Book Review: Eggshell Skull

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee is not a book I would recommend reading unless your mental health is in tip-top order and you don’t have trauma around sexual assault, self-harm or eating disorders, because that is what the book is about (and consequently also this review).  

The title refers to the Eggshell Skull principle of criminal law – that if you hit a man with an eggshell-thin skull and it shatters, killing him, the fact that you didn’t know about his skull being so thin is not a defence to murder.  The book itself is about flipping that principle and making victims of abuse and assault strong, and forcing their abusers and attackers to face them.

It is an incredibly hard read, emotionally speaking.  It’s biographical, and from the outset Lee is a very relatable character, particularly to me.  She’s fresh out of law school and has landed a coveted associateship with a District Court judge, and spends a goodly portion of her time doubting whether she is good enough for the job, struggling to keep up with its pressures, and envying her Type-A colleagues.  I’ve certainly felt that.  Regardless of career field, I suspect we all have.

From there Ms Lee is thrown headlong into the world of criminal trials – almost entirely sexual assault.  There is a depressing monotony to the cycle of abuse victims reliving their trauma in the witness box and men whom Lee is sure are guilty being let off because the victim is portrayed as insufficiently virtuous or attractive to be raped – she was either definitely just a slut having sex and then regretting it, or she was lying outright because who would succumb to uncontrollable passion for someone who looked like that?  It’s a damning indictment of how women are too often not believed, whether it is medical conditions or rape trials.

Almost as bad is when Lee does see men convicted; one is Aboriginal, and it is clear that there is a racial factor at play because the white man the day before gets away clean.  Another is revealed to be a truly evil man, but his little boy loves him.  Yet another is a violent rapist with two convictions whose girlfriend has his side completely.  It’s another slice of heartbreak and just shows how few winners there are in the criminal justice system.  It’s messy and horrible, and a good reason why I don’t practice criminal law.

Woven throughout this is Lee’s own story – her horror at what she sees in court everyday as it bleeds into her own traumatic experiences and growing self-harm.  We find these out both slowly and suddenly.  There’s no hint of her own traumatic background, and then suddenly she is talking about a trampoline in the back garden and you realise, “Oh my goodness.  Someone raped her there.”

The story from there is Lee’s battle with self-harm, bulimia and alcoholism and her own fears.  It’s heartrending to hear her thoughts about her perceived lack of self-worth, and how that drives her to purge, to cut and to drink.  In her mind at the time, it was logical and necessary, and it comes from a desire to make her “spoiled” self perfect for the people around her.

Lee makes it, though, and she makes it to the point of reporting her trauma and taking on her abuser in the courtroom.  She learns from the horrors she witnesses in the courtroom and is determined to be the strong victim who fights back against her abuser, years after the event, in the only way she can.

The book is very hard to read on a number of levels.  For me, as a lawyer, seeing the flaws in the system I’ve sworn to uphold is always painful.  It’s imperfect and the desire to see people convicted for their crimes is in tension with the knowledge that everyone is entitled to a good defence and that anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty.  I also know that the vast majority of criminal matters never make it to trial, because the cases are black and white and the defendant pleads guilty to get a better deal on sentencing.  I also know that sexual assault cases are rarely black and white, as the book discusses.  Establishing sex occurred is the easy part.  Consent, that barrier between sex and rape, is harder.  There’s no forensic evidence in most cases to help establish it.  Most rapes don’t involve physical violence.  If they did, we’d have a much higher conviction rate.

It’s also hard to see a young woman labouring under the horrible pressures of the legal system as one of its workers.  I’m lucky in that I’m not a Type-A, overachieving, highly ambitious person.  I realised relatively young that my sister is cleverer and a harder worker than me, and that I’d kill myself trying to equal her, so I learned to sit back a bit and prioritise my happiness over my marks (somewhat.  Marks still mattered to me, just not as much).  That attitude carried over into my career.  I want to do well and be the best I can be, but I’m not competing against anyone, and I don’t need to be a top barrister or partner of a huge firm.  I don’t need stacks of money and I’m not willing to work 14-hour days to get it.  In other words, I’m a bit unusual amongst the legal profession.

In law school I saw a lot of people who were the complete opposite.  They are willing to take the absolute punishment of body, soul and mind that is required to get to the top as quickly as possible and distinguish themselves.  There are some people who are born for that kind of competition and labour.  There are others who have simply been told they are, and break themselves trying.  Given Lee’s circumstances during the book, she ends up being one of the latter.  She does amazingly well considering, but the pressure is clearly killing her.  I know that the legal profession can do that and that we have stunningly high rates of suicide and substance abuse, and Lee’s experience is a good explanation of why.

Hardest of all, though, is reading this book as a woman and knowing that if I were ever raped, this is what I’d come up against.  I’d have to hope that the assault was a violent, stranger-danger attack rather than someone I know well.  I’d have to be completely sober, wearing a long skirt or trousers, and not at a party.  On my side is the fact that I’m white, in a professional job, married, Christian, and don’t have a long history of partners.  No one can call me a “slut”.  I’m a “good girl,” and if I end up as someone’s victim one day, that might be the thing that convicts him.  On top of that, I’d have to demonstrate impossible strength in the face of horrible trauma, and relive it again and again as a witness.

Bri Lee is an incredibly strong, brave young woman, and this book should be read by everyone.  However, I don’t know if everyone will be able to.  It will leave your heart raw.

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