Jon Ronson is known for his storytelling. The journalist, writer and – latterly – podcaster has unearthed plenty of odd tales over the years, from soldiers experimenting with psychic powers in The Men Who Stare at Goats to nightmarish tales of internet trolling in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
In recent years, he’s provided an in-depth account of the effect of tech on the porn industry in Audible podcast The Butterfly Effect, a tale he is continuing in his latest series – The Last Days of August.
Released in seven chapters, the new podcast (available on Audible from Friday 4th January) sees Ronson investigate the death of porn star August Ames, who committed suicide days after she was subjected to a storm of negative comments on social media.
Ronson tells RadioTimes.com what led him to revisit the events that resulted in her death…
What is The Last Days of August about?
Ronson’s new podcast was prompted by the death of 23-year-old August – real name Mercedes Grabowski – in December 2017, days after a tweet she sent about refusing to work with an actor who had shot gay porn.
The post had led to a stream of negative comments, including pointed messages from notable figures in the porn industry.
On 5th December August Ames was found dead, committing suicide in what appeared to be reaction to the cyberbullying she had endured. It was then that Ronson got involved. “I thought to myself, I guess I’m sort of uniquely qualified to tell this story because I’m the only person I know who’s both spent a lot of time in the porn world and also has spent a lot of time writing about public shaming on social media,” he tells RadioTimes.com.
“So, I approached August’s husband Kevin [Moore] for an interview and that’s how it began.”
Originally conceiving his reporting as an article profiling the people who piled in on August, the story soon spun into ten months of work alongside producer Lina Misitzis. That escalation was thanks in large part to the porn industry’s reaction to his first interviewee – Kevin.
Who is Kevin Moore?
Adult filmmaker Kevin was married to August at the time of her death and features heavily in Ronson’s podcast. In January 2018, shortly after Ronson made contact, he released a lengthy statement on his late wife’s website blaming cyberbullies for causing her death. “If you fire a gun into the air and that bullet randomly hits someone that you never intended to kill, you still killed them,” said Moore in a post that has since been deleted.
“I write this to make it crystal clear: Bullying took her life. If the harassment had not occurred, she would be alive today. She ended her life the day after the bullying began. To think they are unrelated is delusional.”
Having begun his investigation by speaking with Moore, Ronson soon chose to distance himself from the producer after hearing conflicting reports of him and the nature of his relationship with August from other members of the porn industry. Chief among them was Jessica Drake, a prominent porn star who had been singled out by Moore in his statement. Ronson interviewed her in a hotel room before she hosted the industry’s AVN Awards.
He recalls: “Kevin and his statement had laid much of the blame on Jessica so when we went up to Jessica’s hotel room, I thought we’d just be finding out what was happening in Jessica’s life – but then Jessica said this really unexpected thing to me. I’m paraphrasing, but she said ‘I’ve become this weird repository of information and a lot of people are coming up to me and telling me about him and her’, meaning Kevin and August. And I said ‘what are people saying?’ and she said ‘I can’t tell you’.
August Ames and Kevin Moore at the AVN Awards in 2016
“The reason she couldn’t tell me was it would seem like she was trying to pass the blame to Kevin when she would be the one who’d look terrible. But she said she was in this very frustrating position where people keep telling her about Kevin and August and she can’t say anything. And she was crying and saying ‘someone needs to help me’. So that was enough for me and Lina to think, ‘we’ve got to keep going and see where this takes us’.”
The presenter and producer decided to avoid Kevin for a while. “For the first couple of months, we didn’t talk to him because we were trying to figure out what was going on and I didn’t want to be calling Kevin and saying ‘oh my god, we’ve just heard this’.”
But interviews with Kevin do feature heavily in the podcast, with Ronson eventually putting the various aspersions cast by the industry to August’s husband and recording his response. “The fact we were open and honest with him really helped. I think some journalists want to be secretive but we decided we absolutely owed Kevin to be open and honest with him about the things people were saying and how the story was evolving.”
First and foremost was a desire to give him an honest portrayal – and prevent another public shaming once the podcast was released. “It was such a big part of my thought process throughout this year – we must be fair to Kevin, we must make sure that Kevin comes out of this as a fully rounded human being,” Ronson says.
Does The Last Days of August become a murder mystery?
No. Ronson is keen to separate his podcast from the mix of amateur audio crime investigations that have sprung up in the wake of Serial. “I have a love/hate relationship with true crime podcasts. I’m a fan of them and I also find myself wincing at their ethical shortcomings quite frequently.”
He adds: “I would wake up in the middle of the night and think I could not make a show where we used suspicion of somebody as possibly being a murderer as a narrative device. I just can’t do it.”
Ronson’s means of veering away from the genre comes in the form of a statement made at the top of his second episode. While introducing an interview with porn star Mercedes Carrera, he tells listeners: “I don’t want this to be one of those shows that creates narrative tension by fuelling suspicion that a person might be a murderer. So I want to tell you that while we uncover some extraordinary, unexpected things, or that devastating mysteries will reveal themselves and be solved, this will not turn out to be murder mystery.”
He later tells RadioTimes.com: “What I’m saying is I want to make a show that tries to understand why people behave in difficult ways… I think Kevin comes out of this show as a complicated human being and I think by the end of the show a lot of people will have empathy for Kevin because I think we portray him as the complicated human being that people are. And it’s more about trying to understand him [rather] than condemn him.”
So, why did Jon Ronson decide August’s death was something he should investigate?
It’s an important question and Ronson admits having “long, dark thoughts” about the story he was reporting. But he remains convinced it needed to be told. “There were a few reasons why I decided to continue but one of the main ones was the realisation that not continuing would be worse than continuing. Just stopping and never knowing why August died, giving up on trying to solve that mystery – that’s the alternative.
“The death of a 23-year-old is unspeakably terrible and we just felt now we’d stumbled into this story, we absolutely had a duty to continue, to try and work out why it happened, and to stop it out of concerns about everything was worse than not stopping.”
The Last Days of August is available to listen to on Audible now and is expected to be more widely available on iTunes and other platforms some time around April
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