**SPOILER ALERT – If you’ve not listened past Episode 2 of S-Town, you might want to catch up before reading this…**

The enormously popular podcast S-Town is the most recent offering from the makers of Serial and This American Life. And, at first glance, there is little to suggest a significant deviation from the tried and tested, genre-defining formula of its predecessor:

“S-Town is a new podcast from Serial and This American Life, hosted by Brian Reed, about a man named John who despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks Brian to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But when someone else ends up dead, the search for the truth leads to a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.”

Just another murder-mystery, right?

Wrong.

Whatever the original pretext and intrigue which led Brian Reed to Shit-Town Alabama, the story that unfolds delves much deeper into the complexities of life than the abstract suggests.

Into The Maze

Of course, this was never the intention; what brings John-B and Reed together is the journalistic intrigue surrounding the police corruption John wishes to expose.

Yet, it does not take long for the podcast to gravitate toward the life-story of John-B himself: A man defined by his liberalism; his awareness of global problems; his patience and desire to rid Shit-Town of its racism and prejudice; his expert knowledge of antique clocks; his sexuality; and his battles with mental health. A man who lived to promote and address life’s complexities and problems; a man who ultimately could not continue to fight the struggles he sought to overcome.

It is his intrigue and character that one finds instantaneously appealing and personable… and that make the revelation of his suicide all the more heart-breaking.

Indeed, what makes S-Town so powerful is the way it is able to transcend and expose so many important and relevant subjects – almost by accident.

It’s the way in which it is able to offer such a personal and relatively unspoken insight into depression, into sexual repression, and into the poverty and on-going social-political problems of the Deep South – something that seems all the more relevant given Trump’s ascendance.

Indeed, one wonders if such a podcast could have been made in any other way; it is precisely the unexpected, tragic shock of how Reed’s investment in John-B and Shit-Town unfolds that makes S-Town so important.

The lack of censorship toward Reed’s own response, its baffling-unexpectedness to us, the listener – coupled with the more holistic reflections of others – makes explicit the universality of these problems.

Honestly Unanswered Questions

The pure absence of comprehension; of logic (in terms of the story gleaned from the abstract); and the complete uncertainty with which to respond, are not limited to John-B’s story, nor to Shit-Town Alabama.

From a personal perspective, what makes it so moving is the honesty and rawness with which John-B’s suicide is approached and reacted to – both in the immediate moments of receiving such heartrending news, and the multitude of ways in which this news is processed and articulated. As someone who has had the misfortune of receiving first-hand such painful news, that moment at the end of episode two was closer to home than I could have ever envisaged when I first pressed play.

From this point forward, the podcast in many respects takes on a life of its own – the story of John’s life. Whilst there is some effort to rehash and re-orientate the focus around tales of family feuds and possible hidden-treasures, ultimately these become secondary aims left without distinct conclusions. What becomes much more pressing, it seems, are the questions that become impossible to silence in these moments of grief – Why did he do it? Was he happy? Was there anything that could have been done to prevent this?

The familiarity of these questions, their pertinence and presence in Brian’s conversations with virtually everyone we are introduced to who was in some way moved by John-B, is incredibly affecting. Whether one finds themselves in Shit-Town Alabama, or Norwich Norfolk, the ways in which one seeks to rationalise and cope with the most dreadful consequences of depression are universal.

Underneath the stories of John’s experience of love; of sexuality; of the rituals of ‘church’; and the possible scientific or occupation-related reasons why John lost his battle with mental-health, lies a desire for answers.

However, these questions remain, by their very nature, unanswerable. Not just in John’s case, but beyond the confines of this story. Even though the podcast does not address it directly – arguably one of its few weaknesses – Reed (like many of John-B’s friends), was explicitly aware of his demons. Yet – either due to an unwillingness, lack of understanding or appreciation as to their seriousness, or because they did not know how to address such problems constructively – they failed to prevent John from taking his own life.

How To Break Taboos

These are just some of the problems that stem from the taboos that still exist around mental health, and that are encountered universally in its handling. In this sense, S-Town acts as an awareness piece, as a means to voice and reflect upon the broader problems that are encountered by many – the carers, supporters, and friends who, whilst in abstraction may know when one is suffering or is unwell, do not necessarily know how best to help, or if and when to intervene.

In the popularisation of S-Town, it is important to remember that John-B’s problems are global – connectable to anyone and everyone with an experience of something similar. Yet, at the same time, they are unique, complex, and personal. This is what makes mental health such a difficult and delicate conversation to bridge. John is one of many – and his story is one of many – with its own specificities and context, but one, too, that is troublingly familiar and all too common.

In its tenderness, its detail, and its uncompromising portrayal of the personal, S-Town provides a platform through which the life of John-B can be used as a springboard for conversations by and large unspoken in contemporary society. It is up to us to follow in his footsteps – to seek to navigate our collective journey through this maze of life.

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  1. […] The podcast phenomenon, S-Town […]

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