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Coercive Control and the Depp/Heard case

Updated: Jun 24

What is coercive control?

Coercive control (sometimes called abusive power and control) is the means other than physical violence by which domestic abusers dominate their victims. An intimate relationship can be abusive in this way without physical and sexual abuse or even without every element of coercive control. Coercive control tactics create a situation in which victims are unable to leave their abusers for psychological, physical, and/or financial reasons. The tools used closely mirror those used by cult leaders in order to groom and keep followers.


The coercive control model provides additional detail and clarity to the power and control wheel (sometimes called the Duluth model) which preceded it. Most people with an interest in domestic violence have likely seen the wheel, before; some of us were even shown it in health class. You will notice that the wheel refers to the use of male privilege in abusive relationships. Although male-on-female domestic abuse is statistically most common (an estimated 85% of all domestic violence survivors are women), other types of privileges and oppressions can be wielded by abusers. (For example, a female or nonbinary abuser can leverage White privilege against a male or nonbinary victim of color.) Due to these complexities, we have chosen to use gender-neutral terms and pronouns in our discussion of how domestic abuse works.


So what are the tactics used in coercive control?


Sometimes the characteristics listed as coercive controlling behavior vary, slightly. Another source lists them as follows:

  1. Isolating you from your support system

  2. Monitoring your activity throughout the day

  3. Denying you freedom and autonomy

  4. Gaslighting

  5. Name-calling and putting you down

  6. Limiting your access to money

  7. Reinforcing traditional gender roles (or weaponizing privilege)

  8. Turning your kids against you

  9. Controlling aspects of your health and body

  10. Making jealous accusations

  11. Regulating your sexual relationship

  12. Threatening your children or pets

To these lists, I would add another behavior: post-separation abuse, which takes place after the victim has left their abuser. This form of abuse can include stalking and vexatious litigation (lawsuits used to drain the survivor of money, energy, and social support).


The coercive control model, in combination with the power and control wheel, is the best way to determine whether a relationship is unhealthy, with both partners engaging in damaging behaviors but neither controlling the other, or if it is abusive, with one partner dominating the other.


Sometimes, victims do hit back or verbally lash out at abusers. This is not mutual abuse, although it has sometimes been misleadingly called “reactive abuse.” Some victims even initiate arguments with their abusers when they can tell an explosion is coming; this gives them a small amount of control by allowing them to get it over with and bring on a peaceful phase of the relationship. By the time a victim begins to act this way, they may already have developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) from prolonged abuse. They act out of fear and desperation rather than an urge to dominate their partner.

How is this relevant to Johnny Depp and Amber Heard?


The coercive control model and power and control wheel explain why Johnny Depp and not Amber Heard was the abuser in their relationship. Please keep in mind the ways in which victims of domestic abuse may lash out against their abusers and how their motivations for doing so are distinct from those of abusers.


Isolating you from your support system


Although Amber was permitted to remain in direct contact with her family and some of her friends, Johnny went out of his way to earn loyalty and cultivate a positive perception of his behavior among them. This is a type of isolating behavior because the abuser’s goal is to position themself between their victim and sources of help. iO Tillett Wright, one of Amber’s friends and the person who finally called the police to the Depp residence, lived in one of Johnny’s properties for the better part of a year and felt deeply indebted to him. This is one of the reasons that even when he heard Amber scream and Johnny threaten to “peel [her] hair back”, iO hesitated to dial 911. Other members of Amber’s social circle were cut out, entirely, often on the grounds of sexual jealousy. Johnny and Amber’s sister, Whitney Hernandez, have both made statements to this effect. There is no evidence that Amber tried to isolate Johnny.


Gaslighting


Johnny frequently used a tactic known as DARVO (deny, attack, reverse victim and offender) to try and convince Amber she was the real problem in the relationship. Abusers rely on resistive violence and name-calling as a means to paint themselves as the victims and their actual victims as the abusers. This puts the victim on the defensive and undermines their perceptions of reality (gaslighting). This process of DARVO has continued in post-separation abuse; the Virginia trial jury as well as much of the public have fallen for it. It’s typical for juries to buy DARVO narratives, although judges (such as in the U.K. trial) are less likely to do so. Notably, this same tactic was used by Brian Laundrie against Gabby Petito and was extremely effective with police officers.


Denying you freedom and autonomy


Johnny, by his own admission, became jealous and did his best to control the roles Amber took during their relationship and what meetings she took. After separation, he expressed the wish to have her fired from Aquaman. Former girlfriend, Ellen Barkin, testified under oath that her own movements had been controlled by Johnny through interrogation about where she was going, who she would be with, and what she would be doing. This is consistent with his behavior toward Amber. Whitney also testified to Johnny’s control of Amber’s clothing choices.


There is no suggestion that Amber did the same. Although she did eventually express concerns about his leaving her for long periods of time, she says this is because he usually returned having abused drugs and alcohol, which was a safety risk for her. By all accounts, Johnny’s physically abusive episodes typically occurred when he was intoxicated, including an incident in which he kicked her in front of people on a plane.


Name-calling and putting you down


iO testified that Johnny called Amber, who wanted to be an actress more than anything, “talentless” and brought her to tears. Johnny was recorded on several occasions screaming and swearing at her. He frequently called her names and demeaned her in conversations with his friends. (Among other things, he referred to her as “the slippery whore that [he] donated [his] jizz to for a while.”) If he spoke about her in this way, he likely spoke to her in this way. Although Amber did begin to call Johnny names, this took some time to transpire, only occurring well into their abusive marriage.


Limiting your access to money


By limiting Amber’s range of role choices and which actors she was permitted to work with, Johnny kept her from building the kinds of assets and financial resources she might otherwise have had. By contrast, Amber did nothing to control or limit his finances. In fact, she was the one who reached out to a lawyer to obtain a post-nup, which would have protected Johnny’s assets in case of a divorce. This enraged him, perhaps because he felt it suggested the possibility of her leaving, and he called her lawyer to fire her without Amber’s input. Despite the lack of a pre- or post-nuptial agreement, Amber took only $7 million in the divorce settlement versus the $32.5 million to which she was entitled. As part of post-separation abuse, Johnny has hounded her with vexatious litigation designed to drain her financial resources and painted her as a gold-digger for choosing to donate her divorce settlement in installments rather than immediately and in full.


Weaponizing privilege


Amber is not known to have leveraged any privilege against Johnny. She is 22 years younger, is and was less established in the acting profession, and is a bisexual woman. Although privilege is not weaponized by all abusers (and some abusers are the less privileged party in their relationships), Johnny most definitely used his against Amber. He expressed resentment when she was assertive in the relationship, saying it was “inappropriate” because he was older than her. Furthermore, his verbal abuse included cruel gendered and homophobic jabs at Amber. According to iO, Johnny also accosted him in a transphobic manner. These seem to have been attempts to control Amber and one of her allies by demeaning their very identities.


Controlling aspects of your health and body


Throughout their marriage, Johnny made hurtful comments about Amber’s weight and sometimes used them to deflect criticisms of his behavior. In one recording, she tells him to “put [his] cigarettes out on someone else” and he responds by yelling: “shut up, fatass!” Per Whitney’s testimony, by the end of the marriage, Amber weighed “100 pounds, soaking wet.”


There is minimal evidence that Amber policed Johnny’s appearance and her only real attempts to control his health had to do with his substance abuse disorder. Amber seems to have believed that the drugs and alcohol were what made Johnny abusive, which is a common myth about domestic abuse. To this end, she followed Johnny’s doctor’s instructions when trying to see him through a detox, which Johnny resented.


Making jealous accusations


Johnny’s sexual jealousy is one of the most extensively documented of his abusive behaviors. Not only does he admit to being jealous of the men around Amber, but exes Jennifer Grey and Ellen Barkin have both described his jealous behavior. Although Amber was accused of jealous behavior by one witness in the Virginia trial, there is significantly more evidence to suggest that Johnny initiated the argument in Hicksville–including the fact that his own testimony in the U.K. contradicts that witness’s account. This fight (per Amber’s testimony and Rocky’s witness statement) began after Johnny became jealous over a woman who was too close to his wife.


Controlling your sexual relationship


Amber maintains that Johnny raped her multiple times, including a “cavity search” for drugs during the aforementioned fight and an assault with a glass bottle during a days-long fight in Australia. These allegations were kept under seal in the UK trial per Amber’s request; therefore, there is no reason to believe she made them to smear her ex-husband. They are not referenced in the public-facing version of the judgment, aside from the judge’s statements that he believed Amber’s confidential allegation about the events in Australia and could not accept the confidential allegation regarding Hicksville. (This does not mean that sexual assault did not happen, only that there wasn’t enough evidence for the judge to conclude that it did.) There is also no reason to believe that she took these stories from her ex-assistant, Kate James, as the details do not align and she would not have been able to read or hear Amber’s testimony before giving her own as a witness in Johnny’s appeal. Her own testimony on the matter is somewhat vague. Johnny has not alleged any sexually abusive behavior from Amber, nor has anyone else.


Threatening your children or pets


According to both Whitney and Amber’s testimony, Johnny held one of Amber’s dogs out of the window of a moving car while he was drunk. Although the reason is not noted, Amber also asked the judge to order Johnny to stay away from her dog at the time she requested a temporary restraining order.


Abusing you post-separation


There have now been two lawsuits lodged to keep Amber in court. Both were filed strategically in the hopes of helping Johnny and hurting her, socially and emotionally as well as financially. By keeping Amber in court, he prolongs the fallout for a woman who was blamed, shamed, and disbelieved by the press and public from the moment she requested a restraining order.


Libel (or false statements in print) has a lower burden of proof in the United Kingdom than in the United States, which is why Johnny filed his first lawsuit against The Sun rather than an American publication. In the U.S., should someone sue a tabloid for libel, it is their responsibility to prove that the publication knew the statement to be false at the time it was printed. In the U.K., on the other hand, The Sun had to prove that Johnny Depp was a “wife beater.” To do so, they brought Amber and a host of other witnesses to court to prove as many allegations of abuse as possible. In the end, a high court judge found 12 of 14 allegations to be “substantially true.” These findings were affirmed on appeal.


Unhappy with this verdict, Johnny then filed a defamation suit against Amber in Virginia, which has weak anti-SLAPP laws. (SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation.) The weak justification for filing in this jurisdiction is that Fairfax County is where The Washington Post’s computer servers are located. The op-ed never names Johnny but his attorneys argued that it was clearly meant to imply that he abused Amber and cause him harm. In fact, Amber consulted with the ACLU and her own lawyers to make sure she was not approaching liability.


Asking for the court to allow cameras in the Virginia trial is another component of Johnny’s continued abuse of Amber. Knowing the kind of backlash faced by survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse when we speak out, particularly against powerful men, his team still sought to expose her to public mockery and vitriol. One of Johnny’s attorneys, Adam Waldman, is known to have manipulated audio transcripts in a prejudicial way and was found to have defamed Amber while acting at Johnny’s behest. There is also evidence that hatred for Amber has been amplified by bots.

The only evidence that Amber may have engaged in post-separation abuse is the op-ed itself and a single post-verdict interview with a reporter who may be biased against her.


Conclusion


Taken in combination with physical abuse even Johnny Depp partially admits, it is obvious that he engaged in coercive control of Amber. There is no such demonstrable pattern from her toward him, just evidence that she engaged in some resistive violence and name-calling later in their marriage. Their relationship provides a clear example of the ways in which coercive control operates.


If you recognize these patterns and behaviors in your own relationship, please see our resources page for help.


Acknowledgments


We owe a debt of gratitude to Julie Owens, an expert witness on domestic violence and survivor, who wrote a comprehensive, 27-page analysis of the case. Without her analysis, the completion of this blog entry would not have been possible. You can read it, here, for more details about Depp’s treatment of Heard and insight into their personal backgrounds.


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