Cartoonist: Erin Williams
Publisher: Abrams ComicArts
Content Warning: Commute deals explicitly with alcoholism, sexual harassment and sexual assault; this review also dips into these topics.
In her graphic memoir, aptly titled Commute, cartoonist Erin Williams digs deep into her past through the narrative of a single day’s commute to and from work. Drawn and lettered in a sketchy, black and white style with occasional splashes of bright, jarring color, Commute is a visceral account of Williams’ struggle with alcoholism, as well as her shame, her desires, and her often brutal encounters with men.
This graphic memoir is vulnerable. Williams lays all of her feelings out on the page, no matter how messy or problematic, which not only forces the reader to crawl into her life and fully understand what she faces on a daily basis, but also provides painful, at times uncomfortable commentary on how women are treated in public. Vacillating between being stared at and being invisible — the latter, she notes, especially in the wake of pregnancy and childbirth — Williams struggles to reconcile her desire for men’s attention with multiple experiences of sexual harassment and assault, including rape.
Each time Williams describes a man in this book, whether he is a former partner or someone she sees on the train, she pays particular attention to how he engages with her: Does he stare? Does he whisper creepily from his sketchy van as he pulls up alongside her while she walks her dog before she leaves for work? Does he sit beside her on the train? Across from her? Near the entrance? Does he listen when she says “no”? Williams says this obsession with other people’s actions and how they are directly related to her is associated with her alcoholism, but it also reads as the kind of hyper-vigilance that many women — including myself — employ when traveling or commuting alone.
According to RAINN, an American is assaulted every 92 seconds; although only 19.5 percent of these assaults are committed by strangers, the fear that makes us thread our keys between our fingers or cross the street when we see strange men coming is very, very real. At one point in Commute, Williams notes that when she is on the train at night, after it has gotten dark, she always makes note of how many men are on the train with her; she tries to pinpoint who seems dangerous and who seems safe, all the while knowing that these split-second judgments are not always accurate.
By threading her past experiences with sexual assault and her alcoholism into the narrative of her daily routine, Williams presents a commentary on how all of these experiences shape her, including how she moves through the world. Furthermore, she ruminates on how “shame is an instrument of oppression” aimed at addicts and victims alike. Some of what Williams has internalized — such as the undesirability of fatness, her role in a relationship failing, or not being able to remember sexual encounters — seems to come not just from social norms but also from words hurled directly at her by men who have also hurt her in other ways.
Although Commute is a personal memoir, Williams’ story also has much wider-reaching implications. She notes that alcohol and random sex are both means of disappearing, but post-childbirth, she adopts a 16-step makeup routine as a form of self-care: “The end result is supposed to be that I look like I’m not wearing makeup but I am pretty.”
In every part of the book, Williams encounters at least one man who feels somehow entitled to her time and attention, or her body, or both. This may seem jarring to some readers, yet wildly familiar to others — in either case, it’s uncomfortable, which is exactly the point. Williams is as unapologetic in this book as she is vulnerable, which makes for a unique, timely, and powerful read.
Commute by Erin Williams hits shelves Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 from Abrams ComicArts.