How can you find the truth, when every person you talk to has a different story?
How can you give a person a voice after they are dead?
How do you find justice in an industry built on exploitation?
These are the questions journalist Jon Ronson has to battle with as he investigates the suicide of porn performer August Ames. In December 2017 Ames (real name Mercedes Grabowski) tweeted that she had refused to film a scene with a man that had taken part in gay porn. A stream of hate filled abuse online followed. A day later, she was found in a park - hanged. The path Ronson takes to find ‘the truth’ leads him to far bigger questions about the inner workings of the industry: the nature of family, and the battles being fought behind the screen.
Ronson is no stranger to investigating the porn industry and social media abuse. His previous podcast ‘Tfmhe Butterfly Effect’ is about the influence of the tech on the adult industry, and his acclaimed book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ analyses the history and current trend of public shaming.
He is well qualified to delve into this difficult and dangerous story. Ronson talks to Ames’ family and friends to discover ‘the truth’ of her death, but there is no clean resolution to be found. This is not one of those fun murder mystery podcasts, as Ronson strongly proclaims early on. He doesn’t want to leave us in suspense.
This is a far more nuanced and complicated podcast about the nature of people. Of course, Ames herself cannot be interviewed about her death, and so Ronson has to find out all he can from those around her.
It is fascinating how they can all tell a different story. Even if you took out the bigger story about the nature of the porn industry and mental health, this alone is entertaining social commentary.
The podcast is more than this though, as we get to listen to the voices behind porn. These personalities are normally hidden by makeup and stage names, but for once we hear their voices and only their voices, with the well-chosen medium of podcast.
This is part of what makes the podcast so interesting, as these are perspectives you won’t hear any where else. It also makes the podcast painful to listen to, as one of the performers themselves says, you have to be damaged to go into this business.
The characters themselves provide perfect drama, with so much lies and deceit that it is frustrating for Ronson to find the truth amongst it all. However, Ronson himself has a kind sincerity as he approaches every interviewee. He even questions his moral judgement and opinion of the people he is talking to. Is it right to interrogate a grieving husband, for example? Sometimes he only provides one verdict or takes sides in arguments which is a bit frustrating. Overall, however, he is asking the difficult questions and pushing deeper into the story, even when he is discouraged to do so (he gets yelled at more than once).
It is important that he digs into this story, as it is one that needs to be heard. Ames was not the only young female death in the porn industry that year, indicating the bigger and scarier story about the mental health and safety of women who perform. Ronson starts to access this even if he doesn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. I can’t say it is enjoyable to listen to but I felt I owed it to at least these women to try and understand their story.
This podcast provides an insight into an otherwise unseen world. The awkwardness and conflicts behind the porn industry are often ignored, similarly to how no one thought of the woman behind the screen when sending hate to Ames herself.
The many personalities, particularly of Ames’ husband, are brought under a detailed and analytic lens. In one way, it is not enjoyable to listen to these ugly truths, but as a character study it doesn’t get juicier than this. As Ronson desperately tries to find fact, every interviewee comes with a heavy dose of bias, judgement and old wounds. Because of these muddied recollections, this is not a story where the mystery is suddenly solved by one convenient piece of evidence or witness.
I’m not sure if Ronson achieves what he wants by the end of it either. It is a messy resolution, as complicated as the people in it. Only August Ames, or Mercedes Grabowski, knows why she hanged herself that night. All we can do is look at the world around her and try and figure out how to stop it happening again.
Edited by Dimitrina Dyakova, Deputy Digital Editor