New From Serial Productions · Gacy Intel · Small Towns Divided

Plus, the line between mentor and guru, and some welcome casting news

A new podcast is coming from the New York Times and the makers of Serial: The Improvement Association. You can listen to a trailer here; the pod’s landing page summarizes the five-parter’s brief thusly:

For at least a decade, allegations of cheating have swirled around elections in rural Bladen County, N.C. Some people in town point fingers at a Black advocacy group, the Bladen County Improvement Association, accusing it of bullying voters, tampering with ballots and stealing votes outright. These accusations have never been substantiated, but they persist. In this five-part series, reporter Zoe Chace travels to Bladen County, N.C., to investigate the power of election fraud allegations.

For reference, Bladen County is in the southern part of the state, between Fayetteville/Fort Bragg and Wilmington, and contains an actual town called Tar Heel.

If you’re somewhat skeptical of Times podcast reporting after all the Caliphate headlines, or just want to read ahead and see if the story’s one you want to invest in, Charlotte, NC’s NPR affiliate had a story last October about the “election fraud scandal” and voters heading to the polls two years afterwards. The Improvement Association drops April 13. — SDB

[content warning: discussion of suicide]

The good news is, the many many timeouts late in the March Madness games I’ve been watching over the last couple of weeks meant I could finally defeat a magazine pile that went back to The Before Time (the most elderly was a Better Homes & Gardens from January of 2020)…and I found a handful of relevant longreads, including one from the April 6, 2020 New Yorker on the death of Sharon Stern. Stern took her own life in 2012, after years of intense devotion to Butoh, a form of Japanese “dance theater” that — I think — is focused on the erasure of self in its practitioners. I say “I think” because, as the article notes and as we were told repeatedly by our REL 351 Japanese Buddhism professor back in the day, there is a “lived experience” of meditation and aspirational “nothingness” that we Westerners will always be at arm’s length from.

The relevance here is that Stern’s family and some of her friends feel that her Butoh mentor, Katsura Kan, is responsible for Stern’s death. There’s the suggestion that they were intimately involved, but mostly it’s that Kan was aware of Stern’s cultish devotion to him and to Butoh, and did nothing to support her or intercede when it became clear that Stern had crossed a line into obsession. For his part, Kan seems baffled by the accusation, and the article’s author, Rachel Aviv, seems to agree with him that language-barrier issues may have played a small role here.

Aviv’s prose is brisk and matter-of-fact, which plays well with a heavy topic burdened by many unknowables; she creates an effectively tense and frustrating sense of watching Stern grow more remote from her old life — and her old self — while not really being able to pinpoint how, or what might bring her back to contentment. She also zooms out to look at evolving ideas about suicide, criminality, and responsibility:

In recent years, though, courts have begun accepting that people are more interconnected than the laws surrounding suicide acknowledge. In 2017, Michelle Carter, a Massachusetts woman, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for sending text messages and making a phone call to her boyfriend urging him to kill himself; not long afterward, a Boston College student was indicted for the same crime, because prosecutors said she sent her boyfriend abusive text messages that prompted his suicide. Criminal courts are increasingly willing to see suicide as a kind of social process, and the suicidal person as a victim. Civil courts, too, have been taking more seriously the argument that people in positions of power—prison and school officials, psychiatrists, coercive partners—can be responsible for the deaths of those who need guidance or protection. The impulse to commit suicide does not always manifest like a germ in the body—it can also be shaped by teachers, by belief systems, by communities.

The writer Andrew Solomon observes that the catastrophe of suicide is “not only the loss of someone, but the loss of the chance to persuade that person to act differently, the loss of the chance to connect.” The lawsuit against Kan took that loss and enlarged it into a kind of evil fairy tale.

“The Unravelling of a Dancer” isn’t an easy read, but it does get at that sense of…unsolvedness, for lack of a better word, for the living. I recommend it, but read with care. — SDB

It’s time to pick the property I bonus-review in April! Which…is tomorrow, and I should have that Inside Game review up by tonight for you paid subscribers. Today, you can vote on what I review next — we’ve got a handful of podcasts and a couple documentaries, randomly selected from my swollen TBR/TBW/TBL list.

Vote now!

If you watched John Wayne Gacy: Devil In Disguise and wanted more BTS insights into the interviews with Gacy or what might still be buried at the corner of Miami and Elston Avenues; OR if you thought the docuseries sounded interesting, haven’t been able to clear time for it yet, and want to dip a toe in with auxiliary materials during your commute, a Devil In Disguise producer is on it. Tracy Ullman (nope, different one! I made the same mistake at first. Very different series) reached out to me this morning with “the last blog post in the set of three” at her Unlimited Bliss Productions website — on the Gacy case, overlooked evidence, and why this decades-old story is, or should be, still ongoing in the culture. The first post in the set is here if you’d like to start at the beginning. — SDB

Back to the magazine stack with a much more recent entry from the always-reliable Texas Monthly, Leif Reigstad’s “Surviving Terlingua.” The subhed describes a story about “several women in the former West Texas ghost town” accusing “a powerful man of sexual assault,” and the aftermath/backlash for those women — including a defamation suit, in one case — but it’s also a grim overview of how these cases play out in small communities where everyone knows each other; where everyone may work for the same one or two people or companies; and where, when anonymity is functionally impossible, sides get taken prophylactically in favor of the powerful and/or the boss.

Those factors might explain why so many of Terlingua’s townspeople sided with Jeff Leach against Katy Schwartz, but it’s one thing to decline to condemn the guy so as not to upset an already-fragile personal economic applecart. It’s another to willingly condemn the outcry witness to a reporter, on the record, with retrograde assumptions about that witness. Here’s a depressing snip of what some locals said to Reigstad:

No one had hard evidence of these supposed conspiracies, though they were quick to suggest Schwartz had a sordid, deceitful history and shouldn’t be trusted.

“I think that she was making advances toward him and was rejected,” said Jim Ezell, an organizer of Terlingua’s annual chili cookoff. “I think she was a woman scorned.”

“I hate the way that many of his dreams were shattered,” said Les Hall, a part-time resident of Terlingua who had known Leach for a little more than a year. “It was just pure spite.”

“He’s more of the victim, in my opinion,” said Frann Brothers, a longtime Terlinguan who had recently moved to Arizona. During our short phone call, she said she’d never talked to Schwartz. 

Several of Leach’s supporters tried to convince me not to write this article, saying it was a bunch of small-town gossip. Those who did talk on the record spoke of how generous Leach had been to his neighbors; how he’d given them financial support at some point; how he employed them or their friends and family; that he paid a good, living wage. 

They spoke of how the Jeff Leach they knew was incapable of the sexual misconduct described by his accusers. They said the women must be motivated by greed or jealousy; they questioned why victims like Berg had waited so long to go to the authorities. They characterized Schwartz as a liar, said that she drank on the job at Basecamp, and accused her of being promiscuous and untrustworthy. They suggested that she had a criminal past, doesn’t pay child support (Schwartz says this is not true), and had made the allegations because she was worried about losing her job. 

Sexual misconduct is not the only way in which Leach has behaved sketchily, an area Reigstad also delves into in this infuriating but extremely well-textured and -paced piece. As the world embarks on a new normal, Texas Monthly has pulled some content back behind a paywall as of last week; I’m a subscriber and it’s worth every penny (the physical magazine, which I also receive, is quite handsome as well). — SDB

Let’s close on some marginally lighter casting news, shall we? Hard on the heels of our discussion yesterday of whether Amanda Seyfried is a good fit for the Elizabeth Holmes role came another casting headline, this one much more of a slam-dunk IMO — namely that Lost’s Naveen Andrews is also joining The Dropout as Sunny Balwani. I mentioned on today’s Extra Hot Great when noting this addition that, while I’ve always liked Andrews, I’ve also always liked him much better than whatever he was in, and I’m hoping maybe this is That Role for him.

This casting note is a few weeks old, but I’ll pull it in here because I didn’t know prior to seeing it that A Very English Scandal was even getting a second season; that’s good news on its own, and the additions of Paul Bettany and Claire Foy to the S02 roster are good news too. Here’s TVLine’s Kimberly Roots on what we have to look forward to:

Foy and Bettany will portray the Duchess and Duke of Argyll, aka the key players in one of Britain’s most salacious divorce cases of the 20th century. Per the official logline:

Famed for her charisma, beauty and style, Margaret (Foy), Duchess of Argyll, dominated the front pages as a divorcee featuring accusations of forgery, theft, violence, drug-taking, secret recording, bribery and an explicit Polaroid picture all played out in the white-hot glare of the 1960s media.

Sarah Phelps (Dublin Murders) wrote the series, which will unfold in three 60-minute episodes and which will investigate the role institutional misogyny played in how the duchess was shamed in society and vilified by the press and the judicial system.

Speaking of institutional misogyny, I hope AVES pays Foy as much as it pays Bettany. — SDB

Thursday on Best Evidence: Our story doc is bursting at the seams again, so get ready for Eve to go rapidfire.

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