Bri Lee, Allen & Unwin, 2018, ISBN 9 781760 295776, 358pp
I had seen Bri Lee on The Drum a few weeks back and I was impressed with her erudition. But there was some backstory that she hinted at on the program. She had been abused as a child and had written a book about it. That book is Eggshell Skull. The eggshell skull rule is, so I learn from the book a well-established legal doctrine in common law. The rule states that the unexpected frailty of an injured person is not a valid defence to the seriousness of any injury caused to them. The implication of this is that everyone is the same at law. It seems a pretty good idea.
Lee’s point, or at least what I see as her point, is that women and men are not treated equally before the law. It is coincidental that as I write the reverberations of a scene from the Senate last week are echoing in the halls of those that matter … and, indeed, those that don’t. There is a senator whose name is Leyonhjelm who has behaved, and continues to behave, in a manner that I find utterly amazing. He alleges that another senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, remarked that “all men are rapists.” There is no evidence that she said this but this Levonhjelm remarked that she should, therefore, “stop shagging men.” When she called him out on this he told her to fuck off. He is refusing to apologise possibly because politically he might have nothing to lose and possibly even something to gain. It’s more likely that he won’t apologise because he is a moron of the first order. Had he been employed in the private sector he would have been well-disciplined, possibly even losing his job. My sympathies are entirely with Hanson-Young who is taking it head-on and accusing him of “slut-shaming.”
It is the concept of “slut-shaming” that is one of the threads in Bri Lee’s book. There are double standards at work in society. Let me be the first to admit that these standards have not always been obvious to me. I am a man and I have no doubt that I have benefitted from these double standards. Lee makes the point, as have many before her, that in cases of sexual assault it seems to be perfectly OK to ask a woman what she was wearing, how she was walking, whether she was smiling … these are questions for which there is no real equivalent in relation to a male. The recent rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon caused the police to suggest, inter alia, that women consider what routes they take when out alone. This was met with the criticism, entirely justified in my view, that no woman should have to change her behaviour to prevent or reduce the risk of sexual assault. It is men who need to change, Not, of course, all men but those men who seem to think that it is OK (as my father might say) to take advantage of a woman.
I found Lee’s book confronting for two reasons. I think one reason is valid and the other is not; it says more about me than perhaps I would like to admit. Lee was abused when she was about 12 by a friend of her brother who was, at the time of the offence, about 18. I have never been abused unless you count living through the institutional violence and bullying that was part of an English public (that means private) school. As a result, I cannot know what the consequences of such an experience are. Lee describes these with confronting candour. There is a part of me that wanted to tell her to just get on with it, stiff upper lip and all that. That part of me is a product of my upbringing; bad shit happens, and you just have to get over it and get on with it. But the part of me that is wrestling with embedded societal injustice understands why Lee felt the way she did (and perhaps still does). She describes the impact of losing one’s self esteem, of doubting one’s capacities and capabilities with alarming frankness, almost brutally. Quite what it cost her to put into words the things that she felt as a consequence of her abuse I cannot even begin to fathom.
The second confronting theme is about the way the Australian judicial system works (or perhaps doesn’t work). Perhaps other justice systems are no different. She writes about her year as a legal assistant to a judge who she refers to, delightfully, as Judge. Her job was to accompany Judge around the country and to make sure that he can do his work effectively and efficiently. She describes several cases of abuse that come before the court. Now, you can accuse her of bias; her sympathies are clearly with the complainants in these cases and not with the defendant. But it is important to separate the facts of a case from the process by which justice is, or possibly is not, done. She describes the process of her own case and one is left feeling that there has to be a better way. When it comes to a female (possibly a juvenile) complainant and a male defendant the odds appear to be stacked against the complainant.
School of Rock is a wonderful feel-good movie that should be required viewing for anyone wishing to be classed as a human. In the movie Jack Black, as the main character, tells a class of children that they might as well give up because, while things used to be good, The Man ruined it all. Bri Lee is a tiny voice crying out against The Man. The gender of this mythical being is important. It is always The Man. The Man is not only in our judicial system. It is in a religious organisation that places its own “rules” above those of the state and whose senior officials can be found guilty of conniving in crimes against minors but are not fired. It is in a religious organisation that wants to put its own rules (that it tries to glorify by the term canon law) above the law of the Commonwealth. Put aside the prejudices and entitlements you have learned and think about all this. The world we live in is not fair, but it bloody well should be. Lee’s book is well-written and, because it is a confronting and challenging read, and you should read it.