As An Abuse Survivor, I Understand And Support Amber Heard

By Amber Valentine

There was a February a couple years back that found me pulled over on the side of the road in an unfamiliar suburb of Michigan, sobbing uncontrollably. I felt right then that my life was over; that I’d been severed in two pieces up and down the middle and all I could do was bawl.

The previous night was one so traumatic that it took me months to open up about it to my therapist, and almost a year to tell the details to some of my closest friends. Most of them still don’t even know. But if I’d have had to make a court deposition about it, everyone might know. If my last name were Heard instead of Valentine, everyone would definitely know. And God, I cannot imagine if anyone had taken my picture in that moment, on the side of the road, my eyes red, my face swollen, my mouth aghast at the horror show my life had become.

Last week, Amber Heard, 30, filed for divorce from her husband since 2015, Johnny Depp, 52. They had been together since 2012 and quickly after the filing, Heard was granted a temporary restraining order against Depp, providing testimony that has now been made internet-famous, alongside images of Heard’s bruised face outside of the courtroom and the pictures submitted as evidence — of broken glass, blood on their rug, and his iPhone imprinted into her face.

With the news of the restraining order, the divorce quickly went from 0 to 100, as did the internet’s opinions. This was not just your regular divorce anymore — this was a scandal involving one of the biggest stars of the past 35 years and the latest much-younger, much-blonder woman to grace his arm. The trash talk was waist-deep in the comment sections of nearly every website on the internet, with celebrity gossip site Oh No They Didn’t! being one of the few keeping it ironically classy on the topic.

Suddenly, my morning ritual of laying in bed and browsing the internet on my phone wasn’t fun. Instead, it was peppered with stories about Heard that pointed the finger, hurled sexist slurs, and made up grandiose stories about what really could have happened.

The way her allegations have been treated reveals a lot of troubling facts about the media, celebrity culture, and the damning stigmatization of those who come forward about abuse.

In its treatment of the abuse allegations, the media has made its allegiances clear. Major outlets have implied, if not outright stated, that Heard’s claims are the result of gold-digging, manipulative ways. Much ink was spilled to spread the news of Depps’ lawyer’s allegation that Heard only made the abuse claims to position herself for a better divorce settlement, with headlines ranging from People’s “Johnny Depp Responds to Domestic Abuse Claim: Lawyer Says Amber Heard Is Making Allegations to Gain Upper Hand in Divorce” to Bretibart’s more egregious “Johnny Depp: Amber Heard Inventing Domestic Violence Charges To Get Millions In Divorce.” Taking the smearing one step further, TheWrap published Depp’s pal outright stating that Heard was “blackmailing” her ex (Heard has since sued said pal for defamation of character).

When Heard was seen (gasp!) smiling after the allegations, the media used this to further imply that she must be making the allegations up. Take, for instance, this Daily Mail tweet (note the damning quotation marks):

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The media has also been quick to point out that Heard is bisexual, as if her sexual preferences are somehow of significance to the situation at hand. Specifically, outlets have noted that Heard drove Depp “insane by fear” that she was cheating with women. Here’s how Hollywood Life put it in one recent tweet:

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More recently, the media reported on Heard’s arrest for alleged domestic violence against an ex-girlfriend, in an apparent effort to suggest she was the violent one in the relationship.

One could argue, of course, that these examples exemplify the media’s attempt, if flawed, to provide both sides of the story. But if that’s the case, why has it been so reluctant to mention Depp’s history of violence?

Lost in so much of the coverage is the fact that Johnny Depp has a history of drunk and disorderly conduct, dating back to his career in the ’80s. In 1994, he was arrested for reportedly getting into a heated fight with then-girlfriend Kate Moss that involved smashing furniture; guests were allegedly awoken by the “sounds of shattering glass, snapping wood, and loud domestic squabbling.” Later, Depp said of his hotel room altercations with Moss, “I was trying to catch this bug, and a couple of articles of furniture just happened to get in the way.”

Winona Ryder, for her part, has never named names, but let’s put two and two together: She’s stated that her first boyfriend used to smash everything, terrifying her. She also stated that Depp was her first boyfriend. Their relationship was the catalyst for Ryder to begin a reliance on benzodiazepines. (Don’t worry, Pop Culture Died In 2009 lays all of this out for you.) In the years since their relationship, Tumblr has taken to romanticizing this troubling quote:

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There have been other charges, too. In 1989, Depp was arrested for assaulting a security guard in Canada. A decade later, he was arrested for brawling with paparazzi outside a London restaurant.

Did you not know about any of this? That’s probably because the media has been too busy suggesting Heard is a bisexual gold-digging blackmailer to mention it.

But perhaps the most problematic element of the media coverage of this case is the attention it’s paid to two facts that are often used to spuriously discredit abusers.

The media has been quick to note that exes Vanessa Paradis and Lori Ann Allison have said he never abused them, suggesting he is, therefore, not an abuser at all. I am not calling either of these women liars; I’m just also not invalidating Heard’s allegations as a result. It is entirely possible that Depp did abuse Heard and never laid a finger on Paradis or Allison. I have an ex that reportedly never laid a hand on a woman before me, and he may damn well never touch a woman after me. But that doesn’t mean he was not abusive to me.

The other problematic claim being made is that Heard couldn’t have been abused by Depp because, if that were the case, she wouldn’t have stayed with him — a claim often made in the lurid comments sections of stories about the allegations.

This presumption is a common one, and problematic on so many levels. For one thing, more often than not, women have more to lose than gain by leaving their abuser — namely the loss of their home, social circle, financial security, and, as twisted as it sounds, their stability. Remember that often, victims of abuse at the hands of a partner feel like that partner is the only person they can rely on to take care of their emotional needs. And many times, the abuser has set it up that way, whether inadvertently or not.

For someone on the “been there, done that” side of abuse, it’s easy to put your middle fingers up when the question of “Why women stay” is posed, but it’s a very important question and a remarkably complex one.

In a statement given by Heard’s lawyer on the 31st, it was stated that in the aftermath of the assault that was the catalyst for the couple’s divorce, Heard was apprehensive to file a report with authorities for fear of damaging Depp’s career and reputation. This aligns with what we’ve seen in the past from countless other domestic violence victims, both high-profile and in our personal lives. Remember that one of Rihanna’s primary goals after her assault by Chris Brown was to her voice her concern publicly for his well-being, as well as publicly expressing her desire to get back together with him.

There’s a lot of layers to the cycle of abuse, and many nuanced reasons why women stay, varying from the personal to the societal. You stay for the kids, if you have them. You stay because of money — often times, the abuser will take control of their significant other’s finances and leaving seems literally impossible. You stay because you care. You stay because you’re scared. Or you stay because you don’t think anyone will believe you. In a lot of cases, your partner has whittled away your support circle, and this can start happening from the beginning. I remember within days of meeting my ex, friendships began to falter over him. He was mistreating me within a week of he and I being together.

So why did I stay?

There were a lot of times that I didn’t want to. There were a lot of times that I was miserable, but I was convinced that I needed to be with him. He gave me a sense of purpose. Even if it was an askew sense of purpose, the fact that I had it was comforting.

It’s easy to dismiss women who stay as foolish or liars until you’ve been in their shoes. It’s easy, writing this, to think of personal anecdotes from my own experience that I could include because the shock of them “could save lives” . . . but as years mount after the fact, I still want to defend my abuser when I tell those stories, because they make him sound like a monster and I can still remember witnessing the humanizing act of watching him cry. I can still remember him earnestly holding my hands and telling me that how he was treating me was not my fault. I even remember toward the beginning, when everything first started, him telling me that I needed to stand up for him when he was treating me badly, for both of our sakes. All at once, I felt pity for him, as if I had to take care of him, and that, no matter what he said, were I to not “do good enough,” I would be treated poorly and it would be my fault.

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Words by Jenny Holzer. Paper collage handcut by Amber Valentine.

You, reading this right now, are not me, but maybe you were in a situation like mine. Even if you weren’t, I can guarantee that, with one in three women being a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, someone you know has been or will be, and that is why we all need to be very careful how we treat Heard and other high-profile victims of assault before slandering them in public forums. Survivors are not gold diggers or attention-seeking sluts; nor are they the character from (the very fictional) Gone Girl come to life, here to ruin the reputation of your favorite white knight.

As a survivor of domestic abuse, it’s easy for me to read comments like “[Heard] could have thrown the phone at her own face” — one of many victim-shaming statements I’ve seen made in the comments section of websites like The Wrap, Page Six, and the Daily Mail — and imagine, as I have so many times before, my ex’s friends talking about how I’ve blown everything out of proportion, how I’m the crazy one, and how I could be lying about everything, because you know, they never really trusted my character anyhow . . . and I never would have stayed if he was really that bad.

More than anything, I would love to personally high five any woman who has ever left someone they have been in love with when that person was abusing them. I know for me, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s hard to talk frankly about because you feel weak and ashamed when you open your mouth about it, and to counteract that, you feel like you should rejoice in this newfound strength. Aren’t you so happy as a single woman?

But it’s okay if you aren’t. It’s okay if you’re in therapy, even if it’s been a while. It’s okay to let your traumas make you human. It’s okay to pull over to the side of the road and cry when you can’t make it home, and it’s okay to mourn the loss of a childhood crush. But it’s never okay to let someone treat you like you’re trash or hit you or throw things at you.

One of the most beautiful things about humans is that we are small and fragile but we are also amazingly strong. You’re strong. I’m strong, too. If we’ve made it through this much, just imagine how much more we’ll do before we die.

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