The body and the podcast

[Extreme spoilers for S-Town to follow.]

There’s a moment on episode five of Shit Town when Rita, the possibly carpetbagging cousin from Florida, is recalling the trouble she had retrieving a solid gold nipple piercing from from John B’s body.

“If you’re going to cut him from chest to privates, cut his nipple off,” she remembers saying. “He’s dead.”

Host Brian Reed acts shocked at the callousness, but he has to. He’s the audience at this point, and podcasts like this, This American Life podcasts, always give the audience space to react within. Yet throughout the series Brian obsesses over John B’s body far more than Rita ever does, and with much worse plans than simply making a few dollars selling a nipple ring. He’s doing journalism.

We hear Brian describe John B’s naked torso several times over. We hear how he screamed as the cyanide ate up his stomach. We hear his best friend recount the increasingly uncomfortable “church sessions” where John begged him for a pain fix, piercing his nipple over and over and over, or tattooing with an empty pen. We hear John B piss in the sink.

This fixation on the body and the corpse of John B is the real focus of Shit Town. It’s not a podcast about a backwoods Alabama town, it’s a podcast about a human man who never really left that town. His thoughts and his life, yes, but especially his body: his body as a site for both charitable and masochistic modification and his body as a reason he killed himself — the mercury poisoning, presented without warning just as the show is coming to a close.

Brian’s focus on the corpse makes sense if you trace it back to episode three and John B’s funeral. He is much angrier at this point that at any other point in this seven-hour show — angry that John B died, angry that so few people showed up, angry at the lack of speeches, and angry at the deeply religious service for a deeply irreligious man. We know this because Brian records the funeral on his iPhone.

The audience isn’t told if Brian got permission from John’s dementia-ridden mother to do this. There are several other points in the show where it is questionable whether Brian really should be using what he’s been told or recorded for the show, and he goes over each of these with care, explaining why the audience should know this or that. With the funeral there’s none of that, and it feels like the anger is why. I think it’s that anger that prompted Brian to take this from a This American Life segment and turn it into a seven-episode event, examining nook and cranny of this man’s life. Shit Town is the wake John’s corpse never got.

It’s also a podcast, so we need to have all of this described. We don’t see John’s scarred body, we have it etched in through our ears.

There’s a reason this is a podcast and not a TV show or written piece. Audio journalism gives you the portability and cost-effectiveness of a single reporter with a cinematic enveloping effect that magazine pieces have trouble replicating. You can’t pause and let the music play in a piece of writing, letting your audience roll over what just happened in their head. You also can’t get a film crew to get the intimate tape Brian gets from hours on the phone on with everyone involved in the story, the quotes from John B and Tyler and everyone else that define the show. It could only be a podcast, and it’s a true achievement in the form.

But, as a Vox writer has already asked, should it exist at all? Would John B want his life and corpse examined by millions and millions of liberal listeners, who like him know the world is ending but sit around writing podcast thinkpieces instead of doing anything about it? Personally, I think roughly the first half of the podcast is fair journalistic game. John B invited a radio reporter into his life before he ended it. The stuff about the cousins and Tyler and the gold was all essentially gossip, the kind of thing anyone in Woodstock would know all about anyway.

Then we get to episode six and things get messier. We go deep into John B’s romantic history, including his first experiments with an older man who seems to have used him sexually and a host of other sad tales. This is pointedly not something that was regular town gossip. When John B told Brian about a recent relationship with a man who seemed to use him again it was one of the few times he told Brian to turn off his recording equipment. Yet here I was, thousands of miles away in New Zealand, listening as his almost-lover Olan gave us all the details. This was the most poignant episode of the show, built around an interview with a man that had clearly cared about John B in a way nobody else had in years, but it was also deeply invasive. There is no conceivable way this is what John B thought would happen when he emailed Brian about a covered up murder. It’s malicious journalism but incredible art.

We return to John B’s body as the episode closes out, in a memory of Olan’s, the man he met on a singles line but never quite got there with.

“I’m sitting there in a truck with John B McLemore outside a doctor’s office picking up my azaleas knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to reach over there, I wanted to pull his shirt up, expose his belly and just kiss all over his belly around that red hair, just to that extent, and I wanted to do it slowly and sensuously. That’s what I wanted to do, and see what he thought about it.”
“I kept those feelings to myself. If I could get in a time machine and go back there and relive that moment, I’d at least speak up and tell him what I was thinking.”

Wouldn’t we all.