Journalist Jon Ronson is no stranger to tackling difficult subjects – but his investigation into a young woman’s suicide led to panic attacks and therapy. Chris Burn speaks to him.
Jon Ronson has come face-to-face with self-professed psychopaths, secret Special Forces operatives, the Ku Klux Klan and even ‘Osama bin Laden’s man in London’ during his unique career in journalism, but nothing prepared him for what became “easily the hardest story I’ve ever tried to tell” when he started to investigate the circumstances around the death of a 23-year-old woman called August Ames.
Ames, an adult film star whose real name was Mercedes Grabowski, was found dead in a California park in December 2017 in an apparent suicide days after being subjected to online abuse from people who were accusing her of making homophobic remarks.
The story of a porn star apparently being driven to her death by cyber-bullies swiftly made lurid headlines around the world – particularly in relation to one tweet calling on her to apologise or “swallow a cyanide pill”.
But Ronson’s investigation, told in his new podcast The Last Days of August and that will be the subject of his latest theatre tour visiting Leeds in May, gradually established that the story was altogether more complicated; with his attempts to unravel the truth over the course of a year with the help of his producer Lina Misitzis eventually pushing him into what he describes as a “mental collapse” at the start of this year just as his findings were about to be broadcast.
Ronson was asked to look into the case by Ames’ husband Kevin Moore, who issued a statement in January 2018 saying that “bullying took her life” and naming people within the industry he said had been particularly vicious.
The journalist thought he would be on familiar territory with Ames’s story having recently finished a podcast called The Butterfly Effect about the unintended consequences for the adult film industry and society more generally from the proliferation of free online pornography, as well as writing a critically-acclaimed book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed about the consequences for people targeted for humiliation for social media remarks.
But speaking to The Yorkshire Post on the phone from his home in New York, the 51-year-old Welshman explains that trying to untangle what had led to her death in a way that revealed the truth, respected the memory of a young woman and was sensitive to those left behind who may have unwittingly contributed to what happened became overwhelming.
“Without realising it when we went into it, the story was in part to become about the relationship between a young woman who committed suicide and her husband,” Ronson, who described the series on Twitter as “easily the hardest story I’ve ever tried to tell”, explains.
“I found myself in a situation where I had to dig into the life of a grieving husband. But a grieving husband whose behaviour has triggered rumours is still a grieving husband.
“I didn’t really realise until it was over how hard that was. I had a huge responsibility to not make Kevin’s life worse but at the same time fulfil what we set out to do – to tell a story about why this girl died.
“The moral responsibility eventually overwhelmed me. I got diagnosed with adjustment disorder, which I wish had a more exciting name. A friend said it sounds like something accountants have to deal with. Another name for it is situational depression. It was very bad for two weeks then I adjusted myself. I was getting panic attacks.”
Ronson attended Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a form of counselling that focuses on how a person’s thoughts and attitudes affect their feelings and behaviour and gives them techniques to better react to situations they find themselves in.
He says his return to health was also assisted by the reception to the podcast – particularly from those who had been interviewed in it, including Moor. “Thank God, the reaction has been almost entirely great. What I was really worried about was whether I had got things ethically right. Whether I had good or bad reviews didn’t matter, it was whether I had done it right.”
This conscientiousness shines through the seven episodes of the podcast series. In an early episode as concerns about Moore’s behaviour and past relationships start to be raised with him, Ronson interrupts the recording to explain that while they didn’t know it at the time, they had not discovered any foul play and the story was not going to develop into a ‘murder mystery’.
He gradually built a more complete picture of August’s tragic death and complex life involving childhood sexual abuse, mental illness and her anguish about a recent scene she had been deeply uncomfortable about appearing in. At one stage in the podcast he compares what has happened to JB Priestley’s famous play An Inspector Calls, which tells the story of how members of an upper-middle-class family come to realise they had all inadvertently contributed to the suicide of a young working-class woman.
Ronson says the connection with the Bradford-born playwright’s partly occurred to him as he previously lived on the same London street where Priestley once had written the play. But he is scrupulously keen to point out it is much harder to come to neat conclusions about real life. “The huge problem is An Inspector Calls is a play whereas The Last Days of August is non-fiction. You have to care about people’s feelings when a lovely woman who died is part of the story.”
Ronson says his compassionate approach to those who feature in the series comes partly from age and having attained “a certain level of success” in his career evolving his approach to journalism. “I’m definitely more ethical and morally responsible than I used to be but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t in the past. I’m definitely not a ruthless person, I’m not an ambitious person. I take fairness very seriously.”
But the self-deprecating Ronson says his approach has his limitations – highlighting past criticism about his interviews with controversial radio show host Alex Jones, who has promoted conspiracy theories about 9/11 and school shootings. “Journalists have to be hard and I just don’t think I’m hard any more. I have been criticised for being too nice to Alex Jones. Somebody like Alex Jones has victims.”
But he adds his non-judgmental approach to interviews also has its advantages by encouraging people to open up. “You might take them to a place where they reveal something about themselves.”
Ronson has presented television and radio documentaries and worked on screenplays but has become best known for his best-selling books such as Them: Adventures with Extremists about conspiracy theorists such as the KKK and bin Laden associate Omar Bakri Muhammad, The Psychopath Test on whether the serious personality disorder is being properly diagnosed and The Men Who Stare at Goats about the efforts of a group of US Army officers to exploit the potential military applications of the paranormal.
He admits his work has a definite formula. “The thing I always need to start with is trying to understand something I don’t understand. I try to solve a mystery. You want the mystery to be interesting, hopefully funny, exciting, sad and human but also revealing something about the way the world works. They don’t come along that often. I spend a lot of time trying something and it doesn’t work so I abandon it. I work really hard but I could never write a book a year.”
Unsurprisingly for someone so anxious to get things right, Ronson says he finds the working process “extremely hard”.
“The only thing I like is when the story is almost finished and I’m just finessing it. Then you almost feel like a sculptor putting the final touches to his creation. But the process should be hard.
“If you are just tossing it off, you are probably not doing a good job.”
Show coming to Leeds in May
Ronson says his new theatre tour about The Last Days of August and The Butterfly Effect will explain to audiences what he has learnt about human nature from investigating the pornography industry.
“For the last three years of my life I have been telling stories set in the porn world. Some are very sweet and upbeat and life-affirming and others are the opposite, very sad and dark.
“I feel I have learnt a lot about ethics and morality. I have a lot of new things to say.”
He says it will be his “most ambitious” live tour, featuring video clips and games with the audience.