Public shaming, private grief

A misjudged tweet and a wave of social media hate led to the 2017 suicide of porn star August Ames. But as author Jon Ronson discovers the truth surrounding her death is a much murkier tale

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The Last Days of August is your second podcast set on the fringes of the porn industry, following 2017’s The Butterfly Effect. What keeps you coming back?
When I finished The Butterfly Effect I thought that would be it but when August Ames died I just thought that given I’m probably the only person in the world to have done stories about porn and also public shaming on the internet, that I should approach August’s husband Kevin because I’m uniquely qualified.

What was it about the story that you wanted to uncover?
My ambition was to be small. I thought I was going to write a 3,000 word article for the Guardian where I would bring August to life but also bring to life the people who tore her apart. I wanted it to be an equal opportunity exercise in empathy. It was only during fact checking that suddenly this whole new mysterious, extraordinary story presented itself. That’s when we decided to make The Last Days of August.

You wrote extensively about the dangers of Twitter in your 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – but you’re still on Twitter. Has your vigilance increased?
I’m definitely Eve after eating the apple. I have no embarrassment in comparing myself to Eve but I try to always be positive, kind hearted and upbeat on Twitter. It’s been my little contribution to slightly rebalancing the tone of Twitter away from constant rage and judgement to something just a little bit more empathetic.

Since you released Publicly Shamed, we’ve had the #MeToo movement. Do you think people are taking more responsibility for their actions on social media?
I think there’s still a problem. Since Publicly Shamed came out we’ve had shaming campaigns like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Oscars So White and a bunch of others, which have been incredibly positive, but the negative side of things like that – the pulling someone out of the crowd who doesn’t deserve it and giving them a huge punishment for almost no crime – still exists too.

What do you think the solution is?
The really important thing people need to think about now is: how do you retain the really positive stuff while trying to eliminate the really negative stuff. We have power now in certain circumstances. It’s up to the people to decide how severe somebody’s punishment should be. We’re basically all judges but there’s no leatherbound books on our shelves setting a thousand years of precedent. That’s the problem.

There are detective elements to your investigative storytelling. Do you think you could have been a private investigator in another life?
My producer Lina Misitzis could have been a private investigator because she loves that stuff and is brilliant at it. I think in another life I would have been a psychologist. When I work with Lina, she brings the investigative feel and I bring the psychology and humanness to it.

Many of the conspiracy theorists you wrote about in your 2001 book Them now have a platform, thanks to Trump. Are you keeping an eye on that?
Totally. At one point I thought I’d write a book about how the people that I wrote about in Them now have so much more power, but I decided not to because I just find it really hard to return to the same stories. If the mystery isn’t there then I don’t feel impassioned enough to do the story but I think I’m going to do an audio story soon about that – about the newfound power of these people who I interviewed back in the 1990s.

As someone attracted to extreme stories, have you ever considered writing about Brexit?
I wouldn’t be the right person to do Brexit because I’ve been living in America for nearly seven years. I could do Mastermind when it comes to Trump – I know everything about what’s happening with Trump, Mueller and collusion. I honestly know less about Brexit than anybody living in Britain so I would not be the right person to do it.

You’re a self-described anxious person but you’re regularly on tour. Is it difficult stepping out on stage every night?
It’s increasingly difficult. I used to love being on stage. It used to feel like a place where nothing bad can happen, a safe space. I don’t feel that anymore. My anxiety levels have gone up. I had one bad show in London where I was jet-lagged and I’d taken a bit too much melatonin to try and get over it and I was a little too groggy and slightly disassociating. That became quite a traumatic memory and, as a result, being onstage did make me more anxious. The main reason why I do it is because most writers don’t do it well and I know that I can do it pretty well. It’s not because I love it – because I find it quite exhausting and anxiety-inducing these days.

What can audiences expect from your upcoming live show?
I’ve got high hopes for this new show. I think The Butterfly Effect stuff is really funny but then the show will get increasingly dark and sad in a way that hopefully will be moving for people. It’s going to be a big range of emotions. I had a little bit of a mental collapse making The Last Days of August and I want to talk about that. I have these funny bespoke porn clips that I want to show too. It’s the summation of where I’m at in terms of my thoughts on journalism, mental illness and work. I feel like I’ve got a lot to say and that’s going to make it different to my other shows.

Jon Ronson – Tales From the Last Days of August & the Butterfly Effect is at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 18 May, Leeds Town Hall, 19 May and Albert Hall, Manchester 22 May. The Last Days of August is available as a podcast 

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