Survivors on the Indignity of the Depp-Heard Verdict

Amber Heard looks over her shoulder at her defamation trial.

Last week, the internet erupted in celebration: After listening to six weeks of testimony, the jury in the Depp v. Heard trial reached a verdict, largely finding in favor of Johnny Depp. On Instagram, Depp’s post expressing gratitude for the verdict and thanking his community for its support throughout the trial has received nearly 19 million likes and nearly a million comments, a number of them filled with heart emojis. Heard’s statement, which expressed disappointment that her right to free speech had been curbed, received a little over 416,700 likes and just five comments — though comments were limited on her post.

There’s no question the verdict had an impact on victims of domestic and sexual violence. The day the jury read its decision, the survivor-support organization RAINN said it served 35 percent more callers to its hotline than on an average Wednesday. But that doesn’t mean survivors are united in their reactions. “I get why people are upset about it, but having watched the trial footage, it’s the correct result,” Liz, 26, told me.

For Liz, who says she would love to have believed Heard, the verdict was a repudiation of a woman who she feels lied about being abused. She arrived at this conclusion after seeing the evidence of Heard’s injuries in court and hearing testimony from Heard’s former assistant Kate James, who accused Heard of stealing details from her own sexual-assault story. “What I’m really upset about is that people will now (and apparently already have) seized on her crap behavior to say it’s what every survivor is doing,” Liz said, echoing a common refrain that arises whenever a public accusation of abuse or assault is called into question.

As a survivor myself, I share Liz’s fear. But for me and many other survivors I spoke with, it’s not Heard’s actions or credibility that is the problem. We’ve seen time and again that even the most credible of victims face disbelief when their accusations are inconvenient. Instead, the verdict reinforces the fact that abuse doesn’t end when you leave a relationship — that the remnants of your worst moments can hang around for years and the systems supposedly set up to protect you can twist those moments to cause you even more harm.

“When you’re abused or raped, that’s the beginning of the abuse and violence,” says Wagatwe Wanjuki, an award-winning anti-rape activist. “Because then you notice that society comes up with new ways to justify and excuse and ignore all the additional ways that you’re being exploited and subjugated after you’ve been initially attacked.” For Wanjuki, the verdict feels like one more horrific indignity, a reminder that even if a jury believes you’ve been abused, it can still punish you for speaking out about your experiences. “The law is not our friend,” she says.

Amanda Wallwin, a New York State legislative staffer, had largely avoided coverage of the trial. But when she got a news alert about the livestream of the verdict, she couldn’t stay away. Watching the jury read out their decision was “devastating,” she says. “I didn’t expect to care that much, but I felt nauseous and cried. It was way more of an emotional experience than I expected.”

For Wallwin, it was “head-spinning” that a Washington Post op-ed that never mentioned Heard’s ex-husband’s name could be considered defamatory at the same time that Depp’s lawyer calling her abuse claims a hoax was also deemed defamation. Wallwin worries that this verdict will discourage survivors from publicly discussing their abuse and that the public faces of domestic violence will be whittled down to a handful of people privileged enough to be able to risk a defamation lawsuit.

And other defamation lawsuits are very likely to follow Depp v. Heard, according to Sonya Passi, the founder and CEO of FreeFrom, a survivor-support organization. “It is very common for harm-doers to use litigation as a tool to harass and control their victims,” says Passi, who has encountered a number of appalling situations in her work: abusers who draw out custody and child-support hearings for years, abusers who sue in retaliation after being accused of sexual assault, abusers who convince the courts to remove restraining orders, forcing survivors to devote time and energy to refiling. “I wish that people knew how truly powerless victims feel,” says R. Jones, 34, who spent eight months mired in a custody battle with an abuser. “It is very difficult to describe the pattern of abuse in relationships, and court proceedings involve the victim being questioned and badgered in really unpleasant ways.”

Although Jones doesn’t feel she can authoritatively weigh in on the “truth” of Depp and Heard’s relationship, the way Heard said she was treated felt very familiar. A court setting, Jones says, “is incredibly intimidating and demoralizing because it is easy to feel like you are not being heard.” The court system is supposed to be impartial, but juries and judges are still human, and an abuser can manipulate them just as easily as they manipulate their victims.

For survivors who’ve watched as courts let perpetrators like Brock Turner off with a slap on the wrist — if they’re even found guilty — this latest verdict is just more salt in a raw, painful wound. “We keep getting pointed toward some sort of formal system to decide if we’re really survivors, to decide what protections we get, to decide if the person who hurt us should be punished,” says Wallwin. “And they don’t work. The criminal system does not work.” Watching someone as privileged and powerful as Heard get dragged through the mud was devastating for her but also radicalizing. “We need a wholesale revolution of these systems, and they need to be rebuilt to actually serve survivors. Because they’re just not doing it right now.”

In spite of everything they’ve been through, the survivors I spoke to are ready to build that new system. “I think that’s what women in this country have come to expect from our culture, from our institutions of power. Nothing will be protected, not even our First Amendment rights to speak,” says Lindsey Boylan, a women’s-rights advocate who publicly accused former New York governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment. Still, she says, “I refuse to accept that this is a setback to Me Too. The only way you change things is if you see the true horror of them.” At the very least, the brutality of the past seven weeks has been an eye-opening education in the horrors that survivors still endure.

Survivors on the Indignity of the Depp-Heard Verdict