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The Bleak Spectacle of the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp Trial
How a washed-up celebrity, men’s rights activists and true crime stans convinced millions of Americans to buy into a conspiracy theory
This post originally appeared on my friend Parker Molloy’s newsletter, The Present Age. Like and subscribe! I also spoke about this case on Cancel Me Daddy and On the Media if podcasts are more your thing.
Yesterday afternoon, a Virginia jury found Amber Heard liable for defaming her ex-husband, Johnny Depp.
Officially, it was the conclusion of a six-week defamation trial between two B-list celebrities. In reality, it was the culmination of the largest explosion of online misogyny since Gamergate — and a chilling vision of the future of the internet.
Amber Heard told a plausible, evidence-backed story of abuse.
Depp and Heard met in 2009 while filming The Rum Diary. She was 23, he was 46. They were both dating other people at the time, but flirted on set and bonded over shared passions for books, art, and poetry. They eventually split from their respective partners and began dating in 2012.
Depp was sober when they first met, but as the relationship deepened, he began drinking again. In her testimony, Heard described him disappearing for days at a time, then reappearing as a different person. He accused her of “whoring herself” in Hollywood and grilled her about auditioning for roles that involved sex scenes. When he didn’t get the responses he wanted, he turned over tables, threw glasses, and punched the wall next to her head.
The first time he hit her she thought he was joking. Depp was drunk and maybe on cocaine, and Heard asked him what his “Wino Forever” tattoo said — the letters were muddled and she couldn’t make them out.
He thought she already knew and that her question was a way of mocking him. He slapped her. She laughed, so baffled by his response that she thought it must be an expression of his dark sense of humor. Then he slapped her again and again and again. She fell off the couch as he screamed, “You think you’re funny, bitch!?”
He stormed off, then came back, burst into tears and apologized. “I believed it,” Heard said on the stand. “I believed there was a line that he wouldn’t cross again.”
He kept his promise for a few months, but the drinking, the paranoia, and the temper slowly returned. Screams became shoves became slaps became punches. On at least one occasion he sexually assaulted her. After he blew up, he would disappear, then return to her sober with a promise and a plan to stay that way. The cycle repeated so many times Heard had a name for these post-abuse periods: “The warm glow.”
But the glow always faded. In May of 2014, Heard and Depp flew from Boston to L.A. on a private plane. Heard was about to film a movie with James Franco, an ongoing source of tension in their relationship because he was considerably younger than Depp and had made a pass at her on a previous film. Heard had already told her assistant to make sure Depp didn’t see the script for the current project because it involved a love scene.
Depp arrived to the flight at minimum drunk and possibly on cocaine. According to his texts to Paul Bettany, he acted like “an angry, aggro injun in a fuckin blackout, screaming obscenities and insulting any fuck who gets near.” According to Heard, he accused her of cheating, followed her when she changed seats, slapped her, then kicked her down when she got up to move again. He eventually started howling like an animal and passed out in the bathroom.
Here is Heard telling the story, if you can stomach it.
The airplane explosion became the template for the rest of their relationship. Nearly every future incident of violence followed a similar pattern: Depp experienced an external stressor — one blowup followed a meeting where his financial advisors told him he had lost millions; another happened after his mother died — and he self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. Then, feeling emasculated and ashamed of his addiction, he took out his feelings on Heard. He accused her of cheating or nagging and eventually escalated to shoves, slaps or worse.
Afterwards, he retreated into denial. Nearly all of the violence took place when he was drunk or high, often blacked out, and his life was deliberately structured to allow him never to confront the consequences of his addictions. His checkbook took care of the trashed hotel rooms; his employees soothed his self-bruised ego; doctors doled out meds to get him through shoots; his celebrity status ensured he never lost work.
By 2014, Heard was the only person in his life who told him the truth about his anger and his drug problem — the “lesbian camp counselor,” as he once memorably put it, who ruined his fun and reminded him of what he had done on the nights he couldn’t remember. He grew increasingly resentful that she treated him like an addict and an abuser, something his mind would not allow him to accept. His texts to her were apologetic, but his messages to everyone else were unrepentant.
“I'm out. I'm done,” he wrote to his sister after the airplane incident, a period when Heard was giving him the silent treatment. “Her actions have added more drama than necessary […] that's what people call falling off the wagon ... It's happened to a lot of my friends. ... Their wives don't stop calling them.”
If Depp’s behavior was textbook abuser, Heard’s was textbook abuse victim. She tried to fix him, launching increasingly desperate attempts to get him into detox. She eventually started taking pictures of him passed out in hotel rooms and nightclubs, evidence she could show him the next day to prove that he had a problem.
“I loved him,” she said on the stand. “But he was also this other thing. And the other thing was awful.”
In the final year of the relationship, a sort of learned helplessness took over. “I would try to stand up for myself,” she said. “I would push back, I would push him off of me … I would yell at him and scream at him, I would call him ugly names.”
As their marriage fell apart, Depp became even more reliant on drugs and alcohol, disappearing for longer periods and returning with even more paranoid accusations. Heard became increasingly brittle, rolling her eyes at his bizarre denials about his addiction and ignoring his empty promises to get sober.
The last straw was a series of escalating incidents in which he vanished for nearly a week, then showed up late and drunk to her 30th birthday party, then blew up at her afterwards. In the middle of their final argument he threw his phone at her, hitting her in the cheek. She filed for divorce the next day and a restraining order a week later.
Heard’s story is remarkably unremarkable.
Every beat of Heard’s narrative — the honeymoon period, the relentless escalations, the day-one apologies followed by day-two denials — follows well-established patterns of interpersonal violence.
Heard’s narrative also matches nearly all available evidence — even the evidence against her. In 2018, Depp sued the British tabloid The Sun for calling him a “wife beater.” To defend itself against the UK’s notoriously un-generous libel laws, the tabloid called Heard to provide evidence to substantiate its claim.
She identified 14 incidents of violence throughout her four-year relationship with Depp. I’m not going to go through them one by one (I recommend reading the UK judgment for yourself), but I’ll give an overview of the types of evidence she presented to support her testimony.
Photos: Heard’s injuries and the damage Depp caused to their homes are well-documented. Heard took photos of herself in the later stages of the relationship and her injuries appeared in at least one red-carpet picture. The L.A. Times report from the day she filed her restraining order notes that she arrived at the courthouse with visible bruises.
Contemporaneous communications: Both Heard’s and Depp’s texts from their relationship confirm her basic outline of events. From the earliest incident of violence, Heard told friends and family about his jealousy, his attacks, and his denials. The UK trial includes a text from Depp’s assistant after the private-jet blowup saying, “When I told him he kicked you, he cried.”
Depp’s texts also confirm the outlines of her account. Both trials have featured numerous texts in which Depp admits to becoming a different person when drunk or high. “My illness somehow crept up and grabbed me,” he said in a message to Heard. “I of course pounded and displayed ugly colors to Amber on a recent journey,” says a message to a friend. His sister once texted Depp to say, “Stop drinking. Stop coke. Stop pills.”
Witnesses: Numerous people saw Heard with bruises, cuts and missing chunks of hair. Depp’s staffers testify to the damage he caused to their homes and hotel rooms. Heard’s acting coach says she had to schedule a longer session with Heard to help her work through the trauma of the relationship; a makeup artist says she helped cover bruises.
The final alleged abuse incident, in which Depp allegedly threw his phone at Heard, was witnessed in full by her friend on the other end of the call. Two more friends testified that they saw him acting aggressively toward her on one occasion and her sister confirmed another (she also testified in the US trial that Depp once held her dog out of the window of a moving car when he was drinking).
Tapes: Numerous audio recordings include tacit or explicit acknowledgments by Depp that he exploded in anger at Heard — as well as some of those explosions themselves. In one she says, “I cry in my bedroom after I dumped you a week prior after you beat the shit out of me,” and Depp replies, “I made a huge mistake. I won’t do it again.” In another Heard says, “put your cigarettes out on someone else” and Depp replies, “Shut up, fat ass.”
Video: Heard surreptitiously recorded one of Depp’s outbursts. He doesn’t hit her and this isn’t one of the incidents presented in the UK trial, but it shows his anger and how it interacts with his alcohol consumption.
This is a lot of documentation. Heard had more evidence in her favor than the vast majority of abuse victims and the bulk of celebrated, widely accepted MeToo cases.
And that’s not even the best reason to believe her.
The most convincing evidence is the big picture.
So far we’ve covered Heard’s evidence of individual incidents. Context matters in domestic abuse cases, and the context of this one is Depp’s well-documented history of misogyny, drug abuse and violent outbursts.
This has never been a secret: As early as 1989 he was responding to rumors of “on-set tantrums, misbehavior and egotism” while filming 21 Jump Street. A 1998 article referred to the “legendary Depp temper.” In 2000, both Terry Gilliam (director of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, one of my favorite movies goddamn it) told Esquire that he had blown up on their sets.
“He is so sweet the rest of the time […] and just of couple of times he comes on like the bloodbeast terror,” Newell said.
Depp’s temper and drug use have long been cast as symbols of his rock-star persona. His penchant for attacking paparazzi and trashing hotel rooms has been a mainstay of magazine profiles and late-night show appearances for years. Now that he’s done with the Heard allegations, he will defend himself against a 2018 lawsuit filed by a crew member who claims Depp berated and punched him on the set of City of Lies.
Other aspects of Heard’s testimony also align with well-documented patterns of abusive behavior. Ellen Barkin, who friends-with-benefitted Depp in the late ‘90s, said he was controlling, jealous and once threw a wine bottle across the room in one of his rages. Another of his exes, Jennifer Grey, described him as “crazy jealous and paranoid.” There are anonymously sourced reports that he paid his first wife an extra $1.25 million not to disclose a phone message in which he repeatedly used the N-word.
“I have a lot of love inside me,” Depp said in 2000, “but I also have a tremendous amount of anger . . . which I think is normal.”
And let’s not forget Depp’s well-established misogyny. He has defended Roman Polanski, befriended fellow alleged abuser Marilyn Manson and said the accusations against Harvey Weinstein were implausible because his wife wasn’t “some hairy-backed bitch.” His texts from early in his relationship refer to Heard as an “idiot cow," “filthy whore” and “worthless hooker.” One says, “I'll smack the ugly cunt around before I let her in, don't worry."
These are officially “jokes,” but other correspondence has a sharper tone. In an e-mail to Elton John (!), Depp described the mother of his children as “the French extortionist (ex-cunt).” Later texts refer to Heard as "flappy fish market," "cum guzzling whore" and “scumbag gold-digging cunt.”
Call it bias if you want, but I simply don’t find it difficult to believe that a troubled man with a history of drug problems and violent outbursts — not to mention all the entitlement that comes with being a beloved and wealthy movie star — brought that pattern into his marriage.
One of the reasons I have gotten so obsessed with this case is the sheer unreality of watching large swathes of the internet and progressive media act as if this narrative — Powerful Man With Anger Management And Drug Problems Beats Wife — is some implausible fairy tale rather than a story we have seen a million times. Even if Heard didn’t have an Everest of supporting evidence, even if this was a he-said-she-said case, her account should be treated as plausible on its face.
Heard’s account of the facts makes sense; Depp’s doesn’t.
From the inception of his legal attack on his ex-wife, Depp has claimed that she engaged in a calculated, pre-meditated, years-long project to destroy his life. A text to a friend after she filed for divorce reads, "That cunt ruined such a fucking cool life we had for a while." Slightly more politely but no more convincingly, his legal filing for the Virginia case says her allegations are “an elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity for Ms. Heard and advance her career.”
Depp’s account of events doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny. Heard’s first text messages to friends and family alleging abuse were from 2013 — two years before she even married Depp, much less divorced him. For his narrative to align with the available evidence, Heard would have had to convince numerous friends, ex-friends, professional contacts and neighbors to lie numerous times, under oath, for years — all while leaving no trace of her diabolical plan in the form of texts or e-mails.
At the most basic level, the accusation that Heard did all this to advance her own career doesn’t make sense. In general, women do not benefit from accusing powerful men of abuse. More specifically, consider Heard’s actions during and following her split from Depp. She filed for divorce in May 2016, then made the abuse allegations and filed for a restraining order shortly afterwards.
Depp and Heard had no pre-nuptial agreement, meaning she would have been entitled to millions in their divorce regardless of whether she was abused. She dropped her claim for ongoing support and ended up taking significantly less than she was entitled to. As part of the settlement, she withdrew the abuse allegations, signed an NDA, and co-signed a vague, anodyne statement that the relationship had been “volatile” but “there was never an intent of physical or emotional harm.”
And then, for years, nothing. She made a few oblique references to her relationship as part of her advocacy around #MeToo, but she never provided any details.
Regardless of whether you think making abuse allegations is a viable way for women to advance their careers, they do in fact have to make them.
I find it difficult to believe that Heard spent years fabricating texts and photographs (long before #MeToo, by the way), only to get a modest divorce settlement to which she was already entitled, then stay silent for more than a year.
Depp’s narrative doesn’t hold together under its own logic. Heard is smart enough to fake abuse almost as soon as the relationship starts, but so dumb she accidentally reveals her plan in a verbal slip-up on the stand? She paints bruises on her face but wipes them off before she gets spotted by doormen and paparazzi? She fabricates photos and manipulates metadata but doesn’t bother making her injuries severe enough to be unassailable?
Heard’s actions make no sense as a scheming black widow. As an abuse victim, however, they align internally and with all external evidence.
So why do so many people refuse to believe her?
The internet assassination of Amber Heard started as soon as the trial.
If you’re surprised to learn Heard’s narrative or the scale of the evidence supporting it, that’s because it has played almost no role in the internet free-for-all that has surrounded this case for the last six weeks.
Regardless of whether you were remotely interested in these people or this trial, your social media feed likely filled up with memes, videos, and audio clips implying that Amber Heard had been caught fabricating evidence and committing perjury.
These accusations swirled around Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and (especially) Tiktok for the duration of the trial with almost no pushback from major progressive outlets. Clips of Heard’s testimony became fodder for visual memes and celebrity re-enactments. Depp supporters doctored footage to make it look like she took cocaine on the stand and spread false rumors that she had plagiarized her testimony and even her sexual assault allegations. Dozens of Youtubers and Twitch streamers became full-time Amber Heard smear machines, reacting to her testimony in real time and sending their followers onto the internet to argue with anyone defending her.
The narrative of Heard as a scheming manipulator was so un-controversial that brands got involved. In the early days of the trial, Heard’s lawyer held up a concealer kit to demonstrate her point that Heard’s bruises often weren’t visible in photographs because she covered them with makeup. Almost immediately, Depp’s supporters zoomed in on the image, identified the makeup brand, and started tagging it on Instagram.
The brand’s official account then “debunked” Heard’s lawyer, saying the palette only came out in 2017. This meant [Perry Mason voice] that it couldn’t have been used to cover Heard’s bruises in her relationship with Depp from 2012 to 2016!!!
This was, of course, irrelevant. Neither Heard nor her lawyer had ever claimed that this specific makeup palette was the one she used to cover her bruises. It was a prop, something her lawyer’s assistant probably grabbed at CVS the night before to serve as a visual aid.
But it didn’t matter. It was a gotcha, a technical discrepancy that didn’t require listening to Heard’s claims or assessing her big-picture narrative against her ex-husband’s.
Nearly all of the “evidence” against Heard propagated on social media had the same laser focus on small discrepancies and minor misstatements. At one point Heard referred to her makeup as her “bruise kit,” a term professionals use for makeup that creates bruises. She quickly corrected herself, but Depp’s supporters used the slip to claim that she had inadvertently admitted to faking her bruises on the stand.
The greatest and most effective discrepancy was her charity donations. After she negotiated her $7 million divorce settlement, Heard announced that she was donating half to the ACLU and the other half to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. Over the course of the trial, Depp’s lawyers revealed that the charities hadn’t received the full amounts and that Heard had lied about giving the money away.
As with all of these gotchas, it looks bad until you show the tiniest shred of human interest in discovering the facts. While it’s true that Heard hasn’t donated the full amount, all evidence indicates that she intends to. In 2016, after her divorce was finalized, she entered into an agreement with the ACLU to give them the full $3.5 million over 10 years. She made the first payment but delayed the rest because Depp started trying to sue her into oblivion (she says she’s spent $6 million on her legal defense so far).
Large charity donations are routinely spread out over longer periods and representatives from the ACLU testified that Heard was transparent with them about her financial circumstances and remains committed to completing her payments. The “proven lie” here amounts to an imprecise choice of words: She said “I donated” when she should have said “I pledged.”
Could she have been more accurate? Sure. But a minor misstatement — or, at worst, a mild exaggeration of her generosity — doesn’t demonstrate that she’s capable of the kind of bank-heist calculation necessary to fake abuse claims for years.
All of this — the bad-faith scrutiny, the obsession with minor discrepancies, the confidence that vast conspiracies can be discovered on Google — is instantly recognizable from previous explosions of internet-enabled misogynistic bullying. The “body language experts” that swarmed around Heard spent years applying the same junk science to Amanda Knox, Meghan Markle, and Carole Baskin. The gremlins who targeted Anita Sarkeesian during Gamergate pretended to be offended by the (extremely minor) technical errors in her videos rather than her presence in their boy’s-only treehouse.
The best evidence for the motivations behind the anti-Heard smear campaign is that while her every slip-up has been dissected ad nauseum, Depp’s far more numerous and consequential discrepancies have been ignored. He testified, for example, that he was too high on opioids to attack Heard during the airplane incident but his own texts (“angry, aggro injun in a fuckin blackout”) from the day after directly contradict that explanation. His absurd denials of his drug problem belie his own contemporaneous communications and bolster Heard’s account. In the final week of the Virginia trial, he bafflingly claimed that he hadn’t sent text messages from his own phone — I guess someone hacked into it and sent texts that sound exactly like him?
The trial was a nationwide tutorial on how to blame victims.
I’d love to say that the toxicity on social media never seeped into the courtroom, but in many cases, Depp’s lawyers amplified and even originated the worst arguments against Heard.
The last six weeks have seen a legal smear campaign straight out of the “what was she wearing?” era. Throughout the trial, Depp’s lawyers claimed that if Heard was “really” a victim of abuse, she would have come forward earlier, suffered more severe injuries, and had more medical records documenting the violence against her. If Depp was so dangerous, why did Heard write him love letters and give him a ceremonial knife as a gift?
On cross-examination, they accused her of painting on bruises, staging cocaine lines on her breakfast table, and lying about being sexually assaulted. The called a parade of witnesses who saw her without bruises and acquaintances who say she never told them about the abuse. They belittled her when she didn’t have evidence (Depp’s lawyer asked Heard why, if Depp was a cocaine addict, she didn’t have photos of him snorting it), then belittled her again when she did have evidence (“Were you having a photoshoot in the courtroom that day?” his lawyer said about the photos of Heard’s bruises when she filed the restraining order.)
All of these arguments are utterly illiterate about the nature of abuse and actively harmful to victims. By definition, most domestic violence takes place behind closed doors. Victims have numerous reasons to hide their injuries, from internalized shame to fear of their abuser to, in Heard’s case, legitimate worries about ending up on TMZ.
Depp’s supporters claim that his case demonstrates the difficulties male abuse victims face in coming forward. Those challenges are real, but I fail to see how casting doubt on victims who didn’t get severely injured or once said something nice about their abuser is an effective way to address them.
As well as discrediting Heard’s claims of abuse, Depp’s legal team argued that she was the real abuser in the relationship. They called witnesses who saw Heard nagging, berating, and belittling her husband. Heard’s former assistant testified that she was a moody, mercurial boss who once blew up at her for requesting a raise. A psychologist who saw Heard and Depp for couples’ counseling in 2015 said they engaged in “mutual abuse.” His lawyers played privately recorded tapes of Heard admitting that she hit him and taunting him to tell the media.
Heard is not a perfect victim and has never claimed to be. In her own testimony, she admitted to engaging in screaming matches, fighting back, and insulting Depp in the final year of the relationship. The judge in the UK trial said there was probably some truth in Depp’s accusation that Heard was condescending about his drug use, something that triggered his sense of internalized shame and, ultimately, his rage. The psychologist who saw them in 2015 said both partners had poor communication skills and weren’t able to de-escalate fights or have productive conflicts.
This is all damning evidence against Heard and I see no reason not to believe it. But remember: The relationship at the heart of this case was one in which the smaller, younger, less powerful partner has evidence of at least 10 serious incidents of violence. Black eyes, bloody lips, trashed homes, chunks of ripped-out hair on the carpet. WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT WHETHER SHE WAS ANNOYING SOMETIMES?
Depp’s legal strategy, like the strategy of seemingly everyone on social media, was to insist on seeing Heard’s actions in a vacuum. In one of the few specific examples of her emotional abuse he described on the stand, Depp said he once gave a lifetime achievement award to Christopher Lee and toasted with half a glass of champagne backstage. When he met up with Heard afterward for dinner, he told her about the toast and said he wanted to have more bubbly to continue the celebration. According to Depp, Heard immediately blew up at him and stormed off to the bathroom. He had to ask his security detail to pick him up and take him home alone.
Could this incident be considered abusive? Perhaps. I have no doubt that Depp felt belittled by his partner and frustrated that she had turned his special evening into an argument. Consider, however, that this event took place in late 2013, roughly six months after Depp’s first fall off the wagon. Heard had already experienced at least three incidents of violence in their relationship, all of which took place when Depp was drinking — and after which he had promised to stay sober.
If you entertain the possibility that Heard has not concocted an elaborate hoax but is in fact an actual domestic abuse victim, having an emotional reaction when her husband shows up and merrily announces that he has broken his promise to her — a broken promise which may put her safety at risk — her actions suddenly make more sense.
Much of the other evidence against Heard has the same character once placed back into its proper context. Is a woman hitting her husband a form of domestic violence? Sure — if you ignore the evidence that she was trying to protect herself or her sister at the time. Is taunting your partner to tell the media about your abuse a sign of emotional manipulation? Absolutely — if you refuse to consider her argument that he was constantly gaslighting her about being the “real” abuser in the relationship.
Depp’s legal strategy worked. Victims and abusers are listening.
Perhaps the bleakest aspect of the Depp-Heard verdict is that the trial itself was evidence that Heard was telling the truth. In a 2018 Washington Post op-ed, Heard wrote, “Two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse.” That’s it. Those 11 words were enough for Depp to sue her for defamation.
There is almost no evidence that the op-ed had any effect on Depp’s career. Over the previous decade, Depp had released a string of high-profile bombs (The Rum Diary, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, Mortdecai, Dark Shadows — I haven’t even heard of most of these) and had been the subject of numerous articles documenting his dimming star power. For years, set leakers reported that he showed up late and drunk and needed an earpiece to remember his lines (Depp says he used it to listen to music).
In the U.S. trial, his former agent said studios were losing patience with his unprofessional behavior as early as 2016. His former business manager said his out-of-control addictions were fueling increasingly impulsive and erratic behavior. A Disney executive testified that no one at the studio was even aware of Heard’s op-ed when they decided not to ask Depp back for the next Pirates movie.
So how did Heard lose such a winnable case? Two words: Jury trial.
In hindsight, the verdict came down the minute the judge allowed the case to be televised. Jurors weren’t sequestered or sheltered from the internet in any way, meaning they were likely exposed to the same bad-faith memes and out-of-context clips as everyone else. Plus, this case has been swirling around the internet for years, making an impartial jury an impossibility in the first place. One man was allowed to stay in the jury pool after revealing a text from his wife that read, “Amber is psychotic.”
I have no idea what happens next, but I do know that Depp’s unbelievably cynical strategy to discredit his ex-wife’s abuse claims (Jessica Winter called it “a high-budget, general-admission form of revenge porn”) was a resounding success. Heard is now one of the most hated figures in America. Even if she overturns the decision on appeal, she will likely never be cast in a major Hollywood role again — what studio wants to risk a hostile internet campaign before they even start shooting?
Depp’s core claim — women advance their careers by accusing powerful men of abuse — doesn’t hold up to the evidence of his own abuse accusation. Heard is ruined; Depp is in pre-production for his next role; other alleged abusers are already copying his legal strategy.
And outside the courtroom, America’s march backward toward the 1950s continues apace.