Jon Ronson and Lina Misitzis didn’t set out to make a podcast about the death of a porn star. But when 23-year-old August Ames took her own life a little over a year ago, they were compelled to tell her devastating story.
Ames (real name Mercedes Grabowski) died by suicide in December 2017, just a day after receiving an onslaught of Twitter abuse from her peers in the porn industry. She had tweeted about not wanting to shoot a sex scene with a gay man and many considered her stance homophobic.
"Fuck y'all" was Ames' last tweet, and her husband Kevin Moore is convinced that it was the cyberbullying that led to his wife’s death. So much so that he used Ames' Twitter account to single out famous figures in the industry, blaming them for the provocation of her suicide. Ronson and Misitzis' new podcast The Last Days of August takes us on a journey to try and piece together what happened to Ames, and whether the Twitter attack was really to blame.
"We didn’t anticipate how it would unfold," Ronson tells Refinery29. He, Misitzis and I speak on the phone one week after the first anniversary of Ames' death, and they fill me in on how they came to tackle such a story. Ronson says that the narrative evolved constantly for over a year, throughout which they heard rumours and gossip that pointed towards an awful story, different from the one that put Twitter bullying at the centre of Ames' suicide. "Certainly by the middle of the year I would say that Lina and I became very certain that while we stumbled into the story, we now had a responsibility to see the story through," Ronson explains. "It’s the death of a 23-year-old, which is terrible, and this didn’t happen for no reason. We didn’t intend for this to be a story, to have to deal with unpicking all the reasons why August died, but once that became the story it was critically important to tell it ethically but also rigorously."
The podcast is largely narrated by Ronson although as the series progresses, colleague and producer Misitzis leads conversations with people who knew Ames. When Ames passed away, the pair had just finished working on The Butterfly Effect, Ronson’s previous podcast which documented the rise (and cost) of the free porn industry in California’s San Fernando Valley. Misitzis says that it made sense for her and Ronson to at least look at what had been happening, considering they were already so in tune with what was going on in the porn world. "It was early December last year when Jon and I saw that news, I’m not saying it was connected at all but around the same time, the Stormy Daniels stuff was starting to be rumoured and it felt like porn was in the headlines. August’s story really permeated, and it was in the headlines everywhere and it felt like if people are going to do stories about porn then we wanted it to be us because we knew almost all of the players."
It’s no secret that there is still a huge stigma around porn, and the way the industry is spoken about by outsiders is often through a thick layer of judgment and presumption. Despite their familiarity with this closed world, though, there was nothing Ronson and Misitzis could have done to prepare for the secrets that emerged as they dug deeper into Ames' story. I ask Ronson if any one aspect of putting together The Last Days of August stands out as being particularly tricky. His response? "All of it."
"Every time that we figured something out, that oh my god this is another reason, this is another contribution to August’s death – I mean, that’s what the story ends up being about, Lina and I figuring out all the incidents that contributed to August’s death, and every time we’d figure it out it was devastating. How do we deal with it, how do we tell the story, the ethical way of doing it, how do we corroborate it, what does it mean, what are the nuances? So really every aspect," Ronson explains.
He describes the show as difficult and dark, and you don’t have to progress much further than the first episode to get the sense that what is about to unravel is perhaps more sinister than a tale of social media warriors taking things too far. "We capture people doing some problematic things and at times people behave how they shouldn’t behave," Ronson adds. "Even so, it’s really important that everybody comes out of the show with the appropriate compassion, thoughtfulness and understanding. And just the realisation that we are all complicated humans. I think it’s really important not to forget in a story like this one."
The Last Days of August is available on Audible from 4th January