Review: Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Content warning: sexual assault.

“I can’t think of cops without thinking of my dad,” Bri Lee writes at the start of Eggshell Skull, her memoir of her year in the legal profession and subsequently having her childhood molester convicted. She knows cops are sometimes bad, negligent, or just ill-equipped, but ultimately it’s a statement of faith in the criminal justice system that is notionally designed to keep us safe. Even so, her dad warns her to “never look for justice.”

It begins with Lee, in her early 20s, entering the legal profession as a judge’s associate in Queensland’s District Court. She’s paired with another of the good ones – a judge who is fair and looks for reform. But Lee quickly realises what she’s got herself into. As they travel around the state’s regional courtrooms, she watches case after case of sexual assault, most of which are historical and happened in the victims’ childhoods. And she begins to notice how the system fails the victims (they are all female, with one notable exception). Female jurors excuse themselves because sitting through a sex trial is triggering. Jurors don’t believe the women unless they are “perfect victims” (white, sane, virginal). Guilty verdicts are reached only sporadically. The exceptions are revealing. A male victim’s perpetrator is breezily found guilty. In another town, a conviction is only the third guilty verdict in living memory. The perpetrator is Aboriginal.

While working on these cases, Lee begins to have flashbacks to her own molestation when she was a child, in her backyard on her trampoline by an older family friend, Samuel. The impact of the assault is enduring: she self harms, has terrible self-esteem, struggles to have a healthy relationship with her boyfriend (another of the good ones). She is plagued by thoughts that she deserved the assault, or that she could do the same. But ultimately she resolves to come forward and attempt to seek justice, despite the warnings seared into her by her father and her insider’s view of the system. She goes to the police and begins the process. She wants something on Samuel’s record, for all the women whose perpetrators got away.

Now we get another insider’s account of what it’s like to move through the justice system. Not only are there problems when a case goes to trial, but everything that happens in the long period before: police incompetence, little loopholes that the defence lawyers can exploit, endless “mentions” at the courts for seemingly trivial, administrative matters. A sticking point is that Lee cannot remember exactly when the assault took place. The process takes two years, and Lee fears at every moment it may fail. It’s a test of endurance.

The eggshell skull rule, Lee explains, is that a perpetrator is responsible for the harm they cause no matter the characteristics of the victim. If you hit someone over the head and kill them because they have a particularly thin, eggshell skull, you’re still responsible for their death. Lee shows how this rule has been perverted in sex crimes, where pubescent girls are seen as somehow lesser victims because their sexuality somehow bring their assaults upon them. But it can also go the other way. Of Samuel she writes:

The girl he’d molested had grown into a furious feminist, and that just made him plain unlucky, and that was just too bad for him, because that’s eggshell skull.

Altogether it’s a compelling and infuriating insight into the justice system, and the psychology of victimhood. Assaults, Lee writes, are about power. There’s no great mystery to them:

People of sound mind do horrible things because they want to, because they’re not worried about the consequences, and because they place their wants and needs above those of others. There is no great conspiracy.

Published in 2018, the failings of the justice system have only become more widely known in the years since, whether police shootings of Black Americans, Aboriginal deaths in custody, or failures around domestic abuse (documented furiously in Jess Hill’s See What You Mad Me Do). Eggshell Skull doesn’t really get into solutions, and ultimately seems to suggest that the system can be reformed. Justice can, it seems, still sometimes be found.

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