WASHINGTON, DC — I’m writing this from the Capital Grille bathroom. The Depp v. Heard trial has entered the cross-examination phase of Amber Heard, and down the street, the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has leaked in an ominous foretelling of the 50-year precedent’s demise last month. It is then, in apt Alito metaphor, that in the heart of the nation’s capital, in this commercial, fine-dining, black-and-white-checkered-floor, free-bread, real-wood, fake-silver steak place, I am sitting on a toilet reflecting about Hollywood. Like a cartoonish American tourist, the trial of Depp v. Heard wanders gruesomely into every dinner-table conversation, awkwardly bumping itself alongside news of international war, increasingly routine mass shootings, and a surreal onslaught of at-home Gilead-era oppression.
I recently told an inquiring friend that I felt very much as if I had cast myself in the Depp v. Heard play. Not only were the actors acting, but all those under the Court TV cameras adjusted to their roles: lawyers as unsympathetic bloodhounds and loyal knights; the judge: level-headed and occasionally candid in her exasperation; Johnny: warmly stoic, sometimes serious (I studied his shoulders), occasionally laughy in a “how absurd!” way; his fans: devoted, at the cost of their own well-being and finances; the deputies: protecting the sanctity of the courthouse with keen surveillance, ejecting fans if their phones went off or if the fans themselves nodded off; and Amber: sullen, smug, pained in her seat, chin tilted up or neck craned to glare unflinchingly into the shielded eyes of her ex-husband. And me, the sketch artist, arriving each day with my drawing materials and a ticket into the eye of culture’s most talked-about hurricane.
Drawing this play meant leaving myself open to empathizing with each individual character — their intent, what they had to lose, the people they loved, the people they wished they could bite the neck off of. Online, the Internet leaked this trial out of every single one of its pores, requiring even those who wanted to turn away to either abandon their devices for two months or to consider whom to place their beliefs in. In the courtroom, Depp fans’ flagrant dedication could not be ignored. I felt perhaps like the luckiest girl in the world: My job excluded me from the pressures of choosing a side.
The architecture of the courtroom was such that Johnny and the prosecution sat next to the jury. Between them was a podium for lawyers to sling questions and, on the other side, miles from the jury, sat Amber and her team. Johnny, already so close to the sun, heated the tiring jurors day after day, admitting them access to his intimate fantasy life as a drug-in-the-blood poet of quirky violent texts (“let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead”) of which he wasn’t proud, but elevated through attribution to Monty Python.
The fans nested as early as Fairfax County Circuit Court allowed (1 am). At twilight, I observe a middle-aged woman knitting and talking to a stoned high schooler who was here for her civics class. Closer to the front, a group of local teens, all with the same high ponytail and matching wax-cherry lips; one has a ring of blue residue around her mouth from an early morning slushy. Another group orders Dunkin’ Donuts to the courthouse line. Some fans are shy, some are territorial, some can’t enter the court because they are dressed like pirates, some have Italian accents, and others rasp from cigarettes. Many are domestic violence victims themselves. All are #justiceforjohnny folks. When I asked a deputy how she is holding up, she replied unfazed: “This is one of the largest court houses in the country, nothing we can’t handle.” Each morning, upon entering the courtroom, the deputy wished the fans a good experience, as though they were boarding a ride at Disneyland.
One fan, Yvonne De Boer, who famously used all her vacation days to attend the trial, follows Depp around the world, sleeps every night outside the courthouse, and, in the courtroom, she cries when he cries. De Boer sounds like Elvis — she presses her tongue behind her teeth when talking about her man, tilts her head back when ceremoniously greeting Depp’s entourage by name, and they reciprocate. And when her king comes through that courthouse door, make room. The click of his door (stage right) became pavlovian for fans in the gallery and for the deputies trying to maintain decorum. Warrior hearts thumping, Depp fans shoot up, inhale sharply, fan and fawn tall over my shoulders, bending slightly to catch his glance, smiling warmly like sunflowers at Depp’s beam. He nods, touches his heart, salutes, winks, smiles.
During the bathroom breaks, Depp-intoxicated women shuffle in and out of stalls, leaning over sinks and up to mirrors to adjust their hair, breasts, and makeup. The unbalanced intimacy Depp achieves in the hearts of each of his stans unsettles me. There is no accountability for that power. It doesn’t belong to Johnny or to his fans: It is leaking, naked in the pale air.
Back in the courtroom, the fans gleefully examine the drawings of Johnny after he leaves the stand. One fan comes to sit next to me, then another, then another. A woman with cartoon lips and golf-ball cheekbones smiles and puffs out her chest, her face frozen from Botox, eyes muscling out warmth as best as they can when Depp turns to the gallery. Another woman wearing a wedding band leans out of the aisle in hopes of catching his eye. A young man tells me he is a “collector of life experiences,” but that he is also here because he likes what Depp “is doing for men.” I am nervous when I begin to draw Amber, expecting their wrath at my back when I scoot to the row behind her.
When Amber walks into the court, it is especially un-special. She has no charisma imbued to her from an adoring gallery. In this room, Amber is an island clinging to her shrunken territory. On the stand, she is ill at ease, panicked and pawing at her contested purity. Prolonged gazing at jury members ruined her chances. While the lawyers approach the bench, she sneaks glances: scanning each juror up and down, pointing her chin out longingly at the strangers hired to scrutinize her memories, then dropping her eyes and turning her head down, forlorn and frowning. I believe, somewhere along the line, she internalized society’s primitive demand for a “perfect victim,” and then attempted to regurgitate it under the pressures of an unprecedented, inescapable microscope. She exudes operatic over-compensation, theatrically blowing into her wounds, letting them float up along the courtroom ceiling, slowly deflating over the course of the trial. And why wouldn’t she overcompensate? His TikTok believers have encircled her like a diseased swarm of Hitchcock crows, tearing at her facts to reclaim the worn-out carcass of their relationship, savagely trying to deliver said carcass to Depp.
Depp catches the carcass, stands at its entrance, and walks into the bleeding mansion at his own pace. Under his breath, he cusses lessons about young actresses while walking by the photographs she took of him passed out, the ones she took of her bruises, the ones of his urgent and scrawling mirror paintings created using the bleeding tip of his famously chipped finger, the recorded testimony of his and her former colleagues, lovers, and friends, and, finally, the recordings they both made, initiated originally because fights were so belligerent that the next day seemed to be a mangled blackout. The recordings made for the fight-after-the-fight about what the initial fight was about typify the rabbit hole the jury was expected to crawl out of with a sound mind.
America is obsessed with honeymoons: We binge and swiftly stain our collective imaginations so that one intense moment disproves a thousand others. Even with a damaged hand, Johnny Depp cast a net so wide that he managed to depoliticize #MeToo, capturing victims’ hearts as well as the sentiments of the far right. Critical conversations about #MeToo are worth having, but must be led by committed advocates. We must listen reasonably to facts and, in doing so, soberly steer the machineries of virtue so as not to mush the foundational systems painstakingly put in place by courageous survivors and committed journalists.
In my private life, I am writing my own witness list. I am in an open case with seven others against the University of Michigan and one of its former lecturers. In most of the country, survivors of sexual misconduct are up against archaic state laws that house more protections for perpetrators than they do for victims. One of the main ways to achieve justice in this broken system is through public accountability via investigative reporting. The media has played a crucial role in elevating survivors’ stories, but typically only if they have the privilege of a high-profile abuser. Changing state laws would help those who are, for various reasons, unable to tell their story to mainstream media outlets. Deficient sexual misconduct legislation presents fundamental privacy issues for victims; by ending statutes of limitations for victims and banning governmental immunity, survivors would have a choice as to whether they decide to tell their story or not.
In my nightmares, I am on the stand being mocked by the entire internet. In my waking life, since the Depp v. Heard verdict, I have had someone laugh HARD in my face when I detailed my unimaginably hellish abuse story. Another person who “wasn’t fully following” (like many with fully-formed opinions), but saw the TikToks, shook his head and said, “Women get away with so much.”
In the course of this trial, Depp recast his ex-wife with ease from her former role as a victim and self-appointed victims’ advocate to a fraud with a personality disorder who beat on him. In true Depp fashion, he has performed a cultural magic trick: swiftly charming a brutal society by puncturing the internet’s gelatinous backbone.
I cannot wrap myself securely around the truth of this case. Every time I try to find a grip, I slide like an oily serpent. I can say how strange it was to watch the world cram into a camera lens while I watched that lens move from my seat. As an official observer, advocate, survivor, and citizen, I spiraled into a vertigo worsened by the adamant conjectures of fanatics and truthers. I left Courtroom 5J each day and then watched that day splinter out all over the Internet each night. I witnessed moments with my eyes that were then chopped, warped, chewed, re-examined, and spat all over the world, spinning into rabid conspiracies. In the room, it took effort to resist Depp’s charms, as similar charms have in the past led me to stray from myself. I am grateful that I did not have the jury’s task of unblending the genres of survivor and abuser which these two actors, lying in batter, sought to reclaim. As an empathetic observer, I suspended myself to function as a narrator of narrators: attempting to illustrate each character openly and honestly. As a result of this method, I am crawling out of this rabbit hole with a few bruises myself.