Photo Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
As the douchebag v. hear defamation trial inched closer to its April 11 start date, I made a strategic decision to mute the phrases “Amber Heard” and “Johnny Depp” on my Twitter feed. As an abuse survivor, I knew that even anodyne-seeming mentions of the trial were likely to bring up uncomfortable memories and painful emotions, and I didn’t want to deal with it. Muting, I figured, would be enough to protect me and my mental health.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over the past month and a half, the trial has metastasized into a full-on cultural phenomenon. When you log onto Twitter, it’s often the top trending topic — which apparently you’ll still see no matter how many related words or hashtags you mute. On YouTube, film critics have switched over to offering trial commentary, and on TikTok, clips from the trial have become memes. The New York Times Style section analyzed Depp and Heard’s trial outfits. Saturday Night Live devoted a cold open to it. Even the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia podcast — a show built around the creators rewatching and commenting on old episodes — couldn’t resist bringing up the trial when one of the more lurid details from Depp’s testimony evoked a fourth-season episode. And that’s just what’s happening online: In the real world, it’s not uncommon for survivors to discover trial coverage playing at hair salons, in dental offices, even at the grocery store.
At a recent hair appointment, Heather Kent, a registered psychotherapist and trauma recovery specialist who’s also an abuse survivor, was shocked to see the trial playing at full blast when she walked in. “I looked over to the reception area, and all of the stylists were huddled around behind the desk,” she says. They were glued to the TV, watching clips from the trial. Kent’s own stylist was particularly enthusiastic, telling her, “‘I can’t believe they’re taking a break for two weeks, I don’t know what I’m going to do for entertainment for the next two weeks.’ Entertainment!”
Personally, the fire hose of trial coverage has been actively distressing. Not because Heard is being demonized by Depp’s fans, or because I fear my own abuser taking a cue from Depp and attempting to destroy me in court. For me, it’s the way a horrifically abusive relationship has been turned into fodder for jokes, memes, and deeply insensitive commentary — and the fact that no matter how hard I try, it all feels impossible to escape.
While survivors have had a range of reactions to the details of Depp and Heard’s relationship playing out in the courtroom over the last few weeks — some see themselves in Heard, others feel sympathy for Depp, and still others are uncomfortable with all of it — discomfort with the tone of the commentary, and the sheer amount of it, is a fairly common thread.
Ella Dawson, a social-media strategist and abuse survivor, similarly tried muting every word and hashtag related to the trial. “I do feel like there are editorial decisions being made at Twitter and at Facebook to feature certain topics really prominently, to feature the live streams of the trial,” she says. “I don’t think that’s algorithmic; I think there are humans making those choices.” Dawson says she still gets shown related content on the platform. On TikTok, it’s even worse: The algorithm’s lack of transparency (and lack of user control) makes curating content a challenge. Dawson told me she’s just given up.
“I truly just hate everything about this trial,” says Hope, 36, who spent seven years with a physically and emotionally abusive partner and asked not to be identified by her real name. “It’s disgusting how people are treating the trial like it’s entertainment and not a serious issue that is impacting survivors in a very serious way.” Other survivors told me how the constant onslaught of headlines, parody videos, and memes have triggered painful memories, leaving them overwhelmed with confusing emotions. Mary Joye, 65, became distressed when she learned that Depp and Heard’s trial would take place in the same courthouse as her divorce. “The trial played through my head,” she says, “and I was ashamed I allowed myself to sign over things to him just to keep him from hurting me. I had flashbacks of how much I harmed myself and allowed others to harm me by not taking what was rightfully mine as a wife and how difficult it was to reinvent my life.” To be clear, it’s not just that the physical space itself is suddenly on everyone’s screen — it’s what’s happening in that space, of all places, that has been the most painful. And the media coverage hasn’t helped. After watching the Saturday Night Live cold open, Joye says, she thought about how “people were making fun of abuse victims.” “The media was abusing them, too,” she says.
For Dawson, it’s not merely memories of abuse that have upended her ability to function. “I got sucked into a long Google search about what defamation even means,” says Dawson, who spent several days panicking about the possibility of being sued for tweeting about her own abuse experiences. “I have become really paranoid even just texting my friends about things that I’m processing from my old relationship.”
And it’s not just people who’ve experienced intimate partner violence who are feeling the effects: Grace, 34, who also asked not to be identified by her real name, grew up with an abusive dad, and has felt similar distress over the past few weeks after watching colleagues parrot myths about how abuse works. “It feels like the world wants me dead,” she says. If someone as privileged as Heard can’t find support or get away from her alleged abuser, what hope do other survivors have?
For those who’ve never experienced abuse, it may seem odd that something many see as just a wild bit of celebrity gossip could have such an intense impact. But there’s a biological basis for the distress that survivors like me have been feeling. According to Kent, extended exposure to trauma literally reshapes the brain: The hippocampus shrinks, the amygdala grows, and the prefrontal cortex gets out of whack, leaving survivors with memory problems, a reduced ability to regulate emotions, and a danger alarm system that’s ready to go off at a moment’s notice. “The brain has literally become impaired by the stress of trauma,” Kent says.
And when survivors are confronted with, say, a makeup brand making a lighthearted joke about the foundation Heard allegedly used to cover bruises or TikTokers doing trial reenactments, our traumatized brains kick into action. “Our brain naturally tries to make sense of information that we get as it relates to us and our past experience,” says Kent. “It’s very normal for us to connect our own experience of trauma or abuse with the constant bombardment of what we’re seeing from this trial.” Video clips, jokes about the trial, even just seeing Heard and Depp’s names: All of these are “sensory reminders” that can put survivors’ brains right back in the midst of our own trauma, triggering a wide range of responses including flashbacks, nightmares , difficulty concentrating, irritability, and much, much more.
“I was only just starting to silence the voices in my head that were calling me a liar,” says Dawson. Now she’s overwhelmed by them. “I feel like it has undermined my credibility in my own brain,” she says, explaining that she no longer feels capable of trusting her judgment of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior from a partner.
Even survivors who’ve been able to protect their mental health during this stressful time are still troubled by what they see. Wagatwe Wanjuki, an award-winning anti-rape activist and abuse educator, told me that she’s limited her social-media use to the point where she rarely sees content that prompts a trauma response. But she’s still troubled by how the memeification of douchebag v. hear has distracted from the actual issues at hand. Heard is being sued for simply identifying as a “public figure representing abuse” in an op-ed; rather than focusing on that very narrow question of free speech, we’re being encouraged to relitigate a toxic relationship and laugh at two people’s pain. Instead of analyzing questioning the legal basis of Depp’s case, we’re getting pieces about which person is winning in the court of public opinion. “I’m worried about how that’s going to impact abuse victims moving forward,” Wanjuki says.
At the moment, there’s no easy fix for this problem. the douchebag v. hear Trial has revealed a collective lack of empathy for survivors and an ignorance of the very real effects that public discussion of abuse has on some people who’ve lived through it. It’s hard to imagine a wholesale shift to trauma-informed media coverage and social-media engagement anytime soon. But honestly, even a small step forward could have a big impact on survivors’ mental health: Several of the survivors I spoke to noted that they’d be thrilled if social-media sites would simply give us a mute feature that actually works.
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