‘No One Should be Doomed to Just One Story’: An ‘S-Town’ Roundtable

Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t listened to S-Town. You can listen to the podcast on its website or on iTunes

Pam Mandel: I finished S-Town about a week ago but I keep going back to replay the last two episodes because I feel like there’s something important in there I missed.

Sari Botton: I just finished it this morning and immediately called my husband to ask, “Did I miss something at the end?” I still have lots of questions. While I like that they didn’t artificially wrap it up, I kind of wish they would have acknowledged they weren’t going to.

Mark Armstrong: I should first admit I’m not a regular podcast listener, but I loved S-Town in a way that made me truly excited about the possibilities of audio documentary. There was an intimacy to it that I can’t imagine working as either a written magazine feature or filmed documentary. It was that intimacy that somehow still made the show deeply satisfying, even though NONE of my questions were answered at the end.

Michelle Legro: In the last few minutes, I couldn’t shake how finishing these seven hours of radio felt like polishing off a very good novel. It had the same quality of putting down Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, or John Williams’s Stoner, in which details that had seemed so very important for so very long—the drama of daily life—fell away as the narrator pulled the camera higher and higher, dissolving everything with it. I also thought about how much we had all depended on the last episode of Serial to give us answers, and how we blamed it when it didn’t. I didn’t expect answers here, only fullness.

Pam: There’s something that happens when you put on headphones, when you hear a voice only, that creates a deeply personal connection. I’m by no means a radio expert, but I understand how audio became known as the “Theater of the Mind.” And unlike you, Mark, I listen to a fair number of podcasts. If I handed you my phone, you’d wonder when I had time to read.

Mike Dang: Podcasts have proliferated in the last few years as the medium has become increasingly popular among a general audience, so it’s tough to produce something that sounds unlike everything else that’s out there. I thought S-Town was very well done. I also liked that the story didn’t wrap up in some kind of tidy bow. Life doesn’t work that way, of course.

Aaron Gilbreath: I haven’t listened yet, but my wife devoured it in three days and told me everything. I welcomed the spoilers, because what she described was incredibly rich. Besides John B’s complex personality, what she found so compelling was the way the podcast didn’t give listeners the resolution we crave. What was true, what was false? How was this person really? The show explored the line between genius and illness, liar and visionary, and how that overlap effects people. My wife liked how it forced listeners to accept the uncomfortable contradictions that make up complex personalities

As a reader and writer, I appreciate that nuance, too. I don’t believe in simple characters: Villains can have good inside them, and flawed heroes can fail and irritate us as often as they save the day. No one is safe in the gray zone, but it’s better that way. See why I haven’t listened to the podcast yet? I feel like I already did. No, I actually need to listen to it.

Krista Stevens: I was immediately drawn into the story by the aural details: the strong Southern accents, the slang, how Tyler’s grandmother listens to Andrea Bocelli when things get bad, the buzz of the tattoo machine, Tyler’s uncle’s “affirmations,” John B.’s hiccuppy laugh, Bill’s voice breaking as he speaks of the intricacy and precision of the sundial John B. made for him, saying, “What’s more valuable to me, than this?” Kendall Burt’s giggle after his smug, toss-away remark when asked if the name of his building supply store, K3 Lumber, has a double meaning. (“I’m assuming you’re one of these left-wingers that we upset in the election?”) These tiny elements make for incredible storytelling. 

Sari: There’s an interesting Vox piece on a controversial aspect I kept thinking about: John B.’s privacy. What are people’s privacy rights after they die? How many of us consider, after someone dies, if we are free and clear to tell their stories?

Pam: I’ve spent the last few days dithering over whether or not I should see if there are photos availible of the people in S-Town. I don’t mind seeing Brian Reed’s photo online, but do I want to see John B? Do I want to see the cousins? Or do I want to hold off on filling in those details? I felt no such confusion about Serial, which posted most of these assets online. [S-Town doesn’t provide photographs on its site.]

In my day job, I work on a project that helps people get their wills done. It’s not unusual for some people not to bother. John B. was single, had no kids, and had a pretty apocalyptic world view. I don’t know that I’d say he was a nihilist, but I could imagine he was the kind of guy who’d say, “Why do I need a will? I’ll be dead, it won’t matter.” His complicated affections seemed very much in the now. There’s a bit where he says to Brian, “I’m going to miss you!” It’s very sweet, but he doesn’t say, “Maybe I’ll come to New York.” I’m not surprised he didn’t have a will.

Mark: I didn’t feel conflicted about our intrusion into John’s life because the series was set up in a way that made the listener feel like John himself invited us into it; he absolved me of feeling like I was prying unnecessarily. Would he have been okay with the story digging deeper? I’m not sure, and I think that’s why I’m also glad many of the loose ends weren’t tied up. We’re not directed to cast judgment or condemn those who survived him—we’re asked to listen to their version of what happened.

It’s interesting that S-Town dropped around the same time as Missing Richard Simmons. In one, I feel justified digging into several people’s private lives; in another, I feel we should leave a public figure alone. How we feel about a person’s privacy seems to correlate with how much control they have in the decision to open up.

Sari: I think I agree with you, Mark. I’m still sorting it all out, but I think you’re right about John having invited us into it. I think the net effect is that the listener is likely to be more empathetic at the end, which to me is the number one purpose of telling difficult stories.

I also listened to Missing Richard Simmons and I was conflicted about the show. I felt angry at Dan Taberski for pursuing the story. It was compelling, but I didn’t believe him when he said he was chasing it out of compassion. Or if he was, it was out of a misguided compassion. Richard Simmons is alive, and there were enough indications he wasn’t interested in participating. I’m not happy to learn there might be a TV show about it, unless Simmons had a change of heart.

Mike: I do feel like some of the hand-wringing over the invasion of privacy and ethics in S-Town is a spillover from criticism about Missing Richard Simmons—a podcast about someone who clearly wanted to be left alone. In the New York Times, Amanda Hess deftly argued why Taberski’s show was problematic, so I would suggest you read her if you don’t already know what I’m talking about. She also gave S-Town a glowing review, by the way.

But as Mark pointed out, S-Town begins with an entirely different premise. The podcast’s subject actively seeks out the attention of a reporter and invites him into his world. John B. reveals his sexuality of his own volition; he continues to have long, revealing conversations even after Reed completes his investigation into an alleged murder. John divulged an enormous amount of information about himself and the world he lived in, even though it had nothing to do with the case he had asked the Reed to look into. He had a story to tell and wanted someone to listen. It became clear to me in the very first episode that John was some kind of genius; he was much more fascinating than the goings-on of a small town.

I also want to give Reed and his team credit for what was clearly thoughtful and rigorous storytelling. Much of the reporting for this story took place in 2014, so I know the producers took their time and gave a lot of thought to how they would tell John B.’s story. Did you know the This American Life crew kills 50 percent of their stories? They don’t just produce any old thing.

Michelle: The time and resources dedicated to this show must have been incredible: three years! The ability of a show like this to get made is dependent on the structure of the media that’s able to make it. This American Life and Serial devote enormous resources to longterm projects. The producers aren’t required to “make it work,” so projects like S-Town can marinate like novels—sitting in a drawer, if you will. 

It’s funny that this show is about time, because it feels sometimes like shows made by the This American Life and Serial teams can afford to live outside of time, outside of the pressures of putting together daily media content. Then again, when these shows land, they really have to land—and they have, by finding enormous audiences. I thought about the “big project” model for media as I listened, and the extreme editorial support that’s required to achieve it. It’s the opposite of “disruption,” but instead an ode to slow and sustained concentration. This is the one of the most novelistic pieces of media I’ve ever experienced. (The producers actually based their structure on certain novels as they worked—including Stoner—which is mentioned in the Guardian interview.)

Mike: The overarching argument of the Vox essay is that the dead cannot give consent, so what right do we have to tell their stories? If we were to take that argument at face value, so many stories would not be told. How many of us know that after we die that there will be any evidence that we lived at all? That we ever left any kind of trace? We will eternally argue about journalists and their consenting subjects (Janet Malcolm) or selling people out (Joan Didion). How should I perceive, for example, a push alert from the New York Times telling me about how Prince, struggling with an opioid addiction, concealed narcotics in aspirin bottles before he died? Or the intimate details of Nicole Brown Simpson’s life that came to light after her murder, meticulously laid out in a highly-praised award-winning documentary series? I grapple with those things, but I did less so with S-Town.

Krista: I feel like McLemore invited Reed to Alabama under false pretenses. John B. was a genius. Here is a man who applied trigonometry to everyday problems. He made sundials, he was smart enough to unravel the mysteries of clocks that no one else could restore, he researched everything from child molestation to climate change in excruciating detail. He didn’t need Reed to check back issues of a newspaper for him—he could have done that himself.

McLemore did bring Reed to Woodstock, but what are the ethics around reporting in great detail about the life of someone who was essentially mentally ill? Someone who, before he committed suicide, begged for daily doses of “pain therapy” to cope with existence?

As a coda to the series, we learn that John’s great-grandfather was a notorious gangster in “Bloody” Bibb County in the 1890s who stole cattle and land, including the 124 acre patch that John B. lived on. His gang was known to murder people who “knew too much.” I’m glad I got to know the conflicted genius that was John B. As a listener, I can’t help but feel that this story, which started out as a murder investigation and ended up as a detailed portrait of someone who is mentally compromised as a result of the mercury used in his vocation, is like being put in John B’s maze set to the “null set” solution. To what end?

Sari: Here’s another article from Daniel Schroeder at Slate, touching on something the Vox piece brought up about “pain therapy”:

Reed’s attempt to share the story of a difficult queer life is noble, but he just doesn’t know where his own blind spots are. He tries to translate McLemore into a framework he understands—shaping the story into a total tragedy with country songs and gay movies to lead the way—rather than allow his complex love life, like so much else about him, to speak for itself. Nonfiction is always messy, but when you’re unfamiliar with the forces that have shaped the life of your subject, it only gets messier.

As a straight, non-BDSM-oriented person, I hadn’t noticed that the perspective on the “pain therapy” was problematic. But, yes, it is.

Mark: That is such a great piece, Sari. It’s funny how narrative journalism can be so well-crafted as to make you forget it is also highly subjective—all the way down to the choice of what country song is playing in the background. This is also one of the problems I see in giving narrative treatment to people’s private lives: No person should be doomed to one tidy summation as decided by one journalist. A “bigger” story of an extraordinary event will undoubtedly benefit from coverage by many writers and many news organizations, so we as readers can get different views and angles on the same subject. If S-Town did not become hugely popular, it might have been the final word on John B’s life.

Sari: Ha! I concur. I was just thinking earlier, “Is it possible for one person to tell another person’s story without some aspect of it being problematic?”

Mike: Or perhaps it means that it will always be a certain degree away from what is true? Maybe it’s like a telephone game in that only the original source can tell us what is true to them, and each person who attempts to recreate that truth is only telling an imperfect version of the truth.

I resist the declaration in Vox that John’s “church” ritual is “needle play” because the truth behind what the ritual really meant remains with John. I have similar feelings about how John’s queer experience fits or doesn’t fit within a certain framework—that also remains with John. I only have a few of John’s own words and some second-hand knowledge as relayed from confidants like Olin Long, whose segment in the podcast I found particularly touching.

Mark: Occasionally I’ll read a magazine piece about a person and it will just feel like the writer is trying to twist the “epic narrative with tragic consequences” dial to 11 on what should otherwise be a smaller story with smaller stakes. I didn’t necessarily feel that way here. I think I might have felt differently if the producers had released the S-Town episodes one at a time, as a weekly cliffhanger. I think they released it all at once to both follow the Netflix model but also possibly undercut the potential for rampant speculation by listeners.

Sari: That’s interesting, Mark, regarding the release of all six episodes at once. I remember the rampant objections and speculation that arose when the first season of Serial was doled out.

There’s another important article by Maaza Mengiste in Rolling Stone about how Reed and the other producers tiptoed around the way racism plays out in Woodstock—something only white producers could or would do, and which deepens the wounds for black listeners.

Pam: Help me remember this—Reed’s identity is for us, the listeners, but not for those in interviews, is that correct? I don’t recall him telling Kendall Burt, or anyone, about his own background, or that his wife is black. But we get to know this as listeners, right?

Sari: I believe that’s true. Maybe he says he mentions his Italian side?

Mike: There is a scene early on that takes place in a tattoo parlor where Reed encounters overt racism. (He describes one conversation as “racist, and nonsensical, replete with multiple uses of a terrible word”—that word being the N-word.) It’s here that we learn that Reed is married to a black woman named Solange, and that his wife has encouraged Reed to make his social media accounts private because they’re filled with pictures of them together. He follows her advice and also decides to talk about his Italian side when someone asks about his ethnicity and avoids mentioning his Russian Jewish side.

I personally didn’t think Reed was trying to sidestep issues of racism. This scene encapsulates these men’s deeply held racist beliefs. It shows that they are also openly defiant about it (“Y’all’s just as racist as we are,” one of them says defensively). He allowed us to listen to their ugly words in the matter-of-fact way they said them, and I carried this with me into the other episodes, never forgetting who these men were and what they stood for.

It’s true that Reed was able to move through their world in a way that a non-white reporter could not, but that wasn’t what this series was about. In one moment, Reed reminds us that in the middle of reporting this story, he also reported a story that did focus on race: the Milwaukee Police Department’s long history of tension with black residents, which he shared with John B., who reacted with disgust. I know that I would not have been able to report the story the same way. (Once, while working on a story in Gettysburg, a person I was interviewing referred to me as a “China doll”). But I appreciate that Reed gave me the opportunity to access a world I could never enter on my own.

Sari: That’s a good point, Mike. I think he had to hide parts of his life and background to get the access he did. The podcast likely wouldn’t have been doable without that. But I can also venture to guess that a black person listening to it and hearing about, say, the lashing tattoos on John’s back, a weird sort of appropriation, might feel less generous about the treading lightly around race. I was also pissed to learn from the Rolling Stone piece about Tyler Goodson’s confederate flag tattoo–that it wasn’t mentioned.

Pam: What happens to the town when something like S-Town comes out? Do listeners travel to Alabama seeking the loose ends of the story? Do they roll past John B’s property thinking they might like to do some digging, or get a pizza at Little Cesar’s? Courtney Love cut down a tree adjacent to the Seattle home where Kurt Cobain shot himself because people were always climbing up to get a look into the yard. John B wasn’t a rock star, he was a small town eccentric with a specialized skill, a mad hatter. But S-Town profiled him, and those around him, as though he was.

Mark: As for reactions from Bibb County residents and people featured in S-Town, the Tuscaloosa News follows up here on Tyler Goodson’s felony theft case. Matthew Teague attempted to speak to Tyler for the Guardian, but his lawyer wanted money. Teague also got booted out of the hardware store owned by Kendall Burt, he of the wealthy local Burt family and the suspiciously named K3 Lumber. (“At his hardware store the family patriarch, Kendall Burt, told me, ‘Was nothing fair about it,’ and hiked a thumb over his shoulder to say, ‘Get out.‘”)

Pam: Look at K3’s Google reviews! People who will never be anywhere near Bibb County feel compelled to comment on Kendall Burt’s world view.

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I didn’t feel any great satisfaction at the end of the S-Town; it still felt like I was missing something and I replayed the last two episodes multiple times. But while I was listening I was also working on a feature article of my own, rife with interesting characters. What if I had the time, the leisure, to apply an S-Town-level of attention to each person I spoke with? My world would be rich with the stories of people I might otherwise never encounter. But those stories don’t need to be made public to make them worthwhile. Even while I understand the flaws—and the editorial privilege in being able to making a show like this—S-Town feels like a lesson in how to listen.  

Further reading:


from Longreads https://longreads.com/2017/04/20/no-one-should-be-doomed-to-just-one-story-an-s-town-roundtable/

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