Friday, April 28, 2017

S-Town: John B., Aural Literature, And The Battlelines Inside Our Hearts

S-Town (from the makers of Serial and This American Life) has become something of a global phenomenon, and rightly so. It’s a remarkably well done series: the storytelling is fascinating, illuminating and heartbreaking; the editing is superb; the way in which it reveals a compelling and eccentric cast of characters in small town Alabama is riveting.

It’s also deeply disturbing. The language is coarse (almost entirely from recordings of people in their own words), the topic is sobering if not heart-breaking at times, and the revelation of the vagaries of human nature is epically tragic – and often very hard to listen for all the reasons listed above. It will shock you. It will move you. It may well crush you at times.

(SPOILER ALERT AND A WARNING. I will be revealing crucial plot details in order to discuss this story fully. Also, be aware that this podcast and parts of this review are not for the faint of heart. If podcasts had ratings, this would be a hard R, though almost all of that material is from recordings. In other words, it's at least honest rather than gratuitous.)

John B. McLemore lived in Woodstock, Alabama, or S***town, as he called it. He believed there had been a murder that’s been covered up by a corrupt police department. When reporter Brian Reed finally went to Woodstock to meet John, he found a lot more – and less – than he thought he would find. First, he discovered that there was no murder cover up. Then John B. killed himself. That's when the heart of the story really begins to unfold.

Over seven episodes, Mr. Reed unpacks what he learned in what’s being called “aural literature,” a new and improved kind of audio storytelling that is being compared to Faulkner, but which reminded me of Flannery O’Conner’s literary forays into the Southern experience.

The Irish Times claims that “the question that S-Town attempts to answer is what makes a person’s life. It is perhaps the first successful mainstream existential podcast series.”  I am inclined to agree that this is indeed a show about existence. Do our lives matter? Why are we here? Where do we find meaning and purpose? Is living authentically all that matters? What starts as an apparent follow up to the true crime style of Serial turns into something much more philosophical fairly quickly.

 * * * * *

“S-Town is particularly good at navigating subtleties and grey areas. In a digital age that rewards polemics, it stands out even more in its refusal to judge anyone, instead presenting people in all their contradictory messiness, including John himself. We meet racists, we meet thieves, we hear about violence and abuse and loss. These things can be hard to hear, but everyone involved is treated as a person…  - The Guardian

“Characters initially presented in caricature-like fashion by McLemore or another source get a chance to speak for themselves, and the liberal ideal of universal empathy and understanding gets applied on a granular scale. Whenever Reed feels the pull to judge one of his subjects, he lets us know about it and he corrects himself, even in the most extreme instances of monstrousness (some listeners may take issue with this lenience).”  - The Atlantic 

Trying to present complexity and understanding with a non-judgmental voice is not easy. I’m not sure if it’s possible to actually accomplish this; I’m even less certain that it should always be the goal. However, I appreciate that attempt to do so. If storytellers do their job well, the bald presentation of life ought to lead us to the proper conclusions.  

Consider, for example, Mr. Reed's confusion and horror upon hearing Tyler talk about his plan to get a suspected thief to confess and return stolen goods by cutting off his fingers one by one. At the same time, Tyler describes himself as someone who would help anyone. He's is furious that John B.'s relatives might cheat him, but he breaks the law constantly. Mr. Reed doesn't have to tell us what to think about this. The painful contradiction is clear. 

So while I appreciate Mr. Reed's attempt to show us what is happening rather than tell us what to think, this did not hold through to the end. There seemed to be a concerted effort to bail out a story of despair and ruin by steering us toward how we ought to feel about the story we just heard.  The direction in which we are steered struck me as starkly at odds with what one would naturally feel after hearing of the life of John B. 

The last words we hear from John B. are the closing words of a long, rambling suicide note he left. 
“When I look around me and see the leaden dispiritedness that envelops so many persons both young and old, I know that if I die tonight my life has been inestimably better than that of most of my compatriots.” 
The aforementioned Guardian article thought this gave an excellent summary to the series:
But ultimately, what gives it a kind of permission, I think, is the great hope that resides within. For a story that hinges on a troubled and lonely man drinking cyanide in his own kitchen, it ends up being life-affirming. It’s about surviving when you don’t fit in, finding connections where you can, and the beauty that resides in the most unexpected pockets of a person’s existence. It’s a delicate and splendid obituary, and a noble attempt at understanding a life.”
I believe the Guardian has clearly articulated what Mr. Reed wanted us to take away. But that this "delicate and splendid obituary" revealed the "great hope that resides within" is not at all clear. This strikes me as a desperate attempt to put a positive spin on a life that, the more I think about it, seems deeply shot through with existential despair, self-destructive choices, and a deeply selfish life thinly disguised as altruism.
  • John B. was generous to a fault with friends – but may well have been bribing them for an emotional, perhaps even latently sexual, connection.
  • He took care of his ailing mother faithfully- but may have been sequestering a relatively healthy woman who would have loved to get out. 
  • He rails against tattoos –and is covered with them.
  • He seems loyal to those close to him – but fails to make plans to provide for anyone after he killed himself, and he kept a friend on the phone to listen helplessly to his violent suicide.
  • He seems committed to truth, but buys into a lie about a murder that he could have confirmed on his own.
  • He values people and relationships, but he pursued an affair with a married man and coerced his close friends into cutting him in an ongoing ritual of self-harm rather than doing it himself (or so Mr. Reed theorizes).
  • He mentors one troubled young man who went on to do well, and draws another into his whirlpool of self-destructive behavior.
  • John says his life is better than those around him who are filled with "leaden dispiritedness" - and yet he is the one whom life overwhelms.
Though a brilliant, educated, and remarkably talented man with an eye for beauty and wonder (check out his rose garden maze), he saw nothing positive in anything. As Mr. Reed intoned, “All the world was a ‘Shittown’ to John, and he had every disgrace of that world in his heart.” 

John B. apparently often told people that he was going to kill himself, forcing them to answer his text or calls in the middle of the night because his life was on the line. His sadomasochism is disturbing in its own right, and the way in which he dragged those around him into it was unsettling to hear to say the least.

I can’t tell you how many times my heart broke a little just listening to the pain and desperation in his life. He was dreadfully alone even when people surrounded him, and his friends seemed more inclined to enable his self-destructive behavior than hold him accountable. One thought haunted me: Dear God, if there are any John B.s in my life that I don’t know about yet, reveal them to me and show me how to love them well.  

I keep thinking of Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” John B. had no time for the kind of worldview that looked to God for answers. I wish he had. 

* * * * *

One of biggest controversies swirling around this show involves the remarkably intimate details Mr. Reed revealed about John B. The final episode flashes back to some events in John B.s life that are terribly significant, and by that I mean both terrible and significant. From The Guardian once again:
“Towards the end, we get to the most intimate revelation about McLemore, a glimpse into his state of mind in the months before his death. He and Tyler hold their “church”, heavy drinking sessions where Tyler tattoos McLemore. It becomes obsessive. McLemore wants tattoos placed over other tattoos. He wants his nipples pierced, again and again, for the pain of it, to shut out his mental anguish. 
He cuts down a branch of a tree and asks Tyler to whip him with it until he bleeds. He gets a tattoo of a whip around his neck, with bloody red marks all down his back. As Reed notes, it’s “very disturbing”. There is a suggestion that there is a fair chance that McLemore had mercury poisoning from a lifetime of practicing the ancient and dangerous technique of fire gilding to restore antique clocks. The symptoms are anxiety, irritability, insomnia, emotional instability, depression and suicidal thoughts.” 
Many think that kind of detail was voyeuristic rather than journalistic and ought to have remained concealed (especially since John B. is not alive to give consent). That's a moral dilemma that deserves serious discussion, but my initial thought is that one should either tell the entire story or none of it. If this is truly an existential tale, John's existence needs to be revealed as fully as possible, otherwise we are simply given the story the narrator wants to tell rather than the one that actually occurred. We already have scripted and edited reality shows;  the standard for ‘aural literature’ ought to be much higher.

Here’s why I think this matters. 

The more I’ve been thinking about this haunting series, the more I believe we cannot think clearly about John B. or human existence in general without the details. The first two episodes stand is sharp contrast to the rest of the series. They present John B. as a sort of quirky and brilliant folk hero fighting for justice and truth; the rest of the series shows John B. as a suffering soul haunted by demons he could never drink, work or cut away.  His struggles and circumstances demand sympathy, but his choices not so much. I cringe at what the mercury did to him, but there's no way he did not know this would happen. He chose his own destruction. He was killing himself long before he actually did - and forcing those around him to watch.

He was a man in whom the battlelines between good and evil clashed deeply in his heart. In some ways, he did his best to follow what was good. Many times he did not. He repeatedly used and manipulated those around him, posturing as a savior when he was often the one from whom they needed deliverance. 

* * * * *

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:
 "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
Woodstock is obviously not a gulag - it's not even nearly as bad as John's cynical pessimism makes it out to be - but we see Solzhenitsyn's adage play out clearly here. There is a lot of heart cutting that ought to be taking place, but no one seems to interested in doing that kind of hard work. 

However, even as I type that I am reminded of another truth: none of us exempt from this.  Don't we all do the things we know we shouldn't and not do the things we should? Perhaps one reason this show is so disturbing is that in John B. we see ourselves writ large.  

C.S. Lewis wrote that we are all on a trajectory toward being immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. That battle begins in our hearts. We are all torn; we are all duplicitous; we all save others in some sense even while needing saving ourselves. We love some well and others poorly; we show remarkable grace while exercising bitter judgment; we think our life is good while those around us see us descending into our own madness.

Perhaps this is why this kind of story needs to be told – not because it is happy, or decent, or good, but because we must be confronted with the human condition that we so often overlook in ourselves. 

I can’t get John B. out of my head. 

Maybe I shouldn’t.

Maybe his life’s story will linger as a reminder that healing, peace, goodness and love are things for which we must fight, and that we must pursue those things even as we seek out those in desperate need of them as well. Existentialism (or at least Sartre) insists that we are condemned to be free. That's true only if our choices lead our hearts and minds into bondage, pain and destruction. It doesn't have to be that way.  We can be blessed with freedom too.

If there is a hopeful affirmation of life to be found in this story, it will be seen in the response of those in whom this story brings about a holy discontent for all the brokenness of the world both within and around us. 

In this wasteland where I'm livin'
There is a crack in the door filled with light,
And it's all that I need to get by.
Yeah in this wasteland where I'm livin'
There is a crack in the door filled with light,

And it's all that I need to shine.

No comments:

Post a Comment