Life

After writing about her experience of sexual assault, one woman found herself inundated with messages and confessions, both brave and gut-wrenching, from other survivors. By Bri Lee.

My inbox after #MeToo

Brisbane-based writer Bri Lee.
Credit: Supplied

I had braced myself for the messages from strangers. But the first wave came from people I knew. It didn’t matter that I’d changed my privacy settings on Facebook and set up a new public-facing email address. These were friends, family, colleagues and friends from school and university, people who had my number, pouring their stories out to me over text messages and asking if they could call me. It was late May, days before my book, Eggshell Skull, was to be officially released.

The book is personal, a memoir of my experience finally going to the police about a crime committed against me when I was a child. It ends with me in a courtroom, being cross-examined and called a liar. Court wasn’t an unfamiliar place to me. Before all of this I’d been a judge’s associate, I’d spent a year listening to the heinous details of sex crimes. But I couldn’t handle the horror stories in that job; I struggled with intense vicarious trauma. Now the stories are back. Some days in the past three months I’ve wondered whether I stepped out of the furnace and into the fire.

There isn’t just one inbox. There are messages sent to my Facebook, Instagram DMs, Twitter DMs and two email addresses. And then there’s the signing line. Different platforms attract different types of people who require different responses. Most good messages begin with an eruption of gratitude. Then comes the terrible disclosure – about them or someone close to them – with either a question, some closure or a kind of hopelessness. This can happen in three sentences or a thousand words. Questions are usually about the law and the sheer unfairness of it all, but hopelessness is the hardest. One woman begged me to call her daughter who had been raped and didn’t want to tell the police.

In all this correspondence, though, a pattern has emerged. Typically, women will only act – report a crime or even just tell their families or friends – when they see another person in danger. Mothers who have kept their own abuse secret, protecting the offender for decades, rear up like bears on hind legs for their children. Young women will risk the backlash of accusing a boss of assault once they hear they might not be the only one – that the man is still preying on unsuspecting peers at work. I recognise this from my own story. We don’t want to make a scene for ourselves, but we feel responsible for keeping everyone else safe.

The bravery some people demonstrate is astonishing. I have messages from women taking their husbands to the police for offending against their daughters, elderly people finally reporting institutional abuse from half a century earlier, teenagers shaking off the fear about the repercussions if they make a formal complaint against a popular peer. I carry their strength with me, but I also carry the collateral. My abuse turned trampolines into a terrible but mundane trigger for me. One woman told me that, for her, it’s Cherry Ripes. Now I think of her every time I see one. How could I not? She was only 11.

I get a lot of mothers writing to me about their daughters, some daughters writing to me about their mothers. These messages give me hope. So much sex crime creates – and is created by – intergenerational trauma. All you need is one generation to break the cycle. Two fathers have written to me about their daughters. So far there are no sons, as either writer or subject.

Of course, there are also the dickheads. One man wrote that he’d seen me on television and wanted to buy my book for his daughter. He asked how he might go about getting a signed copy. He seemed nice. Within a couple of exchanged messages, though, he offered me his office address so that I could just “pop in” that week and dictated to me what he wanted me to inscribe in the book. A registered psychologist contacted me to say he was worried about the number of fake allegations of sex crimes being made against his clients. Another man made a comment on my Facebook page – hundreds of words long – about how he was wronged by his ex-wife in the Family Court. When I didn’t reply, he approached me in person at a writers’ festival.

It’s strange, though, some of the worst emails I’ve had to respond to – and the worst comments I’ve had to shrug off – have come from journalists and copyeditors. Over the past three months there has been a handful of times when I’ve been made to regret sharing my experiences. It seems hard for some people to understand that this book is my life, and that the way my name and face are used can be so hurtful. Just because I am self-scouring in my own book does not mean I am not vulnerable and terrified of being misunderstood.

Twice people have asked me why I wasn’t more forthcoming with specific details about what was done to me as a child. They ask me if I am just too ashamed to share it all. Both times this question made me cry.

Mercifully, I do not have many real “trolls”. I believe this is, in part, because the offending against me occurred when I was a child not a woman. So I am not subjected to the same “attention-seeking slut” attacks. Also, of all the social media platforms, I am least active on Twitter. I find myself spending most of my time on Instagram, which has provided me with a wonderful, warm, supportive community of people who actually read books.

It has been interesting to receive messages from others in the legal profession. Someone in the judiciary described their inability to ever seek justice for themselves, lest they lose the semblance of objectivity and distance required for their position. Young lawyers write of the frustrations with the boys’ club. “My partner had a barrister take her away for a chat about how she needs to wear more make-up and how she’d look 100 times sexier with it,” someone wrote to me. Several people who’d previously worked in prosecutions have flicked me messages saying some variation of “that’s why I left”. Law students feeling conflicted about entering the profession ask for my advice.

There is also a mountain of disappointment from people who have had to deal with the different parts of the legal system. One woman wrote of being utterly let down by the police. “Part of my ache for justice is actually against the policeman who handled my case. His demeanour made me feel like I deserved it,” she said. Another woman wrote to me saying that she had felt supported and respected by the police in Victoria, but once her file was handed over to Queensland Police Service to handle – as the alleged offending took place before she moved to Victoria – she lasted just a few weeks before withdrawing her complaint. We emailed back and forth a few times before she found a journalist at Guardian Australia to cover her story. The Queensland Police Service is now assessing the conduct of the officer who handled her case. Her last email to me was a flood of relief and satisfaction; a visceral account of a woman who finally feels she is being heard.

Reading over the hundreds of messages to write this article made me cry a lot. The question is often, “Why?” Why do people have to do such horrible things to each other? I ask, “Why, why, why” and pour myself a drink. I ask, “Where are these girls now?” and put my head in my hands. Sometimes in people’s messages they tell me they can’t stop crying either. Often all I can do is let them know it’s not their fault.

There are small victories. I like to put on the Ennio Morricone song “The Ecstasy of Gold” and stomp my feet at my standing desk. I remember I am fighting a big war against an insidious enemy. “Your book has given me some hope that I might not feel like this forever.” “Your courage is infectious and tonight I will tell my partner what happened to me.” That’s why I keep responding.

At one of my events I saw an elderly couple sitting in the back of the audience. They were holding hands, weeping. Someone wrote an email to me, just four sentences long, saying thank you because they had been keeping their secret for 50 years. Now they were going to tell their family and see a counsellor. If I had any small part in that truth coming to light – a truth that had been hidden for almost twice the number of years I’ve been alive – it all feels worthwhile.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 8, 2018 as "My inbox as a #MeToo author". Subscribe here.

Bri Lee
is a lawyer and the author of Eggshell Skull.