Bri Lee’s honest story has held me captive through an awful bout of influenza in the last 4 days. Nightly, I’ve taken to waking up drenched in fevered sweats and been incapable of falling back to sleep. This flu season is not mucking around. But it’s been an honour to drag my disgusting virus-riddled self to the couch, turn on the muted living-room lamp, and read her words til the sound of birdsong let me know the sun was coming up. Her journey from law graduate, to judge’s associate, to complainant in her own criminal matter, was told with sincerity, honesty, and grace. Maybe it’s just the fever talking but… I feel as though I know her and love her.
The parallels between Lee and myself are numerous. We live and work in the same city, we started out as fresh-faced and naive graduates in the same profession, and our experiences have lit within us the same flame of justifiable feminist anger. The main point of difference is that she is, undoubtedly, stronger than I am. Frankly, I am in awe of her.
The criminal justice system is a strange and vexing beast. Delays are frequent, bias is obvious, and the strength required of victim complainants is herculean. Lee tells her story in a uniquely informed manner – first spending 12 months as the Associate for a District Court Judge who frequently sits on trials of sexual offences – rape, incest, indecent dealing, sexual assault etc. Through this job, Lee begins to poke and probe at her own past and childhood trauma. Though she sees time and time again that the testimony of women in the court room is dismissed, she somehow finds the strength to bring a historical complaint of a similar nature from her childhood.
One passage in particular spoke to me, made following Lee’s decision to pursue criminal charges:
“I felt myself lightened, or somehow unchained. Samuel (the accused) hadn’t created any irrepressible bond between us. It was only my own fears unilaterally keeping that imagined connection alive. He had deposited an experience into my lifetime, and that experience was now a memory I couldn’t forget, but it wasn’t an unknowable, mysterious, evil thing. There was a space inside me for it to live alongside all my other memories and thoughts and feelings. I would never beat the demon, I could not exorcise it, I would simply learn to live above it.”
Lee raises a number of issues throughout her memoir – about the inadequate mental health support given to employees of the Department of Justice who experience vicarious trauma; the technical legal difficulty in proving a case of sexual assault ‘beyond reasonable doubt’; the bias permitted in the jury selection process… I could go on. I’m relieved to read that Lee has continued to advocate for criminal justice reforms and will bring her experiences and expertise to lend gravity to the voices of other victims. She is a true criminal justice warrior.
The statistics of offending against women in this country are appalling. And the statistics of accused offenders being held to account are even worse. It is stories like Lee’s that give women everywhere hope. Hope that they will be believed. That they will withstand. That they can advocate for better.
The title of the memoir relates to the legal doctrine that a defendant must ‘take their victim as they find them’. If a single punch kills someone because of their thin skull, that victim’s weakness cannot mitigate the seriousness of the crime. The true meaning behind this title reveals itself in the final pages of the novel. It was a conclusion worth the wait.
5 jabots out of 5.