Johnny Depp–Amber Heard Trial: Why I Couldn’t Turn It Off (2023)

I’ll admit it: I spent the past few weeks with my laptop open to the court proceedings between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard—a trial whose verdict was delivered yesterday. As the plaintiff suing for defamation stemming from an op-ed Heard published alleging that he abused her, Johnny Depp won a judgment totaling $15 million in damages. In her countersuit, Amber Heard was awarded only $2 million. But there was far more than money at stake.

It would be easy to dismiss the Heard–Depp proceedings as little more than a cesspool of celebrity gossip (and those of us who tuned in as rubberneckers with nothing better to do.) Many, including Amber Heard herself, now decry the verdict as a serious setback to the long-overdue #MeToo movement. But somewhere in that Virginia courtroom, I believe, a deeper and more complex truth emerged.

No question, the millions of TikTok videos and Instagram posts offering up humiliating portrayals of Amber Heard (many featuring emojis of feces) confirm the deeply entrenched misogyny in our culture and the zeal with which it continues to shame women. Some will view Johnny Depp’s triumph yesterday as conveying, to those with their own experiences of domestic abuse, that they would do well to remain silent.

Here’s an alternative view. Maybe yesterday’s verdict served to differentiate true claims of partner violence from defamatory allegations. The jury’s decision affirms that domestic violence takes many forms, and that as much as it has been women who stand in greatest jeopardy of being its victims, a woman may also be the instigator or aggressor. For a woman, there may be no deadlier or more effective way of committing violence against a man than to call him out as an abuser. As difficult as it is for a woman to admit to having experienced abuse, for a man it may be even harder. Amber Heard herself taunted Johnny Depp with this notion in one of the many exchanges between the two of them she chose to record. “Tell the world… I, Johnny Depp, a man, am a victim of domestic violence. See how many people believe or side with you.”

If Johnny Depp truly did the things Amber Heard accused him of, he deserved his cancellation. If, as the jury concluded, Heard fabricated her story, then she took a lot more from him than some big-budget movie roles and a fingertip.

To anyone familiar with my personal story, I’d appear well-positioned to support Heard’s claims of abuse, and to view Depp as another in a long line of men who believe their wealth, fame, and power entitle them to do whatever they want with whomever they choose. Twenty-four years ago—nearly two decades before the term “Me Too” entered our cultural vocabulary—I published a memoir that told the story of my relationship, at age 18, with a powerful older man revered by millions whom I once believed to be my soul mate for life. Though no physical violence took place, I was haunted for years by what occurred in that relationship and fearful of the wrath I’d incur if I spoke of it.

At the time—1998—my choice to tell my story, a quarter century after the relationship ended, was received with virtually universal condemnation from the press and the literary world. Twitter and Instagram didn’t exist back then, but hate mail did, and I received plenty—as the anointed Evil Woman (in the words of one prominent journalist, I was “a predator”) charged with attempting to destroy an icon. Even now the name of the Great Man remains inexorably linked to my own. #MeToo notwithstanding, ours remains a culture that links a woman’s identity to that of the vastly more important man with whom she may once have shared a bed.

As I watched the Depp–Heard trial unfold, there was no way I could not have brought my personal history to what played out on the screen. But I didn’t plan on giving whole weeks over to what went on in that courtroom. As the trial got underway, I figured I’d take in a few minutes of the proceedings before getting back to my life. Instead, I remained so transfixed that I rescheduled a doctor’s appointment rather than missing crucial testimony.

No question, some of this had to do with the spectacle of watching a Hollywood icon—considerably aged since his days as swashbuckling Captain Jack Sparrow but still displaying star power—sitting in a courtroom for days on end, his hair in a ponytail held back in a rubber band. His arrival at the courthouse every morning was met with hordes of fans holding up “Justice for Johnny” signs. No surprise there.

But it was what took place in the courtroom that kept me enthralled and caused me to question my initial assumptions. Though the questions Depp was asked, by his own lawyers and the opposing counsel, concerned violent and horrifying events—drunken binges, ugly language (his own) filled with expletives, detailed accounts of the severing of his fingertip (either by himself, as Heard contended, or by her), Depp delivered his testimony in a thoughtful, sober tone of voice that displayed humility and self-awareness and owned up to his many failings. No such acknowledgement could be found in the testimony of Amber Heard.

It was never in dispute that Depp, whether he’s still using or not, is an addict—a man who, during the Heard years, at least, started his day with large quantities of wine and moved on from there. It was equally clear that he’d been out of control—not only with drugs but also with money, houses, emails to friends, his career. He surrounded himself with sycophants and freeloaders. He behaved badly, and then he behaved worse. None of these stand as grounds for charges of domestic abuse, however. So I kept watching, looking for those.

I justified the hours I spent listening to the trial by cleaning my house. After six weeks, it has never looked so good. I was that hooked to the proceedings, and surprised by my response to what was taking place.

Johnny Depp’s an actor, I reminded myself. He’s good at playing roles. The camera’s running. But like a few million others, I found myself liking him. More than this, I believed him.

On the other side of the small courtroom sat Amber Heard, and if she were telling the truth about her relationship with Johnny Depp, then the fact that hardly anybody was liking her remains immaterial.

But it was more than Heard’s off-putting demeanor and delivery that called her charges into question. Again and again over the six weeks of the trial, testimony of expert witnesses and those familiar with the couple—as well as Heard’s own contradictory statements—made it hard to see her as the abused woman she portrayed herself to be, the terrified victim of an abusive husband. Throughout the trial, she struck me—as she evidently did the jury—as a woman not so much recounting actual events as playing a role. When she wept on the stand, her beautiful face contorted into what looked like a not particularly skillful impersonation of pain. More than once, when she delivered a dramatic piece of testimony, she paused for a second, as if to allow cameras to capture the moment. They did.

I won’t offer up here the dozens of instances in which I couldn’t buy what Amber Heard was telling us. Among the most compelling witnesses was a woman named Jennifer Howell, a woman Amber’s younger sister Whitney had named as her “sister of choice,” who testified that Whitney had expressed to her the fear that Amber might kill Johnny Depp, and moved in with her after Amber had attempted to push her down a flight of stairs. Footage submitted by Heard’s team of lawyers, of Depp on a rampage (recorded, like every one of the arguments played in the courtroom, by Heard herself), failed to portray Depp being physically violent toward his wife. He kicked walls, shelving, a refrigerator. In emails to a friend, he said despicable things about Amber Heard, though his words on the recordings to her spoke chiefly of his regret that things hadn’t worked out between them and his desire that she leave him alone. Johnny Depp most definitely committed acts of violence. Against himself.

The Depp–Heard trial was far from my first exposure to a woman’s story of domestic abuse. Over the past two and a half decades, at workshops I teach in the writing of memoir, more than a thousand women have shared their stories with me. Often they concern experiences of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. I teach tools of writing craft, but more than anything, what I’ve felt called upon to do is to support women—and, occasionally, men—who have lived with fear and shame and to give them the courage to speak their truth.

When I listened to the testimony of Amber Heard in that Virginia courtroom last week, I tried connecting her to the women I’ve worked with. I thought of one, Mary, a high school principal, who had to pack a U-Haul and move out of her house and disappear with her daughter in the space of the eight hours her husband was at work, knowing that if he came home to see what she was up to, he’d kill her. I tried to imagine Mary taunting her abuser with the language Amber Heard employed with Johnny Depp, in recordings her own lawyers submitted as evidence. He would have strangled her on the spot.

In the Washington Post editorial bearing Amber Heard’s name that stood at the center of the defamation case, Heard wrote that she “became a public figure representing domestic abuse”—a role made official by the ACLU when they named her their “ambassador” in that capacity. The editorial goes on to state that after speaking publicly about her experience, “I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”

Take note: I am well acquainted with “the wrath our culture levels against women who speak out” about their painful experiences at the hands of powerful men. Amber Heard may have cast herself in the role of Warrior Woman, waging battle against the oppression of the patriarchy.

But after six weeks of paying careful attention to the testimony—an experience very different from watching a few highlights—I came to the same conclusion as that rendered yesterday by the jury. In no way is Amber Heard my “ambassador,” nor is she the representative of the brave women writers I continue to work with.

On the final day of the trial, Heard delivered a line from the witness stand disconcertingly familiar to one I’ve spoken myself a few thousand times, concerning the experience of having a man deprive her of her voice.

“I have the right to tell my story,” she said—words I live by and ones I hope to instill in others, who seek me out for guidance writing about their lives. Coming from the lips of Amber Heard, they took on a hollow ring.

As a lifelong feminist, I’ve always given the benefit of the doubt to a woman who recounts the experience of violence, whether physical or emotional, at the hands of a man. But to unequivocally endorse any woman’s charge against any man calls into question the serious and unassailable foundations of fact that gave birth to the #MeToo movement. As much as #MeToo has created a climate of greater awareness of intimate partner violence, it has also opened the doors for those who would cynically exploit the movement for their own purposes. (Money, attention, revenge.) Any individual who does so undermines and trivializes the experiences of true survivors of abuse.

There is no place in serious discourse over domestic violence for the demeaning and hate-filled attacks to which Amber Heard was subjected in front of an audience of millions. I take no joy in observing the spectacle of any woman bullied and humiliated in front of an audience of millions. Watching Heard, as she took in the news of the verdict, I felt a wave of sadness for her, and compassion, as I would for any troubled person. I’m guessing the events that brought her to that courtroom took place years, maybe decades, before Johnny Depp entered her life. She herself alluded to this in her op-ed piece, when she wrote, “I was exposed to abuse at a very young age.” I’d be willing to bet that somebody abused Amber Heard. Just not the man she wrote about in The Washington Post.

Johnny Depp–Amber Heard Trial: Why I Couldn’t Turn It Off (2)

Joyce Maynard is the author of the memoir At Home in the World. Since 2001 she has led the Lake Atitlan Guatemala memoir workshop for women, Write by the Lake.

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