Content warning: this article discusses sexual assault.
“Writing protects me from life, but nothing can protect me from writing,” says Bri Lee. The 26-year-old writer and founding editor of Hot Chicks with Big Brains has just released her first book, Eggshell Skull.
She began writing the memoir after a year as a judge’s associate in the Queensland District Court. Bearing witness, across the courtroom, to the courage of sexual-assault survivors, Lee was compelled to lodge her own claim against the man who abused her when she was a child. Two years later she returned to the same court as a complainant.
“I realised I’d been taking notes all year,” Lee says of her judge’s associateship. During the court proceedings for her own case, the note taking continued. “When I’m going through really difficult real-life situations it helps me to take down notes … It turns me into a reporter sitting in the courtroom, instead of a complainant.
“But when it comes down to the actual job of writing, and you’re sitting at your desk and you’re alone and you have to do the work, it’s terrifying.”
Lee’s standpoint is unique, and there’s no veneer to her retelling. Professional observations of the legal system’s inner workings morph into a deeply personal account of Lee’s own justice-seeking crusade. It’s equal parts pragmatic, and strenuously painful.
“There’s a really big difference between being sad about what happened to me and being angry,” Lee says. “For so long I was sad about it, and then when I started doing something about it, that sadness turned to anger ... It gave me a sense of defiance.”
The shift in Lee fortifies with each page turn. And it’s continued to. Speaking to me about the book now, there’s a fire in her voice.
Eggshell Skull is named after the legal doctrine that a defendant must “take their victim as they find them”. In other words, 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 the victim is strong? Lee flips the doctrine on its head: “It became a challenge to myself to make him not just regret what he’d done to me – the actual crime – but to regret taking it to trial. To regret taking me on.”
Lee’s initial complaint came a few years before the watershed #MeToo movement. But her book’s release, coincidentally, rides its coat-tails. “I feel really lucky the book was published this year,” she says. “Ears are open to this conversation in a way they were not three years ago.” Lee revisits a collective “her” throughout the book; it rings truer now than she could ever have imagined.
Only a month since its release, “My email inbox, my Facebook messages and my Instagram DMs are chock-a-block full,” Lee says. “There are quite a number of [women] who said after reading my book they decided to tell someone about what happened to them for the first time ever. I got a message from a woman who said she’d been holding what happened to her a secret for 50 years, and she read my book and then decided to tell her family.
“The thought anyone would be encouraged to feel the release that I now enjoy because I’ve been able to move on from this – what more could you hope for?”
In Lee’s case, as in many, the system’s failings are blatant. “I still have faith in justice,” she says. “My faith in the Australian justice system is another thing ... The way it treats complainants is improving, but it’s improving too slowly.”
Where do we start? “Police level,” says Lee, who grew up with a cop as a dad. “That’s the highest point of case attrition – where cases are dropped – and it’s also the first point of contact a complainant has to the system.”
Last month Eurydice Dixon’s rape and murder was met with police calls for women to exercise “situational awareness”. “That police officer’s comments were made at a time when the entire country’s eyes were on him,” Lee says. “What an incredible opportunity that could have been for him to ... come out batting against violence against women.”
We need to invert the conversation around gendered violence, Lee says: “Shift the focus away from what she did, to what he did.”
Lee had only 10 days from her trial’s outcome to write and submit the final two chapters to her publisher. “It was horrific,” she admits. “But it’s interesting what I got out onto the page in those 10 days was published pretty much without any changes.” It’s a raw, blow-by-blow account that’s near impossible to put down.
“The ugly parts of my life kept crashing into the beautiful ones,” Lee writes early in Eggshell Skull. I ask if it’s true of her life now.
“Standing here today, the thing that was done to me takes up the tiniest fraction of my sense of self,” she says. “If my life is a big pie, the Eggshell Skull part is a source of real satisfaction, real optimism and real pride.
“This is the only way I had to turn the worst thing that ever happened to me into the best thing that I ever did.”