Content warning: Mentions of sexual assault, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.
There’s a certain kind of person who can make a meal of a celebrity courtroom showdown. During the O.J. Simpson saga of the mid-nineties, such a person was likely glued to the television for 10 hours a day, or lined up outside of the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse. Late last year, they might’ve been seated in the overflow room of the Ghislaine Maxwell trial in Manhattan, or eagerly refreshing their social feeds every few moments for an update. Court-watching, it would seem, has become something of a spectator sport in recent decades, and unfortunately for Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, who are currently embroiled in their second libel trial, the masses are getting a front-row seat. Frankly, I’ve found it difficult to watch.
Allegations currently being waged against one another range from the ridiculous (following a fight on her 30th birthday, Heard allegedly defecated on Depp’s side of the bed they shared) to the bizarre (the actress allegedly hurled a liquor bottle at Depp, resulting in a severed finger and graffiti he’d written with his own blood) to the deeply disturbing (Depp allegedly sexually assaulted Heard...also with a liquor bottle).
What was once a seemingly Hollywood happily-ever-after has become the defamation duel of the decade; and while we expect that very few couples in the public eye can possess the kind of staying power portrayed in the movies, very few could’ve predicted Depp and Heard’s story would go this sour. Yet with every passing day in court, it has become painfully clear that if any two people on earth should probably not have been married—let alone collide in this universe at all— it’s Depp and Heard. Perhaps this is why so many can’t seem to look away.
Since its start, the polarizing trial has taken all those who are curious (read: masochistic) enough to pay attention down a path that’s at-once excruciating and unsettling. Depp and Heard met on the 2009 set of The Rum Diary and married in 2011. Then, in 2016, news broke that Heard had not only filed for divorce from the actor, but was granted a domestic violence restraining order. In court documents, she accused Depp of physical and verbal abuse during “violent and volatile” episodes while he was using drugs and alcohol.
Heard went on to pen an impassioned op-ed in The Washington Post in 2018 during the throes of #MeToo, which didn’t name Depp, though explained that two years earlier, she’d become a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Though she never explicitly detailed any abuse at Depp’s hands, the actor claimed it was defamation and that readers could deduce who was she was referencing. “It’s very strange when one day you’re Cinderella, so to speak, and in 0.6 seconds you’re Quasimodo,” he said in court this week.
In response, Depp filed two lawsuits against Heard and The Sun, a British tabloid who dubbed Depp a “wife-beater” in a headline about the alleged abuse. He lost the latter in a 16-day trial in 2020.
We’re now seeing the lawsuit against Heard play out in what’s expected to be a six-week trial in Fairfax, Virginia. And since its start earlier this month, hundreds of observers—from middle-aged women who have traveled from as far as Australia and Los Angeles in solidarity with Depp to curious high school students on spring break—have flocked to witness the spectacle. Some have even been cosplaying as the actor’s most famous characters. “I had nothing better to do than gawk at a petty celebrity feud,” one outfitted in a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-inspired ensemble glibly told the NY Post.
The hordes of people who can’t be present to witness the proceedings in person have tuned in online via livestream or kept tabs through popular Instagram accounts like @houseinhabit and @thetalkofshame, who boast a collective 760k followers on the platform. KiKi Monique, a podcaster who runs the latter account providing daily updates on the case, says she’s been overwhelmed by the response and that as of now, her followers have varying opinions.
“There’s a third of people who seem to clearly not like Amber, there’s a third of people who are pro-justice for Johnny and then a third of people who are like, they’re both crazy, they’re both toxic, and it’s all a mess. It really is evenly split,” Monique told Jezebel.
The interest is understandable. It’s a multi-million dollar trial between two celebrities we all know and once enjoyed watching, both onscreen and off. It also touts a list of potential testimony from reviled billionaire Elon Musk and alleged sexual predator James Franco—two men with whom Heard has been romantically linked. But the intrigue of the case cannot downplay the more harrowing details that undeniably transcend the “petty” fodder of two famous people: In recent days, we’ve heard Heard allege that Depp sexually assaulted her and that he endured severe childhood abuse, including finding his mother after she attempted suicide.
As a second week of the trial comes to a close, viewers have already heard directly from Depp and parsed through some of his disquieting text messages. Depp texted various friends and family about Heard, including actor Paul Bettany and musician Marilyn Manson, who’s currently in the midst of his own legal issues following numerous claims of sexual assault and abuse. In one particularly horrifying exchange with Bettany, he likens his ex-wife to a witch and writes: ‘’Let’s drown her before we burn her!!!’’ and “I will fuck her burnt corpse afterward to make sure she is dead.”
Another exchange with Heard’s sister features Depp referring to Heard as a “filthy whore.” Similarly, to friend Isaac Baruch, Depp wrote: “Is the slippery whore that I donated my jizz to for a while staying there?”
When cross-examined by Heard’s attorney, Depp didn’t provide much of an answer for said messages. He also couldn’t properly explain whether he abused drugs and alcohol or was prone to violence while under the influence. Heard’s team noted a 2012 text to Manson, in particular, in which Depp wrote he was on the “plants and the pills,” as well as a series of unflattering photos and videos that allegedly depicted Depp using drugs and alcohol.
“They have always been a medicine for me, a numbing agent,” Depp stated during his testimony. However, a video taken by Heard shown towards the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing suggests otherwise: The video shows Depp shouting, smashing cupboards, throwing things around a kitchen and ultimately pouring himself a glass of wine before the recording stops. One could reasonably conclude that the drugs, for Depp, led to darker behavior.
In response to that video, Depp said, “Clearly, I was having a bad time.”
“I don’t know what with regard to, but being illegally recorded by your chosen other is quite fitting with the rest of the photographs and tape recordings. She tried to hide it from me and laughed and smiled at the end. That was the most interesting part,” he elaborated.
An audio recording also played in court on Thursday served as another indicator of questionable actions taken by the actor. “I need you. Cut me,” Depp can be heard telling his then-wife, as she pleads with him not to hurt himself. In a second clip, Depp admits to becoming “irrational” when she’s working. “I become jealous and fucking crazy and weird and we fight a lot more.”
Depp, in turn, produced some damning clips of Heard. In one played to the court this week, she admits to hitting the actor before calling him a “fucking baby.” Depp, who vehemently denies he’s ever laid a hand on a woman, also asserted this week that Heard once used nail polish to fake blood on a tissue, following a fight in which she claims he broke her nose.
The couple’s marriage counselor, who said there was mutual abuse in the relationship, and Depp’s sister and former personal manager, have also contributed testimony. The counselor shared that Heard told her it was a “point of pride” to start fights with Depp, while Depp’s sister affirmed that the actor had an abusive childhood and that she and other family members (namely his children) did not want him to marry Heard. She also alleged that she witnessed Heard call Depp “an old fat man.”
Heard is set to take the stand in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Depp’s testimony ranged from funny—even flippant, at times—to solemn and seemingly sincere. “I’ve lost everything. No matter the outcome of this trial, I’ve already lost. I lost when these allegations were made cause they will stay with me forever. My life is ruined forever,” he said during testimony.
Even as both parties maintain their innocence, it’s impossible to determine what to feel other than pity that a private matter has been made this public.
If there’s been any poignant moment of the proceedings thus far, one that should remind spectators of the complexities of the situation, it’s testimony from Depp’s aforementioned friend, Baruch. While Baruch made no secret of the fact that he was speaking on Depp’s behalf, he shared a salient sentiment that echoes what I’ve felt as more information becomes public fodder: “I want this all to end. For her to go heal, him to go heal.”
Now, it would be easy to forget that at one time, these two people liked each other enough to get married and stay together for a few years, despite ample evidence of exhaustive tumult. You don’t have to show up to the courthouse or follow an update account to see that their relationship was wildly toxic.
As someone who often relishes taking jabs at celebrities with the kind of wealth and unrestricted access to resources that very few others have, I don’t enjoy watching this trial at all—even less so as a survivor of sexual trauma and relationship abuse. And it’s likely that I will always have some questions for the people who’ve broken out the popcorn for this.
Monique might just have the answer for the public intrigue: “It includes every single aspect of salaciousness you could possibly imagine—drugs, sex and everything that is worthy of some crazy drama that you would watch on Lifetime. It’s TV played out in front of us, but it’s real life.”
That may be true, but I’d argue that’s precisely what makes paying witness to it all the more indigestible.