One of the first things we learn about author Erin Williams in her new graphic memoir, Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame (Abrams Comics, 2019), is that, right after acknowledging her alarm (showing the times 5:00 and 5:06), she looks at Instagram. The panel depicting this automated gesture is pitch black, save for the cone-shaped beam of light that emanates from her phone, which hauntingly illuminates her. “I try not to browse too much,” she explains in the hovering text. “Other people’s perfectly curated existences make me feel bad.” Unlike the majority of people who make similar statements, only to present equally curated façades of their lives, her own account of her story is far from aspirational. In fact, over the course of her memoir, which uses her daily commute to and from work as a narrative frame, she acknowledges the lives of people she encounters in her day, but she maintains a steady gaze on herself.
Commute is by no means a narcissistic or self-involved work. Instead, it’s a meditation on Williams’s sense of self as a sober person after a long struggle with alcohol abuse and as a rape survivor. It’s also a very visual memoir, as she renders her discomfort through physical details: her matted hair after a heavy make-out session; the skin, hanging like plastic bags, of an older lover; the way she touches herself to recall whether or not, during a stupor, she slept with someone the night before — pain and soreness indicate she had. “The body remembers things that the mind would rather forget,” she tells us. “My mind would like to forget what it feels like to be treated only as a body, an assembly of holes, but the body and its colonies explode with needs. To deny these two parts,” she concludes, “is to deny humanity.”
Williams explains that her past alcoholism brought her peace through physical and emotional obliteration; blacking out was “a twilight birth.” Her former sex life served a similar purpose: climaxing, she feels, is like a loss of self. Intimacy with strangers thus allowed her to achieve the self-obliteration she was craving. “My first sexual experience was so bad that I was drunk for all sex after that … how else could I be?” she reflects at one point.
As a narrative device, she uses the faces of the anonymous and utterly unremarkable people she encounters during her commute to reminisce about her past. “Person X looks like Person Y I met in Context Z a number of years ago” is her formula to transport us into her past, to narrate a series of sleazy hookups with more or less forgettable pseudo-intellectual types (the balding “magazine guy”; the flabby, aging community college professor; the wannabe comedian quoting The Vagina Monologues; the pretentious graduate student).
The panels are illustrated in a variety of styles. Some are full-page illustrations of men, crowds, or Williams herself, who has an endearing, gamine-like appearance; others are tightly packed, illustrated listicles that approximate a grid. One of the latter encompasses her beauty routine, which consists of 16 steps and serves as a form of self care. She also lists the things she can no longer drink and those she sees while walking from the train station to her workplace.
Her sketch-like graphics are freehand drawings done with an Apple pencil in the app Procreate, which lends a sense of spontaneity to her page. Because her prose is quite lyrical — sometimes gnomic, sometimes philosophical — more polished drawings would render a book too mannerist to be genuinely enjoyable: “Being drunk is how you dissociate your mind from your body in order to perform,” she writes in the upper part of a medium-gray panel, in which she appears naked, floating in mid-air above a bed, her pale body almost luminous. “You just float up out of your brain and body and disappear in little waves.”
Williams’s work inserts itself into a budding tradition of graphic memoirs written by women who confront the ugliest parts of their lives with introspection, compassion, and a clever combination of graphics and narrative devices. The most widely known precedent, as a genre, is the mental-illness graphic memoir, excellently exemplified by Ellen Forney’s Marbles (2012) and Rachel Lindsay’s Rx (2018); in both, the protagonists deal with the aftermath of bipolar diagnoses, especially in balancing mental illness with creative careers.
While all of these works are autobiographical, Commute is more universal in its tone and scope, as it weaves together addiction and risky sexual behavior to reflect on what it means to be a woman in today’s society, almost irrespective of the personal toils of the writer. In tone, it shares some similarities with Kirsten Radtke’s 2017 graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This, whose narration is propelled by the sudden death of her uncle, the two people being symbolically bound by the fact that they both suffer from (different) heart conditions. It’s a memoir rooted in the author’s fascination with ruins. Williams’s memoir, too, looks at a thing of the past that is no more — she is sober and has a young daughter and a day job on top of her creative career. But while Radtke’s book is grounded in a real fascination with architectural decay, a glorification of disrepair, Williams’s Commute more of an elegy to her past self and her addiction, which she acknowledges with neither condemnation nor glorification.
None of these graphic memoirs have what we might call a happy ending. Their authors/protagonists overcome a major hurdle in their lives, but that hardly means their issues are neatly archived. In Commute, Williams’s narration concludes when her commute is over and she settles in for the night with her dog and her daughter. Using a day in her life to frame the story ties it together more neatly than a standard memoir, but it also opens to the possibility that a new day can jumpstart another trip down memory lane.