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August Ames was a star, a Canadian army brat who grew up in Petawawa, Ont., and left home five years ago for California, where she found her calling and millions of fans found her. But neither The Globe and Mail nor many other large Canadian news outlets ever covered her – not even after she died by suicide in December, 2017, at age 23 – and when Jon Ronson hears that, he becomes agitated.

Ames had more than one million followers on Instagram and 670,000 fans on Twitter. Her videos, Ronson says, have been viewed more than 460 million times on one website alone. That site? The Montreal-based PornHub.com, which offers free streaming pornography. “Porn is a massive part of almost everybody’s lives,” Ronson claims, on the line from his home in New York. “There’s a kind of hypocrisy among the mainstream,” to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Adult film actress August Ames arrives at the 2015 Xbiz Awards in Los Angeles, Calif., on Jan. 15, 2015.picture alliance

The Welsh-born Ronson, 51, recalls a moment from The Butterfly Effect, the seven-part podcast series about the porn industry he did last year for Amazon’s audio-book service, Audible, in which a pornography fan admitted that she didn’t like to learn the names of the performers she watched. “She said, ‘It’s like when you kill a deer: You don’t name it, because then you can’t eat it.’ And I suppose that’s the reason why August never made it into the pages of The Globe and Mail, even though she was a great Canadian actor."

“I think every porn tragedy has probably got something to do with the fact that, basically, people want to watch porn but they don’t want to think about it, because it makes them feel bad.”

The tragedy at the centre of Ronson’s new project for Audible, The Last Days of August, seems, on the surface, to be straightforward: Why did Ames take her own life? A Cindy Crawford lookalike with a roustabout sense of humour, Ames (born Mercedes Grabowski in Antigonish, N.S.) was a fan favourite: She received the Adult Video News Awards for Cutest Newcomer in 2015 and Most Spectacular Boobs in 2017, as well as a string of nominations for Female Performer of the Year.

On Dec. 3, 2017, Ames tweeted with dismay about a shoot from which she’d just withdrawn after discovering the male performer had previously shot gay scenes. A raft of performers and fans attacked her on Twitter as homophobic; she defended herself: Things escalated quickly. The next evening, Ames left her home in Camarillo, Calif., telling her husband she was headed to the gym, or maybe the tanning salon. In the wee hours of Dec. 5, 2017, a passerby found her body in a public park, a 20-minute drive away.

Much of the news coverage drew a straight line from Twitter to her suicide. Her brother, James Grabowski, told The Sun tabloid that online bullying “cost me my baby sister’s life.”

And so the story seemed a natural for Ronson. In 2015, he had published So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an acclaimed bestseller about people whose lives had been ruined by online mobs. He has made a career of crafting compulsive tales about people on the fringes, from hateful extremists to an oddball musician who wears a papier-mâché head 24/7. In dozens of radio programs for the BBC and U.S. public radio’s This American Life, and in books such as The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats (later adapted for the 2009 feature film), Ronson’s blend of empathy and dry wit have given listeners and readers fascinating glimpses into can’t-look-away subcultures.

For The Butterfly Effect, Ronson and his producer, Lina Misitzis, embedded themselves in the San Fernando Valley’s porn community and emerged with an oddly upbeat tale about how it had adapted to the tech industry’s parasitical exploitation of its labour. They found a community whose members looked out for each other.

The tragedy of August Ames's suicide is at the centre of Jon Ronson's new project for Audible, 'The Last Days of August.'

The Last Days of August became Butterfly’s dark counterpoint, a seven-episode, 3 hour 45 minute deep dive into what Ronson calls “a ferocious, rancorous, tribal business” laced with emotionally stunted men and women who are all, according to one of the story’s central characters, “making a living off the backs of the mentally ill.”

“Undoubtedly, this story is more melancholy and challenging and difficult than The Butterfly Effect,” Ronson says. Still, he and Misitzis – who is on this conference-call interview – didn’t set out to do either story with a specific message in mind. “I think the worst thing a journalist can do is tell stories for ideological reasons,” he says. “I think if you want to do that, be a columnist, don’t be a storyteller. Storytellers have to ignore ideology and just tell human stories in an accurate, nuanced way.”

A few weeks after Ames died, Ronson and Misitzis were in touch with her widower, a 43-year-old pornography producer named Kevin Moore, who pressed them to do a story about how she had been hounded to death by the online mob. In January, 2018, they travelled to Las Vegas during the annual AVN Awards to fact-check his story – and then, they figured, drop it.

That’s because they were also working on another season of The Butterfly Effect, this one about Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist whom Ronson had included in a five-part documentary series that aired on British television in 2001, The Secret Rulers of the World.

But, once in Vegas, Ronson found himself feeling different. “I’ve known Alex for 20 years, and even though he is way more influential and malevolent than he’s ever been – I don’t know, I just felt a bit of ennui about that story,” he explains.

“The thing that motivates me when I’m doing stories is mystery. Why August really died – that felt like a very powerful mystery to solve,” Ronson adds. “I know why Alex believes what he believes. It didn’t have the same mystery to me.”

While in Vegas, Ronson secured an interview with Jessica Drake, a porn star who Moore had accused of bullying Ames. “She started saying these very cryptic, coded things to me [about Moore],” he says. “And of course, when something like that happens to you, you’ve got to keep going. So, it was in that room, on the 11th floor of the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, that was the moment that we decided to carry on.”

Over the next 10 months, Ronson and Misitzis would chase the story from Vegas back to the San Fernando Valley, then on to Chicago; Hinton, Alta.; and Sherbrooke, N.S., following a daisy-chain of revelations and evolving leads, as each person they talk to leads to someone else. Last Days, Misitzis says, “is a series that, in a lot of ways, is about how subjective the truth is to all of these characters in it, who have their own agendas.”

Cutting through the subjective underbrush – and you can skip the next three paragraphs if you don’t want to read some mild spoilers – she and Ronson would discover that Moore had been previously married to a different porn actress who also struggled with mental health issues, and that another ex-girlfriend of his who was also in the business had died of an accidental overdose about a year after she and Moore broke up. Ames herself had spoken of struggles with mental illness and a rough upbringing, telling a podcaster that, at age 12, after she alleged repeated molestation by a male member of her extended family, her father accused her of lying and sent her to a group foster home.

As they keep investigating, dark whispers of Moore’s involvement in Ames’s death grow louder. But just as the series begins to feel as if it is veering into true crime, Ronson suddenly thwarts our expectations with a direct address to the audience. “I don’t want this to be one of those shows that creates narrative tension by fuelling suspicion that a person might be a murderer,” he explains to listeners. “So I want to tell you, that, while we uncover some extraordinary and unexpected things … this will not turn out to be a murder mystery.”

Ronson wrote that voiceover late one night, toward the end of the production process, as a way of wrestling with an anxiety that had been growing. “I love true-crime podcasts. But while loving them, I also kind of wince at their ethical difficulties – and, in some cases, their ethical violations.” He felt compelled to tell his listeners up front that Moore hadn’t murdered Ames. Last Days would not be a whodunit so much as a why-did-she-do-it. “Kevin had just lost his wife,” he explains over the phone, “and a grieving husband whose behaviour has triggered rumours is still a grieving husband.”

The truth, when it finally emerges, is far more nuanced. The most pointed thesis of why Ames killed herself – this isn’t really a spoiler – comes from Ronson, during a rare moment in which his familiar British schoolboy waggishness appears. He asks Paul, a crew member on one of Ames’s films, if he knows the play An Inspector Calls. Paul doesn’t, and so Ronson explains that it’s a postwar British play by J.B. Priestley in which a police officer quizzes people in a house about the suicide of a local working-class girl.

“No one in the house knows who she is,” Ronson continues slowly, as if he’s afraid of offending Paul with what he’s about to say. "And then, one by one, they all realize that there was just a tiny thing that they did, that weighed her down.” Paul doesn’t seem to catch Ronson’s drift; he responds with a sort of imperceptive grunt: “Mm,” he says. “M’kay.”

With Last Days now behind them, Ronson and Misitzis aren’t yet sure what comes next. They may return to their unfinished Alex Jones story. Or Ronson may write another book, which he hasn’t felt like doing for a few years. "Honestly, publishing So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed kind of broke me,” he reveals. “The noise – everyone having an opinion.”

Some of those opinions were nasty: the online mob alleging he was racist or an apologist for other bad behaviour because he had dared paint a nuanced portrait of private individuals who had been mobbed (usually for very mild offences or misinterpreted ironic jokes). He mentions one unnamed professional critic who had tweeted there was “something in my book that they found wrong." But when he sent that person a direct message, he says, they acknowledged they hadn’t actually read it yet.

“It’s just the ideological zeal of the young, you know? They don’t want an old moralist like me standing between them and their halcyon future. I’m the old guy on the battlefield, going: Everybody calm down!”

The Last Days of August begins streaming on Audible on Jan. 3.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified a former wife and an ex-girlfriend of Kevin Moore.