Review: Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee - "A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back"

Monday, 25 March 2019

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
Released: 1st June 2018
Published by: Allen and Unein
Genre: Memoir
Source: Borrowed
Pages: 368
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
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.
This review also appears in Vertigo 2019: Disrupt

In an ideal word, the legal system would be the ultimate beacon of hope – a place where justice is swift and society’s moral compass is upheld. Looking at Australia’s current climate, does the reality hit the mark? Bri Lee’s evocative memoir takes readers through her own experiences with the law: being the daughter of a policeman, her job as a judge’s associate and finally the protagonist in her own case. Eggshell Skull is a book that explores one woman’s journey in understanding how others have contested the wrongs against them, the difference between what seems ‘fair’ and ‘just’, and the emotional toll to fight – even when you have the law on your side.

You don’t need to have a legal background to appreciate the depth of Lee’s story. While the intricacies of court cases and what she witnessed while working with a judge are included, the real focus is on people relying on the system to bring them a reprieve. Confronting and yet written with a quiet assuredness, it’s harrowing to realise the mountain of procedural requirements victims of sexual assault must get through to have their case heard. Even the most sickening crimes could be treated with apparent leniency because of a gap in evidence or a complainant who is too ‘sensitive’, too ‘unreliable’ to be believed. The worries of ‘wasting a court’s time’ with what seemed ‘minor’ in comparison to the horrific cases she’d heard were overcome by an unwavering determination to hold the person who hurt her accountable. In reading this you’re confronted with the double-edged sword in the pursuit of justice, where one must decide if bringing back the onslaught of painful memories is worth a trial which could span years.

It's a realisation most of us have at some point in our young adult lives, that there's no guidebook for the important stuff. When you most want to stride out from under the wings of your parents, you will simultaneously long for their guidance and reassurance like never before. In the worst moments of those nights I thought of my mum, and how I could burn down everything around me and that she would still come help me if I just picked up the phone. Like most of my female friends, I rarely fought with my father and often fought with my mother, but we all knew that when the chips were down our mums would be the first to run into the blaze after us.

Interestingly, it could be said that men paradoxically play the role of either perpetrator or protector when it comes to the issue of a woman’s safety. On the one hand, you may feel safer with a man by your side when catching the train home alone at night, but on the other it’s an unfortunate reality that we even think this way in the first place. Though her personal account illustrated the insidious nature of the apparent ‘nice guy’ who just happened to slip-up at that point in time, Lee did have positive male influences in her life. Her father and partner were resolute in their capacity to show compassion and be there when she needed them most. While an extra level of caution and heightened awareness in situations where a woman could be perceived as vulnerable is inevitable, Lee’s story is testimony to the existence of genuinely good men whose intentions would go beyond the role of a ‘protector’; being actively opposed to violence against women in general.

It's so easy for them to say that 'her word alone' wasn't enough to overcome their reasonable doubts. The alternative is a little terrifying - that if one in five women were assaulted, one in five men might be the assaulters.

What makes Eggshell Skull a particularly emotional read is how Lee described the feelings of shame and intense self-loathing throughout her pursuit for justice. Part of it could be attributed to having witnessed first-hand the moral quandary of the legal system, so firmly built on rationale and logic, when faced with sexual assault victims. To complicate matters further, when the alleged incident may have happened decades before it is increasingly difficult to adduce the kind of clearly incriminating evidence a jury would expect. How accurately can the pain and suffering inflicted on another person be measured? How do you make peace with a ‘not guilty’ verdict that appears to contravene community standards? These are questions raised which are likely to be a source of further debate in time.

But if there is criticism of the legal system to be found in this book, it is moderated nonetheless by an understanding of those who work within its confines, and are often under-resourced. It was fascinating to see how Lee’s professional relationship with the judge she worked for developed; though he was not directly involved in her own case, their bond was built on a respect for what it takes to hear from the darkest sides of human nature on a daily basis and the ability to separate that from your personal life. The lessons from her female peers also struck a chord, from the revelations of hidden insecurities to the unexpected sense of camaraderie which followed a glimpse into each other’s vulnerabilities. In this way, Eggshell Skull acts as both a memoir and call-to-action – perhaps not so overtly as a feminist manifesto, but an inspiring tale that recognises the relief in sharing a grievance and finding other women who could relate and say ‘me too’.


In all, Eggshell Skull is eye-opening and courageously told. A story about coming through the legal system, working both within it and then from a place of retribution, this is a must-read from a bold voice we can learn so much from.