BlessdTown: My S-Town Experience

Bless your heart, Brian Reed. I can almost officially say that as a transplanted Southerner but it really means nothing coming from me. Although I believe that I live in the South, and the Ohioans I left behind definitely think I live in the South, folks here in Southeastern Virginia are quick to remind me that this isn’t Thee South. Nevermind that I’m 60 miles south of the former capitol of the confederacy and there are statues of generals to commemorate Our Confederate Dead all over the place or that it’s considered acceptable to have a 5 minute conversation in line at the 7-11 with a perfect stranger, I think what most people are saying to me is that I’m not a Southerner. People around here tend to speak in code. So hearing Brian Reed in the S-Town podcast try to navigate coded, secret, slow southern conversation was not only satisfying but a vindication of sorts. With every conversation you have with a “Southerner” it’ll be a minute before you understand just what the hell is going on with them. Even then, you’ll only think you understand because you never really understand another culture or person. Not really.

I run on the outside of academic circles so I know some smart people. I know some smart southerners who were skeptical about someone the north picking apart an Alabaman. A non-Academic out-for-themselves-and-a-story northerner at that. “I live in New York” Reed would say and I would think Jesus, man! Do you know what you just said to these people?! Hearing that disaffected nasal choppy NPR’ish voice next to the sappy southern drawl felt wrong, felt judgey. That voice. Seriously,  there are no Southern broadcast journalists on NPR? Or anywhere, somewhere? Still I defended the podcast to my Southern friends because as George Washington in Hamilton taught us, we have no control over who tells our story. The folks in this podcast aren’t politicians. They are people, real people, just folks. I noticed that the people in S-Town that Reed meets are  surprised that he traveled so far and often offered to pay for things that most professionals would never conceive an interviewee offering. This is no small point. Believe it or not, travel (especially airline travel), is still a big deal to many Americans who think that Greyhound is still a luxury (at least you don’t have to drive yourself). I’m not saying that there are Two Americas…there are probably more like 12. However, none of us live in a flattened, homogenous America. And while it’s interesting to look into another’s life, it’s important to remember that you are seeing only a snapshot, just a moment. There are rules and ethics to conducting this kind of ethnographic research. The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that I assume Reed knows and follows. But the readers of academic studies and listeners of podcasts are different:  no one reads academic papers and everyone is listening to S-Town.

Sorry, that was a dig for my own amusement. I’m looking at you, hubby.

Back to my point S-Town deserves a defense because it does one thing nothing in media has ever really done: shine a light on guardianship. For several years, I worked for a social service agency that served as court-appointed guardians for people who could no longer make their own financial or medical decisions. I would see families come to court every week who disagreed on what to do with aging relatives. Many times, families had spent years neglecting an elderly or disabled family member and I would read a report  from Adult Protective Services that underscored just how many families acted out of guilt, or shame, and a group of family members would overcompensate. This would then lead to fights over every tiny detail of this person’s care that would embarrass wild dogs. Suddenly a child who hadn’t spoken to Uncle Bob in years would be at the nursing home every day complaining that Bob hasn’t been shaved in a week. There were always horrible cases of neglect and abuse, a few involving families who didn’t understand the implications of non compliance with governmental agencies,  and many more of elderly parents who could no longer care for their aging, disabled children. This lead to stress… and drinking. I would come home from that job and just drink… and cry. Drinking and crying, lots of it. I had a reason. I initially entered the field of guardianship for very personal reasons: I had to file for guardianship for my own soon-to-be-no-longer 18 disabled daughter. It was the saddest thing I had ever done but I had to. I had to take over as her agent so she wouldn’t refuse medical treatments that she could not comprehend. I had to so that she wouldn’t get bilked out of finances that would never make sense to her. You may think this is a good thing, and it is. But it is also sad to realize your child will never be able fulfill the one basic wish every parent has: to take care of themselves. Because of that crumpled wish, one that cost me close $2,000 in lawyers fees paid to people who would never get how sad this really was, I  wanted to bring some humanity into an otherwise inhumane process. The drama that ensues with Mamma Mary Grace, Tyler and Cousin Rita is real. I’ve lived it. It plays out every day all over the 12 Americas we have. When someone passes away, the cold indifference of the law locks up right from wrong or settled and unsettled. It’s painful. If you have learned nothing from John B it is to get a Will, like now. Worse, it’s sadder that something that I saw every day has never, I’ve never seen on television or film. It took a podcast, a media anyone can create, to finally deal with it.

What about John B anyway? That sensitive, southern, environmentalists, caregiver, horologist, brain-injured, “60% gay man” was, of all things, quite the human.  I see a lot of interesting, unconventional minds in my recent work as a supervisor in a home that cares for severely mentally ill clients. Our brains have incredible capabilities. They  can develop some of the most unhealthy coping strategies in order to deal with incongruent information and impossible situations, the kind of situations John sured faced every day. Heck, I live in a costal city destined for fish food and I go nuts, too, when I don’t see the outrage over climate change. It’s hard for me to get super pissed over Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad when there are so many plastic water bottles living in the ocean right now. So fuck it. Namaste, John B. Here was John B., a man wrapt in logic and science who refused medication and probably didn’t think about how the mercury he used to fix clocks was likely poisoning his mind. John B. both seems crazy and makes sense. He was the madness that wanted so badly to pull us out of the yoke of convention. Southerners are able to live with cognitive dissonance fairly well. It’s called Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence while holding slaves. It’s swearing at you in niceties. It’s called tolerating a lumber company that overtly invokes the Ku Klux Klan. We’ll overcompensate for the unspeakable cruelty our past by being known as the most friendly and hospitable treatment of guests in the country. It’s not just the South. It’s America. We may never reconcile with the fact that we thrived only through the exploitation of humans.

So don’t get all fussy about the S-Town Podcast exploiting folks. It’s how we do in the South, the North and in every one of the 12 Americas we live in. We can’t talk about ourselves or our own quirks and imperfections unless we put it in the context of another person. Because it’s easier. They do our work for us.

2 thoughts on “BlessdTown: My S-Town Experience

  1. I agree with you, Katie. I think issues surrounding guardianship are largely ignored because people can’t come to terms with the nature of life — that it is temporary — and thus, put the eventuality of their own death and its ramifications completely out of their minds.

    But I think the S-Town podcast can be defended as art, regardless of the tongue-clucking about “exploitation”. John B. invited a radio journalist into his life and allowed him to record pretty much whatever he wanted. And people aren’t permitted to control what other people think of them, particularly after they’re dead. And as for the other people in Shittown, the citizens of that town knew he was a radio journalist and they agreed to talk to him on the air. End of controversy, to my mind. If all of this was private, he wouldn’t have been able to find out any of it and he wouldn’t have been able to get anyone to go on record about it. There would have been no there there.

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    1. The editing and music alone make S-Town a work of art, absolutely. I wonder who in the S-Town cast had heard of TAL or Serial. People did agree to be interviewed but had they known just how many people would be listening—would they have agreed? Is it right that Brian Reed and Serial now have a career making Podcast and will make a living off of marginalized people?

      I would LOVE–and I mean l.o.v.e. to write about the folks I work and have worked with. Maybe I’m just bitter because I can’t.

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