#questusreviewus: A Review of S-Town, by Emily Nottingham

S-Town, a podcast created and produced by Brian Reed, begins as a true-crime investigation into an alleged murder cover-up in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama. Then, it unexpectedly evolves into a study on the remarkable life of John B. McLemore. At first glance, John B’s life may not seem remarkable. He lived on the same property in a small town for his entire life, taking care of his aging mother, a pack of stray dogs, and his maze. However, throughout the podcast Reed reveals John B’s incredible genius, perplexing ambiguity, and his alarming awareness of the deprivation of humanity. All this was tucked away in one man, hidden on his estate in Bibb County.

I can’t say that I enjoyed S-Town the way that one might enjoy a romantic-comedy or a fiction novel, but I can say it intrigued me. I was hooked the entire time, following Reed throughout Woodstock on his quest to uncover the corruption that John B. obsessively lamented. I think this podcast is so engaging because it is raw, gritty, and honest. At the end, I wasn’t sure if I should side with Rita or Tyler. I was conflicted because each person had both legitimate arguments and suspicious holes in their stories. I think this is what Reed wanted. He wanted it to be difficult to choose a side because this is a real story from the real world, where things aren’t black and white. In real life, we choose sides subjectively, based on our personal loyalties or inclinations. Here, in Woodstock, Alabama, I held no loyalties to either Tyler or Rita, and I was faced with the reality that life is messy and complicated. Even if readers are desperately hoping for the truth to be uncovered, the gold to be found, or the bad guy to be thrown into prison; well, that’s just not real life.

The most astounding feature of the podcast is John B. himself. At first, I couldn’t believe this man existed. A man who cared so deeply about dogs and roses, who poured so much energy into a maze in his backyard, yet also had the intellectual brilliance to understand mathematical theories and environmental science beyond the average man’s capacity. There are several things that unsettled me regarding John B, such as his perplexing misogynistic and racist remarks despite his indignation over the oppression of minorities. I was also disturbed by his fanatical, almost apocalyptic rantings about the end of the world, climate change, and the overall degradation of society. Then, there were also suggestions of possible mental illness and even mercury poisoning that concerned me. I wasn’t sure if I could entirely trust John B. due to the multiple accusations of mental instability, but I was definitely impressed and moved by the story of his life.

There are several journalistic elements of the podcast that troubled me. I think Reed crossed the boundary between what can and can’t be shared. He was a friend to John B, and I fear the intimacy and friendship they shared gave Reed a sense of entitlement to John B’s narrative that complicated Reed’s role as an objective journalist. He viewed the town according to John B’s pessimistic lens, and he suggested information and details about John B’s life that he might not have felt comfortable sharing if he wasn’t so close to John B. For example, he shared information about a sexual relationship John B. disclosed to him in confidence, asking him to turn off the recorder before he told to story. Reed explains the story anyways, justifying this choice for two reasons: “John was very clear that he did not believe in God or an afterlife. So John, in his own view, is worm dirt now, unaffected by this. And lastly, what John disclosed, and where it led me after he died, helped me understand him so much more. And I think trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do” (Brian Reed, Chapter 6, S-Town). While it is a worthwhile endeavor to try to understand another person, it is not a worthwhile endeavor to disclose their private, personal statements to the entire world without their permission. John B. did not make the decision to share his queer identity with the world, even if Reed thinks John B. would be okay with it. Besides, it’s rather insensitive to refer to John B as “worm dirt”, even if Reed thinks this is how he would have described himself. Reed took liberties as a friend of John B, allowing his friendship to justify decisions regarding privacy and release of information. Instead, he should have approached these decisions objectively, treating John B. as any other story subject with enduring rights to privacy.

Despite my concern over Reed’s questionable journalistic ethics, I think everyone should listen to S-Town because it moved me, and wasn’t that John B’s goal all along? He wanted people to see corruption and care about it, at least enough to do something about it. He was horrified by the disturbing apathy of society in his little town, but unfortunately this exists in every society across the world. John B. invited Reed to investigate and expose the corruption of Woodstock because he wanted someone to care. Listening to S-Town made me want to do better. It made me want to be kinder and to take action when I witness wrongdoing. For this reason, I think S-Town was a successful endeavor. It enabled John B. to accomplish in death what he couldn’t do in life: to expose corruption and motivate people to fix it.