When I was a child, my father built me a doll’s house. He was a magician it seemed to me, and it was a sign of his sorcery that he had produced such a magnificent thing in secret.
This residence was pure Hollywood. Only a film star could live in such sumptuous luxury: a top floor sitting room that ran the entire length of the house; a wooden deck for sunbathing on the side; a basement garage for the Porsche. The lid lifted up, and the front wall opened out, so that the whole house was visible: its secret promise fully exposed.
The house has, in adulthood, become a metaphor to me for the hidden lives we all lead; our rows of neat dwellings with their discreetly closed windows and doors. But if they lifted up and opened wide, what would we see inside? The court case involving Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, in which Depp tried to sue the Sun newspaper for calling him a wife beater, shattered the windows of their home, blew open the locks of their doors. Depp lost but whatever the truth of the accusation one thing was certain: misery hung from their opulent curtains.
It is, of course, no surprise to learn that wealth and privilege offer no immunity to emotional pain, that the relationship between Depp and Heard was as toxic as any struggling couple on a run-down estate. But certain things that should be examined before we close up the walls and roof of the Depp household again, and leave the former inhabitants of the house to rebuild their lives. Our attitude to domestic abuse – which has soared during lockdown – is first on that list.
Nobody can know the full truth of an intimate relationship between two people. But there were assumptions made in this case that say something about the rest of us as much as Depp and Heard. Depp over the years has been the quirky maverick, the beloved Jack Sparrow of Pirate of the Caribbean. For some, the public persona was everything there was to know.
Whatever dispute there was over the jealous rages Heard claimed Depp succumbed to, the coercive control he subjected her to, the insults he threw about her being a slut and a “fame hungry, attention-seeking whore”, certain things were fact, not opinion. Depp’s text to his friend, Paul Bettany, for example. “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!!” he admitted writing, before describing, in crude terms, how he would sexually violate Heard’s body afterwards to ensure she was dead.
These are not the words of a man who has no abusive instincts. Yet, despite the reluctance to believe such things of Jack Sparrow, there was no such hesitation over Heard who was depicted as a manipulative, scheming, gold digger. Maybe she was. She STILL wouldn’t deserve violence. But despite not knowing, we often have an almost subliminal assumption that women “deserve” anything they get. If a nice man like Johnny gets angry, well, she must be the slut he describes. Top QC Helena Kennedy, who met Heard at a dinner party that Heard’s lawyer brought her to during the trial, put her finger on it, “Battered women have to seem meek and subservient to have our sympathy.”
Well Heard wasn’t, by all accounts. Why should she be? She was a 22-year-old aspiring actress when they met. Depp was 45. Depp’s exes expressed surprise about the accusations but every relationship has its own unique chemical cocktail. The key ingredients here? Perhaps the age gap. Heard’s youth, beauty and ambition. But most potent of all, Depp’s lifestyle: his self-confessed alcohol consumption and drug taking. Along with domestic abuse, we need to examine our reverence for “glamorous” hellraisers. In court, Depp claimed Heard was “delusional” in thinking drugs and alcohol turned him into a monster. The delusion is in thinking they don’t.
Few people are just one thing. Depp donated a million pounds to Great Ormond Street after his daughter was treated there. Sad the magic that he has lost as a father and as an actor. Not because he lost the case – Depp is appealing the decision and ‘truth’ is not finalised – but because of what emerged during the trial.
I loved my father’s wonderful doll’s house but I realised something was missing. Gradually, I added furniture. I borrowed one of my brothers’ cars for the garage. But there were no people in it. And without people, it was just an empty house.