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What the Johnny Depp Trial Means to a Male Abuse Survivor

It’s not easy for men to admit when they’re victimized by women

Colorized portrait of actor Johnny Depp
The Arrow/Michael Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP

There he is, the former Captain Jack Sparrow himself, trying hard to answer questions on the stand without getting cut off from a slew of “Hearsays” from lawyers representing his ex-wife Amber Heard. It’s tough for me to watch Johnny Depp’s libel lawsuit against Heard unfold. But for me personally, it’s also vindicating.

Heard’s 2018 Washington Post op-ed, which indirectly blamed Depp for abuse, allegedly played a role in his losing a number of film opportunities. In it, Heard wrote that after becoming “a public figure representing domestic abuse … I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”

But in his lawsuit, Depp is trying to flip the narrative. He’s claiming that he, not Heard, was the abused partner. Here is a famous man, and for many a longtime role model, who’s willing to admit in public that he was a victim of domestic abuse.

A lot of people are surprised. But as a victim of spousal abuse, I’m not.

Many years ago, I was in a relationship with a woman who abused me physically and emotionally. She hit, shoved, taunted, cursed, emasculated and threatened me. In fits of jealousy, she forced me to throw away any photos and letters from ex-girlfriends. She tried to bully me into renouncing my Jewish faith.

No matter how I let her dictate my life, it never got better. It got worse. She began accusing me of having an affair, even though I barely talked to anyone outside our home. She dared me to punch her. Instead, I punched walls, doors, anything else I could to avoid hitting her. I began to hate her. I lost all sense of who I was, and I seriously considered suicide. 

I eventually found the courage to leave her. And that’s where my understanding of the Depp-Heard trial deepens. After I left, my ex spread lies about being a victim of spousal abuse, the same stories she once fed to me about her previous relationships. I haven’t seen or talked to her in decades, but she’s always with me, like a scar on my flesh that won’t ever fully fade.

I’ve mostly kept my mouth shut since then. Because when I do speak about it, I get the same reaction: “If she was hitting you, why didn’t you just fight back, or leave?” No one asks those questions of an abused woman. But the same physical, emotional and financial constraints that can trap a woman in an abusive relationship can also ensnare a man. 

It’s hard to watch the Depp-Heard trial. I don’t know who’s telling the truth, obviously, but I see something in Depp’s face that I recognize. It’s not just embarrassment. It’s that shell-shocked look of being trapped in a narrative that goes against every gender cliché we grew up with.

The Depp story has changed one thing for me: I won’t ever apologize or make excuses again for what happened to me. So many people assume that even if Depp did get kicked around, it’s just evidence that he’s a bad guy, because any man who inspired that much cruelty from a woman must have done something to deserve it. 

From Thelma and Louise to Kill Bill, our accepted narratives are always about a wronged woman fighting back against an abusive man. But that story is not always true. It certainly wasn’t for me. 

We probably won't ever know what really happened behind closed doors in Depp and Heard's marriage. I can only speak from my own experience: Men can be victims. And we need to stop feeling so ashamed about it.