In 2018, Amber Heard wrote 11 words that would change the course of her life. in a opinion piece in the Washington Post, said: “Two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Survivors and victims make similar statements every day: words spoken in text messages to friends, police reports, and social media posts. And on June 1, 2022, those words led to Amber Heard being found guilty of defamation. When a survivor opens up about the abuse she has experienced, she can feel that she is regaining power and control. If that’s what Heard was trying to do, this trial sends a message loud and clear to survivors like her and me: that we have no right to tell our stories.
“I am even more disappointed in what this verdict means for other women,” Heard, 36, wrote in a statement via Instagram That afternoon. “She turns back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke out and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. She turns back the idea that violence against women should be taken seriously.”
I agree. What does this do with survivor stories? To our healing processes? To our ability to speak our truth? Very often, when survivors reach out to share stories, it is because we know we are not alone. We get ahead of each other. Telling stories is an act of community care. I wish more people understood this.
The feeling in the pit of my stomach since the beginning of this trial, one that I still can’t shake, is that I don’t think people grasp the seriousness of the situation. While survivors like me furiously scan our social media to see what tweet or Facebook post could be misconstrued as evidence against us, people in our lives say, ‘it’s no big deal; these are celebrities.’ These celebrities and the social media circus surrounding their trial will have gigantic implications for free speech, effectively silencing women and other survivors who now know they can be punished for speaking our truth. heard will have to pay $15 million in damages to her ex-husband, Johnny Depp, for those 11 words that did not include his name.
Even if I was not surprised by the outcome of the trial, the weight of this verdict is immense. As we say in the survivor community, “the body keeps score”, which is the title a famous book about trauma and a school of thought on the physical effects trauma survivors experience throughout their lives. I have been raped three times. Sprinkled in between those violent attacks are other incidents of non-consensual sexual activity that fell into some kind of gray area. Like many of you reading this, my body has been riddled with violence and damage and those experiences changed the course of my life.
After Wednesday’s verdict, it seems that the ground has fallen from under our feet.
When I am working with a survivor who is preparing to tell their story publicly, in almost every case the subject of a defamation case comes up. I tell these survivors that “the truth is not flexible,” and the attorneys I have worked with agree. I used to feel deeply comforted by this posture. Now, after Wednesday’s verdict, it feels like the floor has fallen out from under us. Amber Heard took the stand, told the truth about herself and provided evidence of the personal details of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Johnny Depp, and she still hasn’t been heard. Or worse yet, she was simply ignored.
Depp’s legal team strategically filed the case in the state of Virginia where the trial could be lawfully broadcast to public consumption. She felt like they were making a sport out of the abuse and trauma that Heard reportedly experienced, as well as the bottle-throwing misconduct that she in turn was accused of. Our world often forgets that people affected by sexual violence should be given care, compassion and respect. However, this trial gave us all a front row seat and a stark reminder that the ‘perfect victim’ narrative is reinforced at every turn.
Supporters came out of the woodwork to tweet #JusticeServedForJohnnyDepp or ridicule and mock Amber Heard; even a makeup brand chose to jump into the fray and challenge her testimony, while other celebrities turned to their own TikToks to take sides. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, the committee in charge of governing our constitutional rights, mocked survivors as they tweeted a message of celebration. Johnny Depp GIFs as the verdict was announced. Does anyone see how this will leak? These posts send the message that women who come forward must be silenced, either by the justice system, public shame, or a catastrophic combination of both.
Amber Heard is a white, cis, healthy, thin, famous woman, and she was treated horribly. It is vital to think about how whiteness and the many other privileges she possesses played a role in this trial. How would this trial have been different if Amber Heard was a woman of color? If she was trans, disabled, or homeless? Survivors living at these intersections will feel the impact of this verdict the most. Many of these survivors are no longer believed in a legal system that was built on the foundation of white supremacy.
Although the verdict against Amber Heard is effectively a gag order against her and sends a strong silencing message to other survivors, it is more important than ever to use our voices to support survivors. Hear from survivors and read our stories. Note how he talks about this verdict and how he talks about survivors and victims in general. What they wore, how they acted, whether you were ever a friend, a fan, or the accused: none of that matters and shouldn’t enter the conversation. Sexual violence is one of the most unreported crimeswhich means it is highly It is likely that someone in your life has been affected and you do not know it. And the pandemic has worsened conditions at home for many in domestic violence situationswhich cannot be shared.
Multiple things can be true at the same time. Survivors are not a problem to be fixed or solved, we are the people you love and trauma takes time. But also, often in survivor-based work, people want to move quickly, polarize a situation, find a villain, and dig in. We as a society love to punish, but I’d rather see us move toward transforming harm than repeating it. We have to support storytelling. Survivors cannot be silenced for healing to prevail.
If you or someone you know is a survivor or victim of domestic violence and is looking for support, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If you are looking to support survivors, survived and punished is a great place to start.