Ronson drove to Kennebunk, Maine, an idyllic coastal town overrun with anxiety in the wake of a sex scandal: local Zumba instructor Alexis Wright was found to have been running a brothel out of her exercise studio. She videotaped every encounter, and prominent people were rumored to be on her list of clients. The media was abuzz—many prominent politicians, such as the Bush family, owned residences just miles from Kennebunk. A defense attorney’s motion to keep the names on the list private was struck down, and a list of 68 men and one woman was made public. This “mass disgrace” event was, in Ronson’s experiences with the world of public shamings, entirely unprecedented. Ronson was eager to get to Kennebunk and see how these dozens of shamed people would react.
After immersing himself in several environments where people were working to actively reject shame, Ronson suddenly found himself in a place where shame was threatening to rule the lives of a significant portion of a community. By zeroing in on a real-world “mass disgrace” incident, Ronson could study how shame worked when it's not just one person being shamed, but an enormous group of people.
In the press area of the local courthouse, Ronson observed a handful of men sitting silently as cameras filmed them. He was reminded of the pillory from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a shaming instrument used to hold a guilty person’s head up and forbid them from hiding their face in shame. Soon, the judge entered and the court proceedings began. Each man pled guilty and paid a fine—but then, court was over, and the men left.
In this passage, Ronson invokes one of the most iconic works of literature on the subject of public shaming—Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman in a Puritan village is made to wear a letter that marks her as an adulterer for all to see. Again, Ronson is drawing connections between the cruel, punitive, but protocoled public shamings of yore and the out-of-control public shamings of the contemporary world. He’s also drawing a link between the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, and the disgraced Zumba instructor who was shamed disproportionately because she was a woman.
One of the men Ronson approached for an interview offered to give him lurid details about Alexis for money. But Ronson, legally and ethically, couldn’t pay him. He headed back to New York and emailed everyone on the list to request interviews. A few days later, a former church pastor who’d been on the list, Andrew Ferreira, emailed Ronson and agreed to an interview.
Ronson was surprised to find that some people, like the man who approached him at court, were willing to exploit their own shame for something in return. This speaks to the normalization of shame in contemporary society—some people choose to lean into it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.
Ronson interviewed Ferreira, who’d found Alexis on Backpage.com and visited her three times. He stopped seeing her when he grew emotionally attached. When the list came out, his wife left him and he lost his position at the church. Ferreira asked if Ronson thought he would be able to write a faith-based memoir and find his way into leadership at a new church. Ronson said he wasn’t sure, but he asked Ferreira to keep him apprised of what happened next—to him, and to the others on the list, in terms of public shaming.
Ferreira, like the man at court, had a desire to exploit his own shame by writing a memoir, perhaps as a way of exorcising or eradicating that shame—or, perhaps, finding a way to make some practical use of a terrible incident.
But Ronson never heard from Ferreira. Months later, Ronson called him again and Ferreira revealed that there’d been no public shaming. In fact, his relationship with his daughters was stronger than ever and he was happy. Ronson was stunned; Justine Sacco and Jonah Lehrer had been annihilated, but for some reason, Ferreira’s transgression had made those around him see him as more human. It turns out that no one on the list had experienced public shamings except the lone woman whose name appeared.
This passage shows that public shamings are largely unrelated to the nature of the transgression for which someone is being shamed. A moral transgression like Ferreira’s was judged less harshly than a simple misuse of words or an exploitation of privilege on social media. This shows that people who lead public shamings aren’t always looking to right a wrong—sometimes they’re just looking to feel powerful and bring down those who are getting attention.
In Puritan times and at the height of early public shamings, Ferreira’s sins would’ve been graver than Sacco’s or Lehrer’s, but contemporary public shamings seem to sort of ignore sex scandals involving white men and consensual sex. Finally, Ronson understood how Max Mosley had evaded shaming.
Again, this passage shows that people who act as ring-leaders in contemporary public shamings aren’t solely interested in punishing moral transgressions—they often pick and choose their victims based on more complicated criteria like privilege, gender, and even race. Perhaps Max Mosley couldn’t understand how he’d survived his shaming because the answer didn’t really lie within him—perhaps the public was less bloodthirsty with him because, in the end, his transgression was consensual sex and he himself is a white man.
In fact, news outlets, judges and justices, and ordinary people were increasingly anxious about contemporary society being an “amoral” and “shameless” one. But Ronson believes now that shame hasn’t died; instead, the people who decide what is shame-worthy and what is not have shifted. Judges and magistrates no longer decide who will be shamed: the internet does. Ronson felt his journey to find a “shame-free paradise” had failed. The closest he’d come was the Public Disgrace shoot for Kink.com.
Even though Ronson wanted to find a place that was free from the burdens that come with shame (and especially with public shamings), he’d instead uncovered an uncomfortable truth. Contemporary society, it seemed to Ronson, wasn’t tilting toward an eradication of shame—but rather toward constantly finding new things about which to shame people.
Looking back wistfully on his experiences at the shame-free porn shoot, Ronson recalled something Donna had said that night: she’d felt sad and humiliated after a post on TMZ, a notoriously brutal gossip website, mentioned Donna in the context of a project she was working on with actor James Franco, a film called “Kink.” Seeing herself described in language that wasn’t as accepting as the language those in her everyday life used was painful, and she cried over the relatively innocuous gossip item.
This passage shows that even those who dedicate their lives to trying to understand, process, and eradicate shame are still vulnerable to the remote, cyclical nature of internet shamings. Ronson is showing his readers how powerful and destructive social media shamings—no matter how small or large in scope—can be, especially for women and people of color.
Ronson began wondering if there were people who were incapable of feeling pain. He’d come across the name Mike Daisey, and he was determined to meet the man behind the name: a man who’d survived a public shaming with seemingly zero effort.
Ronson continues struggling to understand why some people’s lives are derailed by shamings, and why others seem virtually untouched even after a scathing public call-out.