Listen Closely: How the true crime industrial complex has broken our brains
On the Depp v. Heard trial, the politics of crying, the unique misogyny actresses face, and the weaponized fears of white women
The true crime industrial complex has broken our brains, convincing millions that they are experts in criminal behavior. True crime as entertainment has convinced us that we know what a victim looks like and how much they should or shouldn’t cry. But watching an episode of Law & Order SVU does not make you an expert in criminology. At best, it makes you good at quoting Ice-T’s witty banter. Having Criminal Minds on your DVR and a Murderino podcast t-shirt in your closet does not make you an authority on domestic violence. Surviving domestic violence also does not make us experts on all forms of abuse. The public vitriol that Amber Heard has received over her profession is a unique form of misogyny that actresses face when they testify in court cases. It is especially curious that the same criticism isn’t lodged at Johnny Depp for being an actor.
I can’t escape the deeply misogynistic commentary. Even when I’m just trying to find a YouTube video with the chords for Stairway to Heaven, I’m inundated with hateful discourse over a case that I don’t want to know the details of. The cesspool of public discourse around the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial has been extremely upsetting, and has reminded me of my own experience last year when lawyers (all women) asserted I was overreacting when I testified against my trafficker/rapist/dad because I am a former child actor.
I’m not allowed to say much about the actual hearing because I could be held in contempt of court and arrested for talking about the day I testified against my trafficker/rapist/dad. Ironic that in order to speak on the record about what happened to me, I am now silenced on speaking about my testimony publicly.
I can, however, tell you about what three of the five lawyers said during recess while I hid from my trafficker/rapist/dad in an annexed room off the courtroom. The small space was like a staff breakroom with a coffee machine, table, some chairs, and a cluster of mismatched mugs –– the assortment you find at every office with sassy quips about not being a morning person, clever rhymes about being the best mom/dad, or cheap coffee-stained ceramic souvenirs from a colleague’s vacation to “Beautiful Colorado”. The judge had permitted the bailiff to let me stay in the room while my trafficker/rapist/dad testified. I could hear his booming voice through the wall as my body shivered. I grabbed a pen in my right fist, heavy pink coffee mug in my left. I switched off the light and crouched in the darkness beside the door. I knew that if the bailiff didn’t follow my trafficker/rapist/dad out, he might somehow know that the judge had hidden me in this room without a lock on the door. The security guards were by the metal detector outside the door. If he tried to kill me, as he had often threatened, it would be up to me to not die. My Taekwondo-trained muscle memory was useful as I widened my stance. Watching the clock. Listening for when he might be done yelling. I pictured how I would hit him with the mug then stab him with my pen if he found me on his way out of the courtroom. I accepted that I might die today, and that was ok.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard him stomp past. A few seconds later, three of the lawyers who had cross examined me walked out behind him, gossiping in the hall on their way to the restroom. “I know, what an actress,” one of them laughed. They were all women. I told myself that I shouldn’t care that women are misogynists too, but it still hurt. I felt so betrayed. I started crying again, trying not to make any noise. I didn’t want them to hear me. I didn’t want them to criticize me more for acting too emotional. If only I was that good at acting.
Like Amber Heard, my reaction to testifying against my abuser was criticized because I have worked as an actress. (I’m a former child actor). This was relevant to my case, although I can’t say how without risking arrest for being in contempt of court. I wanted to tell the lawyers in the women’s bathroom during court recess that I’m not actually good at acting. I’m a decent comedian when I’m not having a panic attack, but I can’t cry on command. In fact, the one time I was cast as a crying child in a Hallmark movie about a dad leaving his family and filing for divorce, I couldn’t cry even when my parents were being paid for me to cry on camera. I had to run to the craft services table and crush a handful of onions under my face. I ran back to my mark with tears in my eyes, delivered my line “Daddy please don’t go” and the director yelled “Cut!”.
Because my dad enjoyed it when we cried, drawing sick satisfaction from a teary climax, I trained myself to stop crying altogether when I was 5 years old. It was the only power I had. Refusing to cry for my dad was the only way I could be insolent and defy him without getting in more trouble. I later learned that it’s very unhealthy to not cry. I developed autoimmune disorders that flare up if I don’t cry on a regular basis.
Women are either told that we react too much or too little. We can’t win. When I meet men who don’t cry, I remind them that physiologically, crying is as natural as urinating or sweating. There has been much research on the benefits of tears, and the health dangers of tamping down our emotions until we dissociate and feel nothing but extreme eruptions of rage or depression. We are all imprisoned by societal stigmas policing when we should be allowed to cry, depending on the circumstances, our race and gender. If only there was a way to calculate how much our stigmas against expressing emotion and crying costs the economy in terms of healthcare, policing, car accidents, work productivity, and illness.
Several domestic violence survivors this month have told me that they know what a victim should look like. They tell me they know Amber Heard is lying because they have lived experience. What these –– mostly women –– don’t understand is that there is no such thing as a perfect victim. Not them, not you, not me. Not Amber Heard, not Johnny Depp, not Christine Blasey Ford, not Marylin Monroe, not Anita Hill, not Rose McGowan, not Terry Crews. I could go on and list everyone who has ever been sexually assaulted or abused, but it would be a very long list of people who in some way have not experienced abuse in precisely the same way. Sexual assault and domestic violence victims are not a monolith –– We are all different, with different experiences, different perpetrators, and different lenses through which we see abuse. That is all the more reason for us to be supportive of one another. If you don’t believe Amber Heard, or you don’t believe Johnny Depp, that’s not even the point. Because you are not the judge, jury, lawyers, or Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s spouse. It is not our job to conject the verdict. It is, however, our job to prevent us from sliding into 1990s era nostalgic misogyny. It is our job to prevent the erosion of the #MeToo Movement, as has happened in Sweden.
However counterintuitive it may seem, I understand why women and domestic violence survivors might criticize Amber Heard. They are wrong for doing so, but I understand their fear. Fear that they, themselves won’t be believed because they behaved differently than Amber Heard. Fear that they could be seen as stupid as abuse survivors are often called for not “just leaving”. And so they take an offensive approach to protect their cognitive dissonance and call Amber Heard a liar. They do this without considering how their own children, nieces, nephews, and friends might interpret this. For a parent who criticizes Amber Heard, it won’t influence the way the case goes. But it will likely prevent their child from coming to them to tell them they were abused. It will likely keep their child from feeling safe when they need to ask for help because a teacher makes them feel uncomfortable. That child won’t trust you because they have seen you call Amber Heard a liar, and they don’t want you to call them a liar.
As an elder millennial, I grew up surrounded by the OJ Simpson trial and Clinton impeachment. When I did an internship at the state legislature, my classmates teased me, calling me a prostitute, whore, hoooker, etc. Middle schoolers didn’t understand that the word “intern” does not mean you have sex with politicians. I wonder sometimes about the impact that 1990s era misogyny had on millennials who are now in positions of power, and in their 30s or 40s. Did the Clinton impeachment make us confused about consent? Did it make us ashamed of promiscuity and hide relationships that would have been healthier if they had not been in secret?
My greatest fear is the damage that the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial has already done to the #MeToo movement. Many of the critics of Amber Heard are also women who have also survived abuse of their own. Most, if not all of Amber Heard’s critics are true crime fans. Many women admit to enjoying true crime as entertainment because it helps them prepare for any number of violent scenarios. It allows them to stand far enough away from the graphic list of details that they can lie to themselves and believe that they’d be smarter, stronger, faster than the victims. That’s what is going on when women berate Amber Heard and obsess over details of the evidence that should not be sold for our entertainment. The details of domestic violence and sexual assault testimony for any kind of trial –– whether civil, criminal, or family court –– should not be televised and sold for our entertainment. It feels like a gladiator bloodsport continuing on as the Colosseum crashes down around us. The Colosseum in this case is our distraction from the dissolution of Roe v. Wade, Texas governor Abbot continuing to welcome the NRA at an event in the state where children were just murdered, and any number of other issues that could benefit from a modicum of the attention paid to how Amber Heard cries.
I understand why women throw misogyny at Amber Heard. They are afraid. But throughout human history, when has fear ever created anything good?
The vitriolic criticism of Amber Heard reiterates the #MeToo movement’s mistake in not welcoming more child sex abuse (CSA) survivors as leaders. True crime fans naively believe that if they study these crimes enough, they will escape the outcome of victims who they perceive to be less prepared and less smart. But those of us who survived unspeakable torture as children don’t feign to believe we had a choice in being born into abuse. CSA survivors either blame ourselves, or accept that we never had a choice to begin with. For example, I never listened to true crime podcasts as a toddler that might have instructed me on how to escape my parents. Ridiculous, right? It’s equally ridiculous to believe that if you were Amber Heard, you would behave differently on the stand. It’s impossible to know because every victim is different, and every victim is human. In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect victim, but we can all aspire to be better people.
In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect victim, but we can all aspire to be better people.