Reflections on the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial

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On Wednesday, jurors in Fairfax returned a verdict in Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s mutual defamation trial: They found that Heard defamed her ex-husband when she wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post describing herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” They awarded Depp $15 million in damages, deciding that Heard had acted with “actual malice” in penning the column. The jury mostly rejected Heard’s countersuit in which she claimed Depp, through his attorney, had defamed her. It did award her $2 million for a single count of her countersuit.

This wasn’t the outcome many experts had predicted — Depp had already lost a similar case in Britain, where libel laws were more favorable to him — and frankly, it wasn’t the outcome I expected either, in a trial that was, from beginning to end, a gruesome, bewildering nightmare.

Several weeks into the trial, Heard described the first time that her ex-husband allegedly hit her — a charge that he denied, as he denied all other allegations of abuse.

Heard told the jury that she’d noticed a tattoo on her husband’s arm. It was old and faded and she couldn’t make it out, she said. He told her it said “Wino Forever.” She laughed, thinking he was joking — and then, according to Heard, he slapped her across the face.

While watching this testimony I had the most irrelevant and discombobulated thought, which was, How did Amber Heard not know about the “Wino Forever” tattoo? Certainly I knew about it, as would any self-respecting elder millennial weaned on “Edward Scissorhands” and the tabloid magazines of the 1990s. The tattoo once said “Winona forever,” in honor of Winona Ryder, Depp’s fiancee at the time. But the ink outlasted their relationship, so Depp had two letters removed.

How was it possible that I knew this about Johnny Depp and his own partner didn’t?

It was a ludicrous thing to wonder in a trial that taught me how nobody really knows anything about a celebrity’s private life. And nobody sure as hell knows about anyone else’s marriage.

Watching this trial has felt alternatingly prurient and surreal, the kind of trial in which Marilyn Manson is casually listed as a Thanksgiving dinner guest at one of Johnny Depp’s penthouses. Day after day in the courtroom was dedicated to examining photos, text messages and the recordings that Depp and Heard made of each other throughout a relationship that was, if nothing else, an absolute flaming Porta-Potty.

Johnny says that he never hit Amber. That he occasionally “restrained” her when she was hitting him. He says that she threw a liquor bottle at him and it sliced off the tip of his finger. That she mocked him, berated him, withheld his medication. That she or one of her friends once pooped on his bed.

Amber says Johnny hit her many times, usually when he was drunk or high and believed she was cheating on him. That she had nothing to do with slicing off his finger, but when she woke the next morning he’d used the bloody digit to write weird messages on the wall. That one of their dogs must have pooped on the bed, because seriously, she said, what 30-something woman would do that?

This kind of summary makes it sound bonkers and funny — divorces of the rich and famous — when watching it actually felt commonplace and desperately sad. Gawking and thrilling at celebrities’ dirty laundry is a well-honed spectator sport, but throughout the trial, I kept reading coverage that was tonally a mess: The Daily Beast turned the most incendiary allegations into cheeky bullet points — “The Poop-On-The-Bed Fiasco,” “The Headbutt” — as if detailing a reality-show highlight reel rather than the dissolution of someone’s life and marriage.

Everything was made more complicated by the fact that both Johnny and Amber are actors, presumably capable of manufacturing emotions to play on viewer sympathies — and trapped, perhaps, by the possibility that the acting skills that made them famous might cause some people to doubt the sincerity of either party’s normal human anguish. Johnny is a movie star with a 40-year career under his belt; Amber is much younger and much less famous. Online, #JusticeforJohnny hashtags exponentially outnumbered #IStandWithAmber hashtags. TikToks were made mocking Amber’s tears and presenting her every gesture as evidence she was lying. The loudest theory in the court of public opinion, it appeared, is that she was a manipulative liar and Johnny was railroaded.

Nobody knew what to do with this trial, is what seemed to be the problem. If you tuned in to see the interior of a celebrity relationship, you got what you wanted to the point that you realized you didn’t want it after all:

On the stand, Johnny Depp spoke gently and so slowly that by the time he reached the middle of a sentence it seemed as though he’d forgotten he’d ever started one. He appeared bewildered by his entire relationship with Heard. “It was rapid fire, an endless parade of insults, and you know, looking at me like I was a fool,” he said, seeming despondent.

On the stand, Amber frequently held back tears and sometimes couldn’t hold them back.

While Depp says Heard threw a liquor bottle at him, Heard remembered a different story with a liquor bottle. She alleged that Johnny had been on a rampage, that the rampage had resulted in a lot of broken bottles. She says that at one point he pinned her down and she felt a lot of pressure against her pubic bone — a square kind of pressure; at first she thought it was Johnny punching her with his fist. Then she realized the pressure was coming from a liquor bottle, she testified.

At this point her attorney asked her to clarify: Was Amber saying that she was being penetrated by a liquor bottle?

Yes, Amber clarified. Johnny was pushing the liquor bottle inside her, she testified (and again, he says all of this never happened). At that point, the only thing on her mind was whether the bottle inside her was one of the ones that had earlier been broken into jagged edges of glass.

“Please, God,” she said she thought at the time. “Please, I hope it’s not broken.”

If you stuck with the trial, day in and out — if you watched the cross-examinations and the interminable sidebars — then you realized that what you were watching was not a bad primer on what it meant to be a celebrity, but also a deeply illuminating primer on what it might mean to be in an abusive relationship.

Attorneys demanded answers, under oath, to the impossible-to-answer questions we always end up asking of domestic violence victims: Why didn’t everyone see him or her hit you? Why don’t you have more bruises? Show us the bruises you do have; we’ll judge them.

I watched part of the trial with my mother, who spent many years as a marital and family therapist and whose clients had encompassed both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. I played her segments in which Amber admitted to what she saw as her role in the toxic relationship.

“I would yell at him and scream at him and call him ugly names,” Amber said. “I’m so ashamed of the names we’d call each other. It was awful.”

She said she would “try to always accept as much of the blame for the fights as I could … it almost feels better to accept the blame for something than to accept the senseless nature of the violence that you can’t change no matter what you do.”

I wondered whether my mother would see this as evidence of “mutual abuse,” a term I was seeing floated online a lot — a way of making sense of Amber and Johnny’s relationship while distributing blame equally.

But my mother said no, that wasn’t how it typically worked in her experience. What was more common was that a victim of domestic violence would try anything they could in an attempt to make the abuse stop. They would try yelling back, not yelling back, getting up, staying down. Eventually they might resort to hitting, too. They would try everything they could think of because they thought if they tried the right thing, then their partner would stop abusing them.

That didn’t mean the abuse was mutual, though. It meant that the abuse had cascading effects, that it poisoned a whole relationship, that violence on both sides became normal, even if only one side was really to blame.

It meant that domestic violence was messy and nuanced and often contradictory and confusing. That not only is marriage a mystery to everyone but the two people inside it, sometimes it’s a mystery even to the two people inside it.

I worry about this trial. After watching nearly every bit of it, I came away feeling deeply dirty for having watched nearly every bit of it — wondering where the line is between gawking and bearing witness. I worry that the awful spectacle of this trial might cause alleged abusers to sue their accusers in court, possibly forcing them to relive the alleged abuse.

I worry that watching this mess of judgment and humiliation will be seen by non-famous abuse victims as one more reason not to come forward, when coming forward is already so hard to do. I worry about the way the trial has, as culture critic Ella Dawson wrote on Twitter, “taken over the internet and warped our understanding of abuse in ways that hurt victims right now.”

The intimacies of a couple’s relationship are nobody’s business. But the issue of domestic violence is everyone’s business, and once the public had unfettered access into Johnny and Amber’s relationship, spectators assumed that they could solve the mystery of the relationship, that they could know exactly what happened.

So here’s what we know after six weeks in the confines of a courtroom:

We know there were bruises on Amber Heard’s face. We saw pictures. Her makeup artist testified to covering them up; she described the proper color palette used to cover up bruises. We know there was broken glass and ransacked property. We saw pictures of that, too, and of Johnny Depp’s severed finger and bloody writing scrawled on the wall. We saw text messages Johnny Depp sent to friends joking about Heard’s death, referring to her “rotting corpse … decomposing” in the “trunk of a Honda Civic.”

We know there were fights, awful ones, which the couple recorded sometimes with each other’s knowledge and sometimes without, in which Johnny would moan incoherently and Amber would tell Johnny he was “washed up” and a “sellout.”

We know that the relationship lasted five years. Five years of what was, by both accounts, an unbearable relationship. Longer, even, than Depp’s relationship with Winona Ryder that resulted in the “Wino Forever” tattoo.

One segment of the trial is going to stick with me for a long time, because it didn’t seem to be about Depp and Heard so much as it seemed to be about the nature of horrible, sad relationships. On the stand, Amber Heard described not why their relationship fell apart, but rather why it didn’t fall apart, for so long — why, if it was so terrible, she didn’t leave him.

She said that each act of violence felt like a coin she was depositing into a piggy bank, an investment in their future relationship. She said she believed that if she deposited enough coins, Johnny would stop hitting her. That it had to get better because she didn’t see how it could get worse. She said that eventually there were so many coins in the piggy bank that it was too heavy to move and she had to stay.



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