I can’t write about S-town without giving away spoilers. So if you want to experience the whole series spoiler-free, this is not the post for you.
Last weekend I started listening to Brian Reed’s new podcast S-town from the producers of Serial and This American Life. It has consumed my life a little bit over the past few days. If you’re not familiar, it’s set in rural Alabama and begins as an investigation by New Yorker Brian Reed regarding some claims made by Woodstock, AL resident John B. Mclemore about a covered up murder. But the focus quickly shifts to the life of 49-year-old John B. himself, and he is quite a character.
John B. is many things: a master of profanity, volatile genius, highly sought-after clockmaker, paranoid conspiracy theorist, caretaker of an aging mother, town discontent, creator of a 60K maze of hedges in his backyard, and as local legend has it, unbanked millionaire with buried treasure. He’s also heartbreakingly lonely.
Over the course of a year he spends hours and hours on the phone with Brian Reed convincing him there’s a story to be found in Woodstock, Alabama which John B. refers to as “Shittown.” As we, the listeners, get to know John, it’s clear that in addition to being incredibly brilliant, he’s struggling with severe mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
John B. is crass and offensive, but he’s so compelling and even endearing in his vulnerability. When we hear the recording of Brian Reed, creator of the show and now friend of John, receiving the call about John’s death by suicide, we share in the grief. But this is where the show gets ethically very murky. Reed continues to investigate. He investigates the circumstances of John’s death, his extended family, his friends, and then delves deeply into personal matters of John’s life. Because John cannot give consent for everything to be shared from beyond the grave, this is a serious breach of privacy. As this article claims, S-town is incredible, but it should never have been made.
While Reed presents each episode with affection and high regard for John, broadcasting aspects of John’s life (such as his homosexual relationships) that he clearly would have wanted to keep private is unconscionable. It should not have happened. But here it is and the result feels like a southern gothic classic.
John B. Mclemore could be a character from a Flannery O’Connor novel. The symbols of clocks, tattoos, mazes, and gold are woven through the story. The final lines are epically beautiful and heartbreaking. If S-town were a novel, it would be a masterpiece. But the problem is that it’s not a novel, and John B. isn’t a character. He’s a real person.
Hearing from John’s friends and seeing the aftermath of his death reminded me of what Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life! sees in Bedford Falls (now Pottersville) in the supernatural view granted to him of a world in which he’d never been born. Without him there, John B.’s property with his $60K maze made from hedges is sold by relatives to new owners who have no plans to maintain it. The pack of dogs he rescued over the years has no new caretaker. The young man he was mentoring (in a complicated relationship) is facing jail time.
S-town is the absolute opposite of It’s A Wonderful Life!. It is neither heartwarming nor redemptive. It is not charming. Instead of ending in reconciliation and new life, S-town ends in heartache, pain, and death. And yet, I am struck by the same message.
Hearing friends talk about John and what he meant to them is incredibly moving. It’s almost as if we’re no longer hearing about John B. Mclemore. We’re hearing about every human being struggling with loneliness and a desperate desire to be loved. Every person who sees his/her life as meaningless. And we see the impact, the weight of every human life.
John rarely left his town of Woodstock and yet the shock of his death reaches all over the world. The layers and complications of what makes up a human being are vast. No matter how much information we have about John B. Mclemore, nothing can ever plumb the depths of his soul. Every human life is irreplaceable, unique, and worthwhile.
St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Hearing John B’s story reveals the pain of a life of loneliness, of isolation. While he struggled with debilitating mental illness (likely caused or exacerbated by mercury poisoning), the great tragedy lies in his experience of feeling alone in the world–desperate for connection he believed he could never have. But we belong to John B. and he belongs to us. Not because we deserve to have our curiosity about any aspect of his life sated by a podcast that shouldn’t have been made, but because he’s a human being, made in the image of God. May God have mercy on his soul and may perpetual light shine upon him.