Cover of book: Eggshell Skull

Bri Lee
Eggshell Skull

This memoir is named for the legal premise that “a victim must be accepted for who they are individually, regardless of where their strengths and weaknesses place them on a spectrum of human normality. If you strike a person whose skull happens to be as thin as an eggshell, and they break their head open and die, you can’t claim that they were not a ‘regular’ person. Full criminal liability – and responsibility – cannot be avoided because a victim is ‘weak’.”

It follows that responsibility should not be avoidable because the victim is strong. This book shows how the author built a case against a man who abused her as a child. First though, it shows how she came to be the person who was liable to take the man to court: how Lee, initially as a cop’s daughter then a judge’s associate, used her appreciation of the law to pursue a good result. This is significant because cases involving sex crimes historically advantage male defendants.

The book is thick with Brisbane summer; you’ll get hives just thinking about lawyers and their ilk stepping out to lunch, sweating in heels and blazers. The author edits a magazine about women and their jobs, and the texture plays a real part in the meaning of this book, which insists on the dailiness of the law and its inseparability from life and work. Underneath its big case, it makes many others quietly.

You may sometimes suspect these arguments have been subsumed by the personal narrative, which the author emphasises over thorough research about the history and functioning of the law. More often though, it seems there’s a patience in the writing, a willingness to let the reader sit with the ideas. When the author tells a counsellor she’s worried her job makes her hate men – the judge she works with gets a lot of sex crimes – the important thing is the way the counsellor engages Lee in competition, establishing and re-establishing the perils of his own job, and calling her “emotional and overwhelmed”. Pages later, Lee goes to court and the room is warned that a female witness has a “nervous disposition”.

Lee is clear-eyed and sometimes scathing about a system where “a wreck of a car is evidence, but the wrecked body of a woman isn’t”. At the same time, her respect for legal processes turns this into a complicated memoir of the law as it is lived.  CR

Allen & Unwin, 368pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Bri Lee, Eggshell Skull".

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Reviewer: CR

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