Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 358 pages; 2018.
Even before I was mid-way through Bri Lee’s debut book, Eggshell Skull, I knew it was going to be the best non-fiction title I’d read all year — and that’s saying something seeing as I’d not long finished Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist, which I thought was extraordinarily good.
A memoir about working in the Australian judicial system for the first time might not sound terribly exciting, but Bri Lee’s narrative is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a really well constructed book that marries the personal with the political.
It not only provides a fierce and unflinching look at how the law, the legal system and society as a whole is biased against women, especially in matters relating to domestic violence and sexual abuse, it also provides a peek into Bri’s battles with body image and eating disorders stemming from her own dark secret.
It’s an amazingly courageous, compelling and eye-opening memoir.
Never look for justice
Bri starts her story with a seemingly innocuous anecdote from her childhood — about going to get a pie for lunch with her policeman dad, when the pair stumble upon a physical fight between a man and a woman — that sets the scene for pretty much the rest of the book. The woman, Bri explains, did not want to press charges even though she’d been brutally shoved, verbally abused and quite clearly terrified.
On another occasion, her father, who spends long hours in court prosecuting domestic violence cases, suggests…
…that I was to ‘get a man drunk’ before I married him because some men ‘become very nasty’, and you wouldn’t be able to tell until they drank.
Later, he advises that Bri should “never look for justice”, a catchphrase he often repeats, and which rubs against her decision to study law.
A bright student, she manages to win herself a coveted first job as a judge’s associate, travelling to towns in regional Queensland and the larger metropolitan area of Brisbane as part of the Queensland District Court circuit. It’s a confronting experience — the legal system is slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic. But it’s also alarmingly predictable.
Back in my office I prepared us for the coming trials. The bulk of the court list was child sex offences, and when I remarked on this to Judge he agreed and we commiserated. “Unfortunately it’s the bread and butter of the District Court”, he said, “but sometimes you get a good bit of old-fashioned violence.”
The sheer number of sexual abuse and rape cases begins to weigh on Bri, as does the difficulty associated with getting guilty verdicts, either because many cases are “he said, she said” scenarios so there’s lack of evidence, or juries are loaded with straight white males who tend to believe what straight white male defendants say.
Eventually all these cases, listening to the victims in court and seeing the alleged perpetrators walk free triggers something that Bri can’t control: her own memory of being sexually molested by a trusted childhood friend a decade earlier.
A case of one’s own
The first half of this book is largely about Bri’s working life on the District Court, the second about the court case she brings against the man who assaulted her when she was a schoolgirl. It’s a compelling account of what it is like to be on both sides of the courtroom and shows how difficult it can be to challenge an accuser, even when you know the law and the legal system inside out — imagine if you’re poorly educated or have never stepped foot in a courtroom.
It’s told with an unflinching honesty, often painful, but there’s humour here, too. And despite the seemingly never-ending examples of misogyny and abhorrent behaviour by men against women littered throughout the book’s 350-plus pages, this isn’t a man-hating story for Bri has strong male role models in her life — a caring father, a devoted boyfriend, a respectful and empathetic boss — whom she champions and adores.
What makes Eggshell Skull — the title comes from a legal “rule” in which a defendant must “take their victim as they find them” (more on that here) — so powerful is the sheer number of examples that Bri outlines of the very real dangers that some men pose to women (and girls of all ages). It’s like a contagion that has spread throughout our society; it’s so ingrained it feels like there’s nothing we can do to change it — except perhaps to educate our sons to respect women, rather than educating our daughters to change their behaviour (wear different clothes, don’t walk home alone, don’t get drunk) to avoid being raped.
Eggshell Skull is both harrowing and hopeful. It made me angry, it made me want to cry. Mostly it unsettled and unnerved me. Reading it was an almost visceral experience, and I am forever changed having turned these pages.
Please note that the book does, at times, provide excruciating, but never gratuitous, detail of some horrendous cases, but Bri holds back on outlining the specifics of her own abuse — probably as an act of self care.
Finally, Eggshell Skull — which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize — does not appear to be published outside of Australia, but UK-based readers can order it from the Book Depository.
If you liked this, you might also like:
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: True crime meets memoir in this book in which a law student interning on a death penalty case involving a paedophile is reminded about her own secret past in which she was sexually abused by a family member.
This is my 10th book for #AWW2019, which means I have completed the challenge for this year already! However, I will keep reading books by Australian women writers and tally up my final total at year’s end.