It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
(This essay contains major spoilers for the podcast S-Town)
S-Town begins: "An antique clock maker contacted me… and asked me to solve a murder." In late 2012, a man in Alabama named John B. McLemore emails Brian Reed, a producer at the podcast This American Life. John B.'s email starts: "I live in a crummy little shit town in Alabama, called Woodstock." Here, S-Town begins a long and complex narrative with a mystery: a sexual abuse case and a murder covered in up by the Bibb County sheriff's department (the murder of a young boy who John B. remarks is "dead'r than hell!"). By the second episode, these two cases are more or less forgotten.
The first time Reed and McLemore speak over the phone after months of emails, John B. laughs and says, "That awkward moment of silence!" The word "silence" is spoken long and languished: "Sah-lunce." This moment is when listeners first hear John B. speak, and I cried. I was on a crowded subway car at 8 in the morning, and I let out the smallest sob. He says, "Somethin' has happened. Somethin' has absolutely happened in this town… and I about had enough of the things that go down in Shit Town." It had been years since I'd heard an accent from my home state that thick.
The landscape laid out in S-Town's seven episodes is one that I'm intimately familiar with. I grew up 3 hours south of Woodstock, in the slightly larger town of Enterprise. At 18, I left for college in a much smaller but much more politically progressive town further north, near Birmingham. Bibb County, where S-Town takes place, was my throughway between home and school. The portrait that S-Town paints, not just of the people but of the place itself, is so lively and so honest that it feels almost intrusive. Not intrusive in the sense that, as many have noted, it takes what is probably too close a look into a dead man's personal life. It feels like S-Town knows my own memories too well.
Brian Reed, the narrator and investigator who drives much of the podcast's action is an interloper; he is a New Yorker working his way into a community that both welcomes him and is consistently suspicious of him. But Reed isn't the person who brings S-Town to life for me, not really. He is merely presenting images: an old school bus full of lumber sitting on John B.'s property, the trailer-cum-tattoo shop where some of the locals drink and drop racist slurs, the town clerk who knows everyone's business. All of these people are people I knew, people I grew up with, and, in many cases, people I hated.
And at the center of it all, is John B. McLemore, the eccentric real-life liberal redneck who fixes up antique clocks in his old shed instead of doing the Sunday crossword. The thing about S-Town is that, while it is sold as a murder mystery, it end up a beautiful portrait of one man's life. I'm going to be upfront about something I'm a little embarrassed about—at first I didn't know S-Town was real. I had heard of Serial and This American Life, but had never listened to them, so I had no reason to think that the—truly incredible—events of S-Town weren't fictional.
I found out four episodes in, after John's suicide, when a friend of mine sent me a text that said "they're finding pictures of John and his maze and posting them all over the internet!" I remember I was at work and my jaw dropped when I googled to confirm what I would never have guessed—that John B. was a real person; that all of them were real. I remember a coworker of mine, who was also listening, remarking to me, "Their accents sound really fake, like stereotypical." and I replied, "No, those are the best Alabama accents I've ever heard, they must have hired real Southern actors." This became infinitely funny to me when I learned the truth.
Learning that S-Town was real felt like I had gotten socked in the chest, hard and fast, by something unexpected. I walked around my office in a daze. It wasn't just that John B., this incredibly sharp and complex man, was real and that the events of the podcast—namely, his suicide—had really happened—though I admit when I found that out, I felt like I had personally witnessed the death of a close friend. The thing that hit me with the most momentum was that for the first time in nearly three decades on this earth, I had a real-life representation of someone who—minus a few eccentricities—seemed to match up with my own life.
John B. was a funny, cranky, witty, sarcastic queer (by his own identification) Alabamian who hated his small shitty town just as much as he loved it. The complexities of this are so intimately familiar to me. Because I loved my town but I felt resolute that it did not love me back. And maybe it did, maybe I would have found that out, the way John B. would have. But I did what a lot of gay Southerners do: I left. It's what the narrative tells us to do, of course. Think about the LGBT films you've seen, and the books you've read—I'm willing to bet that most of them take place in San Francisco or New York; Paris Is Burning, Philadelphia, Latter Days (in which a gay mormon leaves Utah for San Francisco), The Birdcage—the list goes on.
There's a reason for this, absolutely. So much contemporary LGBT history has its origins in those two cities, but there's a reason for that. Cities, and especially coastal cities, have always supposedly been more welcoming and there is strength in numbers. But there comes a point when the stories we choose to tell have to come from someplace else, those places we're told to leave. Every image we see of ourselves tells us that we can't survive in the place that made us. I wish that I'd stayed. Of course John B's story doesn't end happily, because he kills himself. But John doesn't kill himself because he's gay. He remarks, "Since everyone 'round here thinks I'm a queer anyway…." with what I imagine is a flippant smirk. After his death, people who knew him talk about just how little that fact bothered them.
For me, the most crucial, most heartbreaking moment in the podcast comes in the sixth episode. John has already died, and Reed is trying excavate the various mysteries of his life by talking to people who knew him. In this episode, he talks to a man who was the closest thing John B. had to a long-lasting romantic relationship, Olan. It is a touching and heart-wrenching interview, during which Reed can be heard getting emotional.
The part of this interview that I haven't been able to get out of my head is when Olan talks about Brokeback Mountain. Now, when Brokeback Mountain came out in late 2005, I was fourteen. The movie theater in my town refused to screen it and I couldn't bring myself to ask my parents to take me up to Birmingham or Montgomery to see it. So I waited, and when it was released on DVD, I went down to the local rental place and I begged an older friend of mine to rent it for me. I don't think I have ever felt more devastated by a film in my life.
Olan talks about his own love for the film, as a gay man growing up in the rural South. This is a man, Reed points out, that dates events of his life relative to the release of Brokeback Mountain ("Well, it would have been in 2005, before Brokeback Mountain came out…"). He and John have a fight about the film because while Olan found the film to be cathartic, John doesn't see the appeal. He tells Olan that he's "making too much of it." Finally, after months of silence, Olan sends John a copy of the short story that the film is based on. In their next conversation, John is crying when he says "I took down the grief manual and read it again tonight."
In our small, sunlit bedroom in Brooklyn, I found this exact moment in the podcast and I made my girlfriend listen to it. I had told her about the podcast already, how much it meant to me. I had already played her small snippets of dialogue and said, with so much excitement, "Listen! Listen to that accent! Do you hear it?" When she listened to the bit about Brokeback, the grief manual, we cried together.
In this moment, she was crying the way that anyone who considers themselves part of the long, sad, and triumphant story that is LGBT history cries when they think about Brokeback Mountain, that gay cowboy movie. And I was crying in that way too, of course. But I was also crying for Olan, and for John B. and all the other people like me who grew up in places like Alabama or Montana and had no reflections of themselves in the movies they watched or the books they read. I was crying because S-Town sounds like home to me, and because it did its own small little part in helping repair the damage done in two decades of feeling like I couldn't exist in that place.