Note: This piece contains descriptions of sexual assault and domestic violence.
In other texts to family and friends, Depp referred to Heard as an “ugly cunt,” a “slippery whore” and demonstrated a clear disdain for the woman he married after working with her on The Rum Diary. “Hopefully that cunt’s rotting corpse is decomposing in the fucking trunk of a honda civic,” Depp wrote in one text. “I can only hope that Karma kicks in and takes the gift of breath from her,” he wrote in another.
These disturbing texts—and the violent allegations the former couple have lobbied against one another—are being relitigated as part of Depp’s $50 defamation suit against Heard, the second such suit the Hollywood icon launched in response to his ex-wife’s claims of intimate partner violence. Depp lost his first defamation case after a British court concluded in 2020 that there was sufficient evidence that he had battered Heard on at least 12 occasions during their relationship (two allegations from 2014 and 2015 were dismissed, however the court couldn’t conclude the actress had been “untruthful” about those incidents).
The case currently being tried inside Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia stems from a 2018 Washington Post op-ed Heard penned where she wrote of the contempt women often experience for publicly disclosing physical or sexual violence. Heard didn't actually name Depp or make an allegation against him, or anyone for that matter, in her essay for the Washington Post, but the actor says a reader could easily conclude she was writing about him and he claims the essay destroyed his career. Depp also claims that he’s the one who suffered abuse throughout the relationship, and not Heard. In response she's filed a counterclaim for $100 million in damages.
“I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out,” Heard wrote in her essay. “Friends and advisers told me I would never again work as an actress — that I would be blacklisted. A movie I was attached to recast my role. I had just shot a two-year campaign as the face of a global fashion brand, and the company dropped me. Questions arose as to whether I would be able to keep my role of Mera in the movies Justice League and Aquaman.”
The trial is ongoing (there won’t be a verdict for weeks), but take a look at your social media feeds and you're certain to find someone obsessing over the case—and firmly on Depp's side. It’s a curious phenomenon to observe. Granted he’s a beloved actor and his films have grossed billions of dollars at the box office which buys unparalleled goodwill in a culture that struggles to believe survivors of physical and sexual violence at the hands of men like Depp (powerful, rich, white). But it’s the intensity in which his supporters have worked to influence public opinion in regards to the case that I've been most interested in watching.
The support for Depp on social media is loud and unflappable. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen anti-Heard rhetoric or #JusticeForJohnnyDepp and #FreeJohnny go viral. At least once a day I’ve scrolled past a Facebook friend either breathlessly defending Depp or detailing the ways they are certain Heard is lying or acting out of mental illness (a theory a forensic psychologist hired by Depp's legal team supported in her testimony after spending just 12 hours with Heard).
The discourse has been intense, to say the least. The central thesis among Depp supporters is he’s a wildly eccentric, misunderstood soul that was abused and manipulated by his wife. It doesn’t matter that she’s 23 years his junior and he’s obtained far more power in Hollywood than her, his supporters are certain that she is hiding behind a public persona and any violence she may have encountered was out of self-defense. It doesn't appear to matter that he's indulged in murderous fantasies about her with his friends or that there's photos and corroborated stories of Depp's violence. His supporters shower the Internet with sympathetic posts, or some unhinged diatribe about Heard.
Heard has supporters too, of course, but they pale in comparison to the chorus of supporters rallying behind Depp. His fans have flocked to Virginia—with some taking up second jobs and crowdfunding to afford the trip. Those not packing the court (and screaming his name) are flooding timelines and frankly it's working. I've seen nothing less than contempt for Heard in most online spaces. She’s been branded “smug,” a “monster,” and “Amber Turd” (a response to Depp’s claim that his ex-wife defecated on his side of the bed after a fight, which a judge determined to have been that of her dog) and the daily livestream of the trial is inundated with commenters writing vile things about the actress and maintaining Depp's total and complete innocence.
Look, there’s no doubt that these two should have never gotten married. By both of their accounts, the relationship was toxic and highly dysfunctional, but what I find most fascinating about the public response to this trial (and the last) is how the trauma Heard endured is minimized, or altogether dismissed, simply because she's admitted to striking Depp. One of the smoking guns his legal team introduced in court was a video deposition by Laurel Anderson, a couples therapist who worked with Depp and Heard.
Anderson testified that Heard reported physical assault from Depp and came to her office on one occasion with several small bruises on her face and spoke of how it was a “point of pride” for Heard to initiate a fight. She described the former couple as being in a “mutually abusive relationship,” a term that suggests both parties share in the weight of the blame—and one that experts of intimate partner violence have always challenged. Abuse is about an imbalance of power and control. While there may be unhealthy behaviors from both partners in an abusive relationship, one person tends to have more control than the other. This was a couple with a sizable age gap (Heard was 23 when she first met Depp, who was 40 at the time), and there was of course the influence Depp has in the industry they both work in. To suggest Heard had full autonomy over Depp ignores the fundamental imbalance that led to our intrigue in them as a couple, and this is before we even get into his own admissions of remorse over how he behaved in their relationship or the impact of his substance abuse.
What continues to get lost in the media circus and the online fervor is the reality that this about defamation. It’s not really legally relevant if Heard struck Depp as the point of this case is to prove that she defamed him personally with her essay in the Washington Post. In the first libel case, the agonizing details of a relationship marred by violence went public. I read about the time Depp slapped Heard in the face for laughing at a tattoo of his; and the time he hit her so hard that blood from her lip ended up on the wall; and the time he left her with a broken lip, swollen nose and cuts all over her body after hitting her in the face and choking her; and the time he grabbed her by the hair and struck her repeatedly in front of her sister; and the time he headbutted her (which he claimed was an accident); and the time he told her, “I’ll fucking kill you” during an incident where he dragged her through their apartment; and the time he threw a phone at her face, injuring her cheek and eye. And that’s just a few of the incidents a judge determined to be “substantially true.”
Despite all this, Depp maintains he’s never laid a hand on Heard or any woman in his life. Those violent texts to Bettany and others? Oh that’s just “irreverent, and abstract humor” partly based on Monty Python routines he claimed during testimony that has been rife with the charismatic charm and witty humor that makes him a box office draw—which is to say Depp is certainly giving quite a performance on the stand. “It’s important to know that none of it was ever intended to be real,” Depp said of the worst of his texts. “And the language that’s used—which I, yes I am ashamed that that has to be spread on the world like peanut butter.” The video Heard took of his violent outburst where he’s smashing and throwing things in their kitchen? “Clearly, I was having a bad time,” he told the court, deadpanning that he assaulted “a couple of cabinets” but not Heard. Her claim that he sexually assaulted her while he was under the influence of alcohol? An "erroneous claim" that she concocted "for the purpose of Hollywood shock value of which Amber has mastered and used to exploit a serious social movement." And despite his grumbles about Heard illegally recording him, Depp matched his ex-wife's damning audio by playing his own where she admits to hitting him and chiding him as a "fucking baby."
Even though Depp’s legal team, and his supporters, want this to be a case about whether or not Heard struck Depp, her state of mind and seeing the actor as a victim this trial is about defamation. Whether or not she specifically defamed him when writing about her experience as a public figure disclosing intimate partner violence. Everything else is a circus, which is a fitting description considering one of Depp’s fans showed up to the courthouse with two emotional support alpacas to help “brighten his day.”