The latest true crime spectacle is playing out across our social media feeds, and it once again stars the personal struggles and pain of real people. As a former prosecuting attorney, I’ve been following the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard defamation lawsuit with interest. Following may be a strong word—mostly I couldn’t help noticing how my Twitter and Instagram feeds were hijacked with posts professing belief in one side or the other. Usually in favor of Johnny Depp.
In case you have a better algorithm on your social media timeline than I do: Johnny Depp is suing ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation. Heard published an essay in the Washington Post in 2018 where she described herself as a quote “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp was not named, but his case is built on the idea that the article alluded to him enough that it damaged his reputation and career, including not getting to make a sixth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Which … well, your mileage may vary on that argument.
An overarching question in the case is whether Depp was abusive to Heard. I want to be clear, even with all my courtroom experience, I don’t know what happened, and I’m not here to speculate. But so many people seem to believe one side or the other based on very little information and evidence. On the most recent episode of The Waves, Slate’s podcast about gender and feminism, I talked to Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who studies gender violence, about where that certainty comes from, how the case is playing out on TikTok, and why even empathetic people can have trouble believing survivor testimony. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: As a society that enjoys true crime, we love to dissect every little bit of evidence. We seem to inherently want to look for inconsistencies, without realizing that people are messy and complex. So there’s the fiction of a court room cross-examination—and then there’s the reality.
Nicole Bedera: In all fandoms, one of the things that people like to do is go in really, really deep and try to make sense of what’s going on, try to find that little nugget or Easter egg that nobody else noticed. But that can be really damaging when we’re talking about people’s real lives. And that’s one of the issues with true crime. These are not made-up stories. They’re people’s real lives.
We’re all as a society expecting them to tell their story exactly perfectly, to never get caught up in something, to never make a small mistake. When in reality, there’s a lot of research that shows that cross-examination in particular makes victims say things that are not true. Because the stress of the situation is so intense that if you ask survivors the same questions, but in a trauma-informed manner, their stories will actually stay completely consistent.
When you’re trying to pick up on these little moments and saying, “Oh, we caught her. She said something off. We found a lie,” it actually might not be that a survivor is making a mistake. It might actually be more about the way the criminal justice system or the civil justice system is treating her.
What does it mean to interview someone in a trauma-informed manner?
A trauma-informed technique just means recognizing things like: The way that the brain forms memories from trauma can be a little bit different, and if you create too much stress when someone’s recounting a traumatic memory, you might trigger a traumatic response that makes it difficult to recall memories at all.
Some things that you would do in a trauma-informed technique are: If you’ve ever watched a crime show, they always get in trouble for badgering the witness. That sort of thing is not trauma-informed, as opposed to open-ended questions that people are allowed to answer honestly. And then follow-up questions if there’s something that’s confusing.
One “inconsistency” that blew up in this trial, on TikTok, revolved around a makeup palette. An attorney for Amber Heard held up a makeup palette saying that Heard had used it to cover up bruises she got when Johnny Depp abused her. The manufacturer of the palette piped up and said that actually that particular makeup palette didn’t come out until after Heard’s lawyer said that Amber had used it.
This was a mess. The way that I found out about this was on Twitter. And everyone had made it sound like Amber Heard had held up this makeup palette and lied about using it, and she got caught in this lie because the makeup didn’t even exist. And so the Twitter discourse around this has actually turned into, “Well, did she make a mistake? Did she forget what kind of makeup it was? Maybe she grabbed the wrong palette.”
When in reality, I was shocked to find out that it was her lawyer who had done this and she hadn’t done anything. And so, the way that this is being held against her when she has not at any point, to my knowledge, been on the stand and said, “Yes, that was the exact makeup palette.” It might have just been a prop. And so, the way this was blown out of proportion as proof that she was lying about absolutely everything, it’s really shocking and unsettling.
[Read: You’ll Never Convince Johnny Depp Fans That He’s Guilty]
We’re conditioned to think that we can know what happened. There will be a smoking gun, and we’ve just got to figure out, “Hey, that little makeup palette, that’s going to tell us what really happened.” What we’re also seeing in the Depp-Heard trial is how “likable” an accuser or a victim is in any given domestic violence case will go a long way in whether she’s believed, be it by millions of people, by her friends, or by a jury.
One thing that I say to my students a lot is that we all support survivors up until we know the perpetrator. When people start to name names, you see the support disappear. They say, “But I know that person. I’m really good friends with your perpetrator. I don’t believe he would ever act that way.” Something I say to my students all the time is we actually all do know and love perpetrators of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.
I think we’re really uncomfortable when it’s a friend, when it’s a family member, when it’s a beloved actor. That’s when we don’t want to believe it, in part because it makes us feel unsafe. If we believe that the perpetrator is someone we know, there’s the sense of, “If that’s true, then it could have happened to me. I’m a bad judge of character, or I’m a bad person for being friends with someone who acts this way.” And so, we’re really just projecting our experiences onto these types of trials to say, “Well, but Johnny Depp was part of my childhood. I don’t want to believe that that was unfair, or unsafe, or scary.”
I’m not here to say who did what in this case. But objectively, Johnny Depp does seem to have overwhelmingly more support than Amber Heard. So if you are a fan of Johnny Depp and you do think that, hey, he didn’t do good things here, if you think that maybe he is an abuser, how do you get through that feeling, or at least become open to it?
It’s worth remembering that one of the reasons that you might be a fan of Johnny Depp is not because of who he is as a person. It’s because of the characters he has played. And so you can still appreciate these characters that have absolutely nothing to do with who he is as a human being. And that would be a pretty straightforward way to address something like this, to say, “Oh, yeah. If I really liked Pirates of the Caribbean, I guess I don’t know anything about the cast. Maybe I don’t know so much about them and who they are as people.”