Believing Amber Heard is about believing all victims

// 30 May 2016

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Amber HeardWhen I heard the news that Amber Heard had been granted a restraining order against her husband Johnny Depp due to domestic violence, I found myself thinking, “I hope that’s not true.” But it was hardly going to be some terrible misunderstanding. Of course #Ibelieveher.

Believing women who allege intimate violence is not about condemning an accused man. It is primarily about countering the widely expressed assumption that women who make allegations are lying, exaggerating or deserving of the ill treatment they have received. I believe that Johnny Depp assaulted Amber Heard, but that’s all there is to say about him. Those who believe that their admiration for Depp trumps any evidence against him have far more to say about Amber Heard. These accusations and insinuations are familiar to any woman who has considered speaking out about domestic abuse.

Believing women who allege intimate violence is about all these women. Whether or not Amber Heard personally benefits from public support, there are plenty of women looking on who absolutely need to see it; women who are personally hurt or even endangered by theories about women lying for money or attention, or about how a woman who appears in public with a black eye must somehow deserve it. There are women who, over the weekend, will have identified friends and family members they can never confide in about the reality of their relationships, even if their lives depend on it.

Believing women is also logical. One in four women will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime; abuse is common and – in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary – is by far the most likely explanation for any allegation. Domestic abuse is common because it is easy and driven by a compelling motive; when we’re angry, hitting others releases endorphins and makes us feel better. When we’re insecure, frightening or humiliating someone else makes us feel powerful. While abusers can be very calculating at times, cruelty and violence – especially towards a physically smaller, less powerful person – takes no particular skill set.

Because we think about celebrities rather like fictional characters in a long-running soap, I can almost understand people floating the idea that Heard might have paid someone to give her a black eye and employed witnesses in order to gain a better financial settlement in her divorce – that might well happen in a story. It might even happen in real life. However, it is extraordinarily unlikely. Telling elaborate lies about someone else’s behaviour, involving the police and employing other people in one’s conspiracy is a very difficult and complicated thing to do. I don’t know anyone who has ever attempted such a feat. I have known people who hit their partners when they’re angry. We all have.

After the theories come the insinuations that, even if Heard is telling the truth, she’s not deserving of our sympathies. I find it so baffling that people use the idiom “It takes two to tango” in the context of domestic abuse, so removed as it is from even a basic understanding of how violence in relationships (or indeed violence, or indeed relationships) might work. This is also a favourite with abusers; it is a rare abuse victim who will not have heard – or even been persuaded to believe – that every act of violence against them was an act of retaliation for disrespect, ingratitude or dishonesty.

The Daily Mail considered it a newsworthy revelation that Heard was photographed smiling hours after being attacked, and then two days later reported that she was smiling after meeting with lawyers. The implication is quite clear; someone who has been assaulted in the recent past should be too distressed to smile, even when posing for a photograph, even if such a person is a professional film actor for whom posing and smiling in the presence of a camera is even more of a reflex than it is for most of us. Thus abuse victims are reminded that if they don’t come across as a good victim – distressed, but not too distressed – their experiences will not be taken seriously.

There’s really nothing to say about Johnny Depp, but there’s something to be said about his situation. If Heard is an extraordinary person who not only lies about abuse but injures herself to create evidence, then this must be an extremely distressing time for Depp. But just for him; there’s no-one else being directly harmed or put in danger by the presumption of his guilt. Meanwhile, his life will not be dramatically changed by it; the cases of Christian Slater, Sean Penn and many others show us that culturally, violence against women is seen almost as part of the lifestyle of rich and famous men in Hollywood, along with the drugs and wild parties.

Depp’s representatives are quoted as describing Heard as “an affront to real victims of domestic violence“, but the reality is that hundreds of thousands of real victims of domestic violence are looking on, listening to public opinion, media coverage and the attitudes of their friends, observing the imaginative lengths people will go to in order to discredit victims. I’ve always liked Johnny Depp and I wish these allegations weren’t true. But those victims, whose lives depend on having the courage to seek help and speak out, matter more.


[Image is a photograph portrait of Amber Heard, a young white woman long blonde hair. The photograph is by Gordon Correll, is found on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons License.]

Comments From You

sexierthanthou // Posted 1 June 2016 at 4:28 am

“But just for him; there‚Äôs no-one else being directly harmed or put in danger by the presumption of his guilt.”

Evidence, and evidence alone is how we should determine whose version of events we believe. If the courts decide/have decide that Depp is guilty, then fuck him. If it is/has been determined that Heard is spinning mendacities, then fuck her. But this idea that the presumption of Depp’s guilt harms no-one is utterly bogus. It harms the ethics on which our entire legal system is built and that will inevitably harm an endless array of people. Presumption of innocence up until a substantial amount of evidence to the contrary is compiled is an absolute must. Due process is an absolute must. Not shifting the burden of proof to undermine perhaps the only truly ethical part of our judicial system is a must.

This is a very dangerous article.

D H Kelly // Posted 1 June 2016 at 12:01 pm

The article isn’t advice to jurors in a criminal trial, but addresses ordinary people forming an opinion about a news story featuring a person they admire and expressing that opinion in the presence of victims of domestic violence (who are everywhere – around 1/4 women, perhaps 1/6 men – this article is highly gendered because male victims are treated badly in very different ways).

Neutrality on this issue suggests that a woman who alleges domestic violence is just as likely to be lying about it as she is to be telling the truth. Most criminal justice systems don’t even work that way – if you are mugged and report that to the police, they don’t start work on your case from the principle that there’s a 50% chance that you’re making it up. They might not catch the mugger. They might catch him but not have enough evidence to go to trial. The case might go to trial but not be proved beyond all reasonable doubt.

Of course that’s where the burden of evidence should be when it comes to removing a person’s liberty, but should that burden not be met, it wouldn’t mean you were making it up or that it would be unethical for people who knew about this to believe that’s how you got the black eye. At no stage – even if you were too afraid to go to the police in the first place – would it be unethical to take you at your word.

Should this particular case come to a trial (which few cases of DV do) it’s not impossible that something could emerge that undermines Depp’s guilt. Of course I don’t know the truth. But you and I have both heard enough evidence to form an opinion and express it in public.

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