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.

The Tragedy of Domestic Violence

Big trigger warning.  The title should explain why.

1 in 6 women and 1 in 16 men in Australia will experience physical domestic violence at the hands of an intimate partner.  When the definition is expanded to include emotional abuse, the numbers grow.  I think everyone can agree that’s far too many.

It’s a subject close to my heart.  The majority of my work as a lawyer is to do with domestic violence.  I’ve assisted people of every demographic, from the very young to the very old, male, female or nonbinary, and in many different types of relationships.  The number of people I see suffering from family violence is horrific.

It’s not just partners, either.  It’s children hurting or being hurt by their parents, siblings attacking each other, or vengeful exes going after their former partner’s family.

All in all, it’s a bleak, depressing and sometimes deeply traumatising area to be involved in, and I’m only dipping into these scenarios for the brief moment that they collide with the legal system.  I don’t actually have to live it.  My heart goes out to the people who do, particularly those that never even make it to the point where they can seek legal help.

Now, when I’m talking about domestic violence, what do I actually mean?  Obviously it involves violence between two people who are related or in a relationship.  Physical or sexual violence are the most obvious examples – hitting, shoving, strangling, sexually assaulting someone, etc.  But most jurisdictions also make provision for things like harassment, intimidation, stalking, threats, and generally tormenting someone, as well as financially and/or socially controlling them.

Each state and territory in Australia has its own specific legislation that deals with domestic violence, each defining it in slightly different ways and each making different requirements on the courts and the police.  The Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), which applies everywhere except WA, also defines family violence quite broadly to include the above.  WA has a nearly identical bit of family law legislation, but had to be special and couldn’t possibly just sign up to the same one as everyone else.

There’s  lot of myths and misinformation about DV floating around Australia.  One of the most infuriating things I hear people say about domestic violence is, “Why didn’t they leave?”  The reason people experiencing DV usually don’t leave varies from person to person, but it could be any of the following:-

  1. They still love the abuser and believe that they can change;
  2. They believe that it is their own fault and that they need to work harder to please the abuser to make it stop;
  3. They are scared of being alone and feel being in a bad relationship is better than no being in one at all;
  4. They have children and are worried about what will happen if they leave them behind;
  5. They have children and don’t know how they will provide care to them if they leave with the children;
  6. They are a child themselves and may be forced by authorities to return home;
  7. They do not know how to survive without their abuser;
  8. They are financially controlled by their abuser;
  9. They are socially isolated and have no support or assistance;
  10. They do not recognise that they are experiencing abuse;
  11. They are too scared to try and leave in case their abuser catches them.

It could be one of these factors, or it could be several or all of them.

But what does any of this have to do with endometriosis?

Well, imagine you are feeling one of the things on that list but are then chronically ill as well.  Someone with endo also has to ask themselves, “How will I afford my medication?  How will I support myself when I’m sick?  How can I care for my children without help?  Who will take me to the hospital?  How can I afford rent if I can’t work?” Chronic illness massively adds to the difficulty of trying to escape an abusive relationship.  People with chronic illness are already more likely to be experiencing financial difficulty, social isolation and reliance on another person than your average, healthy person.  That makes us even more vulnerable.

HOW TO ESCAPE

So, if you are experiencing domestic violence, what can you do?

Well, the first step is getting in touch with a domestic violence service.  They range in what they can assist with from advice to coordinating your escape, depending on the service.  The Victorian Organisation, Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, has a great list of resources for all over the country.

I strongly recommend also getting in touch with a lawyer.  They will be able to speak with you about getting a domestic violence order (noting that they are called different things in different states, such as Violence Restraining Orders in Victoria and Apprehended Violence Orders in NSW).  Domestic Violence Orders, or DVOs, can keep you safe by making it a criminal offence for the abuser to come near you or your home, among other things.  However, a DVO isn’t the right option for everyone, which is why I advise talking to a lawyer.  I have specifically told people not to get them before because I think it will make their situation worse or put them in more danger.  However, if it will help you, seeing a lawyer will make it much easier.  Rather than pay for a private lawyer, consult your nearest Legal Aid or community legal centre – many of these places will assist you for free.

In some states, such as NSW, it is better to talk to the police, who will take the order out for you and run the case from start to finish.

Those are the big two first steps to take.  However, there are some practical steps that are also worth considering:-

  1. Getting a parcel locker or PO Box so the abuser cannot intercept your mail;
  2. Creating a separate bank account with a new password that the abuser will not be able to guess;
  3. Separating yourself on any joint services such as Centrelink;
  4. Ensuring that your medical care providers know that the abuser is not to receive any information about you and should not be considered your next of kin;
  5. If you own a house in both names, making sure that the abuser cannot take money out of the mortgage or change the mortgage amount without your signature by talking to your mortgage provider;
  6. Making sure that location services are turned off on your phone;
  7. Checking your vehicle for tracking devices.

In many cases some of these steps will not be necessary, but think about your situation and decide what is best to do.

I also strongly recommend reading the various tips and stories in this guide.  It’s specifically about escaping abuse with a disability.

HOW TO HELP

What if you know someone who is being abused?  First and foremost, be gentle.  They may not yet recognise the behaviour as abusive, or may feel that they can’t yet leave.  Telling them simply to cut and run is not supportive, particularly if they are facing the obstacles I mentioned above.  Instead, ask them how you can help.  Do they need a place to stay for a while, and can you offer that?  Do they need an interest-free loan, and can you afford to do so?  Can you help coordinate their escape, or babysit their children, or do the school run for them?

Generally speaking, I would not advise calling the police unless they are in immediate danger, such as if you walk past the house and hear them screaming for help, or if they call you and ask you to do so.  If you call the police when there is not a crisis, scared abuse victims may defend their abuser.  Further, it could put them in more danger if the abuser believes that they called the police.  Alternatively, the abuser may force them to cut contact with you.

If you think a friend is being abused, you can also contact one of those resources above to seek advice on the best thing for you to do in the situation.

 

Are you one of the brave souls who has managed to break free of a violent relationship?  If you have endo or another chronic illness or disability, how did you navigate it?  Any tips I have missed, or anything you disagree with?  Let me know in the comments.