Johnny Depp and Amber Heard- Who Is the Victim?
Blog by Arun S. Maini
Did Johnny Depp assault his wife, Amber Heard? Or is Depp, the famous actor known best for his recurring role as Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, the victim of a “hit job” by a vengeful ex who is trying to revive her Hollywood career?
The lengthy trial that is unfolding in Virginia is not a criminal case; rather, the two former spouses are suing each other for “defamation”; in other words, for trying to harm each other’s reputation. And given that reputation means money in a world obsessed with celebrity, and for a family-oriented company like Disney, it really matters what happened between them, and what words they each used to describe each other.
The issue for the jury in this trial is whether Amber Heard, in writing about her alleged experiences as a victim of domestic violence, was being truthful, or whether she knowingly made false claims in a 2016 op-ed in the Washington Post, an important newspaper of record for the American establishment. And whether Johnny Depp damaged her reputation when he claimed that her allegations were false. At stake is not only the $150 million they are claiming against each other ($50 million by him and $100 million by her), but hundreds of millions in income and profits from movies, merchandise and all the other spoils of Hollywood.
The allegations are lurid and fit for a soap opera or pulp novel: messages written in blood, twisted sex, drugs, faeces and even a severed finger. But behind the celebrity gossip, in many ways this is a classic case of domestic violence, with all of its hallmarks and stereotypes
Is Johnny Depp a Wife-Beater?
Depp and Heard have each alleged that they are victims of violence at the hands of their partner. Who is telling the truth, and who is lying?
The reality in domestic violence cases, as in life, is not so black and white. Johnny Depp apparently had a difficult childhood, filled with abuse and neglect for which he has experienced ongoing trauma and post-traumatic effects throughout his life. PTSD from past abuse can manifest itself in the form of self-medication with drugs and alcohol, as well as a fragile ego and explosive temper. The drugs and alcohol only worsen the impact of these vulnerabilities.
Problems with trauma and self-esteem often lead to self-destructive behaviour, including being attracted to romantic partners who feed into these habits or aggravate them.
Could Amber Heard have provoked some of Depp’s violent behaviour? The evidence presented at the trial at times seems to suggest yes. That is not at all surprising. The reality is that often domestic violence occurs between people who have difficulties communicating, or lack the tools or willingness to de-escalate arguments. Alcohol and drugs act as dis-inhibitors and cause people to do things that they might not do when sober.
Keep in mind that Johnny Depp the actor is also a famous Hollywood celebrity who is used to being admired, courted, and obeyed by everyone around him, from his fans to his staff, agents, PR people and film executives. Someone who lives the life of a demi-god or royalty is not used to being talked back to or challenged; they love to be in control.
Trying to control, manipulate and jealously oversee one’s spouse is a classic symptom of someone who cannot have a healthy romantic relationship. It is one of the most common signs to look for when it comes to partner abuse, whether verbal, physical, emotional, or a combination of all three.
Is Johnny Depp the victim of domestic violence?
Depp alleges that his wife was in fact the violent, controlling person in the marriage, jealous of his fame and success. Depp claims that Heard severed his finger with a bottle of booze, a scene that could have been lifted right out of Pirates of the Caribbean. Amber Heard claims that any violent behaviour on her part was merely self-defence. Self-defence, however, has to be reasonable under the circumstances.
Depp’s legal team called a psychologist to testify that she diagnosed Amber Heard with borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by jealousy, controlling behaviour fuelled by feelings of abandonment, and is very often seen in perpetrators of spousal abuse. The psychologist also stated that Heard’s disorder is also characterized by shallowness and the need to be the centre of attention (not surprising for a Hollywood actress). This kind of evidence, where a diagnosis is made by the opposing party in a lawsuit, would likely never be admitted as evidence in a trial court in Canada. But in the US, different rules apply.
Yes, men can be victims of physical and sexual abuse too, but not at the same rate as women, and it is rarely completely one-sided aggression by the female. It could be that Depp’s childhood trauma resulted in him choosing to marry a woman who revived all of that terrible period in his early life; but it could just as well be that the trauma he refers to caused him to lash out at his intimate partner in cruel and violent ways. It is rarely a clear-cut situation, but neither is the blame for dysfunction and abuse shared equally. It may take “two to tango” but one of them is almost always the leader.
Stereotypes play a role too. Women are often seen as the victims not the abusers. But women are also often expected to keep quiet and “take it”, and when they speak out, they are vilified. Amber Heard is being slandered on social media far more than is Johnny Depp, whose fans of “Pirates of the Caribbean” cannot separate the man from the myth. A double standard? Absolutely.
Why is the Depp vs. Heard trial getting so much attention?
Beyond the obvious reason that this trial involves a behind-the-curtain look at the intimate and salacious details of movie stars, the chord that resonates is one that is experienced by millions of families the world over: the pernicious effect of emotional, verbal and physical abuse that so often takes place behind closed doors, out of sight of co-workers, family and friends.
A toxic relationship can happen to anyone. The causes of intimate partner violence are complex, and so are its prevention, detection and treatment. Hearing about these details, or about the childhood trauma of a movie star, can act to humanize these mythical celebrities who live glamourous lives that exist for the rest of us only in our imagination.
What are the stakes for these two celebrities?
Money and fame, which are the currency of Hollywood. Particularly in the #MeToo era, where revelations about abuses of power and trust have upended careers and destroyed reputations, the impact of allegations of physical or sexual violence are as lethal to a star’s career as an overdose of opioids. Depp was fired by Disney and lost key advertising endorsements, which often earn a celebrity more income than the films that made them famous in the first place. Heard similarly claims to have been backlisted for speaking out against her famous ex-husband.
On the other hand, in Hollywood, fame and infamy are two sides of the same coin, and as Oscar Wilde once quipped, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. For the inhabitants of this fairy-tale world, any publicity is good publicity. In America, fame means fortune: in book deals, TV appearances, endorsements, and so on.
Is this trial helpful in raising the issue of domestic violence?
That depends who you ask. The fact that even the most privileged among us can suffer from the petty grievances and traumatic horror of violence can help to bring home the universality of this pernicious form of abuse. People who are glued to the TV or devouring coverage in the press or on social media about the case may also learn a thing or two about the causes and effects of domestic violence, which they might never otherwise have known. At the same time, celebrity cases often distort matters for reasons (like money) that have nothing to do with the real world everyone else lives in. But America wouldn’t be America without its “trial of the century” every couple of years.
Who will win? Johnny Depp or Amber Heard?
Who will win the defamation case? This is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard is a lower one of the “balance of probabilities”. And Amber Heard has already won a verdict on the same basis in the U.K. But win or lose the trial, Johnny Depp wins because many see him as “standing up to” allegations which usually remain hidden behind closed doors and financial settlements wrapped up in non-disclosure agreements. And Amber Heard wins in many corners of society for having the courage to take on the most dangerous role of her life: highlighting the scourge of domestic violence by seeking to expose the real man behind the beloved fictional character in those Disney movies.
If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges and need the advice of an experienced and skilled lawyer to help you through the legal process, call The Defence Group for a free consultation at 877-295-2830.
Ruby Mann is a graduate of York University in Criminology
Arun S. Maini is a criminal lawyer and former prosecutor with over 25 years of experience