Today, death has developed a somewhat standard digital protocol. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all have procedures that allow family members to deactivate or memorialize the accounts of their deceased loved ones. Google and YouTube let users set up digital wills that dictate what happens to their accounts after they die. But for the adult film star August Ames, who passed away in 2017, her videos continue to rack up millions of views on multiple porn sites, which all describe her as if she’s still alive. The online profile of a dead pornstar can be an uncomfortable mix of sex and mortality, but Jon Ronson handles this subject in an extraordinarily humane way on his new podcast, The Last Days of August.
Ronson first met Ames while he was working on an earlier podcast, The Butterfly Effect, about the monopolization of pornography websites. Her death, an apparent suicide, came right after she was harassed on Twitter for refusing to film a sex scene with a man who had performed with other men in the past. The barrage of tweets calling her homophobic, which Ronson terms a “pile-on,” is an online phenomenon he had previously studied and written about in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. So after seeing this in the lead-up to her death, Ronson began talking with those close to Ames to better understand what had happened.
Although The Last Days of August focuses on Ames’s death, in perfect Ronson-like fashion, the show doesn’t rely on its offbeat topic for appeal. Instead, Ronson uses it to uncover larger issues in and around the adult film world.
Ronson begins by digging into the details surrounding Ames’s death. He quickly finds inconsistencies between what the public and Ames’s widower, Kevin Moore, claim to be the cause of death, and what others in Ames’s life think killed her. The same tweets that once seemed so clearly damning and threatening start to look measured and well-meaning. What Moore described as him being a protective husband, others found to be signs of a controlling business manager. And the biggest question of all, why Ames would hang herself from a tree in a public park, looms ever larger.
For an investigative podcast, the opportunity to combine porn and death is almost too salacious to be true. The show title could write itself. Thankfully, people as cautiously concerned as Ronson and his producer, Lina Misitzis, were the ones to cover this story.
Although Ronson and Misitzis consider every potentially worthwhile detail in both Ames’s and Moore’s lives, including childhood trauma, disappeared former lovers, and the health of their marriage, they never forget that they’re still prodding at a grieving widower. About halfway through the series, Ronson is called out for all the attention and scrutiny he’s bringing upon Moore. We hear Ronson thoroughly process that criticism, to the point where he suggests stopping their investigation entirely, which feels thrillingly fresh.
Ronson’s deep compassion distinguishes Last Days from the true crime genre at large. More than an investigation into one’s death, the show is a meditation on grief and the complicated task of trying to understand how others see the world.
Ames both did and did not fit the stereotypes of young women getting into the adult film industry. She wanted something bigger and more glamorous than what she found in her small, Canadian town. She had a difficult relationship with her father. But she also remained close with her family after moving to California, and she wasn’t spiraling out of control with drugs or alcohol.
Moore, who is repeatedly fitted for the role of a villain, never quite rests in that mold. His recalling of the night of Ames’s death changes slightly but suspiciously every time Ronson asks him to repeat it. He’s quick to blame everyone else for pushing Ames over the edge, but he denies any claim that he could have caused her stress. Some younger porn actors describe Moore as overbearing, almost predatory, but veterans in the industry don’t have a bad word to say about him. In the end, the most concrete allegation made against Moore is that he’s a discomforting guy with a questionable history with women.
Ronson risks losing a sense of satisfaction for listeners by not forcing Moore into one typecast. But the show is all the more touching for it. Unlike the porn world Ronson navigates, nothing on Last Days feels faked or overdone. The podcast is more like a real adult relationship: fraught, tender, and constantly weighted by the internal baggage we carry with ourselves wherever we go.
So if it seems at all weird that porn sites would let you believe everything is fine with August Ames, Last Days reminds us that her life and death were so much more.
Nic Dobija-Nootens has both earbuds in at all times, whether or not anything’s plugged in. He lives in New York and writes about skateboarding for Jenkem Magazine. Learn what ails him online at @noochens