“When somebody dies, there are at all times questions that shall be left unanswered. However what occurs whenever you lose somebody and so they go away you a path to comply with after they’re gone?”
Chris Stedman is explaining the central conceit of his podcast Unread. The four-part collection sees the author and podcaster memorialise his pal Alex, who took his personal life in early 2020, by way of narration, voice notes and testimonies from mutual mates. It additionally follows Stedman’s quest to higher perceive his pal’s life, digging into components of his historical past that he didn’t know existed. Bringing collectively an affecting story and a compelling thriller, Unread garnered vital acclaim from the likes of Vulture, and has been among the many podcast highlights of the yr since its launch in July.
Whereas a podcast would possibly appear to be a wierd medium for a eulogy of kinds, within the case of Chris and Alex it’s maybe the one which makes most sense. Their decade-long friendship largely happened on-line, and Stedman realized of Alex’s demise by way of a posthumous electronic mail from his pal. “It was surprising and horrifying to obtain however he defined every part very clearly,” Stedman says. “Close to the tip, although, there was a element that didn’t make sense to me. He included a hyperlink to audio information of him speaking to somebody he had met virtually a decade earlier on a fan discussion board, who sounded precisely like Britney Spears.”
Within the weeks following Alex’s demise, Stedman saved eager about the explanation why he had included this element and determined to seek for the Britney voice double, who glided by the identify Alice on-line. Within the course of, he tried to grasp why Alice had meant a lot to Alex, in addition to contemplating how on-line fan communities supplied him with a way of belonging. Recording his progress, Unread is a poignant journey by Stedman’s grief, utilizing the Britney thriller to ask how our digital lives can present our family members with a semblance of our existence lengthy after we’re gone.
“I met Alex after I was in my early 20s, residing in Chicago, and he simply cracked me open,” says Stedman. “After years within the closet, I assumed that one of the simplest ways to outlive was to current a ‘polished’ model of myself, however he didn’t care about any of that. He was unapologetically himself and allowed me to be too.”
The pair bonded over a mutual love for music, particularly Spears’s discography. “There’s something about her that’s simply so actual,” he says. “She is a celebrity however she additionally has her personal struggles. In an age of the peerlessly curated on-line presence, Britney feels real. It’s why a number of us in marginalised communities see ourselves mirrored in her.”
Stedman moved to the east coast for work however the pair stayed in contact, usually sending one another snippets of singalongs to Britney songs. As scrutiny over Spears’s controversial conservatorship elevated, Alex was vocal together with his assist. “He was on the Free Britney practice earlier than it even turned a factor,” Stedman says. “It’s very bittersweet to now see how a lot progress has been made in her case, as I do know he would have been actually pleased about it.”
Central to the dialogue over Spears’s authorized autonomy and the highly effective, fan-led Free Britney motion is her psychological well being – one thing Alex struggled with all through his life. “He generally felt like folks wouldn’t imagine that he had these immense struggles, or he felt like there have been some individuals who solely wished him round when he was the lifetime of the celebration,” Stedman explains. “I heard echoes of that in Britney’s court docket testimonies. The world is barely fascinated about rewarding sure facets of who she is and can punish her for these different, equally legitimate components.”
Producing the podcast in collaboration with Alex’s household, Stedman is cautious to not element why Alex took his life, however fairly to be trustworthy in regards to the circumstances of his demise and open up conversations about suicide.
“His is a life that doesn’t often get celebrated,” Stedman says. “A part of what made Alex so particular can also be what made life so tough for him. He struggled to carry down a job, he was a wandering spirit, and he prioritised love and relationships over conventional notions of ‘success’. The world wasn’t essentially constructed for folks like him however I nonetheless wished to honour his reminiscence and to search out out what Alice had meant to him.”
Alice’s voice recordings are uncanny of their Britney-ness, in addition to explaining how a digital friendship might be as significant as one in actual life. Whereas the query of her identification is saved tantalisingly imprecise for probably the most half, as Stedman will get nearer to discovering her, we start to grasp Alex’s reasoning for together with her in his ultimate electronic mail. The result’s a deeply transferring ultimate episode the place Alex’s final needs lead Stedman to a newfound reflection on his personal life. “I’m such a sceptic often however this search allowed me to do what Alex would do, which is to embrace the fantasy of all of it,” he says.
Whereas the present has garnered reward for offering a brand new tackle “stan” tradition (intense fan behaviour) and the a lot talked-about Free Britney, Stedman sees its legacy as being extra wide-reaching.
“There’s this tradition of silence and disgrace round suicide – one of many issues that I discovered actually gratifying is listening to from individuals who both have struggled with suicidality themselves or have misplaced a beloved one and have discovered the present helpful for their very own processing,” he says. “We frequently view suicidality as somebody having an irrational second, however there’s nothing irrational about not eager to be alive in a world that doesn’t appear to care whether or not you reside or die. Whereas I’m devastated that Alex is gone, I don’t choose his determination.”
Finally, the unanswered questions that stay – about Alice, and Alex’s demise – turn out to be the that means of Stedman’s journey, fairly than a method to an finish. “I began out attempting to grasp precisely what occurred and on the lookout for factors the place I ought to have seen one thing was improper with Alex, however this course of has helped me turn out to be extra comfy with the unknowns,” he says. “A part of studying to stay with loss is studying to just accept the uncertainties. I’m in a unique place now and all I would like is to do Alex justice. I like him.”
Unread is on the market now on all podcast platforms.
Within the UK and Eire, Samaritans might be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Within the US, the Nationwide Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the disaster assist service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Different worldwide helplines might be discovered at befrienders.org.