Unearthing the ethical dilemma of true crime’s latest sensation: S-Town

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S-Town is the latest podcast to take the world by storm. A seven-part true crime series turned biography, it’s already the most popular ever - with 16m downloads in its first week. Carving an all-new genre that lets journalists dig deeper into their subject’s secrets than ever before, it’s forcing tough decisions on what to divulge to listeners. What’s more, it’s borne a legion of internet sleuths desperate to fill the gaps. Amy Everett examines this ethical dilemma.

Warning: major spoilers abound

Within an hour of listening to S-Town, I’d fallen in love with protagonist John B. McLemore.

Within two, he was dead.

A day later, I’d found aerial photos of his home, family photographs, his YouTube account, the Facebook profiles of his neighbours and website comments he’d made under pseudonym Hiruit Nguyse. I saw personal gifts he’d made for old friends, his tattoos, and his headstone. I discovered soundbites of his brain-damaged neighbour Uncle Jimmy, turned into mobile ringtones.

Hell, I’d even listened to someone stoically read aloud from his suicide note – but why?

McLemore had approached This American Life’s Brian Reed to investigate what he believed was the cover-up of a murder in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama. Reed eventually agreed to visit the so-called “S**t Town”, did some digging, and determined McLemore was mistaken – there had been no murder.

When McLemore took his own life by drinking cyanide, Reed found there was a story to be told in America’s Deep South after all - the tragic tale of McLemore himself.

Yes, McLemore invited the radio journalist into his life. But did that give Reed – and in turn, us – the right to deep-dive into his mental health, sexuality and relationships?

The short answer is no. But it made for devastatingly good content, so Reed did it anyway.

Describing S-Town as “an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life”, Reed says it felt like “by sheer force of will, John open[ed] a portal” between them. Yet there’s no denying that he added subplots which McLemore did not advocate – and it’s highly doubtful that the eccentric clock-maker could ever have anticipated the lonely, wasteful portrait painted of his existence.

McLemore couldn’t have known we’d learn how he reused snotty tissues, wore dirty clothes, urinated in the kitchen sink, and ‘never found real love’, like they describe in country music songs.

He couldn’t have guessed that there would be reams of discussion about his life all over the world.

Episode two leaves listeners clamouring for more time with John – crucially, more than he decided to give us. I searched the podcast online, needing to know I wasn’t the only one grappling with sadness for a man I’d never met.

What I found was a legion of fans creating their own memorial.

“I'd do anything to have John B. inhabit my home in ghostly form as my constant invisible companion”, one bereft fan wrote on the show’s Facebook page.

Another pleaded: “Does anyone have pictures? I want to put faces to these names.”

“I would like to see a copy of the suicide letter,” another demanded.

“Here is John B. McLemore’s nipple”, one contended, unearthing a photo from a McLemore’s friend Tyler Goodson’s tattoo parlour.

These comments made me uncomfortable, yet, by searching these threads, I was complicit. We as listeners demand more of McLemore when he owes us nothing, becoming online gumshoes to feed our guilt-tinged curiosity.

Dr. Grainne Kirwan, lecturer on Cyberpsychology (MSc), says it’s understandable that we want additional information: “Engaging in gossip in offline environments can be guilt-inducing, but the communication rules, especially about private matters, are less clear online, and so it doesn't feel as wrong.”

But why are we so obsessed with the private lives of others, anyway? Dr. Kirwan explains that it “stems from an evolutionary advantage that those who had knowledge about others had over those who did not.”

An “awareness of the strengths, weaknesses, and 'skeletons in the closet' of others gives people an advantage over them if they ever need it”, she goes on. Then there’s the “downward social comparison” - where we compare our own situation or behaviours to others engaging in “less socially acceptable behaviours” to makes us feel good about ourselves. Thus, S-Town invites millions of people to scrutinise and judge the life of a deceased stranger.

In an interview with Pacific Standard, Reed said: “I don’t believe that when a reporter is doing a story about someone who has died, that they can only include elements that the person consented to when they were alive.

I don’t believe that’s an ethical problem, and there’s a whole world of journalism about people who have passed away. The whole enterprise of that journalism is to learn more about [those people] than we understand from when they were alive.”

For Guardian editor Gay Alcorn, S-Town’s journalistic decisions are “morally indefensible”. She describes it as “ethically confronting in the deepest way”, taking biggest issue with the fact that the podcast never justifies its voyeurism. She writes:

“I only wish they’d acknowledged the conundrum at the heart of the program. I’d forgive them almost anything if they had done that. But without it, S-Town is undoubtedly a good story, but an indefensible one.”

Need proof? Private photos are now being splashed across tabloid newspapers while Bibb County ‘locals’ fight to answer questions and gain notoriety on discussion threads: they claim to have gone to school with the subjects, or have ‘just driven by’ John’s huge, mysterious property.

Their Facebook pages flogged S-Town merch days after its release, clothing websites soon followed suit. All this is deeply reminiscent of Serial - the very podcast that generated such anticipation for S-Town – where ‘fans’ stalked Jay and other ‘characters’ online for years, guessing at his guilt or innocence.

There’s more, too. New podcast series Missing Richard Simmons by filmmaker Dan Taberski cashes in on this hunger for human stories – with little to no regard for its namesake. Simmons is an American fitness instructor, who retreated to total obscurity one day in 2014. Taberski, who purports to be Simmons’ friend, demands answers to Simmons’ whereabouts for six whole episodes – though he’s told by Simmons’ manager and family that he categorically does not want to be found. More clumsy, ill-advised series are sure to come, trying to capture the mastery of Brian Reed and his team’s stunning output.

The irony of how much John would have despised this form of gossiping and commodification will not be lost on true fans – but it’s potentially dangerous for those he left behind, too. 

As John’s ‘worm dirt’ now, with his property sold on, some might think this invasion of his privacy means nothing - but they’d be forgetting about the gold bullion rumoured to be hidden on the property, or the thousands of dollars’ worth of possessions rumoured to be inside the house. At best, it’s a target for looters who fancy their chances in a real-life treasure hunt. At worst, it gives criminals the means to track down John’s decrepit mother, friends and cousins to see if they’re hiding anything. 

Should there be monitoring of discussion threads, like the one I found featuring videos of Tyler and Jimmy, laughing as he prepares to spray paint a motor engine in his back yard? What about the hoards of people reportedly trespassing on what was once John’s beloved property, craning to see the fascinating maze and garden they know he built?

Thanks to a bizarrely lax edit of geographical co-ordinates in the first episode, enough do-gooders and photographers have confirmed the maze to be in disrepair there’s talk of a charity campaign to buy it from its new owners. 

Fans have compiled lists of every book John mentioned throughout the series, so they might read them and feel closer to him. Someone contacted Reed himself, asking for a look at the souvenir John bequeathed him - and he obliged:

With a few clicks we can see John’s “red hair” after hours of imagining it, and the same tattoos John kept staunchly hidden during his lifetime.

We learn later they were shrouded in shame, an emblem of ‘church’ sessions potentially bound up in self-harm that John never permitted to be revealed. We can find a photo of the very nipples, pierced with gold rings, invasively described to be “chopped off” after his death - all these details originally shared in the innocent context of promoting Black Sheep tattoo parlour.

Savvier internet sleuths have dug up and shared the accounts John used to comment on climate change articles years ago, post funny YouTube clips parodying ‘Jeebus’ and the Christian faith, and buy various items on Amazon - everything from books on astrolabes and feminism to children’s toys (for Tyler’s children, you find yourself surmising about a man you do not know - how sweet of him. That is just *so* John).


All this, and we’re yet to touch on the implications of outing John’s sexuality, a fact he chose to cover up his whole life. Reed talks to John’s former gay lovers and companions, one of whom is married and chooses to remain anonymous. A few clicks and you’ll find amateur detectives purporting to know who the man is, a local in a place so small and gossipy Reed himself exclaims “This *town!*”, exasperated by it all.

For the man, the implications could be far worse than an eye-roll. As John says, “that kind of thing can get you killed around here”, and he’s probably right - in the summer of 2015, it was one of the handful of places in the country defying the Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage to be a Constitutional Right. There’s no telling what the reaction to Tyler’s close relationship or intimate “church” sessions with John might be – all things that should have been anticipated.

John’s lamentations are a joy to listen to, though the subject matter is grave and the connections seemingly random. What makes him so sad about the problems of the world in general (climate change, food shortages, nuclear war) and his little S*** Town (child molestation, gossiping, corruption) is the shared lack of outrage compared to our problematic realities. This inertia “maddened” John and the best thing we can do in his memory is resist the ratio growing terminally “out of whack.”

If S-Town has defined a new genre, then it will surely become a classic - but we must take care to learn from it. While compelling and masterful, this podcast feeds a hunger for omniscience that pushes us to cross the line from interested to plain immoral.

Producers must take measures to protect their protagonists, so that ‘tedious and brief’ lives like John’s can be given the obituaries they deserve: when it comes to ethics, we should never shrug our shoulders and say *f*** it.”