Erin Williams, Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame (Abrams, 2019). $24.99, h.c.
I will be honest—it took me three weeks to read Commute for the first time. Then I re-read it to write this review and it gutted me. Again. Erin Williams’ graphic memoir spans several important and uncomfortable subjects—female shame, sexual assault, alcoholism. Her art is so deeply evocative that it reminded me of my own run-ins with men who were less than willing to respect boundaries or understand consent. The cover of the book—an image of the protagonist standing in her underwear in front of a train that has men ogling her—is a microcosm of the state of mind her narrative solicits. Shame, vulnerability, violation. While it might not be the most objective way of framing a review, literature to me has always been about shared spaces of empathy and understanding. In a way, Williams’ work reads like an autoethnography—it records, it reflects, it analyzes, it starts with the self but extends well beyond it.
The personal is never truly separate from the cultural, the sociopolitical, but in Commute the outside is always visible. It is visible when the protagonist walks through the streets of Manhattan, where several building are covered with images of half-naked bodies of women, commodified to sell beer and furniture alike. It is visible in the way she writes about alcoholism as a coping method, as a means to dissociate from the body because the female body “belongs to whoever has the strength who overcome its resistance.” It is visible in the way I read her account of trauma and vividly remember the time a college senior and a trusted former friend molested me at a party, and told everybody the next morning that he had to take me his home because I was drunk and could not go to mine. It is visible in her encounters with men who take her state of being drunk as consent, in encounters where they would not stop when asked, and it is visible in her shame, in her retrospective realization that she was raped. She writes, “women are groomed to be compliant”. I stop at the sentence. I feel rage at the lack of autonomy we hold over our own bodies. For a second I wonder if we are so compliant after all, when so many of us are so vocal, ardent and uncompromising in our feminist politics. However, I also remember that like Williams, it took me several years, and moving across the world to a different country, to call out my abuser, and I realize that I know exactly what she means.
Commute also makes me think about the comic form. I always think of formal elements when I am reading comics, but Williams’ linework—wobbly, sparse, alternating between exaggerated and realistic—makes me think about absence and presence, and the comic medium’s ability to give visual manifestation to both. The art is predominantly black, white, and grey, with smatterings of color. Citrusy yellow, a dash of muted red for snapdragons, cornflower blue, each take on a different meaning—joy, distinction, emphasis, sorrow. Her iconographical drawing is what makes Commute a comic despite the noticeable lack of panels. I found it curious that even without panels, time and space were broken into distinct and braided fragments as they needed to be. The gutter space—the gap in between two panels in comics—is reimagined as expansive white blank spaces that house her sparse but piercing artwork. She uses the image textual space to curate a selection of letters, google chats, a few Polaroids, and notes taken on her phone on her daily commute to work—paraphernalia that she eventually turned into this book.
Williams draws herself over and over. Not fleshed out at first, and with no attention to detail below the head. Often with deliberately unrealistic proportions. But then, she draws Arthur—an older man she met at her grandfather’s funeral—who invites her to his hotel room when he visits New York. The vivid detail (especially in contrast to its bare surroundings) with which she draws this man— papery skin, protruding belly and its folds, facial wrinkles, body hair—is telling of the intensity of her trauma, and how the encounter is likely seared into her memory. The technique of telling a story through absence and presence repeats itself in the cornflower blue walls that belonged to Dan who took her to his bedroom from a beach party when she was fifteen and dumped her ‘unceremoniously’ at the end of her driveway the next morning. All the visual reenactment of her encounters with various men is testimony to how going to someone’s place too late is taken as consent, how (often panic-stricken) silence is taken as consent, how lack of resistance is taken as consent, how being drunk is taken as consent, how giving in to psychological coercion is taken as consent. Her narrative is an affirmation of how women’s silence is used against them, one way or another, and how female shame is turned into “an instrument of oppression.”
I wish I was capable of ending this review in a way that would reflect the pervasive and unrelenting nature of the subject at hand. Instead I shall end with a series of panels from Williams—three terrifying, one hopeful.
Kay Sohini is an illustrator and a PhD Candidate in English at Stony Brook University. She draws comics and writes about them.