“John B McLemore lives in Shittown, Alabama.”
So read the subject line of the email that first caught the attention of This American Life producer Brian Reed and would become the seed for the podcast S-Town. Upon further engaging with McLemore, chief malcontent of Woodstock, Ala., Reed found himself navigating a maze of complicated characters, rumors of corruption, unrequited love, and a downward spiral of plot twists. For Christians, the podcast also functions as a complicated consideration of how to best love our neighbors.
The plot of S-Town is worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. Yet Brian Reed is not Shakespeare, and his role in telling us the heartbreaking life story of a gifted but unhappy man encompasses more than theatricality. Through Reed’s ability to offer an empathetic ear to everyone he meets, we have the privilege of discovering unexpected beauty among the citizens and landscapes of a backwater community in the Bible Belt. Yet as Reed gets spun into the story as a character invested in the lives of the people he encounters, his empathy morphs into a voyeuristic pity, one that fails to intervene for the truest good of those he’s encountered.
A warning: spoilers lie ahead, including discussion of difficult details.
A little rambling about my struggle with words lately:
There were moments listening to the 7 episodes of the new podcast S-Town that I could hardly stand to listen any longer. I’m still not sure I should have kept listening, but I’d made the mistake of motivating myself to go to the gym by saving my “binge-listening” for the treadmill and so I felt committed. Make no mistake: the producers of groundbreaking podcasts This American Life and Serial crafted yet another brilliant vehicle for irresistible storytelling, led this time by narrator Brian Reed. In the nature of much true crime genre, most threads of the account are left unresolved at the end. It wasn't really the unresolved threads that bothered me, but the conclusions reached from what I considered a truncated understanding of empathy.
The other reason I completed the podcast was because earlier in the episodes I was caught up in the unexpected beauty of the world that Brian Reed was painting for our imaginations. I could actually imagine the series as a Terrence Malick film. While I was feeling enthused about the overall arc of the storytelling, I told Josh, the editor I work with at Think Christian (who is a truly generous and skillful editor) that I'd write the piece. I only had one more episode/one more trip to the gym to hear the conclusion, and then I'd write something right away!
The problem came when I listened to the final episode, and it was far darker than I'd expected and really got me into a head space of disturbing thoughts and feelings that took me a while to process. Time and lots and lots of words - first in my journal, and then in several written drafts before the piece could actually be appropriate for public viewing.
In short: I got triggered. I got triggered by difficult themes, but even more so by what felt to me like some glaring miscalculations by the podcast host and producers. I got tipped over by my own negative responses, and couldn't quite get upright again.
It's not that I'm incapable of watching/listening/reading/discussing difficult topics. It's actually been part of my healing process to be able to enter into my own experiences of trauma by entering into other painful stories (both true and fictional). I came to the conclusion that S-Town took me past my comfort zone not because of its themes, but because of the places I perceived it was not telling the truth. Mixed messages and double standards in drawing conclusions really, really irks me.
And I mean, really.
In an earlier draft of the critique, I managed to weave in some of my animosity of current political rhetoric. Something about the way abusers create euphemisms to justify the ways they hurt other people. So, add euphemisms to doubles standards, mixed messages, and covering up for predatory behavior with any sort of language that makes excuses for violating other people to the list of things that really set me off. I'm sure I'm not alone in that. I don't know all the reasons for this, although I have some pretty good hunches.
I was reminded, in my processing S-Town, that triggers don't have to become the kind of despair that weighs me down without relief, particularly if I am able to process the feelings with people I trust. In this case, I needed Brian (who'd listened to the podcast with me) and Josh (who helped me sort through my onslaught of words to get to the redemptive critique I most wanted to offer). I also needed time to process in quiet with my own self. For someone who enjoys quiet moments of contemplation, I can really kick against it when my heart is feeling afraid and angry.
On Saturday night, two days before my final deadline to submit the piece (a deadline that had been graciously extended a couple of times because of my general struggle with the topic), Brian took me to Manhattan to hear a favorite band. It's the kind of band I need to hear live approximately once a year just to maintain my soul's well-being. Their songs are that beautiful. And Saturday night, they sounded as beautiful as ever (if not more so). The difference I experienced, though, was in the words they spoke. One band member, in particular, seemed especially weary. She referenced the current political climate in our nation, which was not a surprise, and something I completely understood. It felt though, like she was so frustrated by recent events that she could no longer offer any sort of eloquent response. The words she used were intended to sound warm, open, and encouraging, but came across to me as cynical, defensive and exhausted. I think she was trying to express empathy, but what it sounded like was weary apathy.
Another band member chose to offer his feelings through very few words, and all of them pointing us to the lyrics of the songs. He'd say "Everything I want to say I wrote into this song." And all of the songs were beautiful and powerfully true, even when they said hard things about hard themes.
I think we all get to have times, like my favorite band member, when we run out of words and just throw our hands up in the air and sputter. We need to hold each other up in those times, certainly. But the greater option, whenever we can muster it, is to offer something good, true, and beautiful. When we're in the angry, sputtering place we need to stand as close as possible to the beauty-cultivators, and let them speak the words for all of us.
Thanks for listening to my little stream of consciousness ramble about triggers and anger and beauty. As always, I'd love to hear any of your own thoughts on the subject. Drop me a note when you're able.
Truth, goodness and beauty, friends,