‘S-Town’ and the Ethics of Storytelling

‘S-Town’ is a fascinating work of art capturing one hidden genius’s view of the world from his small town in Alabama. But it raises ethical questions.

If you haven’t heard of the recent podcast S-Town (short for “Shit Town,” a colorful descriptor used frequently by the even more colorful star of the podcast), then get ready to spend a day or two immersed in its world. It was downloaded 16 million times in the first week of its release, and it’s been streamed countless more. It is mystery after treasure hunt after mystery — the podcast equivalent of a page-turner.

“Years ago, an antique clock restorer contacted me and asked me to help him solve a murder.” S-Town Podcast via Facebook

An eccentric man named John B. McLemore contacted This American Life host Brian Reed in 2014 with an interesting premise. The world-renowned antiquarian clock repairman (who was building an epic hedge maze on his property, taking care of his aging mother, and obsessing over climate change) lived in a small town called Woodstock, Alabama, which he insisted was so corrupt that a murder had been committed and covered up due to local politics.

The mystery unravels quickly under investigation, but by the time it does, the listeners are hooked on the real enigma of this story: McLemore himself. We learn the many facets of his unusual existence, along with those of Shit Town, the local tattoo parlor, the white supremacists McLemore associates with while eschewing racism and small-mindedness, his surrogate son Tyler Goodson, and his unending quest to do some small act of good, despite living in a town he feels symbolizes all that’s wrong with the world.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

“For the second time, I find myself embarking on an investigation at the behest of an Alabamian horologist.” S-Town Podcast via Facebook

In an early episode, we learn McLemore has met with tragedy. The podcast then veers into the treasure hunt that ensued on his expansive property and even deeper secrets of McLemore’s life, including the following: He seems to have acquired mercury poisoning, an affliction also known as “Mad Hatter’s Disease,” from his outmoded approach to working with antique clocks. He was a semicloseted, yet self-identified, queer man who had never maintained a deep romantic relationship in his life. And he paid his surrogate son, Tyler Goodson, to engage in a ritual he called “church” in which Goodson would tattoo his nipples with empty needles.

Many articles have been written about S-Town, including some that say it never should have been made. The arguments mainly hinge upon the ethics of telling another’s story, the pain that S-Town has likely caused and whether McLemore would have consented to the final product at all. While I don’t believe works of art can easily be dismissed as “problematic” and left at that, I think it’s worth investigating several of these notions.

McLemore invited Brian Reed to his Alabama town to investigate a murder. / S-Town Podcast via Facebook

First off, there is no doubt the podcast’s host, Brian Reed, proceeded with extreme respect, even when he didn’t agree with things being said and done. For example, it would have been quite easy for Reed to let us all into the scene at the tattoo parlor, where people are espousing racist beliefs he clearly wants nothing to do with, and then leave outsiders’ view of a predominantly white and mostly impoverished Southern town unchallenged. In an age when we see bits and pieces of people in digital interactions enough to condemn them on the spot, this would have been the extent of the portrayal for anyone less concerned with painting a larger and more detailed picture. And if these moments had affected Reed even more personally than they already did, ending there would’ve been completely understandable. However, Reed keeps digging. He finds and presents much more nuance to McLemore’s character than other storytellers might even imagine. He reserves his own judgement for the larger project of the story, even when he obviously doesn’t agree with what’s happening. He shows a great deal of care for McLemore, evidenced by his reaction to the phone call that informs him of McLemore’s death.

“The clocks John worked on are strange and beautiful — works of art and feats of engineering.” S-Town Podcast via Facebook

But even when intentions are to respect and honor people, there is the question of whether or not that is what has actually been accomplished. Reed’s exploration of the treasure hunt that ensued between Mclemore’s biological family and his son-figure Goodson after Mclemore’s death has resulted in further legal trouble for Goodson. In a recent article for the Tuscaloosa News, the assistant district attorney for the county that Woodstock is part of said, “I can’t go into detail because there are things that we’re looking at, but there were things that were said in the podcast that we’re going to look back at a bit.” Whether or not Goodson consented to make these things a part of the podcast is irrelevant when asking the question of whether a work of art, and telling another’s story, has an obligation to do more good than harm.

“The measure of time had something to do with me.” S-Town Podcast via Facebook

But even the issue of McLemore’s obvious and enthusiastic consent is not quite as clear-cut as it seems. John McLemore was unwell. He suffered paranoia, mood swings and depression. Whether these were results of mercury poisoning is unconfirmed, but the symptoms of mental illness were certainly present. Does this affect the consent he gave for his story to be told? Brian Reed was acting in good faith, genuine interest and friendship — but was he taking a decision made by a severely mentally ill man and running with it, as well?

Another complicated matter is that of the representation of McLemore as a semicloseted gay man. Brian Reed stumbles over the word “queer,” with which McLemore self-identifies often. This is the first indication that Reed doesn’t fully understand the broad topic of queerness, as this once-pejorative has long since been reclaimed by many LGBTQ+ identified people. Brian Reed digs into McLemore’s past after his death to find his old romantic interests, which Reed acknowledges would be against his consent (McLemore made him turn off a tape recorder when he spoke of one of these men). Reed also seems to fundamentally misunderstand nuances of gay male culture such as “gay daddy” figures and BDSM, giving McLemore’s relationship with Goodson an air of salaciousness that I’m quite sure many listeners who are not LGBTQ+ identified also attribute to it. It is not uncommon for older gay men to act as surrogate “father figures” for younger gay men, sometimes in relationship terms and sometimes platonically — a practice in part informed by the fact that many gay people have long been rejected by actual family. While there is much overlap in the queer community with BDSM practices such as needle play that mirror McLemore’s “church” practices, Reed instead likens them to the self-harm practice of cutting. It did not seem odd to me, as a queer-identified person, that McLemore engaged in substitutes for the things he was denied by his semicloseted status and isolation as a queer person.

Was it fair of Reed to out McLemore to the world? And does someone who does not understand an identity have a greater obligation to understand it before creating a representation of it and making points about it?

I will say about this last point that McLemore and his main romantic interest were, to varying degrees, influenced by the film Brokeback Mountain, which is based on the short story by Annie Proulx that involves two cowboys who fall in love and keep their secret from the rest of the world.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ based on the story by Annie Proulx / Focus Features

Reed went out of his way to refrain from making McLemore a symbol or a metaphor, but the greatest metaphor in this podcast, to me, is that two men who could not live their lives open felt seen and represented by a story written by a straight woman who fundamentally spoke to an existence they could not even bring themselves to look at head-on. In the same way that Proulx’s story spoke to these men without being able to speak for these men, Reed’s exploration of McLemore’s life is perhaps not pitch-perfect, but the only way McLemore’s unique voice would have ever been heard and his life seen.

Whether or not McLemore’s story should have been told by Brian Reed is for the listener to decide for themselves. The podcast is an amazing feat of art, in that McLemore was a man who was so complex and brilliant, who most people likely wouldn’t have given much consideration — and here he was deeply considered, given the attention and connection he so deeply desired in life. To see McLemore’s picture is, to me, to look at a man that I would not have looked at again, to have seen as a whole and vibrant and complex being. While questions of ethics remain murky, what we can all take away from S-Town is that sometimes the people who seem least likely are worth that second look.

In a world that takes glimpses of people and discards them, this seems like a profound act of compassion — and art. end

You can hear all seven chapters of S-Town right now.

 

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