Column: Will the Depp/Heard hell trial never end?

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp in court.
Amber Heard looks away as Johnny Depp walks into the courtroom after a break at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Va., this month.
(Steve Helber / Pool Photo)
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It is day 857 in the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard defamation trial and all I can say is I hope the upcoming House committee hearings on the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol get as much attention from the public and the press.

(Pause here for hysterical laughter that trails off into anguished weeping.)

Oh I understand that movie-star marriages, especially the really messy ones, have held this nation in thrall as long as the movies have. Absent a royal family, Americans turn to celebrities to fill the collective need to see all the wonders and horrors of domestic life packaged prettily and then clawed open for public consumption.

I also understand that domestic violence (and for that matter defamation) is a deadly serious issue. The public reaction to the mostly he (and his friends) said/she (and her friends) said nature of the testimony in this case has revealed a still-alarming bias against women. What the jury makes of it — sorry, hashtag creators, you don’t actually get to decide the case — remains to be seen.


Setting aside the melodrama (though melodrama feels like the whole point), it’s a fairly straightforward case. It seems unlikely Depp will win, if proving that Heard defamed him is his actual intent.

In the 2018 Washington Post op-ed that sparked the charges, Heard does not describe herself as the victim of abuse, but as “a public figure representing domestic abuse” who “felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”

It is a very carefully worded description, for good reason. Two years earlier, after Heard had publicly accused Depp of abuse, gotten a restraining order and filed for divorce, the couple reached an out-of-court divorce settlement and issued a joint statement that essentially exonerated both of them:

“Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”

Actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are back in court to determine whether Heard libeled her ex-husband in 2018 when she wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post.

April 13, 2022

Given the statement, Depp was not the only person surprised when Heard chose to write about the cost of speaking out against domestic abuse.

The essay’s headline — “Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change” — was far more potentially defamatory than the actual piece. Nowhere in her essay does Heard describe herself as a victim of “sexual violence,” and as she said when questioned, she didn’t write the headline.


During the course of the trial, however, she has described several instances of alleged sexual violence that were not previously disclosed.

Amber Heard makes an emotional face on the witness stand.
Amber Heard breaks down while giving testimony.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / Associated Press)

What is demonstrably true is that, as she wrote in the piece, Heard faced “the culture’s wrath” when she first alleged abuse. She also received a lot of support; Depp was dropped from film projects and added by many to the list of Hollywood abusers.

Denying the charges, he had his supporters too. But it wasn’t until their joint statement that Heard’s initial allegations became subject to more general doubt.

Which may be why she decided to write the op-ed. Or not. Either way it was a bit baffling, though not as baffling as Depp deciding to sue her for defamation.

No matter how you slice the at-times-horrific statements made by the witnesses, the Depp/Heard marriage was an abusive one. Depp, by his own testimony, struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol and was often angry, destructive and violent; Heard, by her own testimony, was also often angry, destructive and violent.


She claims Depp trapped her in a cycle of abuse familiar to many domestic violence survivors; he claims pretty much the same thing about her.

Amber Heard broke down in sobs while testifying for the second day in a row in her defamation trial against ex-husband Johnny Depp.

May 5, 2022

But this is a defamation trial; no one will be going to jail for domestic violence. Depp and his supporters say he is simply trying to clear his name, and to receive remuneration, to the tune of $50 million, for the work he lost as a result of Heard’s op-ed.

Heard has countersued for $100 million in an attempt to clear her name, which means that no matter how this trial ends, the public has been subjected to “Scenes From an Abusive Marriage Part 2.”

Well, maybe not subjected. Millions of people have been watching the trial with rapt attention. And as many have observed, Heard has been subjected to much harsher treatment among this century’s peanut gallery — social media — than has Depp.

Even if you believe Heard gave as good as she got, the level of vitriol spewed her way only proves, with ghastly certitude, exactly what she wrote about in her 2018 essay.

Hurling the digital equivalent of rocks and garbage — memes, hashtags and easily disproven lies — “Team Depp” has fallen just short of calling her a witch. Shouts of “drag her” have replaced “burn her” among the modern mob.


Depp has received his share of criticism as well, but it hasn’t been as scathing or deeply personal as what Heard has faced. Even so, if he is trying to salvage his reputation, things are not going his way. If their marriage was one of — as one of the couple’s therapists said — mutual abuse, it was still abuse.

A woman holds a sign reading "Justice for Johnny" outside a courthouse.
Tiffany Lunn, supporter of Johnny Depp, stands outside the Fairfax County Courthouse on April 11.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

But if, as some have suggested, Depp is not so much out to clear his name as to prove to Hollywood that he still has one, he’s already won.

The constant coverage of the trial, the presence of fans swearing undying allegiance to Depp, the increasingly deep reads of what the trial and its outcome could mean for #MeToo, domestic violence survivors, the women’s movement, the men’s movement, the upcoming midterm election, could never be generated by a trial involving a truly washed-up actor. No one would care.

And why do we care? Because we have a vested interest in seeing Capt. Jack Sparrow one more time? Some people are undoubtedly tired of powerful men getting away with terrible things and turning the blame on their victims. Others have made it clear they are sick of what they perceive as women demanding equality and then playing the victim card when things don’t go their way.

WITHOUT Johnny Depp, one can safely say, there would be no Capt.

May 20, 2007

For many it is probably just satisfying to see, once again, that all the wealth and fame in the world do not guarantee happiness and that maybe a life without red carpets is worth living after all.


I was struck by the fact that the trial began as Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opened at the Geffen. I loved the 1966 film as much as anyone, but as the child of an alcoholic I always found the enduring love of the play unsettling; alcoholism is a disease, not an existential state or a symptom of grief, and brutality in a marriage remains brutality even if wielded by both members.

Watching the Depp/Heard trial unfold, I couldn’t help thinking, “This is what it really looks like, those ‘tumultuous’ marriages in which fury and fear are normalized.”

Like the play, the trial exposes not only the chasm that often exists between perception and reality but also how desperate we are to fill it in. With theories, explanations, justifications and blame.

Not even the most generous reading from either side of this trial leaves us with a winner, much less a hero. So what are we looking for?

Maybe the Depp/Heard trial is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for meme culture, with its preference for instant regurgitation rather than actual digestion. The fear that this case will keep abuse victims silent is real, even if the circumstances behind it don’t fit any discernible mold.

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, all the attention will illuminate all the despicable acts the term “rocky relationship” can hide and, more important, serve as a warning to anyone whose partner is behaving in an erratic, violent way: The situation isn’t going to get better on its own.


Either way, if you’ve been following this trial, please follow the June House committee hearings. I promise you, it is more important to your own well-being than whether Johnny Depp returns to the A-list.

Like the Challenger disaster, the Oklahoma City bombing and the fall of the Twin Towers, Jan. 6 is a fixed point on this country’s timeline.

Jan. 5, 2022