One of the most striking links with domestic abuse is animal cruelty. I’ve seen in court cases that abusers harm or threaten to harm a beloved pet in front of their partner and their children. It’s terrifying – and it couldn’t be a clearer example of coercive and controlling behavior designed to intimidate victims to remain in, or be silenced about, their abusive relationship.
Which brings me to the latest from the high-profile court case in the United States involving Amber Heard, Johnny Depp – and his dog.
Heard recently gave evidence that Depp, “grabs this teacup yorkie and holds Boo out of the window of the moving car, and he’s howling like an animal while holding the dog out the window…And everyone in the car – I’ll never forget it – everyone just froze. No one did anything.” She added, “I didn’t want to react to cause him to drop the dog,” Heard said.
I’ve seen this before. It goes like this – if you dare to step out of line, I have the power to slit your dog’s throat or kick the hell out of your cat. A research study found that up to 71 per cent of domestic violence victims with companion animals reported that their abusers had threatened, injured, or killed their pets. So while a perpetrator might say, “it was a bit of fun, I was only fooling around”, we all know the deeply profound impact animal cruelty can have on victims.
What could be a better tactic than a perpetrator making themselves into a victim? The plot twist of the violent abuser becoming the vulnerable, unlikely victim?
Deny, attack and reverse victim and offender – otherwise known as DARVO – is a common tactic used by perpetrators of domestic abuse. They deny their behavior, attack the victim and reverse the roles of victim and offender. What I believe we are seeing in Depp v Heard is Johnny Depp assuming the role of the victim whilst he turns the complainant, Amber Heard into an abuser, liar and psychopath. It is one of the most common tactics abusers use is to shift blame for the abuse onto the victim.
The perpetrator may even attempt to convince the victim (and onlookers) that there is nothing worth reacting over and that the victim is overreacting to the abuse. This is the holy grail of gaslighting.
Trending twitter hashtags include #JohnnyIsTheVictim and #AmberHeardIsAPyschopath, which are reinforced by vile memes across social media platforms. They all follow the same narrative: Depp is the innocent party and Heard is the malicious villain out to get him. Men’s rights activists are having a field day thriving off the once archaic notion that women are crazy and will do anything to ruin a man’s life, now trending on twitter. The younger generation are adopting abusive norms, laughing at a complainant of sexual violence, making TikToks which idolizes Depp and humiliates a traumatized Heard as if it’s normal. It’s not.
I am starting to think that perpetrators have a play book of how to work the system to transform themselves into victims. Let me tell you, it’s a very effective and dangerous strategy. I’ve seen it work time and time again in the family courts. So, what are some of the key patterns of controlling and abusive behavior in relationships – and how do perpetrators manipulate the situation to turn themselves into victims?
“He would say, ‘You don’t have to work, kid. Let me take care of you. My woman doesn’t have to work.’ That sounds really sweet and really romantic in some way, but it became a real fight,” said Heard during her evidence.
It might sound like every girl’s dream, to be swept off your feet by Prince Charming (or a drop-dead gorgeous Hollywood star, rich and famous), who promises to take care of you so you never have to work a day in your life again – but let’s stand back and consider the reality.
You don’t have access to your own money, you can’t continue your vocation despite working for decades, you’re only in your 30s yet you’re living as if you’re a homemaker, your independence is stripped and you’ re utterly dependent on your partner. When that happens, people – most often, women – are left powerless.
Controlling a victim’s work and finances is a key pattern of economic control, threats and degrading behavior that restricts a victim’s freedom and leaves them trapped financially in often abusive relationships. According to Women’s Aid, nearly one third of victims said their access to money during the relationship was controlled by the perpetrator.
“She abused me! She gave as good as she got! She started this!” The next common tactic is to claim that the victim was actually abusive to the perpetrator. To muddy the waters, the narrative changes to the relationship being toxic, ugly, situational or mutual abuse rather than domestic abuse. In this way, they are both seen as responsible for the abuse rather than recognizing the power imbalance between the parties.
Depp and his fans point to him being a victim and Heard being the abuser. Heard told Depp on a recording, “I fucking was hitting you.” Heard gave evidence that there was a distinction – he would punch her and she had to use self-defence to get him away from her and to barricade herself into the room.
Self-defense is not abuse. My worry is that victims watching people blame Heard for defending herself might feel increasingly fearful that they don’t have a right to respond or to protect themselves. The excuse of mutual abuse allows the abusive partner to shift the blame and to manipulate a victim to believe they are at fault.
“It wasn’t me, it was the drink and drugs speaking!” Drugs or alcohol misuse is often linked to domestic abuse. When someone is inebriated it can increase the chances of their abusive behavior escalating. That is not to say that intoxication is a cause of domestic abuse or an excuse – it most certainly is not – there are many who suffer with addiction and are not violent. Heard said that Depp “lost control” when fueled by drink and drugs, which included, as found by the High Court in London, physically assaulting Heard on multiple occasions.
Substance misuse can sometimes be used as a weapon by abusers to deny knowledge about perpetrating domestic abuse thereby absolving themselves of responsibility. Depp takes a different approach, he claims to be a victim of domestic violence and one of his witnesses said that Heard drank “several bottles of wine a day”, which suggests mutual abuse rather than domestic abuse.
“Calm down love, it’s just a joke, lighten up.” A common form of abuse is name calling and verbal abuse designed to undermine a victim’s self-esteem and confidence leaving them feeling intimidated and degraded. Depp allegedly referred to Heard, a grown woman, as “kid” during the relationship.
Depp might well say it’s a term of endearment, but it could also be construed as a means to undermine her and infantilize her. Depp sent a text in which he said he wanted to burn Heard’s body and f*** her corpse. Instead of owning up to abusive messages, he said it was “abstract humour” taken “directly from Monty Python” – another example of, “it was just a joke”.
Ironically, Depp mocked Heard during the relationship and now his fans on social media do the job for him. Jokes about Heard not crying tears have gained millions of views on TikTok. Humor is used to deflect from abuse and undermine the gravity of it – if we can all laugh about it, it can’t be that bad. We see it all the time.
“She’s mad, bad, mentally ill, a loose cannon.” Labeling a victim as mentally ill and thus not credible is one of the oldest tricks in the book and sadly it still plays out in courtrooms. It’s what I call “gaslighting on steroids”. One of my clients was told repeatedly by her ex-partner (also a mental health care worker) that she had bipolar disorder – he convinced her she was mentally ill. The family court judge said for the first time in a High Court judgment that her ex-partner had “gaslit” her. We won – but it’s a common go-to tactic by abusers.
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Depp approached psychologist, Dr Shannon Curry to complete a psychological assessment of Heard which found borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder. Before she was hired, Dr Curry had dinner and drinks with Depp and his lawyers at his house (because that’s totally normal right?). In contrast, psychologist Dr. Hughes diagnosed Heard with PTSD.
We don’t yet know the outcome of the defamation trial in the US, but we do know the outcome of the defamation trial in the High Court in England and Wales: Depp was found to be a perpetrator of persistent domestic abuse towards Heard. He was the perpetrator, she was the victim. While he gets to have another bite of the cherry in yet another court of law, the world watches his tactics and learns how to discredit women – whether in court, in the workplace or at home.
This trial I believe now throws us all into a crossroads: do we undo years of fighting to protect and believe women and survivors or do we decide that it is easier (and gets us more likes on TikTok) for us to believe the pretty boy Hollywood heartthrob who we all loved in those pirate movies?
One thing’s for sure, this case will reverberate across our society for decades to come.