When I first started listening to S-Town, I was eager to immerse myself in the beautifully constructed world of storytelling created by the producers of Serial and This American Life, two of my favorite podcasts. S-Town does not disappoint. Several times, I became so lost in the narrative that I found myself unapologetically crying in the back of a crowded Uberpool.
The host of S-Town, Brian Reed, began investigating happenings in Alabama’s Bibb County when we received an email from John B. McLemore about potential police misconduct covering up a murder in his hometown of “Shit Town Alabama”. Over the course of his three-year investigation, the conspiracy theory of the unsolved murder dissolves and the main focus of the podcasts shifts to McLemore, an eccentric clock-worker that dives into emphatic tangents ranging from the perils of climate-change to his disdain for his rural town. With a meticulous attention to detail, McLemore gained esteem worldwide for his expertise restoring clocks. His eccentricities emerged in other aspects of his life as well, like his hand-made sundials and labyrinth in his back yard.
Being a Southern native, I was worried how the South would be portrayed. Many times, Southerners are all painted with one broad stroke of racism and poverty. I am grateful that S-Town did not choose to portray the characters as archetypes but as people. At various times in the podcast, I found myself endeared toward a character previously presented as a villain. It is this type of attention to authenticity that drives the narrative and captures the attention the audience.
As for the culture and normalization of racism in the South, S-Town does not shy away from these sensitive subjects but rather delves deeper to discover the attitudes behind the prejudices. The focus is on the individual. Reed avoids making generalized remarks about groups of people and builds rich, sympathetic characters.
S-Town keeps listeners on the edge of their seats with various “pops” throughout the seven, hour-long episodes. I was skeptical how one conspiracy theory about a police cover-up of a murder would provide enough content for an entire season. However, at the end of episode 2, when we learn of McLemore’s suicide, the story really starts to unfold.
When I first learned of McLemore’s suicide, I suspected foul-play. However, as the podcast progresses, we learn more about his life of repression, secrecy, and loneliness. He made a habit of mentoring young men, one of which escaped a life of working in Alabama strip clubs to live happily in New York City with his wife and child.
His next mentee, Tyler Goodson, was also a victim of tragic circumstance. As the son of an abusive father, his greatest fear was ending up like him. McLemore took him under his wing and treated him like a son.
Near the end of his life, John was a glutton for punishment, looking for any way to ease his pain. He speaks freely with Reed about his “dark times” and his inevitable suicide, for which he has already written a note. He found a release for his despair in his so-called “Church Sessions” with Tyler. During these sessions, McLemore asked Tyler to pierce and re-pierce his nipples, tattoo with and without ink, and whip his back.
For me, the biggest “pop” in the whole series comes from the revelations about McLemore’s fire-gilding and subsequent mercury poising. The potential side effects include mood swings, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
McLemore performed the highly dangerous process over decades, without the aid of safety equipment in a shop without adequate ventilation. Under these circumstances, it would be almost impossible not to develop any side-effects of “Mad-Hatter disease” (mercury poisoning). It is unfortunate that the craft that McLemore devoted his life to, probably lead to it’s untimely and tragic demise. He was never able to live openly and resigned to a life of secrecy and obsession.
How different his life might have been…