A Conversation With Documentarian Jon Ronson About His New Podcast Investigating The Suicide Of August Ames

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Porn star August Ames committed suicide last December, in the midst of a social media crisis that started when she tweeted that she wouldn’t work with male co-stars who had done gay sex scenes. There was a backlash over this perceived homophobia and a few days later she was dead, found hanging in a public park. This all but ensured that her death would forever be blamed on “cyberbullying.”

As this was happening, journalist and documentarian Jon Ronson had just wrapped his podcast about the porn industry, and the ripple effects of free online porn, The Butterfly Effect. Which had, in turn, come on the heels of his last book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which had studied what happens to people who have suffered notable shamings started by and/or exacerbated by the internet and social media. Thus, the death of August Ames — the erstwhile Mercedes Grabowski, 23, of Nova Scotia, Canada — seemed like a perfect triangulation of Ronson’s areas of expertise.

“The initial reason for wanting to tell the story turned into something very different as the various twists and turns in the story revealed themselves,” Ronson told Uproxx. “The initial reason was that I thought this was a public shaming story. My initial idea was pretty unambitious. I thought I wanted to do a very small story, maybe a 3,000-word story in The Guardian, or something, that would both explain August’s life, you know, portray her as the rounded human being she was. But, also do the same for people who piled in on August.”

One of the notable people who “piled in” on August was Jaxton Wheeler, a pansexual porn star, who had tweeted to Ames, “the world is waiting for your apology, or for you to swallow a cyanide pill.”

“At that moment the kind of official story was, ‘August tweets something homophobic. Jaxton said, ‘Go and take a cyanide pill,’ and then August dies,'” Ronson says, describing the initial coverage of Ames’ death. “But, during the very earliest part of the fact-checking process, that changed. Jaxton told me that his cyanide tweets had been written after August had died, which turned out to be true. And then the next thing that happened was I was in Jessica Drake’s [another porn star accused of piling on August over the tweet] hotel room and she was telling all that coded stuff to me. Like, ‘you need to be looking at that relationship between Kevin [August’s husband] and August.'”

That’s when the investigation shifted from a potential Guardian story to a full spin-off podcast series, The Last Days Of August, which was just released this past week on Audible.

Investigating August’s relationship with her husband makes up a central storyline in The Last Days Of August. He had tried to make cyberbullying the central issue in the wake of Ames’ death, almost going out of his way to blame Jessica Drake and others. Some of those people had thrown doubt upon the circumstances of Ames’ supposed suicide. It’s all the ingredients for a captivating murder mystery, but Ronson makes some surprising choices in the way he reports it, saying at the outset that there’s no evidence for anything but suicide and he doesn’t want to use false suspicion for “dramatic tension.”

“I really love true crime shows, but also really, I’ve heard a multitude of ethical violations,” Ronson says. “And I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that I cringe at when I see other people doing it.”

Specifically, he says “The main one is spreading suspicion that somebody might be a murderer as a kind of narrative device to keep people listening. As a listener to podcasts I succumb to that as much as anybody else does, but as a maker of those stories, I just think it’s ethically wrong to do it.”

“I had a sort of epiphany, in the middle of the night. A couple of months ago where I thought ‘this is how to solve that ethical problem.’ I’m gonna say something at the beginning of episode two that deflates that idea. If I hadn’t done that, it would be preying on me,” Ronson says.

Aside from the ethical pitfalls, there were also the natural barriers of trying to report on the somewhat insular porn world. Sex workers being some of the most vulnerable to the political winds, they’ve been burned by, and are naturally wary of, potentially sensational or even misinterpretable journalism. So there’s a bit of a wall that goes up if they suspect something potentially negative.

To put it simply, The Last Days of August tells a fascinating story, and Ronson had to traverse a minefield in order to do it. I spoke to him and his co-producer, Lina Misitzis, about it this past week.

Do you think you got answers to the questions that you were looking for when you set out to report this story?

JON: Yes. You know, we had stumbled into a story that was about why this, you know, lovely 23-year-old died. That’s what the story became — sifting through the various rumors to try to figure out why she died. What were the complicated, manifold reasons why she died? And I feel that we’ve answered that question. Sometimes the reasons are big and awful, sometimes the reasons are small and just psychological biases. But I feel very sure that what Lina and I spent the last year doing was an honorable endeavor.

Tell me about working with Lina. What was that partnership like? How did you guys split your duties?

JON: Basically the way that it works out is that Lina is in charge of the pre-production. So Lina does most of the scheduling, the contracts with people, asking them to participate, and so on. And then the production side, you know, getting the tape, that’s both of us. And then the post-production side, the kind of storytelling, the structure of the story, that’s mainly me. So that’s kind of how it works. But in general, Lina’s the best collaborator I’ve ever had. I think we’re very similar, we look at the world in very similar ways, and working with her has been one of the best joys of my life.

You sort of talked about this in the podcast, you’re talking about exploring these conspiracy theories, or people’s theories. How do you explore those without giving credence to them, in case you end up finding out they aren’t true.

JON: Our job, and I think it’s a fundamental part of a journalist’s job, is to listen to everything and then weigh it all out. Hopefully with maturity, and thought, and figure out the best as you can, using all the techniques we have to figure out the truth. Other times in the show people say things that turn out to not be true. But I would say that by the end of episode seven you find out the real reasons why August died.

LINA: There were conspiracy theories, but we don’t know that they’re conspiracy theories when we first hear them. Sometimes we hear something and we think “if that’s true, that’s incredible.” And there were a few stories that we heard that we really went down the road of investigating, like, we would spend weeks on, that don’t even make it into the series, because they just turned out to not be true.

JON: I just said to Lina, I think it’s okay to tell them what one of those stories was without giving away too much.

LINA: There was a rumor that was kinda relayed to us by a few people, that Jessica Drake knew Kevin Moore’s statement [accusing Drake of bullying August Ames into suicide] was coming. And in order to get ahead of it they leaked to The Wall Street Journal the details of Stormy Daniels’ payoff, because Jessica is very peripherally connected to the Stormy Daniels story. The theory was that she did this to get attention away from Kevin’s accusations against her. And the reason we even gave it any attention is because the Wall Street Journal article did come out the day after Kevin Moore posted his statement about Jessica, and this was the first article breaking the story.

JON: We spent probably close to a month reporting that story before coming to the conclusion that it just was not true. But that’s an example of one that we just disproved [and didn’t include in the show].

Right, I mean, do you think the episodic podcast medium gives you a different responsibility in that way? In that, maybe by episode seven we find out something’s a certain way, but how much do you trust that someone’s gonna listen all the way to the end? And how much responsibility to do you have not to give them a false impression at the end of, like, episode three?

JON: Yes, I think this gets to a really important point. We were extremely aware of that and made decisions to mitigate it. We were never gonna release these shows one by one. For that specific reason. We drop it all at once, for that ethical reason.

Going back to Lisa Ann. With porn people, it sort of feels like they’re so used to news stories maybe being taken out of context or sensationalized, in a way that further marginalizes them, and it feels like there can be this wall of distrust that you had to fight though.

JON: Yeah, I mean, I really like Lisa Ann, and when I was introduced to her for The Butterfly Effect, we got on really well. I had breakfast with her in Times Square… She lives in Times Square. Maybe last summer, she explained to me that the reason why was she lives in Times Square was that it’s a place where things are more bright and colorful than she was, so people wouldn’t gawk at her. So I do really like Lisa Ann, but you know, that conversation that we had in the Last Days Of August, I kind of didn’t like, because she was telling me what I was thinking. And it wasn’t what I was thinking, she was pre-judging me. I completely understand the reason why. Because porn people are marginalized and stigmatized so often. But the fact is our intentions were honorable. The Butterfly Effect was a really positive show about the porn industry. August’s story is real, and the reason why we’re telling August’s story are not ideological reasons. We’re not telling August’s story to shed some negative light on the porn industry. We’re telling August’s story because it’s a true story.

Right, do you feel like with porn there’s this danger where anything that you do is misinterpreted as this blanket positive or this blanket negative about porn itself?

JON: Yeah, that can happen. I hope that we’ve worked really hard to explain to people in the show that that’s not what we’re doing. I mean, we say several times in the show, “August’s story should not be considered representative of the porn industry.” You have very positive stories happening in porn as well as very negative stories, it’s all true. And one doesn’t erase the other. And honestly, that just goes to the way that I see the world, and that I do not want to tell ideological stories, I want to tell truthful, human stories.

You talked about it earlier. But what do you think is exciting about the podcast as a medium at this point in time?

JON: I just love the fact that it’s like the sort of wild west of narrative non-fiction storytelling. You know, there’s no gatekeepers, telling you how to make the show, nobody’s on your back. And I think people love that. I love it, as a fan of podcasts. That people are experimenting with structure… You know right from season one of Serial on… Actually even before that — WTF with Marc Maron, and Joe Rogan, and shows like that. That sort of long-form interview shows. That was breaking the mold as well. So I think it’s endemic of what’s happening, people experimenting with structure. And I love that, and I think a lot of listeners do too.

LINA: Something that Jon and I have talked about before is that there are some stories that are best told with sounds, not visually and not on paper. And I think this is one of them. Part of the reason why is because of how stigmatized folks in the porn industry are and not just stigmatized but how easy it is to look at someone you know from porn and just immediately associate them with sex. Which is great, except if we’re telling a story that isn’t about sex, we want people to concentrate on the story instead of the vocation. Sound really lent itself to that.

Do you feel a different kind of fan connection when you make a podcast? It seems like it’s a more intimate medium, in a way, because you’re with people in their car, or when they’re doing chores around the house, or whatever.

JON: Yeah, and also, that’s how I consume non-fiction these days more than anything else. I get all of my long-form non-fiction from podcasts, you know, shows like Slow Burn and so on. So, yeah, I think that’s probably the piece that’s been helping more and more. I think it’s not just me, I think generally the world is consuming non-fiction, more though podcasts and less through other things. And I love it, I want to be on the move. I get distracted if I’m sitting down, that’s why I’d much rather listen to a podcast than read the newspaper.

Do you think having been around porn and reported on it for so long has given you a particular perspective about the dangers of reporting on that industry?

LINA: Oh like the pitfalls of reporting on porn? Absolutely, I think we saw the pitfalls in the first few weeks after August died. If you don’t really know the industry or the people involved, then it’s very easy to put out a story about how August Ames was cyperbullied to death by her friends in the industry. It really just took a few phone calls to find out that many, many people in porn disagreed with that narrative and feel it’s much more complicated than that.

So, Jon, coming from working on a book about shaming, were you sort of surprised to find there being a caveat to the bullying narrative?

JON: No, because one of the things that became very clear to me when I was writing my public shaming book is that it’s a terrible habit of Twitter to define somebody by some little blip of their lives. You’re some anonymous person with 200 Twitter followers, you tweet something that comes out poorly, and to the world you become emblematic of some ideology. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Humans have a lot of shit going on and it’s wrong to define people that way. And it’s the reason we have real courtrooms, because when you send something you want to hear the wider context of what else is going on in that person’s life. But I think Twitter forgets that option. It forgets that, you know, people have complicated lives.

So when it presents itself that there were these other things happening in August’s life that might have contributed to her suicide… It surprised me in that, I didn’t think that would happen in this particular story, because it was just this bullying story, but it didn’t surprise me because I’d come to that realization. And that’s one of the problems that I’ve had with public shaming in general is that it’s so one dimensional. People want to see people in one-dimensional terms. People want to turn people into representatives of something. The fact is, looking back on it now, the idea that, the bullying would be the only reason that August died, seems, kind of absurd, actually. But right now, as we’re talking, it’s what most people believe. You know, until they hear our show.

Is it surprising in any way that people in porn, who are sort of very used to putting their image out there for people to interpret in a very one dimensional way, that they would also still be so vulnerable to that kind of shaming?

JON: Oh, yeah, of course. I used to do this storytelling night in Brooklyn, and one night we had Stoya on as a guest. And she would read this essay that she had written. And somebody in the audience said to me afterwards “I can’t believe that somebody who has sex on camera for a living would be so nervous about being on stage, in front of hundreds of people reading an essay.” And of course, of course that’s not surprising. So yeah, of course. People who are very open about their sexuality can still feel, can still be very vulnerable about other things. And, in fact, I would say that’s often the case.

People say that stand up comedy is like a way of controlling when people laugh at you. Is there something to porn where it’s like a way to control when you’re being sexualized?

JON: Obviously, I put that to August’s brother, James, about whether her childhood abuse might have contributed to her deciding to get into the adult industry. James said he spent a lot of time thinking about the same thing too, and on the one hand, logically that does make sense, but on the other hand, as James says, August was a cheerleader, she wanted to be the center of attention, she knew she was beautiful, she liked boys… So, I would say, in August’s case, being the kind of annoying liberal, moderate that I am, I would say there’s probably some truth in both things. That her abuse contributed, but so did the other, more positive things.

Is there push-back from other porn people when you report on childhood abuse of porn stars? Just because that’s such a stereotype?

JON: Well, it’s true in August’s case.

LINA: And also I mean, yeah, the answer is yes. I mean, there’s not push-back but I think there is this very understandable feeling of… just because it’s true of members of the industry, we don’t want the implication to be that it’s true of everyone in the industry. And it’s not, and we do our very best in the in the series to make that very clear, and we just can’t help what August’s circumstances were.

JON: Our job has become to figure out the truth of why August died. Which I think is a kind of valuable and honorable thing to do. Also, we can’t control the kind of pre-judgements that listeners will bring to this story. And I really hope that most people who like my stuff, like it because it’s not ideological. They like it because it’s true and human and complex and about psychology. It’s not didactic and it’s not ideological. I hope most people who know my work will come to it in that same spirit of curiosity.

The Last Days Of August is available in full on Audible. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can find his archive of reviews here.