Journalist Jon Ronson's Look Into The Last Days of Porn Star August Ames Is Not What You Think
The creator of Audible Original 'The Butterfly Effect' and 'So You've Been Publicly Shamed' explains how a tragedy that seemed like a clear intersection of the porn industry and social media pile-ons became something else entirely.By Courtney ReimerJan 8, 2019 12:00 PM
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The latest deep-dive offering from critically acclaimed journalist Jon Ronson is an investigation into the death of a young porn star by the name of August Ames, who took her own life in December 2017 -- one day after a very problematic tweet she sent resulted in an epic social media pile-on that condemned her. It seemed the story was clear when Ronson approached Ames' husband to talk about the devastating effects of cyberbullying, but The Last Days of Augustended up uncovering new threads that changed the tale entirely.
The author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed and Audible Original The Butterfly Effect was uniquely equipped for the challenge, and explained to editor Courtney Reimer why the audio format was also perfect for the story and for him. Listen in on their conversation below.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Courtney Reimer: This being Audible, we often lead off with the sort of audio perspective of things. I know you've done work in not all mediums, but the pure written medium, as well as multifaceted audio. Talk to me a bit about what this audio medium offers you that maybe just writing a book doesn't.
Jon Ronson: I mean I could go on forever about that because I love doing things in audio.
CR: We love you doing it.
JR: Thank you. I like giving over little messages in vocal intimations. I'm a big fan of audio books and Audible. I'm not a sedentary person, so I tend to hike all the time and stuff, so obviously audio books are perfect for that. In fact, I read a lot more books now I'm an Audible subscriber.
CR: We love that too.
JR: I am like your classic customer. I've always been a believer that I should work for things that I myself enjoy as a consumer. I'm a big Audible fan, so when I was first approached by Audible to do some Audible originals I thought well I would like to do that very much. I gave up making TV documentaries because they were too stressful. Making TV documentaries is a lot more stressful than making audio documentaries. There are so many more concerns. It's much more expensive. If you fly somewhere and you don't get any material it's like a big deal if it's TV. If it's audio and you fly and you don't get any material, you've wasted a couple of plane fares, but that's it. In TV you're paying camera people, and camera rental, camera... I'm getting like stressed out even [talking about it].
CR: Also you have to do a little makeup on the face.
JR: You have to be groomed. Yeah, there's a camera in your face when you're trying to, when you're trying to get stuff.
JR: So you become self-conscious and you're not thinking about the story. You're thinking about how do you look. It's a nightmare.
CR: Are you kind of a one-band?
JR: I'm a two-man band.
CR: Man and woman.
JR: Well, for the two Audible originals I've made, The Butterfly Effect and Last Days of August, it's been me and my producer, Lina [Misitzis]. I've got to say, it's been one of the great collaborations of my life. I think Lina's amazing. She's just brilliant, and working with her has just been like a real joy.
CR: You are a little more nimble is, I guess, what I was getting at...
CR: When you could even just maybe have it on the fly.
JR: Yeah. It's just better for everyone. The interviewees feel less self-conscious, it's less of a nightmare. I have memories of doing TV documentaries where it's like kind of herding cows. Like 6 in the morning and you're at some Hampton Inn in Kirtland, Ohio, and it's freezing, and you can't leave because you can't find the cameraman.
JR: Yes. I'd say so. I mean that was certainly the beginning, but things changed a lot. I've always kind of felt that ... and I hope this doesn't sound too pretentious-
CR: I said oeuvre so it couldn't get more...
JR: [Laughter] True but compared to what I'm about to say.
JR: That I'm an inspirational person. No, I'm kidding. [Laughter] I've always felt that each piece of work that I do is kind of like a relay race. That each piece of work leads on to the next one. There're real connections between my book The Psychopath Test and So You've Been Publicly Shamed, for instance. It feels like a continuation of the story. With this story, we'd just spent a year making The Butterfly Effect. Shortly after we left, the porn star August Ames took her life after being Twitter bullied, and that was the kind of official story. Yes, I thought there's nobody else out there who's written both about public shaming and about the adult industry that I knew of, so I approached her husband, Kevin, for an interview. I said if you ever want to talk to somebody about how Twitter bullying killed your wife, because that was the story back then, that's why August died, maybe you should think about me. He did give me an interview, but then very quickly during our fact-checking people started saying, "You know what, this might not be the real reason why August died."
People started saying these kinds of mysterious, coded things to me. Then it became a story that isn't really about Twitter bullying at all. I'd argue maybe not even so much about the adult industry. I don't want to kind of give much away what it is about. It began as a kind of love child of those two projects, but it very quickly turned into something different.
CR: Let's talk a bit about Twitter bullying, or social media bullying in general, because it is an area that you have a lot of expertise. One thing I thought of though, I think Kevin, her husband, mentions it and others say, well, that's going to happen to you once this comes out if you say this. Have you experienced pile-ons and how do you respond to them?
JR: Yeah. It was bad. I brought up this book So You've Been Publicly Shamed that shed some critical light on that particular brand-new punishment. Who would've thought that a book that was critical of social-media shaming would end up getting shamed on social media?
I remember one night waking up to go to the toilet, like 3 in the morning, checking Twitter, and there were 900 notifications about what a garbage person I am.
CR: Right, right.
JR: I mean the main issue was one of the stories in the book was about this woman called Justine Sacco. It's funny, she had the sort of scarlet letter put on her and I've sort of got a little bit of Justine Sacco's scarlet letter put on me, too, because it became such a famous story. For a lot of people out there, I'm the guy who defended Justine Sacco. I'll tell you the Justine Sacco story and then people can decide whether or not I was right or not.
At the beginning, you're going to think this is horrific. She's a PR woman, 120, 170 Twitter followers. She's about to get on a plane to Cape Town and she tweets, "Going to Africa..." This is at Heathrow Airport. "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white." Now that is a terrible combination of words.
JR: She gets onto the plane, chuckles to herself, because she doesn't see it as a terrible combination of words. She sees it as a pretty smart, self-reflective joke about privilege.
CR: Right, which I didn't discover until you sort of framed it that way better for me.
JR: I mean I was lying in bed looking at this unfold because while she was on a plane her life just got torn to shreds by Twitter. By the way, not just people on the left. Sometimes people think they want to tell the story and being critical of people on the left for tearing Justine apart. Everybody tore Justine apart. Donald Trump tore Justine apart that night. He tweeted. Like this was a shaming that everyone could get behind, from the wokest of the woke to the most misogynistic of the misogynists.
CR: Everyone can pile on.
JR: Yeah, everyone can. I was watching this unfold and it took me just a couple of minutes to think, you know what, I'm not sure that joke was intended to be as horrendous as a game over. This could be a joke in the kind honorable liberal tradition of mocking your own privilege, which is, indeed, what it was, but she never got the chance to explain that to anybody because she was asleep on a plane when Twitter tore her to bits and she became forever more the AIDS tweet woman. Lost her job, etc. Yeah, but some people out there, some keen shamers out there who don't want to confront the fact that maybe they were wrong about Justine Sacco then decided to kind of turn it all onto me, and I became that person for a little while. I've got to say, it was bad. It was relentless. And all I did was tell that story.
JR: I remember one night waking up to go to the toilet, like 3 in the morning, checking Twitter, and there were 900 notifications about what a garbage person I am. Literally, my only crime was to tell that story that I just told you.
CR: What do you think the solution is? I turn them off, but there are settings on my phone where it can say you've reached your social media limit for the day, you're done.
JR: Have you got one of those apps? God, I'm not gonna do that.
CR: It's actually built into iOS now. You find it after the fact, but I was like let me see what happens. Anyway, do you think social media or the world of online discourse is purely evil or is there good?
JR: There's lots of good. I mean since So You've Been Publicly Shamed came out #MeToo happened, and that was not entirely, but it was very much a social media endeavor.
JR: Black Lives Matter. You can think of lots of examples or really positive uses of social...I don't know that shaming is the right word but...
CR: I see what you mean. Calling out behavior.
JR: Yeah, calling out. I think the main problem... well, there're several hundred problems, but I'll just pick a couple right now.
CR: Okay, sure.
JR: One is the fact that I think people found it difficult to tell the difference between serious and less serious transgressions. Justine Sacco's badly worded liberal tweet: she was treated with the same veracity as somebody who did something terrible. Like a cop who mistreats a person of color. Justine Sacco was treated with a similar level of frost. That's obviously wrong. Punishment should not be one-size-fits-all.
JR: Another problem, one of the things that you get when you listen to The Last Days ofAugust is that people have a lot of shit going on that you don't even know about. We're all a mess. August had tweeted this homophobic thing, but August was a really good person. She was a lovely person and many terrible, terrible things had happened to her, as borne out by the fact that night she took her life.
JR: People have shit going on. When you've got a sort of society where somebody is judged entirely by some combination of words in a tweet and then defined entirely by that combination of words nobody wants to look at the context. Nobody wants to see what else is going on in that person's life. Then what you're doing is something unjudicial. Real courts have sentencing hears for a reason. You want to know the wider context. One thing The Last Days of August most definitely does is look at the wider context of what was happening in August's life.
CR: The wider context, and we don't know, August isn't here to tell us, but I wanted to talk a bit about. The segue may be a little forced, but one thing that my fellow editor here wanted me to ask you about anxiety because it's come up a lot in your work and people talk a lot about it now. I noticed that both you and Kevin spoke about it, August's husband. He called it the great equalizer and you called it a disease of moral goodness.
CR: Could you talk a little bit about anxiety and maybe how that plays with the Internet or just in general like modern times how anxiety is affecting us?
JR: I've long thought of anxiety as being a kind of disease of moral goodness. When you think about it, think about OCD. Why do people have OCD? Many people, most people have OCD for moral reasons. They're terrified that they're going to commit some social faux pas, shout out something racist, do a bad thing. If you come from a kind of Christian conservative family you're terrified that you act a sort of devilish way.
It's always about morality. It's always about trying to be a moral person. That's one of the terrible tragedies of anxiety, I think is that people tear themselves apart because they want to be good people, they want to do good things. Same with Tourette's, same with generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, which I have quite badly and it's getting worse.
CR: Just to tie it back to the sort of storyline of...
JR: Kevin and August?
I didn't want to do anything that would weigh on me ethically, so I did not want to do what maybe some of the people would've done in this situation, which was used suspicions of Kevin as a kind of narrative device to keep people listening.
JR: The reason I included that moment of Kevin saying that he suffers from anxiety is because there's people who are wary of Kevin are kind of wondering what's Kevin's thing. Why is he so emotionally distant? Something that people say a lot about Kevin is that he's very emotionally distant. I suppose when me and Kevin talked about us both suffering from anxiety, that felt really important because you don't necessarily associate anxiety with emotional distance. Emotional distance sometimes reveals kind of antisocial traits and so on.
JR: You can't be antisocial and have anxiety at the same time. You can't be a psychopath and have an anxiety disorder. That's like a neurological impossibility. That's why I included that thing about Kevin because I thought it was a very humanizing moment for Kevin.
CR: I was going to say, you seem very intent, and I appreciate it, on providing more layers than the surface impression we get of people. I find that very admirable. While people are saying, "Oh, obviously, the husband did it", so it was a little bit of that, right to make him more of a rich character?
JR: It's so important. I mean in this particular circumstance, like his and mine, we've found ourselves in a situation where we were digging around in the life of a man who had just lost his wife. We didn't intend for that to be how we would spent 2018, but it's how it turned out. Obviously, I was kind of extremely, almost fixatedly, aware of the kind of ethics of that. I didn't want to do anything that would weigh on me ethically, so I did not want to do what maybe some of the people would've done in this situation, which was used suspicions of Kevin as a kind of narrative device to keep people listening. I just couldn't do that. I mean I don't think it's something I'd want do anyway, but I most certainly wouldn't want do it in this situation where this man has just lost his wife. As I say in the show, a grieving husband whose behavior has triggered rumors is still a grieving husband. That was really weighing on me that whole time.
I think the fact that was weighing on me all year means that I really hope that I've avoided those pitfalls. When you're doing stories I think the first thing you should do is identify the pitfalls and then know to avoid them. I kind of do that pretty much with every story that I embark on. It's like before I know what's going to happen I'm like, okay, what's the worst version of this story. Then I think, okay, this is the worst version of the story. Let's not make that version.
CR: Yeah. I noticed it was maybe episode two you come and you say: I know where you think this is going, but I don't want to lead you down that path because that wouldn't be ethical.
JR: Yes, yeah. That was really important to me. Look, me and Lina were really lost in the story. People were saying to us, "I think she was murdered", and we didn't know, so we were lost in the story until we finally solved the mysteries, which I think we do. It would've been allowable for us to let the audience be lost in the same way we were. I think it wouldn't be breaking any journalistic rules, but I think it would be breaking ethical rules. That's why I didn't do it.
CR: Right. It made me look at other stories that have not done that sort of disclaimer in the way that you did differently. I think I will listen differently to true crime-y stuff now. You say, "This is Jon Ronson a year later talking to you", and I think a lot of storytelling now just sort of takes you along what seems to be the chronological, but it's not.
JR: Exactly. Exactly. It was just really weighing on me. It was one of those things I would wake up in the middle of the night and text Lina and say this is really weighing on me. By the way, why was it weighing on me? I have an anxiety disorder, so there you go.
CR: It all comes back to anxiety.
JR: There's an example of anxiety being a good thing. I think I'm much less likely to get into trouble in life because I'm anxious.
CR: That's a boon to so many anxiety sufferers. I hope they hear that. I caught something you said just now, which was I think we solved the mystery. I don't want to spoil it here, but I felt that you sort of deliberately left it to the listener to draw that conclusion.
JR: Yeah. Well that's one of the big [things] in storytelling: how much do you show? How much do you tell?
JR: I think if somebody said to me why did August die, I think I could -- unless something that we have no idea about suddenly comes up, but I doubt it because me and Lina were pretty tireless -- I think if somebody asked me why did August die, I could answer that question in a sort of nuanced way. Like obviously people always say this about suicide, but it's true, it's never one thing.
JR: I think we got there, I do. I remember there was a time, probably around May or June, when I was really worried and I said to Lina, "Look we've got so many questions, but no answers and if we don't get any answers we can't put the show out." There was definitely a moment whether I was kind of willing to abandon it, but then, thank God, just as we got to that crisis we began to get answers.
CR: The answer to me, it sounds like it isn't just as easy as: the Internet did it.
JR: Definitely not. Definitely not. It's funny, the show is about to come out and there was a piece in like Jezebel where somebody just massively prejudged the story without...
CR: This one?
JR: Yeah, this story without hearing any of it, except for a two-minute trailer, which I found surprising for Jezebel.
JR: I won't go down that road, but that was her thing, "Oh, here's Jon Ronson, who wrote So You've Been Publicly Shamed" ... by the way, I didn't read the piece, but this is what someone relayed this to me. "Here's Jon Ronson, who wrote So You've Been Publicly Shamed, doing it again, blaming Twitter." That isn't the story.
JR: The official story of August's death in the days and weeks after she died, and in fact right up until now before our show comes out, is Twitter killed August. That was the story that Kevin, her husband, was promoting, both to me and then in a statement that he released the same day that I interviewed him. But yeah, in our fact checking we discovered mysteries and rumors, and that moved away from that story.
CR: I know Kevin said our relationship is over, is that still true? Do you still have relationships in this world overall?
JR: Yeah, our on-the-record relationship with Kevin may be over, but our off-the-record relationship with him continues. We emailed each other over the weekend. Lina had a long telephone conversation with him a couple days ago. Kevin says he's not going to listen to the show. Whether he does or not, I don't know. He says he's not going to. I would say that I think there's almost nothing in the show that will surprise him because as part of our sort of ethical concerns we thought it was really clear that nothing would surprise Kevin. We told Kevin everything we were be doing.
CR: Do you think he would agree with the conclusion you came to?
JR: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know how the industry's gonna take this show. Here's a problem, the problem is that many tell negative stories about the porn industry. Actually, The Butterfly Effect was a very positive story about the porn industry, but obviously when a porn star dies and you tell the story it's going to be a bit more negative, but I do not want anyone to think of this story as like here's me using August's death as a way of bashing the industry. That's really not what we were doing. I kind of love my porn pals.
CR: I think that comes through. I think you're good.
JR: Right, but it's a true, accurate, human story. That's what journalists should do. I feel so strongly about this. Journalists should not tell ideological stories. Journalists should tell true stories.
CR: I love it. You did that.
JR: No question.
CR: Thank you. We could go on, but I appreciate this.