eggshell skull

Happy International Women’s Day! I’m sneaking a bonus book review in here to celebrate.

Unlike the reader’s passive (and fictional) position in Maybe the Horse Will Talk, Eggshell Skull puts us in the seat of the sexual assault survivor, and it’s an eye-opening ride that I frankly could not wait to get off.

I first read Eggshell Skull a couple of years ago now, when my Instagram feed was filled with everything Bri Lee. She’s somewhat of a hero for Brisbane – known in the indie literary circuit for her work in Hot Chicks with Big Brains and now, for her discussion of her debut novel, the autobiographical Eggshell Skull. Not only is Lee a sexual assault survivor, but she successfully took her case through the courts, something her experience as a judge’s associate told her would be close to futile.

What I find most compelling, is Lee’s retelling of the trials she sat in, the close-mindedness of those in the system, the expression of those abused, charged, and convicted, the necessary stoniness of the judges, and Lee’s own, quiet disillusion with the pretence of the whole thing. Lee’s personal assault is entwined with the other cases, until her memories and trauma become louder and overtake the storyline. She describes her physiological responses as she digs through her memory to pursue justice, and it’s both raw and upsetting to read.

Probably the most visceral for me, is the passage where Lee describes her reaction when she discovers her abuser wants to take the case to trial. Here’s some of it:

“All my senses were telling me I was underwater—my muscles weren’t responding, I was wading instead of walking, my hearing was muffled and my vision was blurry, my eyes wouldn’t open properly and the sun burned them, and I couldn’t catch my breath….I gripped each tree and each parked car I passed for support, lurching between them, stumbling over roots and driveways with my fingers splayed, reaching forward but as though I was drugged.” (p. 274-5)

Years later, the assault has left other scars. Lee’s constant battle with esteem, security and her body take centre stage in the later chapters, and her new book Beauty continues to deal with these themes.

While the title ‘beauty’ speaks for itself, ‘eggshell skull’ definitely needed explanation. Lee explains that “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 person is ‘weak’” (p. 117-8). Lee suggests that the opposite is also true, that the assailant has to deal with the consequences if their target is strong.

To me, the title reinforces Lee’s privilege (which she acknowledges), or, because that word has negative connotations, her resources; she’s white, educated and articulate, well-loved by her partner, brother and parents, doesn’t want for money or attention. She’s the kind of person people listen to, and importantly, she also knows how the legal system works. Really, it ought to have been called Diamond Skull.

I feel I need to say that I know that being well-resourced doesn’t preclude you from trauma, but Eggshell Skull did cause me to consider those less privileged, the type of cases Lee saw first-hand. I thought about the ‘imperfect’ complainant, of the sexual assault that goes unreported, the cases that never make it to the courts, and even, the sexual assault that goes unremembered, as Lee’s might have stayed had she not had such vivid daily reminders. Ultimately, this book caused a lot of thinking, and a residue of both disgust and sadness at humanity.

There is some light in all the shade, some dry wit. Like this disclaimer Lee would have liked to tell the jury before they heard from the complainant: “Bear in mind this warning: There is a strong statistical probability that you will presume this woman is a liar. Be aware of the subconscious bias, and do not let it affect the duty you have to weigh evidence evenly.” (p. 88). Not funny, but the kind of thing that made me give a sarcastic grunt in acknowledgement.

Because this is non-fiction, I don’t get to comment on whether it’s believable or not. Because it’s an autobiography, we can’t add more friction between the characters to amplify the conflict or alter the ending to add shock value. I have to say that I didn’t enjoy reading Eggshell Skull (similar to how I hated watching Blood Diamond), but I have recommended it to friends because it’s important to validate, and to break the stigma which keeps these stories quiet.

I won’t rate Eggshell Skull out of five, but you should definitely give it a read, and what better day than International Women’s Day!

(I bought this book here)

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