Last semester I was teaching law to creative industries grad students (“How not to get sued: the basics”). We, of course, covered defamation and looked at the cases that were running in Australia right now on that front, and it got me thinking about the thesis I started developing over the summer regarding judgement writing as a form of biographical writing (I’ll bore you with it over wine if you really want me to). I think this is a significant project, as it locates judgements as a form of performative utterance that have a material effect, insofar as they determine what did or did not (or can or cannot, or will or will not) happen to the bodies of parties to a case, but it also reveals the instability of that utterance by revealing its position as a hybrid genre (both utterance and biography). There’s a whole bunch of ethical and legal issues that I think arise from this destabilisation, but let’s leave overthrowing the system to the side for the moment. Toward the end of the semester I went to a talk by Bri Lee as she launched her book, Eggshell Skull. You can read about that here. Point is, I finally finished reading the book.
Lee is writing in the tradition of the law memoir, a genre that is often fascinating to people who are unfamiliar with or outside of that world. There is a particularly fantastical flavour associated with such memoirs from the British and Australian jurisdictions, if only because our Officers of the Court still wear regalia on the reg, and there’s nothing as curious to a muggle as a vintage horsehair wig as a “must-have”. Even as someone who is familiar with that world (and, let’s face it, as a reformed Catholic and practising academic, I am not averse to rocking that Snape-Style; there is nothing that says “My brain is my best feature” like a billowing robe) I am fascinated by the stories that come from beyond the trenches, stories that I decided against learning first hand (see: “Overthrowing the system”). Lee’s memoir reports back: she brings together the systemic and the personal to create a memoir that explores not only how the battle for justice is fought, but also, how it is fraught. She weaves together her experience as a complainant with her experiences as an Officer of the Court. Her story demonstrates the shifting resilience and vulnerabilities inherent in each of her roles. She draws on the legal doctrine of the eponymous eggshell skull, that a perpetrator takes their victim as they find them. This doctrine usually accounts for actions that harm a particularly vulnerable victim, but Lee turns this doctrine on its head: what happens when the victim of a crime is particularly empowered and resilient? What happens when they know the rules that shape the justice system, both the formal and the informal ones? What happens when the person who is supposed to be broken has healed all the stronger?
Lee provides a fascinating account of how the legal system often fails to hear, and therefore to recognise, the harms that women say are enacted against them (the differend). This arises for a variety of reasons, from old fashioned surreptitious misogyny, that women lie and can’t be trusted, to the more systemic issues that arise in our legal system including the fact that the victim of a crime against the person becomes a mere witness to the crime that is committed against them. Lee wraps together some of the early steps of feminist legal scholarship, and provides an entry point for people who are not fluent in the legal system. The book is simply and engagingly written, and although I get my nerd on about the feminist legal scholarship, the book is an engaging coming of age story, following a young woman as she comes into her power.