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Can’t Let Go of ‘S-Town’? Here’s What to Read Next

“The thing that’s been special for me in the last few months,” he said, “has been to hear the surprising ways it seems to have affected people. Specific ways that I couldn’t have predicted.” Mr. Reed said he has heard from people around the world who are now noticing sundials and “thinking of time differently,” and from people who say “they’re grateful for a story that they feel represents the South.”

“I hadn’t realized people from the South were so starved for three-dimensional representation,” he said.


A water tower in Woodstock, Ala.

Jay Reeves/Associated Press

For those who can’t seem to forget about Mr. McLemore and company, here’s a roundup of articles that took a harder look at some of the more significant moments in the series. (There are spoilers ahead.)

Mercury poisoning

Was mercury poisoning to blame for Mr. McLemore’s odd behavior? The suggestion was raised in the final chapter, and it cast the entire series in a different light.

Mr. McLemore practiced the ancient method of fire gilding, in which mercury and gold are heated to an extreme temperature, causing the gold to transfer onto an object — in his case, mostly antique clocks. According to “S-Town,” Mr. McLemore practiced this dangerous procedure without protection or proper ventilation dozens of times a year. It can, Mr. Reed said, affect a person’s physical or mental health.

There was no way for Mr. Reed to confirm the claim, since the current owners of Mr. McLemore’s property denied access to his former workshop for testing.

Still, Vox looked at the history and science behind mercury poisoning.

“He was doing it for years, so the quantity of mercury in his workshop must have been unbelievable,” Jack Caravanos, an environmental health professor at New York University, told Vox. “So that’s why his health effects, I think, are completely plausible.”

Tattoo ritual

One of the most unusual revelations was that Mr. McLemore engaged in a body-modification ritual — or “church,” as he called it. During these regular sessions, Mr. McLemore would ask Mr. Goodson to tattoo his chest and pierce and re-pierce his nipples.

The ritual “morphed into what was essentially an elaborate form of cutting that helped John to relieve his mental anguish,” Mr. Reed narrated in Chapter 7.

“He got enough tattoos in one year that someone could get in a lifetime all at once,” Mr. Goodson said. “He got addicted fast.”

Rolling Stone delved into the practice, asking whether it was a form of therapy, self-harm or B.D.S.M., sexual acts that can involve sadism and masochism.

The magazine spoke to Kiersten Johanna Johnson, a tattoo artist in Colorado, who said she had customers who came in for “pain therapy” — using tattooing or piercing as an alternative to self-harm.

But Dr. Howard Forman, a psychiatrist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, told Rolling Stone that he did not believe tattoos should be used to treat mental illness.

Sexuality in the Deep South

For many listeners, it was gut-wrenching to learn that Mr. McLemore was most likely struggling with being a closeted gay man.

In an article in Vice about gay isolationism in the rural South, Shane Barnes addressed the undertones of Mr. McLemore’s language — he referred to gay men as “closet cases” and used gay slurs — and tried to add some context to the experience of L.G.B.T. people in the region. Mr. Barnes pointed specifically to Billy Jack Gaither of Sylacauga, Ala., who was bludgeoned to death in 1999 by a man he apparently flirted with.

In The Dallas Morning News, Michael Lindenberger explored the turmoil of being gay in the South with a personal touch, having grown up there himself.


Mr. McLemore’s grave. He killed himself in 2015.

Jay Reeves/Associated Press

Mr. Lindenberger reminded readers that “as recently as 2003, homosexuality was a crime in places like John’s S-Town, and in Texas, too.”

Daniel Schroeder for Slate, on the other hand, dinged the podcast and Mr. Reed for what he thought was a tone-deaf presentation of the topic.

A man of many talents

Mr. McLemore’s polymathic mind was a force to witness, and Rachel Kraus of The Los Angeles Review of Books noted that he had a gift for language.

He could clearly be considered an “eccentric genius,” a “scientific genius” or a “technical genius,” she wrote, but was he also an “artistic genius” or a “poetic genius”?

She spoke with Professor Nicholas Jenkins, a poetry expert at Stanford University, about the language in Mr. McLemore’s suicide note.

“The qualities that make it poetic to me, I think, are the parallelism and repetition, the openness to the world, the expert and very precise vocabulary,” Mr. Jenkins said.

The timepieces

Mr. McLemore’s passion for sundials and timepieces, and his staggering talent in building and repairing them, was central to the story.

In a video for The Charlotte Observer, Tom Moore, a friend of Mr. McLemore’s who was featured on the podcast, showed off an intricate sundial Mr. McLemore had made. It took him 20 years to put it together, “which is not unlike John McLemore,” Mr. Moore said.

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