I confess I bought Eggshell Skull ( Allen & Unwin Books 2018) way back in winter when I heard Bri Lee speak at the Maleny Celebration of Books, and then I brought it home and in the months since, it has sat on my bedside table, in my TBR pile, its very beautiful but slightly unsettling cover beckoning me, while something else – some other trepidation – held me back. I expected that the book would be confronting and raw, and it is. I knew it would be difficult to read, and in places it is. I’d heard it described as ‘self-scouring’ (Helen Garner), ‘grim and intense’ (Jane Caro) and ‘vulnerable’ (Tracey Spicer). And it is all of those things. But it is also – as described by those same women – ‘scorching’, ‘utterly triumphant’ and ‘moving and ever so wise’.
So there has been a lot of hype about this book, and since its publication, Bri has been on an almost non-stop tour, talking about her experiences, but more importantly, spearheading a conversation about abuse and the justice system. She is a smart and feisty young woman, and although this book does reveal her fear, her humiliation and her anxiety, it also demonstrates her strength, her tenacity, her persistence and her determination. Once I began reading, I couldn’t stop. This book will shatter you with its stories of lost innocence, broken families and betrayed trust, but it will also invigorate and empower you as you travel with Bri firstly on her journey through the court system as a judge’s associate, and then as a complainant in her own court case.
Bri Lee spent twelve months, straight out of law school, in the coveted role as associate – or assistant – to her ‘Judge’, a man never named, but clearly somebody held in high esteem by Bri. Her respect for him is obvious as they travel the district circuit court, hearing criminal matters, mainly matters of child sexual abuse. Forced to be (and to appear to be) impartial in all matters, Bri sits through hundreds of depressingly familiar stories, unable to express her own feelings, but assisting her Judge to manage his cases and make his important judgements. But as the year goes on, memories of her own sexual assault years earlier bubble to the surface of her mind again and again, inserting themselves into her daily life, causing her to become anxious, to self-harm and to yoyo back and forth from an eating disorder. The first half of the book is mostly her experience in circuit court and what she learns; the second half is Bri discovering the inner fortitude required to press her own case, and the details of how that case against her accuser unfolds.
This is a brutally honest and unflinching account. It pulls no punches. Nothing is off-limits. Bri examines her own life – her choices, her doubts, her concerns – as intimately as she explores the decisions of others. What we see develop throughout the story is a hurt and aggrieved young woman who gradually manages to channel all her strength into fighting back against her perpetrator; a young woman who travels from insecurity and questionable self-esteem to someone who is fierce and determined, and who uses intelligence, wit, bravery, empathy, compassion and love to confront her past.
She dispassionately examines her own desires, decisions and motivations. She explores the spectrum of human behaviour and tries to understand why some people’s actions might be more explainable or understandable (even if still not condoned) than those of others. She genuinely tries to comprehend why some people act the way they do, whether victims, survivors or abusers. She offers much to think about, not only in terms of the actions of individuals, but also about the parameters of the justice system itself, and its limitations.
The term ‘eggshell skull’ is an established legal doctrine that establishes that a defendant must take their victim as they find them – if a single punch, for example, kills someone because of their unusually thin skull, that victim’s weakness cannot mitigate the seriousness of the crime. In this story, justice works in the opposite direction. Bri’s abuser must face his accuser as she comes – a feisty and persistent young woman who will not back down or give up, who knows the legal system, and who is determined not to let the matter rest until justice is done. Bri Lee is a girl who becomes her own superhero, and in telling her story, she challenges us all to face abuses of power with conviction and daring.
Yes, this is a difficult book to read. The stories it contains are sad and distressing and sometimes hopeless. But it is also such an important book to read, because it counterbalances those tales with stories of empowerment, courage, justice and triumph. Towards the end, you will be turning the pages fast, eager to find out the result in Bri’s own case, desperately hoping she wins, desperately fearful that she might not. But ultimately it is the journey, not the result, that is important. I came away feeling incredibly proud of this young woman who spoke up and fought back, proud on behalf of all of those people who face discrimination, abuses of power and abusers of power. I finished the book with a renewed sense of hope, and a renewed respect for those individuals who somehow find it within themselves to stand up to the bullies of this world, to stand their ground when things get tough, and to forge a path so that it might be that little bit easier for others who must follow.
There is the sense that writing this book has been cathartic for Bri Lee, and that she has emerged from that chapter in her life renewed and strengthened, forged by fire, to be sharper and more daring; the sense that the new Bri Lee will call out wrongs when she encounters them, and put up with less of life’s bullshit.