We Keep Telling the Same Story
On #MeToo and Amber Heard
I wrote this newsletter before I read the news of the shooting in Texas that took the life of 21 people, including 19 children. That’s another story that we keep telling over and over again with no results. More blood, no change.
I took a break from the newsletter last week after the mass shooting in Buffalo. Now there is another one in Texas. We keep telling the same stories. We keep hearing the same laments. It’s easy to feel like our voices mean nothing, but they actually mean everything. Milan Kundera wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Our voices create a record against forgetting. And forgetting is what America loves to do.
Just a few weeks ago, I was sleeping with a knife under my pillow. A person I had gone on two dates with was following me and texting me. I thought I’d seen him drive by my house.
I’d wake up to text messages sent at 2 and 3 in the morning. And then, when I didn’t respond, from another phone number all together.
I couldn’t decide if I was overreacting. I was sick with Influenza A and tired. I talked to friends, who asked me to text them in the mornings so they knew I was safe. I kept logs of the interactions. I spoke to the police. It was humiliating. I’m almost 40. I now have two open cases with local police, one for this and another for death threats.
Sometimes, I ask my therapist what is wrong with me. Surely, I’m doing something wrong. Surely, this is my fault. Once, she listened to me list the evidence against myself, and she sighed and said, “You are just a woman living in this world. That’s your biggest fault.”
I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I don’t want to hear how sorry you are. I don’t want to hear people pick apart the situation or, worse, justify the man’s actions. That’s often the knee-jerk response when I tell people what happened. “Oh, he must have [insert qualifying medical condition here].” Which always strikes me because I know a lot of people with a lot of medical conditions, and none of them text me from burner phones. But, more importantly, because that reply shows that in response to a story about my harassment, the gut-level impulse of the person I’m talking to is to understand the man. It makes me wonder why I even bother.
For centuries women have been opening our veins and bleeding in the hopes that the rest of society would see us as human beings. People with souls and hearts and lives worth protecting. It’s done little good.
In 2019, in an essay I wrote for Time, I observed, “Women have long been compelled to share their most private moments in order to convince others of their humanity. But in recent years, as we’ve peered into an uncertain future and need only pull out our phones to see highly personal warnings of the stakes, everything seems amplified. The waves of stories, put forth in tweets and speeches, testimony and essays, have felt incessant, each crashing down upon us with little chance to breathe before the next one.”
And still after hearing every story, trauma, missed opportunity, hospital visit, and pillow knife, the response is always, “But what about the men?”
This week, in an op-ed for the New York Times, Pamela Paul leapt to the defense of an actor fired from a show for alleged misbehavior. The premise of her piece was basically, “But won’t someone consider how the men feel?” As if that hasn’t been the response from the start. The response whispered and written about from the moment the #MeToo movement began.
Paul places the goals of a society in which people are allowed to discuss harassment and abuse in direct opposition to the safety of men. Noting, “True, women are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual harassment and misconduct. But nearly every woman has a father, brother, husband or son. Any one of the men in our lives could wind up on the wrong end of an accusation, perhaps for good reason but perhaps for no good reason at all.”
Putting aside the fact that often abuse is perpetrated by those same husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers. Putting the safety of women in opposition to the safety of men is a strawman argument. All the examples Paul brings up of the “falsely accused” have suffered little more than a barrage of angry tweets. (And at this point, who among us hasn’t suffered that?) In the meantime, what is at stake is a women’s right to live and work in safety.
Paul isn’t saying something new. She’s not even saying it particularly well. Her op-ed ignores the fact that many men who actually did do awful things have found their way back to redemption. Still have careers, still have lives, and still have people willing to whitewash their reputation through legacy media publications. And she’s saying it in the context of a country that is in the process of rolling back reproductive rights for women, where women have been forced out of the workforce during the pandemic, and where maternal mortality rates are staggeringly high, and in the context of a highly publicized smear campaign against a woman who is a victim of abuse.
In 2018, Amber Heard wrote in the Washington Post, “Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”
Johnny Depp, Heard’s ex-husband and alleged abuser, is suing Heard for defamation for writing those words. Depp already lost a defamation case in England after trying to sue The Sun for calling him a wifebeater. Heard was right. She is feeling the entirety of the culture’s wrath—social media is filled with nasty TikToks mocking her, tweets accusing her of lying and faking. Lance Bass made a now-deleted video making fun of Amber Heard, and SNL got in on the pile-on with a sketch that made Depp look like the hero and Heard like a whiner.
Paying attention to the social media posts and the social media posts only would make it easy to ignore the facts of the trial, which are that Depp sent a text calling Heard a “worthless hooker,” and in a text to another actor wrote, “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.” And yet, somehow, he is the hero.
As Jessica Winter points out in an excellent breakdown of the trial in The New Yorker, Depp will not suffer from this trial. He’s a movie star. He’s a wealthy man. He’ll be forgiven. He’s already being redeemed.
It’s the backlash to Heard that shows so clearly how much America hates a woman. How much America wants to redeem a man.
This is the paragraph where I am supposed to acknowledge that Heard isn’t a “perfect” victim. She has admitted to hitting Depp and there is testimony of her erratic behavior in the marriage. As if a woman has to be perfect to be a victim. As if any woman can ever be perfect enough to be seen as something other than complicit in her abuse.
This, of course, is backlash to a movement that sought to reckon with abuse of power in the workplace and in our lives. It was always coming. It happened before this. It will keep happening.
The fight then is to not become cynical and afraid. So this brings me back to the knife. To my pillow. To the dreams I keep having that this person will die and I will be blamed somehow. And how scared I am to even say anything, but how I’m going to do it anyway. And I’ll keep doing it. What other choice do I have?
But I’ve written this story before. And will keep writing this story.
Further Reading: Alex Pareene wrote about the broken system of American politics. Anne Helen Petersen wrote about how America is under minority rule. Ella Dawson put together this list of essays about the Depp/Heard trial.
In 2018, I had the honor to publish this essay by Tom McAllister in the Rumpus, “What to Do With My Body In The Event I Die In A Mass Shooting.”
After I’ve been executed for the crime of being in a public place, my final wish is for the people who enabled this crime, again and again and again, to have to face my anger and explain themselves. Lift my body off the ground and haul it from the site of my death straight to the Capitol. Parade me through the halls and bang on doors and demand that they look at what the bullets did to me. Tell them where my blood spilled, and make them stick their fingers into the wounds like Thomas into Jesus’s side. Don’t waste time trying to convince them that I was better or more worthy of dignity than any other person, because then you’re wasting your breath on a game you cannot win (all they want is win, there’s going to be so much winning). Don’t allow them to rank the victims in terms of their value and don’t allow them to engage in any conversation aside from this: Right here is a body that you killed, and I want to know what you’re going to do about it. They’ll arrest you and they’ll vilify you and they’ll threaten you with their guns. Keep going back, keep showing them my body.