Getting your ass handed to you

I have become a fan of author Jon Ronson, a Welsh writer of nonfiction, or more like a journalist who writes books, I suppose. His chosen topics center mostly around the messier, disordered parts of human nature. He deals with the aspects of our experience where we often fear to tread: from online shaming and bullying, to the mentality of psychopaths, to our very own ability to categorize people as our power over them.

The latest I have heard from him was a series of audio podcasts which I had downloaded from Audible called The Last Days of August, a biography of events surrounding the suicide of porn actress August Ames in 2017. Ames was known as an A-List porn star, married to producer Kevin Moore, a man more than 20 years her senior. It is notable that there were 5 suicides of porn actors in the month after Ames’s suicide.

Generally the podcast Last Days spread out over 7 half-hour episodes what could have easily been condensed to half that, at least in my opinion. It isn’t that there was “fluff” in the piece necessarily, it is just that there was too much detail, and by episode 4, even Ronson is questioning whether his digging around the porn industry was too obsessive.

Well, if Ronson was looking for the messier side of humanity to root around in for stories, he certainly found it. We see the messiest possible intersection between messed-up porn actors and actresses, messed-up producers and directors, the vindictiveness of the business generally, manipulation, fear of STDs, fear of each other, and fear-mongering both real and imagined, in all possible directions. What truth could possibly be dredged up from such an unholy mess of people and situations?

But around the 17:20 minute mark of Episode 4, he interviews a porn actress named Lisa Ann, another actress considered to be an “A-Lister”. Her real name appears to be Lisa Ann Corpora, a dark-haired actress known for her porn parody of Alaska politician Sarah Palin. Lisa Ann was one of the rare actresses who lasted in the industry well beyond the 3-4 years that most women last. She owned her own porn production company. Lisa Ann was in her mid-40s at the time of the interview and had just come out of her second retirement (or was it her third?) to sign up with the production company Evil Angel, the same company August and husband Kevin worked for before August’s suicide.

But what comes out of the interview with Lisa Ann was a lightning bolt of clarity in all of the messiness and confusion of the story.

“99.9% of what you are going to hear from interviews is fucking bullshit. Everybody fucking lies. They are the most uneducated, shady fucking criminal people I’ve ever engaged with,” Lisa Ann says. You can say that she is trying to protect her employer, Evil Angel, and in turn her job with these words, but discrediting porn actors in this way amounts to remarks that are uncontroversial, and it is an easy sell. Elsewhere in the series, the porn industry was self-described by those in it as adult actors who have never resolved their childhood issues, being managed by other adults who suffer from the same lack of resolve of childhood issues. Essentially describing the industry as grown-up children managing other grown-up children.

After a few remarks giving her angle on all of those things causing Ronson suspicions about the possibility of Kevin controlling August in several ways, and the pressure of the AVN Tradeshow on August, she continues with “It’s a good thing to have a protective man like Kevin involved because there are many things that are involved in the business that should not be involved but are involved. Again, none of this is going to bring her back to life. None of this is going to make Kevin’s life easier, and none of us are perfect. We have lost a valuable person in the industry, we have an example poorly set for losing 5 girls in a month; they’re all gone now, and we can’t bring any of them back.

“Prodding at the animals in the cage and trying to find out what you can learn from a bunch of people who can’t even know the fucking truth — these are people who don’t even know their own truth — you’re talking about people who do drugs on the regular — People who do drugs and the gray matter in their minds and the things that it affects and the clarity that they don’t have are not respectable people to give their opinion on the death of another human being that they probably weren’t good to, weren’t close with, didn’t care about, and now they’re willing to talk about her.

“Let me put it to you this way: 75% of the industry is on the edge enough to commit suicide at any time. That’s the way you have to look at it. I’ve interacted sexually with more people that are no longer here than probably anybody in this world. It’s not that much of a story with one girl.”

It was chilling and sobering. The death of August and the cyberbullying story angle that Ronson was pursuing now seemed like small potatoes compared with the much larger and starker picture Lisa Ann was painting. It wasn’t just that a bunch of B and C-list porn actors were piling onto August in a short-lived cyberbullying frenzy; the real story is that the porn industry is dark, evil, sick, remorseless, and unempathetic at worst — confused and rudderless at best; and that the Twitter storm is just a small part of this story. Not only is it not much of a story with one girl; but it is likely not much of a story about August either. Ronson will never get the truth from interviewing people in the industry, because when people are willing to speak, it is mostly out of self-interest or self-promotion. Even allegations of August’s mental illness appeared in Ronson’s story to be just that, allegations based on circumstantial evidence and hearsay. This is not to deny that it is entirely possible that August along with a good chunk of the porn industry is mentally unstable; it is just that he didn’t seem to establish this for August all that well.

But Lisa Ann, not wanting to discuss that dark side more than she absolutely wants to, makes an effort to be more positive by breaking with the discussion by saying in the next breath:

“The story is the forward thinking future of not gossiping, not bringing up darkness, trying to look towards the light, and trying to instil a positive mindset, and trying to create groups. You can’t say that this piece of yours is working toward the future; you’re not going to save anybody. They’re already dead. You’re only going to make more people get closer to the edge, and we’ll have more deaths after this comes out. Because everyone is going to feel so guilty for the lies that they told.

“The end result for you is you want to blame Kevin for August’s suicide, right?”

“No”, Ronson insists. While it was Kevin’s idea to get Ronson to pursue the story, Ronson had to pursue the “Kevin is controlling” angle for his own journalistic integrity.

“Your using our industry and the weakness of our industry and the fear involved to create a story for yourself. I’ve seen this too many times before, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re using the dummies.”

The accusation of Ronson “using the dummies” was an unfair jab. Lisa Ann had otherwise said a lot that any viewer ought to digest, and did it in a way that would make a pretty sound conclusion for anyone seeking a story on the porn industry. And there were 3 more episodes to go after this. There wasn’t much more to say. Suddenly August’s story didn’t seem that interesting anymore. 3 more episodes of Ronson prodding and probing around the many angles to the the death of August, not adding much that was memorable. He definitely needs an editor.

But I can say that overall, Lisa Ann definitely handed his ass to him. It should have been a wake-up call to not focus so narrowly on one person’s psychological state, shaming, cyberbullying, and controlling spouses. There was an infinitely bigger story and he was missing it.

There was a lack of authoritativeness throughout this series that reduced the entire series into mostly he-said, she-said dialogues. There was no foundation, and even Lisa Ann’s dialog, while having the feeling of truth, still boiled down to “Lisa Ann’s opinion”, which I found deflating. It is possible that Ronson, a person who has given talks at Oxford University, Ted talks, and has been a guest on numerous podcasts and TV talk shows, is out of his depth here, and it should be taken as a life lesson, learn from it, and move on. And he has seemed to since. Apart from his public appearances on radio and TV, he has continued to make podcasts for the BBC. He is married with one son.