My Journey through Female Shame in Erin Williams’ ‘Commute’

Content Warning: Mentions of sexual abuse.

I have been procrastinating writing this post for a long time – primarily because I read the book about five months ago and because it was recommended to me by two members of staff from my favourite local bookstore Vibes and Scribes. I want to do both the book and the staff at Vibes and Scribes justice! I’ve been shopping at Vibes and Scribes regularly for over ten years now. I can confidently say that it is my favourite bookstore. The staff are always so welcoming and so knowledgeable. It has been an absolute pleasure to shop there over the past ten years. Now, I’m not usually a reader of graphic novels – in fact, aside from Alison Bechdel’s work, the graphic novels I have reviewed on my blog are the only ones I have ever read! I can say with certainty, however, that I am quickly becoming a fan.

            Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame by Erin Williams is an incredible graphic novel which brings the reader on a sometimes humourous, sometimes harrowing journey through the author’s experience of living within the male gaze. Too much of this memoir was familiar to me. Too much of it reminded me of my own shame. By detailing her commute to and from work, Williams is reminded of and, as a result, illustrates her trauma.

            There are a lot of important issues discussed in this memoir – all relating to Williams’ own experience. I won’t be able to include everything in this post, unfortunately, but some of the main themes I recognised in this graphic novel are the commodification and exploitation of, and the sense of male-entitlement to the female body, along with analyses of alcoholism, womanhood, and motherhood. For the purpose of this blog post though, I will be focusing on the representation of female bodies and female shame in this graphic novel.

            I would like to point out that there are many reviews on Goodreads that argue that this novel is problematic as its representation of women is not intersectional. As an advocate for intersectionality and, hopefully, a future scholar in literary intersectionalism, I argue that the reason this novel isn’t intersectional is because it is a deeply, intensely personal memoir detailing the experiences of a woman who, appears to all intents and purposes, as white and straight. There is, indeed, a narrow social vision in this memoir, but it is autobiographical, and I am left wondering whether or not we can fault the author in light of this? I would like to hear your opinions in the comments.

Furthermore, some readers believe the writer is spouting fatphobic rhetoric and is riddled with internalised misogyny. However, upon my reading of this memoir, I read the discussion of the fear of fatness as a discussion and exposure of internalised misogyny, rather than an attempt to uphold it because of ignorance or privilege. For example, Williams writes “I was never skinny enough,” and follows this statement with a drawing of herself – a relatively thin woman with very little fat. However, she also writes; “ladies, this is a trap, there will always be too much of you – fat, noise, age, every way you take up space is undesirable” (165). I read this not as a plea to take up less space, but as a challenge to let yourself take up the space necessary for you, your body, your voice. Reader, if you know me, you know the last thing I would advocate for is something exclusionary. This book tells a very specific kind of story, but it is still, I believe, a story that is important.

            One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the meditation on visibility and the dichotomy in womanhood between wanting to be seen and wanting to disappear. The narrator is constantly aware of being viewed by men. She wants the reader 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” (47). For me, there is a sense of this being true. I have gone through various states of visibility and invisibility in my life as woman. During my times of visibility, the attention would teeter constantly from flattery to fear. Flattery at innocuous comments from well-meaning people – fear, from the men who would follow me down streets, or who thought it appropriate to grab parts of me because my body, in their minds, wasn’t mine, but theirs. Invisibility, when one has experienced visibility, can indeed be lonely. But there is a comfort in it, too. The loneliness comes when you think too hard about it.

            I don’t want to write any spoilers into this blog post because I want you all to pick up this graphic novel and read it. But there is this one part… if you’ve read it, you’ll know. After you read it, you’ll know. This one part… you turn the page, and you are met with one black page, and one white. And on one page, the worst thing is written. And on the next, is the outline of the narrator’s face… her eyes, two dots, her smile, a semi-circle. Painted on. This was the simplest, most powerful, most colourless drawing in the whole book. I got to this page and it winded me. I recognised that face. Something in me recognised that face. And that shame. It felt so collective. The varying degrees of this universal experience of being within a cis-male world and being trapped in the gaze of certain people who mean you only harm.

            An important point that Williams notes is that “the yes or no of consent is not what separates mutual desire from predation” (279). This point is extrapolated on towards the end of the book, when she recalls various sexual encounters which took a sinister turn;

            I forgot to tell you about Marcus, who told me one morning that he let a dog lick Dorito dust off his hand before fingering me. Or Rob, who kept fucking me even after I told him how much it hurt. Do you see it now? These are not isolated incidents.

Erin Williams, (278)

            One particularly powerful moment in the memoir is a discussion of the passengers on the same train as the narrator. She imagines everyone around her is remembering – remembering the lunch they left at home, or the report that was due yesterday. And, turning the page, the reader leaves behind an illustration of Williams gazing out the window and is met with a diverse crowd of women staring into the eyes if the reader and captioned with a single line; “and we women, we remember you” (222).

            In her own words, “our trauma becomes our shame” and that shame “is an instrument of oppression” (285-286), and “we tell our stories to bear witness to one another’s suffering… and to antagonise a status quo that invalidates our lived experience” (290-292). This particularly resonated with me as a James Baldwin often referred to himself as not merely a writer, but a witness. A witness to the tragedies of humanity, which often come wrapped in disparity and oppression.

            To end on a somewhat lighter note, this book is also a beautiful homage to women and to sisterhood. Shame can tear out everything you have inside of you. But Williams doesn’t forget to mention the things that helped refill the empty spaces inside of her, like love, organic chemistry, Maggie Nelson poetry, and, most significantly “trust in other women” (260). As a person who finds her own solace in other women – who feels uplifted and healed by the women in her life – this resonated with me more than words can say. And, I think, this doesn’t just apply to women. Whatever your experience, whatever your background, turn to people whose experiences intersect with yours in some way. Let them share their story, and, perhaps, share yours. Let yourself become vulnerable in safe spaces. Try to find a way to heal.

            I have read the novel twice and I have so much to say. Perhaps so much that an academic article would be a better medium for this than a casual blog. It has been longer than I would’ve liked in between my reading this novel and taking notes on it and writing this post. Long enough that the crease on the back of my folded notes has become a spine and I feel as though I’ve created a little life with my thoughts. And while I only tackled a fraction of what Williams herself tackles in her memoir, I hope this blog post tells you enough about this magnificent work to incite you to pick it up and read it. Thanks again, Emily and Mike, for the recommendation. This is a book I will come back to again and again as I navigate my own struggles with shame and work towards healing.

As has become a tradition in this blog, here are three songs that resonate with the themes of this book:

‘Judy Blume’ by Amanda Palmer
‘Candles’ by Daughter
‘Unpretty’ by TLC

Bibliography:

Williams, Erin. Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame. Abram’s Comicarts, 2019.

Featured Image: Free image from Pexels offered through WordPress.com.

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