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Bri Lee. Image: Alana Potts

Editor’s note: This article discusses sexual assault.

At just 26, Bri Lee is a fully qualified lawyer, a creative writing Masters student, the founding editor of quarterly feminist publication Hot Chicks with Big Brains and the inaugural recipient of the Kat Muscat Fellowship – a breadth of experience you might think would be enough to shield her from the widely held view that a ‘young woman writing about herself is presumptuous, arrogant, self important and/or pointless’. Indeed, she spent much of 2017 working through many of these misconceptions around the age at which one ‘earns the right’ to write memoir.

But in her debut book Eggshell Skull (Allen & Unwin), in her own words a ‘page-turner courtroom drama that educates people on feminist jurisprudence’, Lee’s youth is wielded as a superpower – one that hasn’t yet inured her to the fallibilities and systemic misogyny of the justice system, even as she observes and forensically documents it. Within a week of starting a year-long tenure as a judge’s associate, Lee was meticulously taking notes about the cases she was witnessing and the personal trauma it was forcing her to confront.

‘I just had this overwhelming sensation that I was the only person in the room adequately shocked by what was happening. And that was because I was the youngest and most inexperienced in the room. Everyone had been there for far too many years and you can’t sustain that level of outrage,’ Lee says.

‘I just had this overwhelming sensation that I was the only person in the room adequately shocked by what was happening.’

Unsurprisingly, it’s been a busy time for Lee. On the same morning I speak to her (a Saturday, because neither of us could find time during the week), an edited excerpt from Eggshell Skull is published in Good Weekend and a few days later, the Guardian publishes a bylined piece by Lee where she shares what she learnt from reporting her sexual assault and taking her perpetrator to court. Her national book tour, which kicks off a few weeks after our conversation, sees the book launched by feminist writers Clementine Ford and Fiona Wright in Melbourne and Sydney respectively.

I ask Lee how the legal profession – which she left soon after finishing her initial year – has responded to Eggshell Skull. In particular, my interest is piqued by a story Lee details in the first five pages of the book, about what happened to a Federal Court associate after he published an open letter about political preferences in The Australian.

‘So much of the legal industry is about discretion, and that’s for a very good reason,’ Lee says. ‘So many people in the legal industry would see Eggshell Skull as a failure of discretion. The main thing a couple of people from the industry have said is: “who does she think she is writing about the legal industry after being a lowly judge’s associate for one year?”

‘But that’s precisely it – the problem is I was a lowly associate but I had more than enough material after a year.’

Lee constructed Eggshell Skull from this material, using the time and funds provided through the Kat Muscat Fellowship – what she calls ‘the turning point of my entire professional life’. But a lot of the writing was also done in the immediate aftermath – she filed the final two chapters of the book two weeks after her own trial as a complainant lodging a historical sex abuse claim against a family friend. 

‘When it came time to write about my own case and my own trial, taking notes on what was going on around me and keeping an observational eye from a writer’s perspective gave me distance and allowed me to disassociate myself from being a complainant. I approached my own experience as though it was a court report – it helped me focus on the process and compute it.’

‘I approached my own experience as though it was a court report – it helped me focus on the process and compute it.’

For Lee, writing Eggshell Skull wasn’t as much catharsis as it was a coping mechanism to deal with case upon case of sexual abuse that she was forced to confront day in day out. She writes:

At law school the first most sacred principle they teach you comes from Blackstone: that it is better that ten guilty men go free than for a single innocent man to be imprisoned. Benjamin Franklin said it was 100. I doubted that Franklin had been confronted with the rapes of one hundred girls, but my tally was stacking up.

‘It was important for me to bear witness and it helped me to get things out of my head,’ she tells me. ‘I had really horrific nightmares and I couldn’t sleep if I hadn’t written about what I was witnessing.’

Although at the time she was a full-time freelancer who often worked from home, she made the decision early on to write Eggshell Skull in a neutral space.

‘It was too much of a sullying of my home. I couldn’t bring it inside. But in terms of self-care, writing the book was self-care for going through the trial. The book is what got me through actual life. I turned a shit thing into something I could be proud of.’

Although her writing journey was an often-harrowing one, unlike writers who swear off books in a similar genre to the one they’re working in, Lee voraciously consumed narrative nonfiction and first-person crime narratives, from Helen Garner and Anna Funder to Jenny Valentish and Elspeth Muir.

‘I read them really, really closely with post-it notes and a notepad beside me. My book turned into a Frankenstein of all the style and content choices these authors made.’

Like many of the authors she admires, Lee sought to highlight patriarchal systems of power – in this case, systemic disadvantage that renders women both vulnerable to male-perpetrated violence, often at the hands of people known to them, and psychological violence in the courtroom. Lee chronicles defence barristers resorting to complainants’ use of contraceptives or their sexual history to undermine their credibility.

‘Writing the book was self-care for going through the trial. I turned a shit thing into something I could be proud of.’

Consent is a muddy beast in proceedings – physical evidence (of which there is usually none) can only ever be proof of intercourse, not consent – and besides, defendants are allowed to argue that they had an ‘honest and reasonable belief’ that the complainant consented, even if it seems plainly obvious that they did not. In such a lopsided system, it’s no wonder complainants are often judged by juries devoid of sexual assault survivors, who excuse themselves due to the triggering nature of the trials.

One of the few times justice prevails in Eggshell Skull is when a man is on trial for sexually abusing his ten-year-old stepdaughter, who constitutes what Lee terms the ‘perfect victim’:

It was a relief to see a jury not immediately suspicious of a complainant’s testimony. Defence couldn’t ask this little girl what contraception she was on, then draw inferences to her promiscuity by reminding her that she also didn’t have a boyfriend. They asked her what she was wearing to actually test her memory, not to suggest a shorter skirt had been selected to indicate willingness. She could, in no way whatsoever, have ‘known what she was getting into’ or ‘asked for it’ or ‘made a drunken mistake that she regretted the next morning’.

Eggshell Skull is as challenging to read quickly as it is difficult to put down. Lee’s sensitive yet frank retelling of sexual violence committed against women and children unsettled me to the point of despair, but her constant interrogation of a system that is steeped in the failures of society at large brings a new understanding of legal and societal treatment of consent and women’s sexual agency. Through Lee’s lens, we see the adverse treatment of child sex offenders in jail for what it is – an implicit acknowledgement that at some point in their lives, women cross a line that makes any sexual offence committed against them thereafter that much less grave. Lee makes us see how women complainants have to fight to prove to jurors they are both ‘desirable and unwilling’, and how proper process simultaneously relies on the presumption of innocence of the perpetrator, which by necessity requires all involved to disbelieve the complainant.

More than anything, Lee excels at capturing the immiserate tedium and unrelenting rigmarole of the legal system, where pre-trial hearings determine the outcome of trials before they even begin and unexpected delays occur due to lawyers being on leave or expert witnesses needing to apply for leave from work to testify – roadblocks that are compounded in regional towns that are too small to have a permanent presiding judge.

When she recounts her own experience, Lee doesn’t shy away from charting the immeasurable toll the two-year process of seeking justice left on her body, her mental health and her relationships. ‘The “re-victimisation” process for me,’ she writes, ‘wasn’t about the sexual abuse, it was about the continued abuse of power.’ Going through the same processes that she’d only ever worked with in a professional capacity made Lee realise how much the odds are stacked against individuals before they even get to the courtroom.

‘I have a broader perspective on how by the time you get to court, it’s the end of the process, and that so much of the really hard part is before you even hit the lawyers,’ she tells me. ‘So much of the hard part is at the police stage, and all the time between seeing the police and getting to the courtroom.’

The opacity of the monolithic legal system is something Lee was careful not to replicate. In Eggshell Skull, she deftly deconstructs the legal system’s terminology-riddled, process-driven complexity for readers who either don’t have the requisite education, or are fortunate enough to have never had to go through it.

‘I don’t know how we expect people to go through this when they’re not being informed or can’t fully comprehend what is going on throughout. It’s so cruel already.’

‘My knowledge of the legal system was a huge strength in the same way that having a supportive family was a strength, in the same way a stable financial situation was a strength. I was able to attend all the mentions and hearings and I understood all the legal jargon.

‘I don’t know how we expect people to go through this when they’re not being informed or can’t fully comprehend what is going on throughout. It’s so cruel already.’

Despite the grimness of what she witnessed and the ugliness of the system she personally withstood, Lee is optimistic. She cites small yet tangible improvements – from the decision to consider strangulation an offence in Queensland on the back of Quentin Bryce’s report Not Now, Not Ever: Putting an End to Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland to the requirement that Queensland Police have to consider gender equity in recruitment. On a personal level, Lee wants Eggshell Skull to be a source of strength for sexual abuse survivors who aren’t sure what recourse there is for them.

‘I hope my book is a small part of the consistent pressure that needs to be placed on the legal system to be better. It needs to improve. Once someone decides to do something about what has happened to them, there needs to be no cracks in the support the system provides.’

Eggshell Skull is available now at Readings.