Over the past few weeks, Meghan has been watching the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial with a sinking feeling. A few years ago, she had been involved in a contentious breakup with her then-husband following years of physical and emotional abuse, which led to her calling the police repeatedly. Like Heard, Meghan, whose last name Rolling Stone has chosen to withhold, had recorded his outbursts and threats of violence and self-harm, in case, she says, “if he killed me, there would be evidence”; like Heard, when she spoke out about her ex, she received a letter from his lawyer accusing her of defamation; and like Heard, she says her ex’s lawyer also tried to argue she had borderline personality disorder, a form of mental illness, as a means of trying to discredit her.
Meghan initially tried to avoid the Depp-Heard trial as much as she could, as it caused her to experience PTSD flashbacks. But throughout the trial, everything from Heard’s hair and clothing to her tearful testimony became fodder for countless memes, while Depp’s cocksure behavior on the stand inspired innumerable fawning TikTok videos, cryptocurrency, and Etsy merch. The discourse was unavoidable. “It’s been bizarre to see friends I thought were supportive posting disgusting Amber Heard memes,” she says. When she heard that Depp had Heard with “total global humiliation” after she came forward with abuse allegations against him, it was too much for Meghan to handle: Her ex had long threatened her with the same thing.
“This case is my worst fear playing out on a public stage,” she says. “[It] tells me that [my ex] was right. If he chose to, he could destroy and humiliate me beyond repair.”
This feeling was only exacerbated on Wednesday after a jury in Fairfax, Virginia, found Amber Heard guilty of defaming Depp in a 2018 op-ed for the Washington Post, in which she identified herself as a public face of domestic abuse survivors, without explicitly naming Depp. Despite presenting photos of her injuries, video recordings of Depp’s meltdowns, and witness testimony supporting her claims of abuse, Depp was awarded $10 million plus $5 million in punitive damages. Heard was also awarded $2 million for winning one point in her countersuit.
But in truth, the highly publicized trial was decided in the court of public opinion weeks ago. As it played out over the last few weeks, with people on social media overwhelmingly aligning with the beloved Pirates of the Caribbean star, millions of stans and even brands and celebrities have excoriated Heard and accused her of fabricating the allegations against Depp, causing hashtags like #AmberTurd and #JusticeForJohnnyDepp to trend worldwide.
“This is basically the end of MeToo,” Dr. Jessica Taylor, a psychologist, forensic psychology Ph.D., and author of two books on misogyny and abuse, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s the death of the whole movement.”
As the verdict came in, sexual assault survivors expressed their disappointment with the decision, even if they were not surprised by it. “I don’t think it’s unexpected. But it’s horrible,” says one survivor, who herself faced a defamation claim after coming forward against her own abuser (and requested her name be withheld for legal reasons). She says the claim was dropped, but that watching Heard be dragged through the mud during the trial brought back memories of her own experience, which she says was traumatic and led her to consider suicide.
“I feel really glad to think my case didn’t go ahead. And stupid to think I could have won it,” she says. “Men always win.”
Survivor Organizations Under Attack
In the thick of the trial, many organizations that advocate for survivors have remained silent, choosing not to weigh in on one side or the other until a verdict was reached. (The #MeToo organization released a tepid statement in support of “survivors” in general, without aligning with either Heard or Depp by name.) But that hasn’t stopped Depp fans from sending harassing and abusive messages to these organizations, accusing them of bias in Heard’s favor.
“I’ve been doing this work for 30 years, and we’ve had some high-profile cases,” says Ruth Glenn, chief executive officer of National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) and a survivor herself. “But I have never seen anything like this.” She attributes the fervor around Depp to “his longevity in the celebrity world [and] his ability to have the resources to deploy PR machines… he’s been able to control the narrative and this trial.”
Maureen Curtis, vice president of criminal justice programs at victim assistance organization Safe Horizon, says the verdict is “one more way of silencing survivors and taking away the one real option they may have” by speaking out against their abusers in the media. Indeed, this seems to already be happening. Taylor says she has already been contacted by “hundreds” of survivors wishing to retract public statements they have made in the press, or pulling out of court cases against their abusers. She says the verdict “opens the floodgates” for future defamation cases. “Survivors watching this will rethink everything they say out loud about what happened to them, and the potential of being sued and dragged through a court process for saying something they know is true, but they could be found guilty of defamation,” she says. “It’s a scary place to be.”
Cici Van Tine, a former DA and divorce attorney in Massachusetts, notes it’s not just statements to the press that can cause problems: “People should know and be careful: when they opine on Facebook and Instagram and they think they’re venting to their friends, there is exposure there.”
Many survivors I spoke to said that the verdict is immaterial to them, and that they have felt hesitant to share their stories with loved ones who have expressed support for Depp. “I’m not sure the outcome at this point matters at all,” says a survivor who requested her name be withheld. “People who have decided women are liars, and abusers are equal victims, won’t be swayed. And the damage to victims in terms of silencing and scaring them has already been done, so Johnny Depp’s PR machine has won.”
No ‘Perfect Victims’
In particular, the trial has underscored the idea that survivors of abuse must adhere to a rigid set of standards in order to be believed when coming forward with their stories. “This saga has been horrible to watch unfold because we’re once again litigating how ‘perfect’ a victim you need to be in order to be a victim. People look at women fighting back [against] abuse and use it as evidence to play into the abuser’s narrative that both parties are equally wrong,” the survivor says.
Heard is far from a perfect victim — she has admitted to hitting Depp on at least one occasion, and in recordings she can be heard taunting and belittling him. But according to NCADV’s Glenn, the idea that what the couple experienced constituted “mutual abuse,” as their former couples’ therapist testified, is patently false and ignores domestic violence experts’ understanding of abuse dynamics. “There is no such thing [as mutual abuse]. You have a primary aggressor and a primary victim,” she says. “What could be happening is you have a survivor doing what they need to do to defend themselves… but when you have clinicians framing it as ‘mutual abuse,’ it’s very harmful.” She says the fact that the trial was broadcast and livestreamed for hundreds of thousands of people to consume as entertainment on a daily basis will continue to inflict damage even after the verdict. “This could have been stopped weeks ago by the courts system,” she says.
Other experts on domestic abuse have been horrified watching the methods that are traditionally employed to discredit survivors — such as diagnosing them with a mental illness — wielded on a global stage, with Dr. Shannon Curry, a clinical and forensic psychologist who testified on Depp’s behalf, diagnosing Heard, who was not her patient, with borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder, inaccurately linking the former condition to physical abuse. “I hear from women in the U.K., Canada. All the lawyers use the same tactics — they position them as hysterical, as gold-diggers, malicious, out for revenge, emotionally unstable, as having personality disorders,” says Taylor. “It provides a model of discrediting the woman.” The Depp verdict, she says, will only make such tactics more common in a courtroom setting.
The trial has had the impact of sending survivors down a rabbit hole of re-experiencing not just the grisly details of their abuse, but the aftermath — particularly, watching their abuser get away with it. Glenn has been triggered by footage of Depp grandstanding outside the courthouse to a bevy of female fans. “Watching him blow kisses and stopping his car and waving — if you’ve been so defamed you had to bring this to court, you should be acting with dignity and the seriousness with which this affords,” she says, calling his behavior “disgusting.”
The End of #MeToo
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, which drove home just how omnipresent abusers are and gave voice to survivors around the world, it seems inconceivable that a woman could come forward with an allegation of sexual and physical violence against a prominent man and be shamed and vilified to the extent that Heard has been. Some have suggested that the antipathy toward Heard could be a backlash to the #MeToo movement, and that the pro-Depp contingent is a long-simmering men’s rights activist (MRA)-driven online movement that has recently been co-opted by fans. But Curtis, for one, thinks it’s simpler than that. “Could it be backlash against the MeToo movement because it was a time when survivors were being heard? Yes, I could see there being push-back,” she says. “But it’s nothing new. It was happening before the MeToo movement as well. It’s something we’ve been seeing all along.”
By the time the culture in general comes to terms with the damage wrought by the trial and its coverage, it may be too late. Heard may one day get the redemption arc afforded to previously villainized celebrity women, but it will likely be long after thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of women are silenced as the result of the verdict against her. And survivors must deal with the implications attached to the verdict: that women who come forward against powerful men may not only not be believed, but actively punished.
“I’m sickened. This is a gag in the mouths of victims who were just beginning to speak,” Meghan said immediately after the verdict came in. “I want to scream. I want to vomit. I want tear down every courthouse brick by brick because there is no justice to be had in our system of laws. [This] all sounds dramatic I suppose. But when [Heard] wrote she felt the wrath of our culture, Depp took it as a personal challenge.”
Correction Fri., June 3, 10:08 a.m. A previous version of this story stated Curry had diagnosed Heard with narcissistic personality disorder. She actually diagnosed her with histrionic personality disorder.