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.