Anatomy of a rape: Brittany Higgins takes the stand

Trigger warning: this article contains descriptions of an alleged sexual assault that people, especially victims of sexual assault, might find traumatic. Please exercise caution and care.

As the weekend approached, Brittany Higgins might have hoped her 3-day ordeal in the Witness Box was nearing an end. It was not to be. Despite Brittany having spent longer in the box than the man who brought the case, Bruce Lehrmann’s supercilious barrister Stephen Whybrow indicated he had many more questions to ask, that cross-examination would extend into the following week and he may need more than a day to complete it. Channel 10 barrister, Dr Matthew Collins KC, protested. “It is becoming oppressive”, he said. Justice Lee agreed: “There is some force in that”.

Whybrow was not for turning. Over the previous three days, we’d learned the backstory of Brittany Higgins and that infamous late-night night visit to Parliament House on March 23, 2019. Brittany was just 23 in October 2018 when she left her family on the Gold Coast to take up her “dream job” as Assistant Media Advisor to the Commonwealth Minister for Defence Industry Steve Ciobo. Ciobo’s office was a happy one, and Brittany was thrilled to be in Canberra if frustrated to find herself assisting more with office administration than media. Following Ciobo’s resignation in early March and her successful transfer into the office of his Ministerial successor Linda Reynolds, Brittany hoped to leave admin behind.

Her new job didn’t begin as planned when Brittany was allocated a desk in the reception area of the Ministerial suite. She found herself assigned trivial but time-consuming administrative tasks not the least by a bossy Bruce Lehrmann. After receiving an invitation to networking drinks on March 20 from an advisor to the Chief of Navy, Lauren Gain, Brittany was pleased at the opportunity to show her new colleagues she was not just an office junior but a well-connected professional, and invited them to join the group at The Dock.

The night began well. There was social chitchat with staffers from an impressive range of Defence agencies. Lehrmann joined them and treated her “almost as a peer”. I was pleased with how things were going, Brittany told Collins. There had been an earlier awkward moment at the end of a Reynolds team dinner when she’d had to rebuff Lehrmann’s attempt to kiss her, embarrassing them both. Had she given off the wrong vibe at dinner?, she’d wondered guiltily, assuming responsibility for the failed pass. Had she been too talkative?, Whatever. That was behind them. Lehrmann was buying her drinks and “being nice to her” and they had an enjoyable discussion with Gain and Dutton staffer Austin Wenke in which they’d forensically delved into the minutiae of Queensland electoral politics. Nerd heaven.

Food was scarce and drinks were flowing. As the night wore on, Brittany got messy. She began to slur. She thought she should go home but instead ended up at 80s club 88mph, although she couldn’t recall deciding to go, nor how she got there. The group had shrunk – only the quartet from the Queensland discussion remained. Gain and Wenke seemed into each other. Shots were consumed. Periodically Brittany danced. Memories of the night come only in flashes now. “All specificity at that point was gone”, she confessed in court. As they sat in a booth, Lehrmann moved in close, “really being into my space”. He got “handsy”, touching her leg, her thigh.

How did you respond?, asked Collins. “In the field of tolerance”, said Brittany. “I was dealing with it. I didn’t want it but I was tolerating it.” Gain testified in Lehrmann’s criminal case that he’d pashed Brittany in the booth, texting later to a friend she thought they’d hooked up. Brittany can’t recall it.

As the group went to leave, Brittany toppled over. Outside Wenke and Gain resolved to share a cab in one direction; Brittany and Lehrmann would share another ride home. They sat in an Uber in sodden silence until Lehrmann announced he had to stop by the office. “Had you any reason to go back to work?”, Collins asked Brittany. “No”, she said wryly, but, dramatically drunk – drunker than I’d ever been in my life, she told Collins, still blanching in embarrassment years later – Brittany thought nothing of the stop. “Why didn’t you drop him off and keep going?” Brittany sighed, perhaps considering a different life in which she’d done just that. “I don’t know”, she said. “I didn’t think.” 

“I was drunk.”

Neither had their staff passes – Brittany’s dropped off at home with her car, work bag and the cardigan that made her favourite pencil dress office-appropriate – so they had to sign themselves in at the Security entrance. “Leave it to me”, Bruce said. CCTV footage shows Brittany wrote nothing on the register. Under cross examination Lehrmann allowed he’d signed his own name, but denied he’d written Brittany’s. Judge and lawyers perused the register in bemusement, their adjacent names clearly in the same florid handwriting. Collins invited Lehmann to reconsider his answer. He would not.

Once admitted to the suite, Brittany sat on a window ledge looking down on the Prime Ministerial courtyard waiting for Lehrmann for what seemed like an age. “You were there a long time?”, asked Justice Lee. It felt like at least five minutes but it could have been less, Brittany said. She had no sense of time.

The next thing she knew was awakening with a sharp pain in her leg. She was lying exposed on the couch in the Minister’s office, her head lodged in the far corner of the couch, “jammed between its armrest and the back”. Lehrmann’s knee was pinning her thigh to the couch spreading her legs open. He was on top of her, grunting, sweaty. He was inside her. He was having sex with her.

It felt like he’d been going for a while, she said grimly, that I was late to the party. She drew a diagram of her rape on the office map for the court, a forlorn blue stick figure showing where she’d lain.

I was crying, saying no repeatedly, on loop, she said. She tried to scream but the scream was “trapped in her throat”. She felt water-logged, unable to move. Lehrmann “lurched over the top of her”, not looking at her, not acknowledging her. “I was an afterthought.”

It ended suddenly and he got off. He stood, stared at her and left.

In the aftermath, she lay in shock, unable to get off the couch. She wanted to get up, get out of the office, but couldn’t move. The next thing she recalls is the sun streaming through the blinds of the Minister’s office as she woke, savagely hungover.

The whereabouts of her dress became hotly contentious when Whybrow began his sneering cross-examination. Brittany remembered feeling naked, exposed, but not having to put her dress back on in the morning before she rushed to throw up in the ensuite. She assumed it had been bunched up around her waist during the assault. Later testimony from a security guard suggested otherwise. Concerned that, whilst a young man and a young woman had gone into Reynolds’ suite but only the young man had left, and “in a hurry”, a guard stopped by Reynolds’ office around 4:15am and saw Brittany on the couch, “completely naked”. Brittany only learned of the guard’s visit days later from a colleague Christopher Payne, her first horrified inkling that others were privy to information about her rape that she was not.

The guard’s account helped her piece together the sequence of events. To Whybrow, though, the steady accretion of information from independent sources was not a useful tool for a traumatised young woman to form a better picture of a harrowing night but rather evidence Brittany had “altered or evolved her narrative” multiple times to “account for new information”.

Are your recollections of the time period “potentially unreliable?” asked Whybrow. “In relation to whether the dress was on my body or on the ground, yes,” Brittany snapped. “In relation to being physically raped, no.”

Whybrow did not posit why Brittany would have been found in a state of déshabillé at all, if, as his client insisted, nothing sexual occurred in that suite. When she discovered Lehrmann was insisting no sex had taken place, Brittany was shocked and “kind of happy”. “I thought that we were going to have this very nuanced debate about consent and alcohol and all this kind of stuff”, she said, not that he would advance the “preposterous” notion that nothing had happened at all. She was relieved.

The question of where Brittany was in the suite when another security guard called out to her the next morning was similarly laboured by Whybrow. She’d originally believed she’d been woken by the guard as she lay on the couch. After reviewing her text messages, she realised she’d woken earlier and already texted her friend Ben Dillaway by the time the guard checked in. Whybrow thought this another gotcha moment. I was out by an hour, Mr Whybrow, Brittany retorted, pretty good under the circumstances.

The provenance of a box of chocolates came next, and then exactly how long she was locked in a bathroom enduring a panic attack, minor points that seemed moot to everyone except Whybrow, who claimed them as more evidence of Brittany’s “evolving narrative” and her lack of credibility. He hammered such points so insistently Justice Lee warned him he was straying into “Section 41 territory.”, i.e. his questions were becoming harassing, oppressive or repetitive and could be ruled improper.

The days after the assault passed in a daze. Brittany locked herself in her bedroom for the rest of the weekend. She returned to work on Monday in a “weird fugue state”, focussing solely on functioning, “completely detached from (her) emotions”. “I was disassociating, disconnected from myself”, she told Collins. She was horrified to receive an email from her rapist with a smiley emoji. “We’d never had a friendly social relationship”, she said. “And then suddenly after he raped me here was this familiarity and a smiley face… it just really freaked me out.”

She knew what happened to her, she felt it sitting there, within her, but initially could not confront it. She was relieved that Lerhmann was “acting so normal” at work on Monday: she didn’t have to start the process of dealing with the rape right away. A bruise appeared on her leg that she photographed, assuming it was an imprint of Lehrman’s knee, although she later conceded it might be from her drunken fall. Whybrow accused her of inventing the photo entirely, although whether via photoshop, or by photographing a convenient later injury, he didn’t say.

The gruelling process of confronting and disclosing the rape began first with Reynolds’ Acting Chief of Staff Fiona Brown on Tuesday March 26, when in a disciplinary meeting to discuss the late-night visit, Brittany said she’d been “completely inebriated” on the night and woken with Lehrmann on top of her. “Oh God”, Brown said with palpable concern, handing her tissues and giving her the rest of the day off.

The disclosures continued during her conversation with Christopher Payne on Wednesday March 27 when she learned of the 4am security visit. “Did he rape you?” asked Payne. “I was drunk, I could not have consented,” she said, becoming distraught. Panic attacks ensued. There was a second meeting with Brown on March 28 in which she’d had to re-sign the Ministerial Statement of Standards. Then her first meeting with Minister Reynolds on April 1, held thoughtfully in the room where the crime occurred. The Federal Election loomed: she received work ultimatums. She occasionally misremembered the chronology of events, of conversations, of meetings, of disclosure. Whybrow insisted the discrepancies were a sign Brittany was lying, rather a manifestation of trauma that made it likely she was telling the truth. She later began writing a timeline of her version of events, painstakingly trying to get everything straight and in one place. To Whybrow, that was evidence she was concocting things, not trying to keep track of them.

Earlier in the week, Lehrmann’s cross-examination ended as it began: with his memory acute enough to remember things that definitely didn’t happen but never enough to recall what did. Copious evidence adduced by Collins served neither to shake demonstrably false denials nor refresh convenient memory loss. Unlike Brittany’s occasional confusion with chronologies, Lehrmann lied consistently about matters that go to the heart of the contested events of the early hours of March 23. Why did he go back to Parliament House whilst inebriated at 1:00am? He had three different stories. How did he negotiate their way in? By lying. What were the Question Time issues so vital they required noting at 1:45am whilst drunk, despite the next Question Time being ten days away? He couldn’t recall – something about submarines. Who was it at The Dock that gave him this pressing information? He couldn’t give a name. What of his previous evidence that those gathered at The Dock were more admin than policy people? Did he say that, he shrugged.

Again and again, his memory failed him, or he remembered things differently from his testimony mere days before. 

 He fled Parliament House so precipitously after his March 26 meeting with Fiona Brown, because, Collins put to Lehrmann, he feared Brittany, her own meeting with Brown scheduled on the heels of his, would tell Brown that he’d raped her. He flouted Brown’s instructions to meet with her again that afternoon and dodged her calls and messages all day.

He couldn’t recall any of that, Lehrmann said in the witness box, the multiple texts he was shown no jog. He eventually texted Brown on April 4 to ask her to communicate with him only in writing. He was unable to attend a meeting on April 5, he said, because he was not in Canberra due to a “sensitive family issue”, his Queensland-based mother’s health, he alleged to Collins. So were you in Queensland on April 4?, asked Collins, a question that unleashed the Lehrmann uncertainty principle, in which he was unable to say precisely where he was at any given time. He didn’t recall being in Queensland, he conceded, but he did recall “not being in the bounds of Canberra”. Perhaps he was in Sydney?, he mused, or occupied a liminal space between cities? Who could say?

He got a show cause letter from Linda Reynolds on April 4, the day he assured the court he was “not in the bounds of Canberra”. His obsequious letter in response was riddled with more now-conceded lies and contained no explanation as to what he’d done in the 45 minutes he spent in the ministerial suite that night. He was fired the next day.

The case continues.

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