With its deceptively simple line drawings, Erin Williams’ Commute illustrates the numerous ways she (and many women) negotiate the presence of sexual threat on a daily basis. Some of these encounters might seem mundane—such as the man who continuously stares at her while sitting too close on the train—but their impact is real. In an otherwise empty train car, such a man is a threat; and while women instinctively know this, men need to learn that this can be a daily experience. Among other things Commute does well, it’s a good education for men about the lived experience of women.
Commute is a graphic (in both senses of the word) memoir. Williams focuses the book on one regular day in her life, the life of a working mom: her 5 a.m. alarm, the commute into Manhattan, the work day, her commute home and time with her baby. The illustrations can be lively and humorous at one moment and shattering the next. They show, in a way words can’t, how creepy it can feel to be stared at. Or how the memories of a teenage sexual assault might play back each and every day, as routine as a morning cup of tea, but far more disturbing.
Through the use of flashbacks, Williams reviews her sexual history, both the assaults and the more ambiguous encounters. Some of the most arresting moments in this memoir concern Williams’ past use of alcohol to pursue bodily disassociation. Her subtle and devastating illustrations reveal the link between sexual assault and alcoholism in visceral detail, and the graphic-memoir format makes these issues accessible to a broad range of readers.
Williams asks hard questions about shame, compliance and desire, both in her own life and in the larger culture. Her story, she says, is the “mundane tragedy of every woman you know.” By sharing it, she adds an eloquent voice to the chorus of stories testifying to the daily experiences of women under patriarchy. Commute is a book that really should be read by everyone.