Your Fave is Problematic: Sorry, But S-Town is Trauma Porn

Warning: EXTENSIVE spoilers. Also, if you’ve recently used any variation of the phrase “people these days always find something to be offended about,” you’re not going to like this very much.

I just finished S-Town, acclaimed podcast from Serial and This American Life. S-Town, or “Shit Town,” has been called “a monument to empathy” by The Atlantic, and lauded with descriptors like “brilliant,” “stunning,” and “captivating,” even being credited with “upending the art of podcasting.”

Interesting. Because from where I’m listening, it sounds to me like just another example of liberal white men being unable to stay in their lane. S-Town isn’t something to aspire to — it’s a reflection of how far our society is willing to go for mainstream entertainment. In S-Town, we see one man so desperate to create “the new Serial” that he was willing to not only exploit the life and secrets of a dead man, but also employ all the tools of casual racism, ableism, classism, and homophobia that were available, just to add some shock value. If that’s the future of podcasting, or a “monument to empathy,” then I’m out.

The story, released in seven episodes all at once, follows the life of a man named John B. McLemore from Woodstock, Alabama — and no, I’m not going to call it Shit Town. The narrator, Brian Reed, takes us down from New York to Alabama to follow John’s tip about a possible murder and police coverup — clearly, this is the actual story that NPR thought would become the new Serial. But alas, the murder never happened, and we are treated to a couple episodes of fruitless interviews and Reed’s obvious annoyance with John. That is, until Reed is handed the biggest plot twist of all: John’s own suicide. The fact that the suicide of the main character of the podcast is not only genuinely described as a “plot twist,” but serves as the entire basis for the podcast’s creation, should give you an idea of exactly how uncomfortable this whole thing gets.

The initial murder-that-never-happened in combination with John’s death seems to be what gives S-Town the leeway to call itself a “true crime” podcast, although there is no crime that took place — at least, not anything more violent than a drunken fight or alleged property theft. This is very little more than a marketing tool to draw people in to the story — a story that disguises itself as true crime in order to fit current trends, but is really more of an unauthorized biography of one man’s life.

Following John’s death, S-Town tries to keep up the true crime premise by digging into the emotions and conflicts of those that John left behind. There are hints of murder, hints of buried treasure, hints of a will hidden in the walls of the house. There are a series of salacious hints that lead to nothing, and as they eventually taper off we are left to confront the truth of what we’ve just done as listeners: gorge ourselves on the trauma of one mentally and physically sick man, a man who died by suicide after years without any kind of medical treatment for what was very likely undiagnosed manic depression and/or mercury poisoning. Moreover, to get to that eventual ending, to that promise of buried treasure and intrigue in a maze hidden deep in the woods of Alabama, we have been willing to bulldoze through a myriad of troubling roadblocks along the way: casual use of racial and homophobic slurs, rampant ableism, and the blatant exploitation of a dead man’s sexuality, secrets, and illness in the name of driving a story.

In a style that NPR stories have become famous for, Reed relies heavily on taped interviews with people in John’s life in order to develop the arc of the story. In one episode, this includes the playback of an interview that features repeated uses of the n-word — not censored, not muted, but in its full form, rolling comfortably from the mouth of a white man named “Bubba” during an interview in an Alabama tattoo shop. This is one of those examples of unnecessary, casual racism in white storytelling that seems to exist only to give other white people a perversely satisfying shock. There was no reason for it, and Reed had no right to include it. We live in America — trust me, if you preface something with “I’ve muted out the racial slurs,” we can fill in the blanks. Choosing to include this section with little more than a vague warning, and with no clear explanation for why the hell the narrator thought it was necessary, shows a complete lack of consideration for the potential impact on the audience — reaffirming what we already know, which is that there is no cost too high for other races to pay in the name of entertaining white people, and saying clearly to any listeners of color: “This wasn’t made for you.”

Reed even doubles down on this theme near the end of the story, when he describes lash marks that John had tattooed on his back by comparing them to a photograph of a whipped slave. John’s buddy, Tyler, describes how John went into the woods, picked out a branch, and got his friends to deal the blows and then tattoo over the welts — because he “wanted to know what folks went through back in that time” and “wanted to experience the pain.” I guess we’re supposed to take away from this that John was fatally empathetic, or at the least mentally unstable, but all I see is just another example of white people’s obsession with imagining themselves as victims within the historical trauma of slavery.

Thankfully, the producers spare us from too much more normalization of racism — minus the numerous, almost sheepish references to the area’s love for the KKK — choosing instead to focus on sensationalizing John’s illness, dragging us through seven episodes of hints about undiagnosed manic-depression and casual victim blaming. In the final episode, it’s finally revealed that almost all of John’s symptoms, particularly the personality change that saw John turn from loving the town of Woodstock to dubbing it “Shit Town,” could be explained by a lifetime of mercury exposure — literal decades of being slowly poisoned by the mercury he used while repairing clocks. So yeah, John was sick, and he died because he never got any treatment. Why are we doing this again?

Listeners are also treated to unnecessary inhumanity on the part of residents of S-Town, particularly from the man who owns K3 Lumber (and has no problem with the implications of the name) who describes John’s suicide as “selfish.” Throughout the episodes, listeners are also subjected to repeated uses of the phrase “committed suicide,” wording that can be explained away by its mainstream nature, but still shows very little understanding of mental health sensitivity from a narrator and production team who clearly don’t know why the phrase “committed” is so harmful when it comes to talking about suicide.

Finally, there is the harsh truth that in order to enjoy this story, you have to be okay with (or at least consciously unaware of) the fact that the narrator seems to have no issue treating the life of a dead man like the ticket to his big break, desperately exhausting every angle possible in order to create a story worthy of being called “the new Serial.” Reed divulges personal information that was specifically relayed off-record by John — under the justification that John won’t care, because he’s dead, and an atheist, so he’s “worm food” — and unyieldingly speculates on John’s sexuality — speculations that aren’t made any less intrusive by their confirmation from one of John’s alleged former potential love interests. Why does John’s sexuality matter, especially if it’s not even under the guise of a broader discussion about the realities of homophobia in the south, or the internalized pain of a self-proclaimed “semi-homosexual?” And further — must we assume that the conventional jealousy that occurs when someone you love begins to spend more time with another person actually means that you are, in fact, romantically in love with that person in your life? Do we really need to listen to Brian Reed’s musings about the relative worth of a life lived without romantic love — disguised and normalized by the half-baked essays of a man who was almost certainly dying of mercury poisoning, and hearsay from a former friend of the deceased? The whole thing feels icky, intrusive, and painfully heteronormative — and that’s without even touching the fact that Reed felt justified in playing a tape of John moaning while having his nipples tattooed, accompanied by a detailed description of John’s enjoyment of physical pain — a trait that Reed admits John could’ve shared with him personally, but chose not to.

It’s no secret that “true crime” is in vogue, and that among white liberals, NPR and This American Life are the gold standard for storytelling. I’m not surprised that this story has taken off the way it did. But as we dive headlong into the normalization of other people’s pain for mainstream entertainment, there are questions that need to be asked. No, this isn’t “the new Serial” — nobody murdered John B. McLemore, and nobody invited Brian Reed to tell this story. In fact, many of the aspects of John’s life that Reed has now shared with his thousands of subscribers are details that John consciously chose to keep from Reed during their hours of conversation. Nobody — not friends, not family, not alleged former almost-lovers, not journalists from New York City — had the right to broadcast the intimate details and speculations about John’s life to an international audience, and they damn sure didn’t have the right to do it under the guise of a true crime podcast about murder and buried treasure.

And by the way, there’s no part of this that could classify it as “the new Serial,” except for sharing team members and a production style. With Serial Season 1, Sarah Koenig was invited into a story that was complex, emotionally charged, and constantly evolving. In S-Town, Brian Reed tries to create a story where there isn’t one, abandoning all pretense in the hope of having his name attached to The Next Big Thing. He doesn’t deserve the level of recognition of Sarah Koenig — not even close.

In one of the final episodes, Reed is discussing how to corroborate the theories that John was suffering from mercury poisoning. He mentions several options, including “digging up his remains, which I can’t and won’t do.” This is supposed to sound honorable, or reasonable, or something, but in the wake of everything else that has already happened in the name of this project, it rings hollow. What Reed doesn’t seem to realize is that he did dig up John’s remains, rearranged them, and shared them with the world.