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.
The day I finished Eggshell Skull I had been reporting court. I’d chosen to sit in District sentences rather than Magistrates Court because, quite frankly, I was guaranteed a decent story. Which is to say, worse things happen in higher courts and it’s what our website stats show people read no matter how much they claim to prefer nice human interest pieces.
The first sentence was for a 45-year-old man who had, just a month earlier, been found guilty by a jury of multiple counts of indecent treatment of his younger cousins during the 1980s and 1990s. Sentencing was complicated by the fact that for several of the crimes he was a child himself and his punishment had to reflect what he would have received had the matter been dealt with by the Children’s Court in the 1980s. Despite this, the man was still sentenced to actual jail time, at least five months, with probation and a suspended sentence to hang over his head for another three years. The complainants, now women, left the court audibly relieved. One loudly whispered “success”. They had been vindicated, years of torment not erased but somewhat eased. I know my emotional response wouldn’t have been the same before Eggshell Skull. It was so hard not to follow them out and congratulate them on their courage. But it felt like the universe had aligned, a big slap-in-the-face moment to remind me why this book is, sadly, so necessary.
In Eggshell Skull, Lee reflects on her year-long associateship with a judge in Queensland’s District Court. As she witnessed an overwhelming number of sexual assault cases, many of which contain horrific detail, Lee reflects on her own experience. As her associateship draws to a close Lee files a historic indecent treatment claim against one of her brother’s close friends. The remainder of the book follows this excruciating journey, with raw emotion and exploration of Lee’s own mental health issues in the aftermath of trauma.
Eggshell Skull is a searing examination of the law, its pervasive sexism and systemic failings. The #metoo movement has been crucial in encouraging people to share their stories. But speaking out about assault is only the first step in a gruelling journey for any woman brave enough to pursue a conviction. Of the fraction of assaults reported, fewer still are taken to trial or sentencing. Then women are again stripped bare, with the burden of proof weighing them down and accusing. I’ve watched the barristers, laughing and joking outside court as if what happens before the judge isn’t going to change so many lives.
I had seen so much praise for Eggshell Skull. I mean, the book is blurbed by the formidable literary force that is Helen Garner and has praise from so many of the women I admire in this country. So obviously I had no doubt it was going to be incredible. My desire to read it increased tenfold when I saw Lee speak about the writing process at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. Eggshell Skull is beautifully crafted, with the kind of literary turn of phrase which continually caught me by surprise and made it clear Lee is going to be an unforgettable voice in Australian literature.
Eggshell Skull is the book every person needs to read. #Metoo has shown just how pervasive sexual assault is, how many lives have been irrevocably changed. But Eggshell Skull is fierce reminder that the sexism that has allowed this culture to flourish is so ingrained in our society that speaking out is just the first step in a punishing journey to justice. It’s a damning indictment on our legal system, but one so beautifully written it deserves a place among our nation’s best literature.
Grab your own copy of Eggshell Skull here (affiliate link)
Trigger warnings for sexual assault and eating disorders.