S-Town and the Ethics of Posthumous Probing

Preamble of praise: I really enjoyed S-Town. It is, as Sarah Koening compliments Brian Reed in a short two-minute episode of Serial meant to endorse S-Town, like a good novel, a page-turner that starves a hunger one moment and feeds it the next. It’s quality journalism of the kind that This American Life and Serial pioneered — deep and deeper dives into single stories, fascinating not just in their content but in their mastery of the radio medium and, increasingly, the podcast medium (especially Serial and S-Town, exclusively produced as podcasts). This is built off of years of institutional knowledge. Both Serial and S-Town are built on the legacy of This American Life, with Ira Glass himself consulting here. The result is a very special piece of non-fiction, the subtleties of which explore a deft thread between mysteries of place, relationships, and identity. And so I took Brian Reed’s outstretched hand (and to some extent, John B’s) and followed him down a seedy seven-episode hole of Alabamian life laid bare.

The main conceit of S-Town is a spoiler. If you care about that and haven’t listened, don’t read on.

There is and will be a lot of discourse around S-Town generally, but also regarding this specific topic (Vox has already made an opinion piece on this particular topic that you may have seen), and I’m not even going to stray far from the general consensus of this question: Was Reed unethical (or at best misguided) in his exploration of John B’s homosexuality? (John B liked to identify as “a queer.”) Episodes six and seven explore John B and love. Self-proclaimed “60–70%” queer, John B’s romantic, erotic, and sexual relationships with the people of Woodstock and Bibb County were as fraught as his platonic ones. Friends describe how John B could be a wonderful, if exhausting, friend to have — someone truly incredible in the honest sense of the word; his existence as a brilliant, eccentric redneck is incredulous. He was a person any human being would feel privileged to know, and his friends and family let you know so. Despite your specific relationship with John B, there was always some level on which you could appreciate his genius, however it may have manifested to you. Reed’s late-game posit that getting to know someone is a worthwhile pursuit feels completely right in the moment and accelerates the already rabid curiosity I felt about coming to know John B — enough that I devoured details about him that likely overstep that to which Jon B would consent.

John B McLemore

This fact is itself worth talking about. I share Reed’s thought — it is worthwhile to get to know someone. This is a strong impulse for me. My current job as a counselor at a school involves a lot of getting to know people. My job as reporter also indulged this tendency to “want to know.” I wouldn’t call it noble, but Reed’s word, “worthwhile,” sticks it. Coming to understand something, even in an incomplete, messy way, has a satisfaction to it that’s hard to match. When that understanding is more refined, it can feel like validation, a conquering. In S-Town’s case, it feels more like an affirmation of life’s vast and irreducible complexities. The incomplete, messy understanding of John B by episode seven, while more developed, is less a victory over ignorance and more a reminder that literally everyone is frustratingly complicated. John B gladly made public this very fact, which American culture is always ready to ignore — that every life has a rich interiority. Every person experiences the world in full measure, one way or another.

John B communicated that fact through his existence, not necessarily his words. Listening to S-Town, his derision for certain groups makes you question whether how readily John B would admit to this idea — the rich interiority of all life — although something makes me think that he would.

But guess what: That’s exactly what I identify to be the root problem of S-Town. As beautiful as the narrative becomes, it not only asks us to participate in the assumed consent of probing into the life of John B, it creates an image of him from which we must decide whether crossing the boundaries of his private life is okay. Reed probes deep, folks. And it’s not acknowledged in the way I think it has the responsibility to.

Granted, most of this probing has no ethical implications, I think. If nothing else, it is at least common and understandable to want to understand someone more once they’ve passed. And it’s not as if episode three kicks off, “We’re going to investigate everything John B wouldn’t or couldn’t let on to while he was alive because hey, it’s worthwhile.” No. The investigation into “who was John B?” starts after it becomes evident that the cousins aren’t gold diggers and that the search for John B’s wealth is null set. It’s the last arc where we begin the probe that provides the payoff to the original inquiry: John B lives in Shit Town, Alabama.

This is a great bookend and a great way to shift the story, which has introduced itself as a murder mystery, then slyly (and sadly) as a treasure hunt. When there is no treasure to be found, we look at the other material ways John B has left impact, and finally, we look to the immaterial ways. If could identify a stumbling point for S-Town, it’s this section — and not in how it tells the story. No, the storytelling remains on point, near masterclass with Serial and This American Life’s best moments. The misstep is S-Town’s failure to require its audience to engage with what they are doing by listening to this narrative. This story reveals a sexual relationship John B has with another Alabamian. Neither John B nor the unnamed (but potentially outed) partner seem to give consent. I’d wager it’s likely someone from Bibb County could identify John B’s partner based off the details Reed provides in his encounter with John B’s sexual partner. While it’s textured to be coy for radio, it’s not exactly subtle enough for witness protection standards.

For this “other man,” I can’t really see a defense for this. It’s exploitative. It’s feeding a hunger that deserves to starve. It may be intensely interesting both as an insight to the queer scene of Bibb County and John B’s sexual life, but I myself can’t think of a justification beyond that: It’s interesting. Sure. It made the story more compelling. Yeah. But that’s more important than the man’s safety? A point which the narrative takes a moment to recognize — that the identify of gay men (and women) face a real threat of violence in this county. The narrative supersedes that fact for flimsy reasons. Upon reflection, once I’d finished the S-Town meal, I find it unjustifiable.

On John B’s side, I think it’s something different, though still fraught. John was inviting throughout his and Reed’s time together. The sort of person John B is, I’m not sure he’d care whether we left his stories untold or not, and I’m not inclined to think he’d care how deeply Reed (and the audience as witness) probes into the concept of John B. But again, this is my problem: As a listener these suspicions — that John B would either consent or not care — is entirely based on a narrative constructed by Reed. I don’t distrust Reed. I really like him and the story he put together. But I think the failure of S-Town, what prevents it from transcending to the smartest piece of podcast non-fiction in recent memory, is its reluctance to dwell on what it means to create this series. To construct a John B that will reach so many more people than had Reed never entered the picture. That he did is fine; that he did, I’m ultimately thankful. But it’s a responsibility he does not acknowledge, and when you couple it with the queer outing, the choice to spend significant amounts of time on John B’s BDSM-like pain practices, the potential reality of his mental health issues — all lacking the requisite exploration of the context in which things like that live — you’re doing a disservice in favor of storytelling. That’s unethical.

John B’s Hedge Maze, one of S-Town’s potent metaphors for the concept of John B himself.

I really like S-Town. I’m grateful for the experience of having gotten to know John B, even as it may have been problematic at spots. My argument has mostly laid the blame on Reed (and the S-Town staff) for this. But what frustrates me is the way I became complicit in its missteps by listening to it. While the show lacks an acknowledgement from Reed that his actions have an ethical component to them (seriously, even a minute spent on this notion could have cut it for me), it’s being inculcated by that lack that bothers me. A show like S-Town has a second responsibility besides questioning its own motives: The audience, who in an ideal world could take the moment themselves to step back and realize exactly in what they are being complicit, deserves the chance to breathe and reflect on the sort of journey they’re going — they deserve the opportunity to decide how they feel about their consumption, whether they want to, and what continuing on means to them.

I’ll be real. I’m talking about myself. Others may well have had the wherewithal to pause at what S-Town was constructing in front of them, perhaps step back, perhaps continue on. I didn’t. I was enraptured. The way I’ve constructed this article, the villain is Reed, or maybe more accurately, the ultra-compelling binge format S-Town was released in. But in truth the criticism I bring here only reveals the blood is on my own hands. I consumed it all before asking myself if I really needed to, if I even should have.

In a series like Serial, where each episode is released weekly or bi-weekly, concerns like this have time to surface in between episodes. Digestion is built into the experience. So maybe at the end of the day, you can distill my complaint down to the decision to release all of S-Town at once. But it was my choice to listen all at once. I feasted, licked my fingers, and paid the bill. Then it was the day after.

photos courtesy of https://twitter.com/fckinbee

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