Heard/Depp: A Movement Built on Absence & What I’m Not Saying

by: , June 25, 2022

© Screenshot from London Fields (2018) dir. Mathew Cullen

Trigger warning: This discusses rape and domestic violence in detail.

On the day the Heard/Depp defamation verdict, I naively posted my dismay on Facebook. I knew the post would take my already small circle of Facebook friends and sift it for surprises. Within the hour, one reply led me to delete the post entirely. The replier said they had worked with survivors for x number of years, that they were a survivor, and that I should watch the testimony in full because Heard is a liar and DV victims do not act that way. I got a rap on the knuckles for being seen as an under-informed outsider. Not too bad considering the vitriol that Heard supporters attract. The replier assumed I didn’t have skin in the game, perhaps because of the little vacuum in my post that usually belongs to assertions of credibility. That is what cut deep. A case like this makes some people even more careful what they say.  Even if you don’t believe Heard, you must admit that fewer survivors will come forward as a result. Heard’s silencing also fuelled the censure of Depp naysayers that occurred on social media and ran parallel to the case, sadly reinforcing the silencing that already comes with surviving domestic abuse and sexual predation. DV advocates and allies face an absence of testimony that is the very opposite of the MeToo movement, which garnered momentum by the sheer pervasiveness and volume of testimony. Even with the painful rift in the domestic violence community that grew around Heard’s veracity, both sides seem to agree that if people did not believe in survivors before, they will believe them even less now. This piece does not focus on Heard’s innocence or guilt, but on the shutting down of conversation that results from the case. I consider how the case highlighted, in spectacular form, how DV revolves around themes of absence: absent evidence, absent details, absent words.

Missing Pieces

DV is defined by an absence of the ‘right’ kind of evidence. The Heard/Depp case called on dodgy footage, past audio records, past texts and sometimes cartoonishly meta-level comparisons of Heard’s testimony and reactions to her own past testimony and reactions to recordings of past exchanges with Depp. The notable absence in the evidence was the coveted recording of a physical assault. In DV cases, the other piece of evidence that attracts credibility is hospital records of severe bodily harm. To be believed, evidence of domestic abuse must either be institutionally sanctioned or capture a physically abusive exchange that appears to be unprovoked. Many consider Heard’s actions to be abusive at worst and baiting at best. Her documented behaviour around the absent evidence of the assaults was judged as incommensurate with the correct performance of victimhood.

Being abused rarely brings out the best in you and this is rarely talked about. Insults are hurled, self-defence can come across as aggressive, pleading for a return phone call or text message can sound desperate, almost abusive itself. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser convinces the abused person to question their reality and it is often taken less seriously than physical abuse. Gaslighting can involve withholding approval, love, resources, and communication as a means of control. ‘I’ll be home when I’m ready’, might be very familiar phrase to some. Gaslighters implant memories and conjure words of apology from their victims in order to restore the false sense of peace that begins the cycle of abuse again. That kind of manipulation breaks a person down over time. If lucky enough to leave, survivors do not exit a DV situation with their proudest moments. Yes, Heard’s desperation in the recorded exchanges evidence a person who is berating and harassing; they can also indicate a person who desperately wants to go back to the safer part of the cycle, the part that is good enough to convince people to stay. However, Depp’s relative absence in these recorded confrontations and his repeated statements that he wants to leave were used to argue for the very patriarchal right to space, a right to absence from the domestic sphere. These assertions for space could also be a gaslighter’s weaponisation of their presence and absence in the relationship: ‘For me to talk to you again, you need to admit it was your fault’. The case showed that evidence of a survivor either fighting back or begging can later be an indictment so terrible that it erases their experience of abuse. It also shows how emotional abuse that develops over time can easily blend into the background of recordings and its subtly can be misconstrued as an absence of violence.

If you believe Heard, then the evidence documented all parts of the cycle save for the abusive act. If you do not believe her then the evidence documented many of the couple’s negative interactions and these did not include physically abusive acts against Heard, therefore these acts did not occur. Heard offered photographs of her bruises that were elided on the suggestion they were photoshopped. In place of a beating video or institutionally legitimated records of the convincingly beaten body, Heard identified markers of the cycle of abuse. These markers denoted the presence of the beating that never materialised in the form of a recording. The confusing logic of evidence by negation extended to the testimony from Depp’s former partner Kate Moss, in which she asserted that Depp had never pushed her down a set of stairs. Because of Moss’ testimony, the reported absence of a specific abusive act from Depp in the context of another relationship becomes evidence that he could never be abusive in any relationship.

Fuzzy Memories & Unwanted Details

The perceived absence of the right kind of evidence carried through to judgements on what was missing from Heard’s memory. Lost time is a hallmark of traumatic memory. What stuck with me most is the way Heard recounted her memories, in particular her focus on one detail during each instance of abuse that ‘organised’ the event for her. Trauma can be stored indirectly through small details that dissociate the self from what is happening. Focusing in a spot on the wall when one of the most terrible things possible is happening to you is exactly how you survive. As Heard described it, one such detail is the feeling and shape of Depp’s foot on her back – its foreignness, its inconceivability. When I listen to survivors’ testimony, what stays with me is not necessarily the intact memory of an attack but more often the small detail of how dirty his shoelaces were. Sharing details around the abusive act is discouraged in the DV community but people often share seemingly minor, harmless details – these spot-on-the-wall moments that I find more harrowing than the events that are there via their absence. Absent memories can be a blessing and they can also point to the presence of something. They are also disliked in the court of public opinion.

While Heard’s memories were picked apart for missing details, the public hungrily searched for details in the present. In place of more ‘important’ details she was missing like where she was sitting or where she was in relation to other objects in the room when the abuse took place, the public turned its attention on each flicker of her face which was paused, cropped, and scrutinised across social media. A brief wipe of her nose became evidence of snorting cocaine in a courtroom. Her crying was overly dramatic and stilted. Her cheek filler didn’t sit quite right on her face. The aesthetic details of her bodily testimony in the present were as damning as the absence of ‘relevant’ details in her recollection of the past.

The elision of detail also plays out in trigger warnings. Trigger warnings have the potential to save someone from a great deal of mental anguish. It’s inexcusable to forego them when they are so simple to put in place. But the quick-tempered part of me sometimes questions the politics of the elision of description in public forums after that warning is made. What is gained by sanitising testimony for listeners who doubt you in the first place? Is there a way to strategically deliver a hard truth for doubters who abstract DV from its realities or who somehow think it couldn’t have been all that bad? Being listened to and believed is often contending with the pressure to offer up grisly details because sharing a spot-on-the-wall is never what listeners are looking for. However, after sharing, no one wants to be reduced to the worst moments of their life. In the end, the presence of detailed testimony of the abusive act is scrutinised for any details that are not remembered. As a result, the sharing of any detail is damned and again we return to testimony defined by absence.

Missing Words

We don’t have the words to talk about domestic violence and even if we did, we don’t have the mechanisms for a sustained conversation. I think the ‘as a survivor’ prefix can contribute to the issue of missing words. This prefix does not need to be said within the survivor community. It’s only function is to claim credibility in public forums. It should be apparent by now that not all survivors can say this and as a result there is a power imbalance among survivors when it comes to claiming airtime in public discussion.  Not only is this potent adjunct exclusionary, but it acts as a placeholder for recounting the experiences one cannot verbalise in public. It thus embeds absence in the beginning of sentences. The prefix can oftentimes mean ending a conversation rather than sustaining it. It’s a little group of words that legitimates some people’s experiences while sometimes shutting down others who a) do not belong to that club or b) are barred from saying that they do. Discussion can end with nodding heads. Competitive trauma and cred one upmanships, like the one solicited in the Facebook exchange, can be an ugly part of the survivor community. Then again, for those who can self-identify in public space there is little other recourse. In place of ‘as a survivor’, how do survivors testify to their subjecthood when there are so many other verbal barriers in place? Language around DV is stilted and strained. What would it mean for discussion around domestic violence to feel as natural as a these lived realities are part of daily life for too many? If we normalied our discussions around domestic violence, then we might get more extraordinary responses on this issue. We have a dearth of language when talking about DV.

The prefix also does not acknowledge the specificity of each person’s experience. The way that people wear survival is very individual and unlikeable people can be abused too. Criticism of Heard certainly ignored this. The way she inhabited her survival did not adhere to people’s expectations of the beaten woman. This judgement of people’s performance of victimhood results in a Facebook reply that makes a decision about me based on what was not said, on the absence of three little words. The ‘as a survivor’ prefix conditions public opinion to expect that all survivors act in the same way. The weight that we place on that common experience can dampen public discussions around the specificity of how domestic violence impacts each life.


The Heard/Depp case reinvigorates the silencing already embedded in domestic violence before it enters the legal system. I would imagine how the online silencing that resulted from the case is gutting for survivors because survival is already is own collection of absences. Survival means sending a message to family without saying things too directly. It’s losing your children, your home, and perhaps a job. It’s losing your ability to leave your new house after you left the dangerous one. It’s the loss of identity. It’s the loss of most friends, family, and colleagues. Absences include the mass graves of blocked friends on social media. I hope that an absence of words can stand for something and that people can hear it. Otherwise, how can a political movement be built on an absence of words? What happens to a movement like DV activism when its own members are barred from admitting their affiliation? That is the unique challenge for domestic violence.

There is no way of vindicating Heard if she is innocent because the price of any future Depp victim coming forward is $15m. These testimonies are erased before their crimes have even been committed. Once any woman walks into Depp’s life, whatever abuse she may or may not experience is not only beyond reproach but beyond language. This verdict is a prophylactic gag order. Perhaps what maybe most damning for Depp, if he is guilty, is that he become associated with a string of relationships that end in a conspicuous absence of words.

As the most publicised domestic violence case since OJ Simpson, the Heard/Depp case leaves me with a few takeaways. Drawing on Heard’s account of one particularly heinous rape, it’s traumatic enough to be raped with a liquor bottle, but it’s additionally traumatic to fight for and lose your right to say that you are survivor let alone that you were raped or raped by Johnny Depp. If you are a rape survivor and remember details, you are damned for voicing them. If you remember very little, you are accused of fabrication. If you offer a wealth of evidence, the very size of that archive points to the absence of the beating video that is missing. If you have little evidence, the absence of abuse in that archive points to its absence. If you publicly identify as a survivor, you open yourself to defamation. If however you do not include those three magic words in a Facebook post, you are chastised for having no credibility. So, we are left with an absence of words and a spot on the wall.

I don’t want to take away from the fearless work that DV activists do. In some ways, the case has not regressed us so much as it has highlighted the extent to which DV survivors are stuck. In other ways, the Heard/Depp case further limits the words available to survivors. In place of the details of one’s experience and in place of the ‘as a survivor’ prefix that some cannot access, we have more deflective phrases: ‘I have a friend who’, ‘Were I a survivor’, ‘I would imagine that a survivor might’. Repetition like this happens when words are taken away and people can’t afford the price tag of saying too much. We are caught repeating what few phrases are left. To be fair, all political movements begin around the absence of a voice, usually from a community whose interests and experiences have been ignored. But what happens if a political movement’s tools of communication and very phenomenology are shaped by absence when the movement is not even clandestine? What happens when the members of a movement can neither verbalise their experience or membership?

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