Book Review: Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame by Erin Williams (2019)

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

My feelings are all over the place on this one.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and drug use.)

shame is an instrument of oppression.

The first time Erin Williams was raped, she was sixteen years old. Her assailant was a guy named John, the older cousin of a friend who dragged her away from a beach party and into a neighboring yard. She was drunk, and it would be decades before she had another sexual encounter – consensual, forced, or in the so-called “gray area” between – while sober.

Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame is a graphic memoir that follows Erin during a typical weekday commute: wake up, get ready for work, walk the dog, take the train to work, put in a day, hustle home. During this time, we witness the dozens of microaggressions that are part of existing while female in a public space. She also reflects on her sexual history, which includes both regrettable drunken hookups with random dudes as well as a string of sexual assaults and rapes. We also follow Erin through her struggles with alcoholism and her decision to become a mother, thus reclaiming her body in a sense.

The result is mixed at best. Some parts worked for me, while others didn’t. Her thoughts on mansplaining, the acrobatics we as a society do to excuse away the boorish behavior of powerful men, the dehumanization and objectification of women, male power and privilege – these are all things I can get behind. However, she kind of lost me when she started talking about “gray areas,” and about her own (alcohol-induced) culpability in her own assaults (or regrettable hookups, or whatever she chooses to call them).

To wit: the chart on page 258 that seemingly ranks sexual assaults from the typical stranger in the alley boogeyman (“murder,” “coma,” “head injury,” “other injury,” “stranger”) to supposedly less clear instances of…I don’t even know what (“please just let me finish,” “it won’t happen again,” “I already said I was sorry”). As if that’s not bad enough, the headline reads, “We’re rarely all victim. For a long time, I thought rape was sex. Where, exactly, do you draw the line?”

I can tell you with 1000% certainty: at absolutely none of these points. None of these scenarios = “the line.” Everything Williams has described here constitutes rape, and in none of these cases do the people on the receiving end share any responsibility for what some human piece of trash chose to do to them. Period. Full stop.

Honestly, the whole thing is appallingly reminiscent of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment of 2013. I can’t even with this.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m getting incredible frustrated and worked up, all over again, just writing this review. Williams’s observations elsewhere are generally pretty insightful, which is why I’m having so much trouble wrapping my head around the victim blaming. Perhaps she’s still grappling with internalized shame and self-blame, or maybe I’m just misreading her commentary? Yet we live in a society that so openly and unabashedly hates women, including rape survivors, that it behooves her to get it right. Like crystal clear, you absolutely cannot misinterpret my point right. Sadly, this is not it.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)