Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial is horrifying to domestic violence survivors like me

·4 min read

It has been excruciating to listen to, read about or watch.

For the millions who have been exposed to the gruesomely vicious testimony since the start of the libel trial that actor Johnny Depp is pursuing against his former wife, Amber Heard, thankfully there was a break in the hearings last week. The trial is scheduled to resume Monday.

Details about grotesque, violent behavior emerged daily. Many of us never imagined defecation as a possible claim of self-defense in what their therapist called “mutual abuse.”

Depp filed suit after op-ed was published

Depp filed the $50 million lawsuit three years ago after the Washington Post published an op-ed signed by Heard in 2018.

Heard wrote about her experience with domestic violence, but didn't name Depp, whom she was married to from 2015 to 2017. Heard has countersued Depp for $100 million.

In this Jan. 26, 2015 file photo, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard arrive at Haneda international airport in Tokyo to promote his movie "Mortdecai."
In this Jan. 26, 2015 file photo, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard arrive at Haneda international airport in Tokyo to promote his movie "Mortdecai."

As someone who wrote about my experience with domestic abuse in my 1999 memoir, "I Closed My Eyes," I am cognizant of the need to share the truth and to own the story of your own life. But this trial’s gory details are triggering. I see possible culpability for both Depp and Heard here.

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What attracts scant attention, though, is what Depp's children (with partner Vanessa Paradis) witnessed and endured during Depp and Heard’s marriage.

According to testimony, Depp’s daughter Lily Rose and son Jack were 11 and 13 years old and present during a violent episode in 2013 on Depp’s private island in the Bahamas. Depp testified that he was concerned that his children would learn of the abuse from Heard’s op-ed.

"The news of her accusations had sort of permeated the industry and then made its way through media and social media (and) became quite a global, let's say, 'fact,' if you will,” Depp testified. "Since I knew that there was no truth to it whatsoever, I felt it my responsibility to stand up, not only for myself in that instance, but ... for my children."

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Few observers are focusing on what the play-by-play of this abusive circus is doing to normalize violent behaviors for children and teens who see the pair as famous and flawed, not dangerous.

Actor Johnny Depp stands in the courtroom May 4 at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Virginia.
Actor Johnny Depp stands in the courtroom May 4 at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Virginia.

“The power of popularity” in this “salacious, celebrity story” is how intimate partner violence “becomes normative,” said Anita Hill, professor of Social Policy, Law and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brandeis University, at the recent Chicago Humanities Festival, when asked about the case.

'Denial allows behavior to continue'

“We minimize what the behavior is, and what the harm is; the defensive denial allows the behavior to continue,” said Hill, a lifelong advocate for speaking out against sexual harassment and gendered violence since her 1991 congressional testimony on harassment she says she endured from Clarence Thomas, then a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If we want to start someplace, we start with what we tell our children about this behavior,” said Hill, the author of "Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence."

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UN Women recently declared sexual violence and domestic violence a “shadow pandemic.” Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, violence against women has increased 45%. The report shows that seven in 10 women say verbal and physical abuse has become more common since the beginning of the pandemic.

The UN reports that an “estimated 736 million women — almost one in three — have been subjected to physical or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life.” This accounts for 30% of women 15 and older.

Actor Amber Heard testifies in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Actor Amber Heard testifies in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Thursday, May 5, 2022.

Over the past month of the trial, social media fans have offered support for Depp, even trending #ThankYouDior for not dropping Depp as a spokesperson for the Dior men’s cologne, Sauvage. Backlash against Disney for dropping Depp from “Pirates of Caribbean 6” and Warner Bros for firing him from “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” was far and wide. Depp has been applauded and cheered when he arrived and departed from the Virginia courthouse.

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Heard has been scorned with cruel social media hashtags and mistruths. Heard, perhaps best known for her starring role in “Aquaman,” has legions of social media fans as well, supporting her with the hashtag #IStandWithAmber Heard.

The legacy of this aberrant display is to normalize and even glamorize intimate partner violence. It will no doubt diminish the credibility of those who survive such violence.

My experience was 27 years ago, and my former husband never denied the truth of anything I have written about the past. The jury is still out on the truth hidden in the debacle that is this case.

Even if the mind and body could forget the abuse reported by both partners, the larger problem may be that many will forgive such violence instead of learning a different way to live.

Michele Weldon is a journalist, emerita faculty at Northwestern University and author of six books including her most recent, "Act Like You’re Having A Good Time." She is a senior leader with The OpEd Project.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial - Wrong message on domestic violence

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