“We’re married now. I can punch her in the face and nobody can do anything about it.”
- Johnny Depp on his wedding day to Amber Heard, per the testimony of an acquaintance
As a journalist who’s covered domestic violence for nearly the past 10 years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of survivors who’ve told me demoralizing, maddening and nearly unbelievable stories. I say nearly unbelievable, of course, because it sounds improbable that a man would strangle his wife almost to death while she held their newborn baby in her arms. It sounds insane that a man would threaten to put live snakes in his wife’s bed while she was sleeping as a way to terrify her into compliance. It is beyond disturbing to imagine that a woman slept for years with a knife underneath her pillow, on guard in case her husband tried to kill her in the night.
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But I know these are not exaggerations. I know the same way I would know it if each of these survivors I spoke to was my best friend, my sister or my own daughter. It took a lot for them to get to the point where they could talk about this, they tell me. Years. Their voice shakes. They apologize for crying. We start and stop as often as they need to. The timeline is often a bit muddled, but we piece it together. Trauma does that to the brain—it makes some memories fuzzy. It’s a way to protect us.
I know I should stay a certain degree removed from my work, but I worry about each of them long after we hang up.
They are not telling me their stories for a reaction. They aren’t seeking vengeance. Most times, they don’t even want to name their abusive ex for fear of retaliation. They aren’t looking for fame when their story is published. I’ve never once been asked by a survivor how their story did, how many views it got or how it was received. They have no desire to be famous, in fact, quite the opposite. In most cases, they don’t want to tell their story because they wish their story never happened to them. Instead, the reasons they give me for going public include:
I’m speaking out so someone else might see themselves in my story.
I don’t want anyone else to go through this.
I want other women to see the red flags earlier.
I want other women to know you can get out.
And then, there’s also this.
I just want people to believe this happened to me.
In many cases, their own families don’t believe them. Their parents, their siblings, their grown children. Abusers make sure of that, often through something called toxic triangulation, turning their only support system against them. The survivors suffer alone, often carrying a shame they don’t deserve far past when they escape.
Right now, I’m sure some of you are thinking, Sure, that makes sense. But that’s not this story. That’s not Johnny Depp. Amber Heard is a liar and an abuser.
That’s exactly what Johnny was hoping you’d say.
Survivors Don’t Want This Kind of Attention
There’s a hubris that comes with abusive men. A sense of infallibility, that one can never do or be wrong. Imagine if there were no consequences for your actions, or at least you believed in your core as such. You would almost be like a god.
Survivors of abuse know what it feels like to be with someone who believes that. Who tells them that they’ll never get out. That they’re trapped indefinitely. That even if they did escape, no one would believe they were ever truly in danger—they’re surely exaggerating.
For the last several months, we’ve been able to (unfortunately) watch live the defamation trial of actress Amber Heard filed by her ex-husband, actor Johnny Depp. He sued her for $50 million because she wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in December of 2018 in which she called herself a “public figure representing domestic violence.” While Depp wasn’t named, his attorneys claim it could be inferred she was speaking of her ex and thus, libel occurred (aka, defamation in print). The trial began this past April and wrapped up at the end of May. A seven-person jury decided June 1 that Heard did, in fact, defame Depp, an ironic statement unto itself considering Depp’s fame has done anything but diminish due to the trial. Heard’s declaration of trauma will potentially cost her $15 million.
The jury simultaneously ruled in Heard’s favor, too, somewhat confusingly, saying that one of Depp’s lawyers defamed Heard when he called her claims of abuse “a hoax.”
I’m not going to spend much time here trying to validate Heard’s allegations. My default is to believe survivors, so it’s an easy retort to say, “Then why don’t you believe Depp?” It’s even easier to say I don’t believe him because he’s a man.
Men can be survivors of abuse, and I’ve interviewed several. However, the fact remains that it is far more likely a scenario that the woman is the victim in a heterosexual relationship (an estimated 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women and this is likely a low estimate), far more likely that only one person in a relationship is truly abusive (mutual abuse is a term widely rejected by expert domestic violence advocates) and even more likely that what Depp claims Heard did to him was her emotional reaction to his abuse.
Furthermore, the incidents of false reporting of abuse by women are few and far-between and, as I said earlier, no woman I’ve ever known or interviewed would opt for this type of attention and victim-blaming Heard’s receiving to be bestowed upon her for no reason other than getting her name in the papers.
We can talk about the difference between toxic relationships and relationships with an abuser all day (we already did, here), but it won’t change the fact that what happened in this trial was not truth-seeking—it wasn’t even about whether or not Depp was abusive. It was about whether or not Heard was allowed to speak about it. And in the end, it was determined she could not disclose her own trauma. It has been a gaslighting of not just Heard, but anyone who dares to support her.
I can almost guarantee that the mass of people who have chosen to align with the #IStandWithJohnny and #JohnnyDeppIsInnocent army of defenders on social media are not survivors of domestic violence or advocates for those who are. They are unaware of the nuances of domestic violence—beyond the bruises and bandages we can see, there are myriad tactics abusers use to create a complex ruse where not only can they hide abusive behaviors, they can ensure the survivor comes across as “the crazy one” instead.
Gaslighting is the equivalent of telling someone the room is chilly even as you sit inside a sauna, and telling them that so often they go and get a sweater. It is a tactic abusers use to make survivors doubt their own reality and question their recollection of events, events that could have happened just minutes prior.
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I didn’t yell at you.
You’re not actually scared of me.
It was you who said you were going to kill me, not the other way around.
That glass just broke—I didn’t throw it at you.
We have an amazing relationship.
Gaslighting is sinister because it keeps a survivor silent, bedeviled by their own self-doubt.
The jury missed this. They missed how Depp’s claims that it was her who was abusive, not him, was a common abuser magic trick. Those texts he sent, where he fantasized about killing her and then… doing more —" I will f*ck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead”—were just jokes, and it was Heard who was emotionally overreacting.
The jury fell for it. They put on their sweaters inside the sauna and admitted it was cold. Depp awarded them with a smile.
The ‘Perfect Perpetrator’ Is Not Someone We Like
Depp’s civil trial is insurance that future victims will think twice about willingly entering the court of public opinion by disclosing abuse against an outwardly charming or powerful abuser. If you were abused by someone who fits our ideal of an abuser—perhaps an angry, intimidating man with a disheveled appearance and bloody knuckles and who shouts all of his words—well, congrats, you may win this one. But if you accuse someone who can morph into a victim as easily as the perpetrator can, say, someone good at adopting different roles, then you’ve just asked society to suspend their belief of what dangerous looks like.
Just as we’ve heard so much lately about the “perfect victim” stereotype and how Heard doesn’t fit that (her response to 18-plus months of possible abuse was anything but meek), so too is there a “perfect perpetrator” role our subconscious is holding on to. For many of us, Depp isn’t it. Chris Brown wasn’t it. Bill Cosby certainly wasn’t it. Celebrities we idolize can’t also be the men we fear because, if that were true, they’ve tricked us.
If a wolf can hide in a beloved celebrity’s clothing, then how can we ever trust anyone again? It was easy to believe that Harvey Weinstein was garbage. No one had a poster of him hanging up in their room as a teenager. No one dressed as him for Halloween.
Many of us don’t want to believe Heard because we don’t want to believe that Depp could collectively deceive us into trusting him. Certainly, if he was an abuser, we would have seen it far earlier! We’re too smart for that. He doesn’t seem like an abuser in movies, after all. A drunk pirate, maybe. A man with scissors for hands. But not a man who threatens to kill his wife.
It’s a similar rhetoric to what so many survivors have told me before.
I didn’t want to see it coming.
I wanted to believe I was wrong.
I minimized it for so long.
Heard and Depp were married for 18 months, but if the quote at the beginning of this story is any indication, Depp’s intentions were clear from the beginning. Ask yourself if a safe partner would ever make a joke like that? Who finds humor in threats of physical violence?
Despite a collectively loud #MeToo movement that caused a social media frenzy in 2017 (though Tarana Burke first used the phrase in 2006 to raise awareness of abused women), in 2022, we seem to have changed it to #MeTooButNotHer, cherry-picking which survivors deserve support. The irony is, Heard is doing exactly what we clamored for in 2017. She’s calling out an abusive man in a position of power. And in return, as Depp promised in a text message, “She’s begging for total global humiliation. She’s gonna get it.”
This public shaming of Heard is not new fodder for abusers. It is something they have long threatened survivors with and will continue to do so. (Depp’s victory just shows both victims and abusers that it works.) Many survivors have been exactly where Heard is—we just haven’t seen it because it hasn’t been live-streamed. They’ve been mocked, ridiculed, accused of being the abusive one, and even arrested and jailed for attempting to defend themselves against abuse.
Someone once said the simplest answer is usually the right one. So either we believe that a man with a nearly unlimited amount of fame, money and power let all that go to his head, and, amplified with copious amounts of alcohol and drugs, was abusive toward his wife and is now punishing his former partner for speaking out using the U.S. court system. Or we believe that Amber Heard is an abusive woman who wrote an op-ed about being a survivor for the sole purpose of … fame? Revenge? And is now entangled in a web of near-constant lies while Johnny Depp is suffering from PTSD after her terrifying abusive tirades.
Regardless, the final outcome boils down to one thing: we all lose. Depp’s manipulation of the courts has done a disservice to true male victims of abuse who already face stigmas stepping forward. He has laughed in the face of a woman whose “rotting corpse,” he once wished, “was decomposing in the f–king trunk of a Honda Civic.” He has shown the freedom money can buy and has proven a fact most women were already well aware of: we are on trial the moment we say “no more.”
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