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.

Book Review: Fight Like a Girl

Today I want to take a short break from endometriosis (don’t we all) and review a book I finished recently: Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl. It was published in 2016, so I’m a little behind the 8-ball on this one, but I enjoyed it so much I just have to discuss it.

You may know Clementine Ford as the outspoken and controversial Sydney Morning Herald columnist.  Well, I say controversial – she’s mostly controversial to the men that she calls out for a variety of awful behaviours.  She rocketed onto the Australian public sphere in 2015, when she posted a topless photo of herself with the words “Hey #Sunrise, get f***ed” written across her chest.   This was in response to Sunrise writing, “What’s it going to take for women to get the message about taking and sending nude photos?”, as opposed to asking the far more appropriate question, “What’s it going to take to get men to not to share intimate photos given to them in confidence by women who trust them?”  Or, as Ms Ford put it, “why do men continue to view women as objects they can defile and violate while the world watches and tut-tuts?”

With a title like “Fight Like a Girl,” it probably isn’t much of a surprise that this is a feminist book, and it carries on from Ms Ford’s facebook protest in fighting back against victim blaming.  It also does a whole lot more besides.

The book more or less follows the arc of Ms Ford’s life to date, starting with her childhood, and my goodness, are those first few chapters relatable to me.  She talks about a childhood in which she was a little too tall and not very girl-shaped.  She talks about how the first time she learned to start hating her body was when another child teased her.  She talks about the sting of realising you are not conventionally attractive, measuring your worth but how desirable you are to boys, and projecting a facade of “one of the lads” to make it seem like you don’t care that you’ll never really be a “proper” girl.

Whilst I never went as far down the rabbit hole of self-loathing as Ms Ford, who developed bulimia, I shared those thoughts and feelings.  I distinctly remember the time in year 8 when two of my classmates told me my legs were hairy and I should shave them.  That’s when I became conscious of how “ugly” and “bad” body hair is, and learned to hate and be ashamed of it whenever it appeared.  I don’t recall what made me start to worry about my (perfectly healthy) weight.  Probably a magazine.  I can’t recall when I realised my teeth were quite yellow, but I expect someone pointed it out to me.  That’s one I’ve never been able to get rid of, to the point where I’m planning on having them professionally whitened.

I remember in year 9, realising that I was a good four or five inches taller than most of my friends, and that I loomed awkwardly over them in photos.  My feet were too long for my body and I felt like a clumsy clodhopper in my ugly, practical school shoes.  I resented not being allowed to wear makeup to hide the smattering of teenage spots that bloomed on my face.   I was driving by this overwhelming need to look pretty, pretty, pretty, and burdened by a constant sense of not being good enough.

I think this was part of what drove me to make a really stupid hair decision in year 10 that I maintained right through year 11, by cutting into what could have been a sexy pixie but on me was an awkward pageboy.  I adopted a slightly emo style, because I admired the “don’t care what you think” vibe and wanted to pretend that I genuinely felt that way too.  I never really managed it (the style or the attitude.  I was a dag).

Anyway, like Ms Ford, I found feminism in university and learned to stop putting down other women for being too girly, too high maintenance or too shallow, and actually started to love my gender.  It’s brought me a lot of happiness and made my brain a much nicer place to be.  I now have four beautiful female best friends who have been massively influential in getting me there, and I owe them my undying love for that.  It was at that point, and since, that I’ve been slowly waking up to the world that Ms Ford paints so beautifully in Fight Like a Girl.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone who makes me go, “I wish I’d thought to say it like that,” the way Clementine Ford does.  She is unerringly accurate at hitting the nail on the head and holds the microscope up to the myriad of ways in which a patriarchal society shames, oppresses and stifles women.  She talks about the thousands of vile, abusive messages she has received for daring to criticise men, and how she deals with it.  She discusses the absurd excuses that allow such a culture to flourish.  She validates the feelings of every woman who has ever felt the helpless fury that comes from being objectified, put down, sexualised or humiliated simply because of their gender.

It’s an incredibly empowering book for that very reason.  My views don’t always mesh perfectly with hers – I’m a Christian, and whilst I’m a very left-wing one, it still informs my feminism.  Ms Ford doesn’t have that particular influence.  But, despite that, I can respect and understand every single thing she writes, and I agree with the overwhelming majority of it.

Fight Like a Girl is a very funny read, but it also made me want to cry and rage.  Clementine Ford has mastered the art of a witty, bantering tone that exposes some very unpalatable truths in a way that just hits you right in the heart.  If you aren’t sure if you’ll like her style, have a read of any of her Sydney Morning Herald articles, or take a peek at her facebook.  I’d start with this article on the victim blaming following the murder of Eurydice Dixon, or this one on the ridiculousness that is #notallmen.  They are very like her book, but with a touch less humour (given the subject matter, not surprising) and a lot less swearing (if swearing bothers you, Fight Like a Girl will probably be hard for you to read).

TL;DR: Fight Like a Girl is touching, funny and amazing and all people should read it.