While doing historical research on her hometown of Altheimer, Arkansas, Southern Studies graduate student Christian Leus stumbled across an article about a 19-year-old girl named Irene Taylor. The girl was murdered in 1939, with her body dumped into the bayou that runs through town.

“It turns out, she was a distant cousin of mine!” Leus said. “So that was really surprising to discover.”

Leus, who defended her thesis “What Remains: Telling the Story of Irene Taylor’s Murder” on April 16, made a few short films about the Taylor murder before she settled on the idea for a podcast.

“The podcast takes listeners through my research of the case and the implications that it has on how I understand my family and my region,” Leus said. “My research involved a lot of digging through newspaper archives, as well as doing some family interviews and field recordings at places connected with the case. It was a surprisingly emotional process, as the story is some pretty rough material to work with, but it was really satisfying to be able to bring some nuance to a story that, as I found out through my research, has kind of been either overlooked or exploited in the past.”

As a student on the documentary track, the podcast accompanies a written paper, and her thesis committee included Andy Harper, Catarina Passidomo, and Ted Ownby.

Dealing with Zoom fatigue affected Leus in the fall, but this spring she worked independently on her thesis and got better at structuring her time.

“I focus on what’s important and have plenty of time away from my screen and I go on a lot of hikes,” Leus said.

During her two years at the Center, where she was also the Graduate Writing Fellow, the biggest thing that had an impact on her was contextualizing her surroundings.

“One of the most impactful things I’ve learned in this program is the idea of looking at landscape and region as a text that can be read—whether that’s through learning about the environmental history of a place, or by contextualizing it through documentary or other research,” Leus said. “Everything has a history and a context, even if that history and context has been erased or obscured.”

Although the final year of graduate school during COVID has been stressful, there are upsides, too.

“Obviously, I wish I would’ve gotten to spend more time in person with the folks here, but even with the pandemic, I feel like I’ve grown a lot professionally and academically while I’ve been here,” she said. “This program has a super supportive community, and I would recommend it to others based on that alone. But I think the program and the faculty are also really great at facilitating engaging, exciting, and creative work from their students.”

After she graduates in May, she has a few options ahead of her.

“I actually have been accepted into the M.F.A. for Documentary Expression program, which is exciting, but I’ve also recently been offered a new position doing research on a big investigative documentary project, so I’m planning on deferring my acceptance a year to give that a shot,” Leus said.

Written by Rebecca Lauck Cleary