Train of Fools

‘Commute’, a Graphic Memoir About Female Shame

Erin Williams’ recently-released graphic memoir Commute brings to mind philosopher Alain de Botton’s observation about the impossibility of leaving ourselves behind when we travel.

We drag our baggage with us whether we’re bound for a far-flung escape, or, like Williams, something more rote.

The author-illustrator’s daily commute into the city affords her plenty of time to speculate about the other passengers, many of them regulars. Some weather-related pleasantries with another woman on the platform represents the upper limit of Williams’ willingness to engage. A man who boards one stop after her invariably chooses to sit next to her. Another stares from across the aisle. Unbeknownst to them, she permits herself some “small, personal invasions”, snapping a photo of one’s shoes, drawing another’s backpack, telling the story that she wants to tell, and imagining the ones they’re telling about her.

Both the shoes and the backpack make it into the book, along with a fool’s gallery of men with whom she’s fooled around, from the three Jims (a painter, a guitarist in a noise band, her friend’s ex) to “pretentious” Russian lit student Karl, to Sam, a handsome “catch” who drinks as much as she does, but is so bad at sex, she dumps him after a single encounter:  I told him I was sorry, but I was molested by a friend when I was five and had to deal with my issues, in order to break it off. It’s true that I was, but that wasn’t the reason I couldn’t fuck him again. I just couldn’t face it.

Williams is sober now, but her alcoholism, and the myriad, murky sexual encounters it led to, have shaped the lens with which she views men and herself.

Only her baby daughter, born after she goes into recovery, and the mostly female friends she thanks in the acknowledgments come off well here. The friends insisted Williams share her story with the world, she says.

But what, exactly, is that story?

It’s not a redemption tale in which the addict finds happiness, fulfillment and love. Though in real life, it may be. The final entry in the acknowledgments sparked an Internet search, whose results suggest she’s happily married to the father of her daughter.

Commute, an illustrated memoir of female shame as per its subtitle, is not so much linear as a circular revisiting of ripples, cut through by Metro North tracks.

The cover shows a train car packed with male passengers, gawking out the windows at Williams, barefoot in a T-shirt and underpants.

Imagine the reverse angle of this arresting image and the subtitle could justifiably expand to include female rage.

There’s a lot of that rage here. Some of it may be turned inward, but Williams gives her own facial expressions a confrontational set, despite the ultimately disempowering 16-step skincare and makeup regimen she details on page 15.

She’s similarly frank about the one-night stands littering her past.

For most of the book, Williams inhabits her gendered shame like someone trapped in a hall of mirrors, reflecting back strength as fragility, clarity as distortion, and vice versa:

It’s important that I keep you here, on this commute. I want you to understand what it’s like to be constantly reminded of what you are: desirable + visible or undesirable + invisible. With the first comes a constant + vague sense of threat. With the second comes loneliness. This is what it means to be a woman in public.

The illustration on the page facing this confession depicts Williams propped naked next to Fred, “a guy I took home once and made out with in bed until my hair matted up into a rat’s nest.” She palms her face as a puddle of period blood spreads across her lap and the bespectacled Fred–who resembles yet another anonymous male passenger on her commute–suggests, “We should have sex.” We’re still friends on social media the caption states.

She draws herself on a number of toilets.

There are several images of her fingering herself to determine whether or not she had intercourse the night before.

The nakedness of these drawings anchors this work, restoring balance whenever the text veers toward snap judgment.

I missed those uncensored images at the end, when Williams switches to stark white-on-black text, the graphic equivalent of the final moments of Hannah Gadsby’s incendiary stand up special Nanette. No doubt many readers, particularly those who identify (or who the world identifies), as female will experience that section as the howling, ne-plus-ultra truth.

For me, the push-me-pull-you’s, the pictures with the words, contain a purer and more interesting truth.

This book bears rereading.

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Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

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