we are not safe. Period.

    Your description of this memoir reminds me of Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay. It’s a series of essays by women who have been assaulted, sexually and otherwise. Gay often downplayed her own gang rape as “not that bad” when she heard the stories of other women.

    I know it’s important reading and I’ll add it to my TBR, but I’m not sure this is good reading for me right now.

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