In the waning days of 2017, the adult performer August Ames, born Mercedes Grabowski, took her own life in a public park. She did so in the wake of an internet firestorm. Before her death, Ames stated on Twitter that she had declined to shoot a scene because she didn’t want to perform with a guy who shot gay porn. “I do my homework for my body,” she wrote.
The backlash was intense. Online, Ames drew charges of homophobia, including from other notable figures within the porn industry, which she denied. (Ames had identified as bisexual.) When she was found to have died by suicide, a causal link was quickly established. Ames’s husband, porn producer Kevin Moore, would issue a statement blaming her death on cyberbullying, naming specific individuals that he believed contributed to the firestorm.
A maelstrom, a suicide, another dead woman: These ingredients could well have been used to make yet another salacious and carelessly handled true-crime podcast, a genre that has mushroomed, distressingly, over the past few years. In the early goings of The Last Days of August, a new Audible Original, the gonzo journalist Jon Ronson and reporter-producer Lina Misitzis lightly press on that vein. Ames’s suicide, we are told, had logistical elements that seem slightly off. We later learn that Moore was married twice before, and that things didn’t end very well for both women. There are inconsistencies, contradictions, mysteries. Is everything as straightforward as it seems? Perhaps not.
But The Last Days of August doesn’t ultimately turn out to be one of those shows, and the production mercifully establishes that fact fairly quickly. “I don’t want this to turn out to be one of those shows that creates narrative tension by fueling suspicion that a person might be a murderer,” Ronson says at the top of the second episode. “So I want to tell you that while we uncover some extraordinary, unexpected things, and devastating mysteries will reveal themselves and be solved, this will not turn out to be a murder mystery.” There is truth in marketing here, even as the story hits developments that may make you think otherwise. Though, to be frank, even if it did turn out to be an actual murder mystery, you’d probably feel confident in Ronson and Misitzis’s ability to adequately handle the whole thing with care.
Instead, the animating puzzle of The Last Days of August is the mystery of its subject, August Ames. In this pursuit, the show faces another tricky set of ethical tests. How do you tell the story of a person’s life, and the factors that led to a suicide, without falling prey to easy reductions? And how do you do that when the world she primarily inhabits, the porn industry, is one that’s opaque and overly sensational to so many?
There is an intriguing providence to The Last Days of August and the involvement of its creators. Ames’s suicide took place shortly after the release of The Butterfly Effect, Ronson and Misitzis’s previous Audible Original project, which examined how the internet changed the porn industry. To some extent, Last Days can be viewed as a sequel to The Butterfly Effect, or at the very least, a dark companion piece. Some of the hooks carry over, in particular their function as a clarifying and empathetic window into a world often misunderstood by wider society. But where the latter was a fun and fascinating examination of a system in the midst of a disruptive revolution, the former is a more focused and quiet story about a specific life within that system. (Cyberbullying, also, is a familiar topic for Ronson, who wrote a whole book on the subject and its related phenomena, 2015’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.)
There are aspects of The Last Days of August that could be frustrating to some. Ames’s biography touches on sexual abuse, mental health, and complicated gender relations, potentially evoking correlations and ideas that have fueled debate for a long, long time. Furthermore, some listeners might have trouble shaking off the fact that Ames’s story, within the parameters of Ronson and Misitzis’s telling, remains defined in large part by a man; as much as the show seeks to be a portrait of Ames, it also ends up equally being a portrait of Moore, whose masculine aggression dictates much of the show’s flow and tenor. This is perhaps structurally necessary to tell the story, given the investigatory semi-first-person nature of the narrative, but that doesn’t take away from the meta-weirdness: One of the more heartbreaking aspects of her story is the way her world is constantly defined by men.
Despite those caveats, The Last Days of August is a fascinating and worthwhile listen. Compelling, thoughtfully assembled, and genuinely moving, Ronson and Misitzis have successfully created a potent document of loneliness, one that can easily fit into the wider universe of stories about show business, the kinds of people it attracts, and the way it can consume them.