Documentary podcasts tend to present listeners with topics that, at least on some level, expose human suffering. Whether it’s the case of a murder, a story of political unrest, stalking, espionage, loss, sexual misconduct or fraud — we learn something profound about the misfortunes of others. Because of this, many struggle with the ethics of genres like true crime and question whether we should be permitted to enjoy such stories as a kind of “entertainment.”
However if, like me, you resist the idea that we’re participating in something intrusive or perverse (at least for the most part) and feel strongly that many important stories are now getting oxygen thanks to the boom in comparatively inexpensive podcast media, then Camp Hell Anneewakee is here to help your case.
This astonishing 12-parter examines the horrific multi-decade abuse and corruption that took place at The Anneewakee Treatment Center for Emotionally Disturbed Youth in Douglasville, Georgia. It is impossible to ignore the power of such a devastating podcast — both in terms of catharsis for the many ex-pupils who testify on the record, and as a restatement of the lessons society should have learned, including the methods and motives of predators, so that such an abhorrence never occurs again.
The podcast is long and detailed and harrowing. Sometimes the recollections of abuse are hard to hear. So too are the stories of those who have struggled to find the help they need to recover in the years since. Though well-produced, Camp Hell Anneewakee is still as raw as it needs to be. No jazzy music, inadvertent humor or dramatic reconstructions. Host Josh Thane carefully (and sensitively) peels back the curtain and reveals a very darkest side of human nature — the compulsion to take advantage of vulnerable children.
It’s true that the main villain of the piece, Louis Poetter, is no longer around to defend himself from accusations layered on top of the crimes he plead guilty to in 1988. But then this project is not about protecting Poetter, an admitted child abuser, but about giving voice to the tens of people who feel they were in some way damaged by him or his regime. In that sense, this isn’t balanced reporting — but that feels a little like saying that presenting testimony from each of Cosby’s accusers creates an imbalance; the fact is that the volume of complainants vs. defenders is imbalanced…
This podcast isn’t a Serial-style true crime piece. You won’t find any cliffhangers or get to gasp at the end of a big “reveal.” It’s about real people and the horrendous circumstances they suffered, the years that were robbed from them and, ultimately, the woeful lack of justice they received. And it’s as fascinating as it is sickening.