Like so many other women who had been in abusive relationships, I spent all of May with AirPods in my ears, glued to the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial. Whichever side we started out believing, those of us who watched the whole thing wound up overwhelmingly convinced that Depp was telling the truth. I felt vindicated by his win; there was relief in seeing any abuser exposed and punished for lying about it. And then my most trusted news organizations denied what I had witnessed, dismissing all of us, jury included, as crazed Depp fans who would be held accountable for supposed damage to #MeToo.
I’ll get to ‘why’ in a moment. Meanwhile, here is what you don’t know about the case unless you followed it yourself. With an appeal looming, maybe you will look at the next round of coverage with a different eye.
Depp’s testimony rang true to me from the get-go. If you ever lived through this particular hell, the audio of their conversations was painfully familiar. Just the fact that Depp started recording their arguments — with Heard’s approval — so he could prove to her the following day that she’d said what she’d said, made me wince. I did the same, under the naïve assumption that proof would actually prove anything to a gaslighter.
We listened to Heard acknowledge that she had thrown pots, pans, and cans at Depp, as well as initiated physical violence, and we also heard her downplay the significance of it all, just like abusers do. “You didn’t get punched; you got hit,” she said during one fight. “…I did not fucking deck you… I don’t know what the motion of my actual hand was. But you’re fine. I did not hurt you. I did not punch you. I was hitting you.” When Depp said that he was a better judge of whether he’d been punched in the jaw, she ridiculed him as a whiner. “You’re a fucking baby. You are such a baby! Grow the fuck up, Johnny!”
The recurrent theme in the recordings was that Depp was cowardly and cruel because he would try to walk away from fights, even if just by locking himself in the bathroom. She would bang on the door to bring him back. On other occasions, she followed when he retreated to his other home in the middle of the night.
Running from conflict was behavior that he’d learned in childhood, to cope with a mother who beat and belittled her children and husband, according to testimony from Depp and his sister Kristi. But that response was very triggering to Heard, who had her own emotional baggage. “Abandonment was her worst nightmare,” said their couple’s therapist, Laurel Anderson, in a video deposition. “…If he was going to leave her to de-escalate from the fight, she would strike him to keep him there.”
I suspected borderline personality disorder before a forensic psychologist testified to that diagnosis. Partly because perceived abandonment creates panic in those with BPD, but also because I’d been on the receiving end of the hypersensitivity, rages, and rapid mood swings that come with the disorder and recognized it in their conversations. Depp’s frustrated and compassionate replies lodged in my gut.
“Now I have to go,” he said evenly during one argument, after explaining that he needed space and trying for several minutes to get her consent. “So we will speak to each other in a couple of hours, okay? I hope you have some kind of revelation that makes you feel better. I hope I do, too.… But this is not love, this is not happiness.”
“Pleease, I’m begging you to stop, pleeeease stop doing this, please, it causes so much fucking stress. I’m gonna die, I’m gonna fucking die… I feel like I have heart attacks almost every day…” Heard became more inconsolable with each sentence as she begged him to stay. “You’re kiiilling me with this … you’re kiiilling me… you’re fucking kiiillingme…”
Unless you’ve lived with someone who has the disorder, you can’t imagine the drama that takes over your day-to-day life. A support counselor once told me that I needed to understand they experienced the world as if they were an exposed nerve ending. A throwaway comment can feel like rejection and cause excruciating emotional pain. Since they lack the skills to self-soothe, that pain typically manifests as rage, which can accelerate from zero to sixty in a flash and take a long time to dissipate. Trying to be the voice of reason against this can drive a person slowly insane. I couldn’t help but notice that the friends who testified for Heard identified themselves as ex- friends.
In one audio that I found excruciating to listen to, Heard told Depp over and over, rapid-fire to “suck my dick,” while he struggled to get words out in his halting cadence. After a few minutes of berating him, she switched to diabolical laughter and sarcasm about his career, calling him “a joke,” “a sell-out,” and “a washed-up piece of shit.”
Premiere of The Danish Girl in Toronto, September 12, 2015. Photo: Bakounine/Shutterstock.
Many of the articles post-verdict have complained that women need to be perfect in order to be believed. Maybe so, but in this case, the jury and public had excellent reasons to doubt Heard’s account. We didn’t believe that an abuse victim would continually mock and taunt the man she said terrified her, nor chase after him to keep the fights going. But mostly, we didn’t believe the stories of someone who routinely lied to avoid accountability.
Throughout the trial, Heard argued that day was night and black was white. She denied that she’d assaulted her previous domestic partner, although police officers witnessed it at the Seattle airport in 2009 and arrested her for domestic violence. She denied that two photos used as evidence were versions of the same shot, one oversaturated to make her cheeks redder. “I’ve never edited a photograph,” she said. She denied lying about having donated her $7 million divorce settlement to charity, and when backed into a corner, insisted that “pledged” and “donated” were synonyms. And she insinuated that the former owner of a resort she and Depp had visited was a random impostor, because his testimony shot down her story of abuse. Heard had been the aggressor that night, he said, while Depp was “kind of cowering and seemed almost afraid.”
Each of Heard’s abuse allegations fell apart under scrutiny. Not because there weren’t witnesses and photographic evidence, as insinuated in the press, but because there were, and they contradicted the stories that were getting wilder with each retelling.
Heard claimed that Depp smashed her in the face on many occasions while wearing heavy rings on each finger. She described injuries that would cause extensive swelling and bruising. But invariably she was photographed at celebrity events the following day, or caught unaware by paparazzi and security cameras, and her face was flawless in each image.
In one gruesome story from December 2015, Depp allegedly headbutted her full force, slammed her into a brick wall, punched her mercilessly, and yanked out clumps of her hair, which left her with a bloody scalp, broken nose, two black eyes, bruised ribs, bruises all over her body, and a split lip that kept bleeding. The next afternoon, she taped The Late Late Showwith James Corden looking relaxed and stunning, not a hint of a bruise in extreme close-ups, not a hint of swelling in her nose, which she wrinkled easily without wincing. We also saw screen captures of Heard opening her mouth in an enormous O, a movement that should have been impossible without reopening a split lip. Heard’s stylist, who spent hours with her getting her ready, saw no injuries on her bare face or body.
When Depp’s team confronted her with such contrary evidence, she doubled down on her stories. Looking straight at the jury, she claimed that each photo actually depicted a battered face — in other words, underneath what our lying eyes saw. If pushed further, she would reference “other” photos or proof that existed somewhere in the “mountain of evidence” she had given her lawyers.
Heard at a tribute to Don Rickles with Depp on May 6, 2014, the night after Depp allegedly broke her nose again. Source: Heard cross examination, Law & Crime Network. Original photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty.
What did materialize in this case was a mountain of clues about the real dynamic between the couple, and they all pointed to Heard as the abuser, in ways reminiscent of a malignant narcissist. There was the cruelty that she displayed in the audios, the gaslighting that was habitual at trial, and the many people who had either witnessed her aggressive behavior or experienced it. Heard’s former assistant said she was regularly screamed at and bombarded with late-night, drunken and abusive texts during her years of employment. Even Heard’s best friend admitted to getting slapped in the face during a trivial argument about dishes. And there were still other tells.
“It was quite shocking how she eventually isolated him from his family and friends,” testified Gina Deuters, a friend of Depp’s who is married to his longtime business partner. “It definitely felt like we’d kind of lost him.” Abusers isolate their victims, until the victim begins to doubt his or her own perceptions. Heard, by contrast, had relocated her close friends and sister into adjoining penthouses, where they lived rent-free courtesy of Depp and had master keys to all the apartments.
The other thing abusers typically do is lash out when their victim tries to exit the relationship.
When Depp’s mother died, on May 20, 2016, he said he found the clarity to end his marriage. The couple had already been living apart for a month, so Depp arranged to pick up some things the following day, a Saturday, and tell Heard in person. On the way over, he texted a friend that he had butterflies in his stomach, because he was about to break up with his wife and hated himself for it.
It was only after reviewing the many text messages, photos, and video footage from the case that I fully grasped the set-up that followed. By then, Heard knew they were on the verge of splitting. According to their couple’s therapist, she had questioned, in private, whether there was a financial advantage to getting a police report for domestic violence before anyone filed for divorce. If Heard planned to follow up, that Saturday would be her last opportunity, because Depp was leaving Monday night for a two-month European tour with his band.
By Heard’s account, Depp arrived angry and drunk, picked a fight, threw a cell phone at her face, and dragged her around the room by her hair until her friend Raquel, who lived next door, burst in to stop him. They claimed that Depp then raged through the apartment, breaking bottles and spilling wine before trashing another penthouse and the building hallway on his way out.
There were many reasons why this version of events didn’t track, but the simplest was that phone records and texts painted a different picture of what was happening. It also was refuted by Depp’s bodyguards, who were present inside the apartment, and the police officers who responded to two 911 calls from Heard’s friends, per her instructions. Neither pair of officers observed any injuries to Heard or any property damage inside or outside the apartments. On the contrary, their bodycam footage of a clean building hallway — taken two hours after Depp left — cast suspicion on when and how Heard took the photos she presented in court, which showed wine stains on the carpet and wall.
Depp knew nothing about the police drama or his wife’s accusations when he sent a group text to her and the resident friends: “That was it. The last encounter forever. You were already ready to strike!!! Why did I even come there in the 1st place?? To be yelled at by you!!! I’m an idiot… All you wanted was to make me fucking miserable. Well, I’m finally there.”
On Monday, Heard filed for divorce. The following day, her lawyer notified Depp’s lawyer of the filing in a letter that read a lot like extortion. Citing Saturday’s “violent attack,” Heard’s lawyer hinted at a possible restraining order and adverse publicity if Depp didn’t signal his immediate willingness to comply with her requests. They included: exclusive use and payments on three of his five penthouses (Raquel and the others could continue to live rent-free), exclusive use and payments on the Range Rover she’d been driving, and $125,000 in legal expenses, payable by Friday.
So first thing on Friday, Heard applied for a restraining order wearing a somber black dress and a bruise, despite having no marks on her face in video footage the entire week. Six years later, she recounted the trauma of that day to a jury in Virginia. “I walked into the courthouse, it was quiet…,” she said, voice quivering with emotion. “No one knew about my divorce, so I thought it was going to stay that way, and I walked out into a sea of paparazzi and cameras.”
Except, as it happened, her own team had arranged that sea of photographers. TMZ had been notified that she would be there, according to testimony from the paparazzi manager at the time, and that Heard would pause to “display” the bruise on her right cheek for the cameras, which she did. The following day she was caught on the street in a candid shot with Raquel, without makeup, without the funeral garb, and without the bruise.
Heard got a restraining order on May 27, 2016. Photo: Clint Brewer/Splash News
Heard with friend Raquel Pennington on May 28, 2016. Photo: Brewer/McManus/Splash News
Here’s where the story gets crazier, as hard as that is to imagine. During a phone conversation in August 2016, Depp tried to persuade Heard to settle their divorce out of court, reminding her she would have to testify under oath about the domestic violence charges. That’s when she informed him of a secret trove of documentation she’d been compiling for years — photos, texts to time stamp each claim, cross texts between people she had texted. An example she held up was the day of the James Corden show — a day she did indeed text people to say she’d just done the show with two black eyes. She said the exact same thing to her stylist, who was standing next to her at the time and knew that “Ms. Heard did not have any black eyes,” according to an affidavit.
“It would be unbelievable to imagine that… I have been plotting to do this for three years…,” Heard continued in the phone call with Depp, “just saving it up for the right time, when I’m not asking for any money and have nothing financial to gain from it…. No one is going to believe… that it is a plan I’m going to put makeup on myself and take pictures throughout years and just sit on it…. That, while having this imaginary life run parallel to it. Do you understand?” Depp didn’t seem to understand at all, as words tumbled out of her mouth in a garble of disjointed thoughts. Mixed in was a vague threat that a prosecutor had told her it was “the most solid evidence of [a] domestic violence case we’ve ever seen.” But, she pseudo-reassured him, “I felt like… I would… I’m not… like I would never want that for you.”
I remembered that Depp said their therapist had warned him Heard was a sociopath and malignant narcissist; at this point, I didn’t doubt it. Narcissists telegraph what they’re up to. Depp knew nothing about Heard’s collection of accusations, photos, and texts — so why was she raising the subject of fakery? Her monologue sounded like a confession: I’ve been creating bruises with makeup and taking pictures of myself for years, and no one will ever suspect me.
Heard told the jury how she camouflaged her bruises. She accidentally called it a bruise kit, corrected herself, then inadvertently described the process for creating theatrical bruises. Source: LiveNOW from FOX.
I also was struck by the way she tied her credibility to “having nothing financial to gain.” That must have sounded odd to Depp, since she was demanding $50,000 a month in spousal support. But as soon as their divorce was settled days later, she released a press statement that promised her entire payout to charity. The publicity served its purpose, without her ever having to make good on her promise: when Depp sued The Sun in the U.K. for calling him a “wife beater,” the judge’s decision against him cited Heard’s supposed donation as reason for believing her version of events.
Deciding what to leave out of this story has been the hardest part of writing it, because I could easily pick apart twice as many false accusations. Why, then, did the media persist in taking Heard’s accounts at face value and characterizing those of us who believed Depp as unhinged fans, misogynists, and social-media conspiracists?
· Michelle Goldberg, The New York Times: “The confounding part isn’t that the jury sided with him over her; this is the country that elected Donald Trump, where the convicted domestic abuser Chris Brown is still a major pop star…”
· Moira Donegan, The Guardian: “For their part, Depp’s fans seem to not so much deny Depp’s alleged violence against Heard, but to approve of it.”
· The Atlantic on Twitter: “Johnny Depp fans have decided that Amber Heard is a liar and a criminal and the black-hearted center of an immense conspiracy. @kait_tiffany has seen this all before: (link to article)”
· Kat Tenbarge, NBC, on Twitter: “It’s the people’s QAnon. And the same people who think QAnon believers are idiots fell for it.”
There were two reasons for the anti-Depp stories. First, media companies didn’t want to devote someone to a six-week case that they considered of no national consequence, so reporters weren’t familiar enough with the facts to challenge Heard’s accusations. The second, more insidious problem is harder for me to talk about. As a feminist, I don’t like saying that the women covering this case refused to deviate from the script about power dynamics — but it’s true. Depp’s fame, age, wealth, and gender made it impossible for him to be a victim in their minds. Period. As Goldberg wrote in the Times, “[E]ven if you believe that Heard acted inexcusably, the idea that she was the primary aggressor — against a larger man with far more resources who was recorded cursing at her for daring to speak in an ‘authoritative’ way — defies logic.”
Goldberg is someone I read and like, so I was horrified by the disingenuity and mistakes that I found in her pieces. It goes without saying that the average man could overwhelm the average woman in a fight. But would the average man strike back at a woman? Uh, not likely. Depp consistently told Heard in the audios that they needed to separate and calm down if an argument got heated. By contrast, she said: “I can’t promise I won’t get physical again. God, I fucking sometimes get so mad I lose it.”
Vanessa Paradis, Depp’s partner for fourteen years, submitted a witness statement in the U.K. trial, as did Winona Ryder. They called Depp kind, loving, and incapable of the violence Heard alleged. Kate Moss, Depp’s other long-term partner, testified for him in the Virginia trial. Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.
Depp was an easy target for reporters — the actual imperfect victim we kept hearing about. He was addicted to an opioid painkiller, drank heavily, and had been known to let out anger on kitchen cabinets and hotel rooms. When frustrated with Heard, he vented to close friends in vulgar text messages, which were reproduced without context in news stories. Like the infamous text he sent to actor friend Paul Bettany. According to Depp, Heard didn’t like Bettany and could make that embarrassingly obvious. Depp proposed that she was a witch.
“Let’s burn Amber!!!” Depp wrote, referencing a famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
“Having thought it through,” Bettany replied, “I don’t think we should burn Amber — she’s delightful company and easy on the eye, plus I’m not sure she’s a witch. We could of course try the English course of action in these predicaments — we do a drowning test. Thoughts? NB, I have a pool.”
“Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”
Revolting? Yes. But serious? In court, Heard’s lawyers deleted Bettany’s sarcasm and held up Depp’s words in isolation, as evidence of his literal intentions. Reporters followed suit: “[Heard] lost despite vile text messages from Depp, spinning out violent fantasies of rape and murder,” wrote Jessica Winter in The New Yorker.
The painful irony was that in advocating for female abuse victims, writers steamrolled over their voices. What I saw were women who identified Heard as the abuser and felt triggered by her. They vastly outnumbered those who believed her. Each pro-Heard article inspired dozens if not hundreds of impassioned, thoughtful comments from former victims, clearly not bots, who begged the writers to hear them. “Did you even watch the trial?” they kept asking.
Instead of lecturing about the verdict’s impact on #MeToo — a specious argument given that the public saw it as a win for a domestic violence victim — news organizations should have paid attention to how their coverage further eroded trust in the media. That fallout was very real. I lost count of how many loyal readers of the Times and other serious publications said they’d had their eyes opened to the way news gets distorted. As one listener of the Times’s podcast, The Daily, wrote, “I am deeply, deeply disappointed and am now wondering if all podcasts from the Daily have been this one-sided and out of context.”
Even I was shocked. Like most journalists, I have sometimes run across misleading articles by colleagues once I dug into a subject. There is always another document you could unearth for a more nuanced picture. But in several decades of reporting, I don’t recall anything like this — a tenacious army of zealots refusing to examine the specific facts in front of them.
I feel sorry for Johnny Depp, who proved his case and continues to be treated as a pariah in the press, but it is the rest of us I worry about. At this moment in time, journalists can’t afford to give people a legitimate reason to distrust them. What does it say that a few smart lawyers with YouTube channels provided more insightful and impartial commentary than did the entire mainstream media? Nothing good, I’m afraid.