Print 2020 Review

Beyond the Law: How Memoir Empowers Survivors

Written by Neve Traynor
Graphic by Navita Wijeratne

This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.

CW: This piece discusses issues of sexual assault, child abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, suicide, sexism, and misogyny.

Sometimes, I slip into a luxurious epistemic bubble. I surround myself with progressive friends and an altruistic partner, and I forget the patriarchy for a while. Until a reminder breaks the bubble – maybe it’s the sound of teenage boys sniggering at me on the street for not wearing a bra, or maybe it’s the unwelcome hand on me at a party. I collapse into my shadow, into fear and self-doubt, and I remember. We live in a rape culture. Consent is misunderstood, sexual assault is rife, and social conditioning silences the voices of women.

Sometimes, though, the reminder appears as a memoir from a sexual assault survivor. Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull (2018) exposes how the legal system delegitimises victims’ experiences, encouraging the view that women who don’t align with a pious archetype deserve to be assaulted. Lee parallels this toxic climate with her own story of sexual abuse, as she navigates trauma and pursues justice. In contrast, the justice system is not an option for Melbourne sex-worker Rita Therese, due to the stigma of her job. Her memoir, Come (2020), attests to the value of personal writing in coping with sexual trauma. Memoirs about sexual assault are raw and confronting, but provide the wake-up call we often need.

Just as a jury represents a cross-section of society, our culture shapes the law. As such, survivors of sexual assault are let down by a legal system that discredits and taints their testimony. Memoir, however, offers a platform for survivors to publicly express the harms of sexual assault. This form of life-writing allows personal insight into the author’s ‘truth’: the emotional trauma that extends far deeper than the ‘facts’ from a legal proceeding. In addition, life-writing on this issue empowers others and instigates social change. Memoir is an intimate form of expression that directs public understanding to the survivor’s story, something that is suppressed by rape culture and the law.

At the core of memoir is the opportunity to tell your story, from your perspective. For survivors of sexual assault, this is a privilege often denied by the legal system. In Gilmore’s Tainted Witness, she describes how women’s testimonies are inherently “contaminate[d] by doubt, stigmatize[d] through association with gender and race, and dishonor[ed] through shame” (2017, p.2). This legal prejudice is informed by the cultural discourse around rape. Lee points out that jurors are influenced by societal myths that define rape as “violent, causing injury, with weapons” (2017, n.p.), creating an archetype of the sociopathic stranger rapist. In reality, most rapes are perpetrated without a weapon by someone known to the victim (ibid.).

These social beliefs taint the testimonies of sexual assault survivors, by discrediting their experience if they don’t fall into the category of a perfect victim: a white, attractive, chaste woman.

“Unless a victim’s story matches ‘the standard melodrama of a virtuous female protagonist and a one-dimensional male villain’, the legal system often doesn’t know what to do with her” (Reavey & Warner, 2003 cited in Hill, 2019, p.59).

Eggshell Skull exposes this bias in the multiple sexual assault cases Lee observes as a Judge’s Associate. The Phillips case demonstrates overt witness tainting via suggestive cross-examination questions such as “But the skirt you were wearing was a short skirt, correct?” (2018, p.91) and “Any contraceptives?” (ibid., p.95). The victim doesn’t match the description of a ‘good’ girl, and her case, like most others, falls through.

For Rita Therese, her job as a sex worker essentially precludes her from seeking legal help, due to the stigmatisation of sex workers. In Come, she reflects in the section ‘When a client rapes you’, that “the further you are away from the woman dragged down the alley by a stranger, the less credible you become” (2020, p.102). Let’s not imagine the patronising cross-examination she would be subject to; or the jury of middle-aged men, furrowing their brows, wondering, ‘She gets paid for sex, what’s she complaining about?’

Memoir reverts this dominating power dynamic to give autonomy and respect to survivors. Rachel Macreadie describes memoir’s role as “allowing the survivor to ‘set the story straight’” (2014, p.3). Some sexual assault memoirs do retell the event in detail, such as Come or Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, and in the process, debunk myths about what constitutes as rape and consent.

Memoir creates an intimacy with readers that supports the reception of the survivor’s story. This offers what Gilmore termed ‘adequate witness’: “one who will receive testimony without deforming it by doubt” (2017, p.5). Lee creates this on two levels: one in which she offers adequate witness to the victims she observes, always empathising and believing their testimonies: “Oh, you know me… I think they’re all guilty” (2018, p.164). On a meta level, we offer adequate witness to her, as she gradually reveals her experience of sexual assault. Thus, as willing readers, we help the survivor by allowing her to be heard.

The personal nature of memoir highlights the psychological trauma of sexual assault. Lee confronts the harms of sexual assault with a forthright account of her self-harm and bulimia. She doesn’t cotton wool her routine of ‘cleansing’, confiding with readers, “I only ever cut at night-time right before bed, the same with purging” (2018, p.67). Her trauma itself manifests as a “big stone of dread” (ibid., p.196) that she cannot rid herself from: “I couldn’t vomit it out, god knows I tried” (ibid.). Her emotional struggles are encapsulated in the italicised inner thoughts of her narrated self, such as “I am fat… I am not good enough” (ibid., p.71) or “I AM ANGRY. I AM ANGRY” (ibid., p.100). These inclusions serve to normalise intense emotional responses, which are quashed and discredited by the legal system.

Ongoing trauma is irrelevant in legal proceedings, until the unlikely stage of sentencing, when a victim impact statement is supposed to sum it all up. These statements can offer a chance for the victim’s experience to be heard, such as Chanel Miller’s famous statement, which began, “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today” (Baker, 2016, n.p.). Yet, most victims are not fortunate enough to make it to this stage.

The law takes a rational, factual approach which devalues the emotional response to sexual assault. The most pertinent example of this is the misunderstanding of the ‘freeze’ response, an alternative to the fight or flight. As Lee’s cases show, for women who didn’t raise the alarm the moment their assault occurred, their intentions are questioned and their claim delegitimised. However, Lee supports the proven reality of ‘The Freeze’, capitalising the phrase to affirm its authority. Doctors have identified The Freeze as a coping response to fear (Hunton, 2018, n.p.). For some, this manifests as an intense involuntary paralysis known as ‘tonic immobility’, which correlates strongly with PTSD (ibid.).

Therese testifies to the debilitating nature of trauma with frank reflections, such as “Some traumas are buried so deep inside of us that we can’t even move when we think about them” (2020, p.46). These emotional sentiments, despite being scientifically backed, are actively discredited in the law. Lee illustrates this with objective legal knowledge, citing rules such as that of ‘distressed condition’. When rape victims are visibly upset in court, judges “warn juries that you ought to attach little weight to distressed condition because it can be easily pretended” (2018, p.88). This rule suggests that the victim’s distress is a strategic ploy, contributing to a culture of doubting the victim.

A victim’s distress also taints her reliability as a witness, as memory is often impaired in traumatic incidents. This is demonstrated in Jessica’s case in Eggshell Skull, where inconsistent memory of her alcohol intake deemed her unreliable (ibid., p.91). Similarly, Chanel Miller, who was unconscious during her attack, reflects how her “memory loss would be used against me … His attorney constantly reminded the jury, the only one we can believe is Brock, because she doesn’t remember” (Baker, 2016, n.p.). Brown cites Joanna Conners’ memoir, I Will Find You, which states that the “addition of trauma makes memory the ultimate unreliable narrator of our own past” (2018, p.11). Memory loss of traumatic incidents is a natural coping mechanism, yet it is used to punish victims in court. Whilst emotional trauma is unvalued and delegitimised in the legal system, memoir allows us to feel the victim’s pain with them.  

Most sexual assault cases don’t receive media attention, which hushes up the reality that a large amount of cases are contentiously unsuccessful. The low conviction rate is discouraging for victims, with only ten percent of reported sexual related offences likely to result in a guilty outcome. Lee notes that the painstaking process of criminal proceedings and the power imbalances facing women render them “too afraid and disillusioned to report crimes done to them” (2017, n.p.). We’re left with a black hole of underreporting, with the reality that one in five adult women in Australia have experienced sexual violence (“4906.0”, 2017, n.p.). Lee comments that “the system would not merely clog if each of them came forward – it would collapse” (2017, n.p.).

When the law isn’t an option, victims may pursue other avenues to be heard. Memoir in this case can encourage a public understanding of the harms of sexual assault. Writing is a “vehicle for activism” (Trombetta, 2017, n.p.) that can instigate social change and push for government action. Chanel Miller’s powerful victim impact statement, which later expanded to her memoir, was read in full out loud to Congress, inspiring new legislation that imposed the same punishment for the rape of an unconscious person as that of a conscious person, where before it was less (Calefati, 2016, n.p.). This exemplifies how we need to hear the voices of survivors, in order to enact appropriate legal reform. 

Memoir on sexual assault is an act of defiance: not only against the legal system, but against rape culture and the patriarchy. As a woman, to write your story is to speak in a culture that silences you. Life-writing itself is a form of activism against the stifling restraints of the patriarchy – but it’s important to note that some women’s voices are privileged, allowing them to pursue the production of a memoir. Both Lee and Therese are white and educated: thus, their experiences of being heard have been inherently easier. In saying this, the rise in memoirs dealing with sexual assault may encourage others in less privileged positions to share their stories. 

The life-writing process can help and heal a survivor. Therese reflects on her newfound understanding of her trauma: “in the act of writing about my life I would uncover so many secrets” (2020, p.150). Equally, speaking out empowers other survivors. For most women, reading these memoirs can be difficult, even painful. I have frequently needed to put these books down to quell the anxiety surging up inside me. Whether you’re a survivor or not, as women, we are all survivors of oppression, manifesting in its many faces.

Memoir can do what the legal system can’t: it voices a survivor’s truth, untainted by doubt and toxic myths, to an audience who listens. Memoirs like Eggshell Skull and Come unmask the traumatising effect of sexual assault, upending the stigma of an experience shared by one in five women. These voices empower other survivors to speak out amidst a suffocating rape culture. These voices make up the pin that pricks the bubble.


“4906.0 – Personal Safety, Australia, 2016.” Australia Bureau of Statistics. November 8, 2017.

Baker, Katie J. M. “Here’s The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read To Her Attacker.” Buzzfeed News. June 3, 2016.

Brown, Megan. “Testimonies, Investigations, and Meditations: Telling Tales of Violence in Memoir.” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies 4.2. 2018.

Calefato, Jessica. “Brock Turner case: Bill to mandate prison for sexually assaulting unconscious victims clears Assembly”. The Mercury News. August 29, 2016.

Gilmore, Leigh. Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

“Guilty outcomes in reported sexual assault and related offence incidents.” Australian Institute of Criminology. December 18, 2007.

Hill, Jess. See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse. Melbourne: Black Inc, 2019.

Hunton, Kayce. “Tonic immobility is an automatic reaction to trauma, fear and stress.” Sun Journal. April 15, 2018.

Lee, Bri. Eggshell Skull. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2018.

———. “Young lady, that’s inappropriate.” Griffith Review 56. April 2017.

Macreadie, Rachel S. J. “Politicizing the Personal: Reading Gender-Based Violence in Rape Survivor Discourse.” Master’s thesis, The University of Melbourne, 2014.

Therese, Rita. Come. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2020.

Trombetta, Sadie. “Why Sexual Assault Memoirs Are So Important To Read”. Bustle. January 27, 2017.

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