Peeping under the Goddamn Door: The Price of Empathy in S-Town
Like probably everybody else in my zip code and zip codes that resemble mine, I spent half of Donald Trump’s first one hundred days trying to figure out what in god’s name just happened to us. The media told us it was the disaffected white working class, so I did what West Coast liberals do: I read books about it. First, I launched into Hillbilly Elegy, by the now ubiquitous J.D. Vance, followed closely by Strangers in Their Own Land by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild. Despite the narrative glue of Vance’s book, and Hochschild’s compelling determination to scale what she calls the “empathy wall,” I still didn’t feel a real connection to the white, conservative, protestant Southerners at the heart of those books.
That is, until I started listening to S-Town. For those who have been living under a rock or on a silent retreat for the last few months, S-Town is the latest podcast from the powerhouse production teams at Serial and This American Life. The on-air voice and co-producer of the project is Brian Reed, a reporter who opened a 2012 email addressed to This American Life with the subject line: “John B. McLemore Lives in Shit-Town, Alabama.” And that, as they say, was that.
McLemore was trying to entice someone from This American Life to investigate a murder he heard about by eavesdropping on some of the young guys he hired to help him on his 148 acres in Bibb County, Alabama. To cut to the chase, there was no murder, but John B. turns out to be one of the world’s great cranks:
“We ain’t nothing but a nation of goddamn chicken shit, horse shit, tattletale, pissy-ass, whiny, fat, flabby, out-of-shape, Facebook-looking, damn twerkfest, peeking out the windows, and slipping around listening in on the cell phones, and spying in the peephole, and peeping in the crack under the goddamn door, and listening into the fucking sheetrock. You know, Mr. Putin, please show some fucking mercy. I mean come on, drop a fucking bomb, won’t you?”
With that, Brian Reed decides to keep pursuing the story. Thus begins a five-year journey, which might not be over yet, but at least so far has culminated in a seven-episode podcast that became S-Town, which, as of last counting, has been downloaded forty million times.
Much has already been said about S-Town, and every day more photos and reactions are published as it continues to bounce its way around the culture. The most common adjective for S-Town, used by both producers and reviewers, is “novelistic.” I can see that. It’s long-form, scene-based, character-driven, laden with metaphor. It was released all at one time. The episodes are called “chapters.” And it is crazy-making and obsessive in the same way that the best of novels are. I could not stop thinking about it. I was irritable with the real-life people at home and at work because I was fretting over the struggles of the residents of Woodstock, Alabama.
As I listened, the book I was most reminded of was not Truman Capote’s famous “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, which other reviewers have mentioned, but rather C.D. Wright’s crazy journalistic extended-poem-biography-elegy-memoir thing, One with Others. That book details the history of her friend and acerbic mentor, Margaret Kaelin McHugh, whom she calls “V.” V., at least on the surface, is more heroic than John B. McLemore. The reason Wright knew her at all is that she was cast out by her husband—with whom she had seven children—after getting involved in a civil rights march from Memphis to Little Rock. Wright tells the story of the march and the exile in exquisite C.D. Wright fashion, but even more than that, she reveals the thwarted brilliance of a choleric and highly literate woman limited by circumstance.
Like Brian Reed, C.D. Wright conducted dozens of interviews, and also like Reed, she drops many of them into the poem wholesale, letting the reader hear the voices outright. And though Wright clearly adored V. and though V. had passed on several years before the book was written, Wright didn’t sugar coat it. Here’s an example:
She woke up in a housebound rage, my friend V. Changed diapers. Played poker. Drank bourbon. Played duplicate bridge. Made casseroles, grape salad, macaroni and cheese. Played cards with the priest. Made an argument for school uniforms, but the parents were concerned the children would be indistinguishable. She was thinking: affordable, uniforms. You can distinguish them, she argued, by their shoes. It was a mind on fire, a body confined.
There were cockfights and divorces and racism and various forms of liquor on the ironing board. V. was idealistic and brilliant and messy and flawed. And cantankerous as all get out. In short, she bore some distinct resemblances to John B. McLemore.
And while poems have the same whispered-in-your-ear quality of a podcast in earbuds, there are some clear differences between One with Others and S-Town—the most obvious being, of course, the live human voices that we experience in sometimes minutes-long segments in the podcast. There are the sighs, the labored breathing, the stops and starts, the ups and downs of John B.’s moods. There is also Reed’s willingness to be at least somewhat transparent with regard to his own emotions. On several occasions, he mentions his discomfort with the liberal use of the “n-word” being tossed around Bibb County. And Reed describes his decision to make his Facebook and Instagram accounts private at the urging of his then-girlfriend, now wife. You can hear his skepticism in follow-up questions and hear him laugh at John’s jokes.
But one of the most memorable segments of S-Town comes in the phone call that Reed receives in the days—and apologies for the **spoiler** here—after McLemore’s suicide. Reed, as humans do when they receive terrible news, stumbled (“Are you kidding me? Oh my gosh.”), fought tears (“Oh my gosh… mmmm.”), apologized (“I’m sorry. I’m still trying to take all this in. I’m trying to follow what you are saying… It’s just so shocking.”). He wonders who he is in the scheme of McLemore’s life and receives a touching answer from the twenty-one-year-old wife of one of John B’s friends and protégés (“I mean, if you wasn’t anything to this, I wouldn’t have called”).
But more than anything else, there is proximity. Reed is—and by extension we are—right up in the most intimate and painful details of these people’s lives. John B. called himself a “semi-homosexual” and in one of his more controversial decisions, Reed summarizes an off-the-record conversation about a romantic relationship between John B. and a local man.
That proximity, and the often-uncomfortable intimacy it creates, is the source of some critique, particularly in a widely circulated and provocatively titled review over at Vox: “S-Town is a stunning podcast. It probably shouldn’t have been made.” In addition to the ethical gray area around revealing the romantic struggles of a gay man who kills himself in rural Alabama, the final chapter of S-Town is deeply unsettling and unforgettable, both because of the nature of the content itself and because of the inherent voyeurism involved in witnessing the emotional break down of another human. Some of the most disturbing aspects come in Tyler Goodson’s description of what he and John B. came to call “church,” a pain ritual that involved repeated tattoos (sometimes without ink) and almost daily nipple piercing that John B. begged for right up to the last hours of his life. It was, in the assessment of Reed, an elaborate form of cutting. It is extremely difficult to listen to. It is horrifying and grotesque and in many, many ways too close for comfort.
But, if I am being honest, it is also tremendously enlightening about just how much John B. was suffering. I—along with the rest of America—listened to John B. rant about the doom of the world and the horrors and indignities of Shit-Town. I heard him say that he was depressed and even that he planned to kill himself. But I really didn’t feel the down-to-the core suffering of John B. McLemore until I heard about church. It reveals in graphic, physical detail the obliterating pain behind the bravado. And suddenly everything that John B. was comes into sharper focus.
Truth is, I’m not sure about the journalistic ethics or even the personal morality of revealing such intimate details about a man who can no longer consent to their airing. But for the first time, I really see the tradeoffs between privacy and honest-to-god, up-close empathy. Up to now, I’ve been pretty strident in the privacy department. My favorite amendment is the Fifth—the one that means we do not need to share the contents of our own mind. My personal motto is: “It’s none of your business.” I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU and class-A devoted Ed Snowden fan girl.
And yet, in my unquestioned devotion to privacy, I didn’t really think about the tradeoffs between privacy and empathy. I didn’t really consider the cost of privacy in terms of our willingness to show up whole in the view of others. I didn’t think about the fact that, by privileging privacy and personal autonomy above all else, we are somehow depriving ourselves of the opportunity to understand one another.
The difference between the profiles that Arlie Hochschild presents in Strangers and Brian Reed presents in S-Town comes in their proximity. Hochschild also did dozens of interviews over many years, going to church and MacDonald’s and riding around in trucks with her subjects in an effort to understand Tea Party activists (or at least sympathizers) in rural Louisiana. But in her case, there was a kind of polite distance between her and her subjects. Interviewees put their best foot forward: kind, competent, responsible, church-going, freedom-loving. We learn about illnesses most likely caused by chemical contamination and about the loss of beloved homes and habitat, but still they are at a presentable and socially acceptable arm’s length. Not so with John B. McLemore and his friends in S-Town.
In a study of the Boston bombing published in the European Physical Journal of Data Science, Yu-Ru Lin and Drew Margolin discovered that people’s willingness to “extend social support to those in need” is proportional to their physical and emotional proximity. Close proximity is directly related to whether people believe the tragedy affects “us” or whether it affects “others.”
And, for all my squeamishness, that’s what S-Town gives us. Up-close and sometimes exquisitely uncomfortable proximity, making it impossible to see John B. and the others as alien or not in our sphere of care. Oddly, by risking the privacy of John B. and Tyler and the lot of them so completely, Reed actually transcends what might have been a kind of exoticism. By going deeper and longer, Reed makes it much more possible for the listener to see John B. McLemore as a complete and extremely complex person rather than an odd and unrecognizable other.
The one last qualm I have about S-Town is the scale. Ten million people downloaded it in the first four days. That number has quadrupled, and the downloads continue as word spreads. One with Others—which also brought us close enough the scrutinize the very real frailties of a deceased iconoclast—will never reach a fraction of those people, even though it was widely reviewed and feted. To use myself as an example, I live 2,600 miles from Woodstock, Alabama, and yet I have had several detailed conversations about whether John B. was suffering from mercury poisoning and about whether Tyler has completely compromised his criminal case because of how much he runs off his mouth. I can’t help but think about all the other conversations dissecting the lives of these poor people.
I am reminded a bit of an article I read last fall called “Loved to Death: How Instagram Is Destroying Our Natural Wonders.” The writer tells the story of a swimming hole and that she and her family have visited for decades but now has hundreds of people descending on it every weekend because of idyllic pictures posted on social media. Apparently, this is a problem in wild areas across the world.
Like tens of millions of my closest friends, I felt like Brian Reed was whispering through my earbuds just to me. Because of the proximity, the intimacy, the sensitivity of the story, it felt like it belonged to me or at least to a small group within the sound of his voice. But then there were sixteen million and then thirty million and then forty million other listeners. And they—like me—looked up pictures of John and Tyler and the house where John B. and his eight-nine-year-old mother, Mary Grace, lived. So, though the relationship between John B. and Brian Reed was a personal and empathetic one, it became one that was shared by a measurable percentage of the population of the United States. And that scale alone could not have been conceivable when John B. took up his late-night calls with Reed.
None of this is easy. Or ethically clear. But it is moving in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. One of the things a large and pluralistic society denies us is proximity. And with that denial, the lives of our fellow citizens are harder to imagine, creating a kind of empathetic poverty that erodes our shared life. Literature, of course, has always been one of the reliable bridges between us, and maybe the intimacy and proximity of S-Town is just a vivid 21st-century reminder of that truism. But I know that my relationship—such that it is—with John B. piques my curiosity about the man at the end of my block who keeps to himself and even the scowling Trump supporter raising his fist at a #MAGA rally in Wisconsin. I am not ready to make proclamations about the ethics of privacy or the primacy of empathy, but I do know I am grateful to have known a bit about the beautiful and tumultuous life of John B. McLemore. I know I am softer and more curious and more empathetic for it. Truth is, I am a better American for it.
S-Town logo artwork © Valero Doval. Image of Brian Reed © Andrea Morales.