S-Town: A Podcast for our Mental Health

S-Town, a podcast produced by Serial and This American Life takes an up close and personal look at the life of John B. McLemore. To those of us who were dedicated listeners of the first Serial podcast and begrudging listeners of the second, the release of S-Town came as a surprise. All of a sudden, 7 episodes were downloaded and ready to be binge listened. I excitedly plunged into the first episode just to see what it was about, not sure if I would make it to the end of 1 episode much less 6 more. However, before the end of the day I ended up listening to all 7 of them.

An Intimate Portrait of Depression

The first episode is grabbing. You think you will be adroitly wading through the details of a small town murder, like a podcast sleuth. However, you soon discover that while there is no murder to investigate, someone’s death (and life) will be the focus of the podcast. What was so gripping to me was the intimacy of the story. The way that S-Town’s investigator and host, Brian Reed, seems to become a part of the story.

But also how the podcast medium including listening to the conversations and hearing people tell their own story, feels as though we are a becoming a part of the story too. What brings this podcast into my particular interest, is not just the enthralling narrative of John’s life, but the intimate portrait of someone’s struggle and untimely death from their depression.

Through the inviting style of the podcast and through John B’s own words we are able the hear the good, bad, and ugly of his life. John is complicated and conflicted. He almost incessantly criticizes the people and activities that he is at the same time a part of. He simultaneously decries the racism and backwardness of his small town while also embracing them.  

There are fair journalistic criticisms of S-Town, in that the podcast may have violated John’s privacy in a way that was unconsented and harmful. However, that’s not what I am going to do in this piece. Instead, I want to praise how S-Town appears to have captured the spirit and personality of John B. that would make him proud. That for someone that was so giving of himself, I don’t think anything could have made him prouder than to know the beautifully unflinching look at his life that is S-Town. The title itself is even right from John’s own words to describe his hometown.

I believe that S-Town is a gift to the mental health recovery community in capturing and honoring a man who struggled mightily with depression.

I believe that S-Town is a gift to the mental health recovery community in capturing and honoring a man who struggled mightily with depression. So much that his depression led to him take his own life. So many times, we are only able to describe someone’s life in simplistic terms. Like the way that John’s life was bromidically described during his funeral (i.e. a larger than life atheist man is described in bland religious terms).

A description of John may either see him as a victim of his depression or may simply see him as a man without understanding his depression. But just as the human narrative is complex and complicated, John’s life story is too. So much that he needed a 7-episode podcast to do his life justice. I believe that this podcast can be a gift to those in the mental health recovery community both for those who are actively struggling with their own depression, or to a family or loved one of someone struggling with mental health. I believe it is through understanding the beauty and the tragedy of these stories that we can accept our own stories of mental illness or those of our loved ones.

A Life Ended by Suicide

John’s story ended in him taking his own life. I don’t believe that S-Town serves to either glorify this ending or to heap blame-ridden guilt. While it is critical for us peering into John’s life not to do so with the aim of placing blame, I do think it is important to consider how to help others in a similar position. John flirted with the idea of suicide for many years. As the podcast notes, John likely struggled with depression since his teenage years. When others would inquire about the seriousness of his plan and assert their desire for John to continue to live (the right things to do), John never appeared to engage with this outreach. That was his choice and one that ultimately kept him in harm’s reach.

However, that doesn’t mean that this form of outreach doesn’t work or shouldn’t be done. Research indicates that those struggling with suicidal ideation often do respond to efforts for help. This doesn’t mean that everyone struggling with severe depression and suicidal ideation will be saved, but reaching out and talking with them about their struggle is a life raft for them. The last thing to do is to ignore the conversation or to think that talking about suicide will make it worse. The opposite is true.   

A Sexual Life Repressed

John self-identified as being homosexual and also discussed being intimate with both men and women. The nature of one of his intimate relationships becomes the primary subject of the Chapter 6 episode including a long interview with one of his close friends and long-time love interests, Olan. This section is a “grief manual” in many ways. As Olan reflects back on his relationship with John through his discussion with the host, he is in the midst of processing his own grief. He discusses the close friendship and companionship he experienced with John as well as the ugly conflict and distance in their relationship.

While he desperately longed for love and partnership he also did his best to push everyone away so that they couldn’t love him.

John and Olan discuss the difficulties of being gay men living in Alabama, which brought them closer and in other ways made their relationship incredibly difficult. Just as the protagonists in Brokeback Mountain, they seem caught in between; wanting to be together while also not being able to do so, until one of them passes away. So is the story of John and Olan. The sexual repression John experiences appears to be a life changing part of his psyche and a likely contributor to his depression. While he talked about leaving S-Town and was encouraged by many to do so, he could never bring himself to leave.

A particularly challenging part of John which is highlighted so well in the podcast is his self-defeating relationship tendencies. While he desperately longed for love and partnership he also did his best to push everyone away so that they couldn’t love him. In virtually every relationship including intimate and platonic, he found a way to push them away or demand too much or offend them until they left.

My guess is that just as John had strong beliefs about the world around him and the town he lived in as being dysfunctional and destitute, he internalized these beliefs about himself. He would push and provoke others around him to prove that he himself was unlovable. One of the only ways that he knew to successfully navigate relationships was to pay for them.

John of course would never pay someone directly for their companionship, but he paid people to work on his home and his yard in order to give him an excuse to connect. Even with the people closest to him at the end of his life like Tyler, the way that they connected was through John paying him for services. While this often resulted in a strong but conflicted bond that was beyond a money exchange, John appeared to dislike himself and the people around him so much that he kept things at money’s length reach.

The Negativity Engulfed Him

John’s impassioned negative world view was a distinctive part of his story and his depression. This worldview was so pervasive that it impacted almost everything that he did. While the S-Town podcast goes out of the way to correctly state that John could find beauty in the present moment, what becomes evident through the 7 episodes is John’s infinite negativity about the future. He believes that everything including the global climate, his town, his relationships, even his garden maze will eventually decline and decay.

While some that hold onto that world view are able to take it with a grain of salt, this pessimism becomes engulfing for John and takes a grating toll on everyone that stays around long enough to hear his diatribes. Even though John’s intellect could help him to research and understand even the deepest nuance of global warming, nuclear science, and geometry, he couldn’t research himself into contentment and happiness. This gnawing sense that everything will come to a painful demise is a tragic outworking of John’s depression and personality structure that eats at him from the inside out.

This gnawing sense that everything will come to a painful demise is a tragic outworking of John’s depression and personality structure that eats at him from the inside out.

In an effort to find an escape from his mind, which he described as a “bad song that you can’t get out of your mind,” John turned to physical pain near the end of his life. John sought out tattoos, piercing, and later needle play to find an escape from his pain. By punishing himself through tattoos and needle play, he could turn off his mind even just for a while. It is common in those struggling with extreme emotional pain to attempt to find some way to manage their pain. John’s self-inflicted pain became so literal that he tattooed bloody whip marks onto his back. The self-punishment that he had tried for so many years to commit in his relationships and to himself, took a very real form on his body.  

In Chapter 7, new information is introduced that includes how John may have experienced decades of self-induced mercury poisoning through an age-old technique called fire gilding. Given the risks of fire gilding, these approaches are rarely if ever used anymore and therefore limited research is available on the effects. However, it is quite clear that this poisoning could have significantly contributed to his depression. The important note is that John appears to have been well aware of the possible risks to his health and continued despite requests to stop. I believe that this could also be a continued outworking of his desired self-punishment.

A Desperate and Tragic Picture, but One that Helps Us to Understand Mental Health

The wages of John’s depression, sexual repression, lack of intimacy, and lack of social supports tragically resulted in his death. However, John was a gift to this world and to those around in him in many ways. John may not have been able and willing to reach out for help in the way that he needed it, but I believe that his story may inspire others to do so. If you are struggling and can relate to John’s story, know that your pain is real, you aren’t alone, and help is available. Thank you to Serial/This American Life and S-Town for this complex portrait honoring John’s life and death, and thank you to John for sharing your story and your life with others.

Filed under Mental Health, Pop Culture

Dr. Ryan Hooper is a Board Certified Clinical Psychologist, practicing in Chicago. He is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine as well as University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Medicine. He has worked with clients from many different backgrounds including veterans and professional athletes, as well as clients experiencing a wide-range of mental health struggles including Depressive and Anxiety Disorders, Substance Use Disorders, Trauma-related Disorders, and Psychotic Disorders.