#25 A cautionary trial
My mother and Amber Heard
Hello my friend,
How are you?
The thing I’m thinking this week is that we’re all moving through the world in the molasses of our own heartache. It slows us down, pours us into bowls of recollection and sadness. Sticky and sweet. A bit emo, I know, but a thought I’m having, nonetheless.
Anyway, I think it’s nice to remember in a real way, not in a theoretical way, that everyone is dealing with their own shit. I have learned this week that complimenting people on their coat or their witticisms or their good work (out loud, not in your head) is a small nice thing you can do. There are countless others.
This week’s edition of the newsletter is written by none other than my mum. It comes with a content warning, because it’s about male violence. It’s a brave and sad piece of writing about the uncanny lines my mother has drawn between Amber Heard and her own mother.
Writer Roxanne Gay says we needn’t cannibalise ourselves to be good writers, you don’t need to talk about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you if you don’t want to. This isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to my mum, it’s the shading inside the hard lines of things much more awful. But you can see how the home my mum grew up in has coloured her view of the world. So that the testimony of a Hollywood actress sounds like a childhood memory.
A lot of people are saying something along the lines of, “why is everyone making such a big deal over Johnny Depp and Amber Heard?” and to them I would say, but it’s such a pristine example of how we love to love men despite the facts. Especially powerful, good looking men whose high art we grew up imbibing. And more than that, we exist in a society that cheerfully dehumanises women for sport. Amber Heard is not a victim survivor, she is a lying psychopath. Just ask TikTok.
And no matter your opinion on the case, there are these facts:
On average one woman is killed by her male partner every week in Australia
Almost 10 women a day are hospitalised for assault injuries perpetrated by a spouse or domestic partner in Australia
Johnny Depp wrote a text message in reference to Amber Heard that said, “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!!” followed by “I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”
Sometimes ya gotta stare into the inky shadows.
Like many people around the world, I've been transfixed by the Johnny Depp Vs Amber Heard defamation trial. It’s the kind of thing you can’t look away from, like a car crash. Of course, the fact these two are Hollywood actors is never far from mind; how much of what they are saying is rehearsed, edited, embellished? Who knows?
What I didn't expect though, was to recognise my mother in Amber Heard.
Two women could not be more different. My mother! A child of the depression, from a family of good, god-fearing country folk. Born the same year as the Queen of England. My mother, who’d never touched a drop of alcohol in her life, except once, by accident during a high Anglican communion. A good Methodist through and through, no carousing, dancing or bad behaviour.
What could this gentle, shy woman with a penchant for Tim Tams have in common with a glamorous, drug partaking Texan actress the same age as my own daughters?
Why do I keep seeing and hearing my mother in Amber Heard’s testimony?
If my mother was the furthest thing from Amber Heard, my father was miles apart from Johnny Depp in almost every way possible. A quiet headmaster whose worst swear word was “bally”, that old fashioned English euphemism for bloody. I remember saying “shut up” once when I was fourteen and the whole house went silent.
But, in my mother’s eyes my father had it all; charisma, good looks, intelligence and everything she could possibly want in a husband. A non-drinker, a Christian, a smart, elegant man who could play the piano. He had come along when she thought for sure she would be on the shelf forever. She’d turned down marriage proposals waiting for 'the one', and by the time she fell in love with him she was in her early 30s, positively ancient by 1950s standards.
When Amber Heard was asked if she could remember the first time Johnny Depp was violent toward her, she answered without hesitation and with the clarity that comes with a life changing event. My mother too, recounted her first experience of violence at the hands of my father, in the same clear and distinct voice.
Only she was not in the Bahamas or on a private plane when she realised that her life with her beloved was never going to be what she had dreamed. She was in the hallway of the house she and my father built in a small Victorian town called Hamilton. She was pregnant with my oldest brother, her first child, and my father had come home for lunch.
While serving him a hot lunch, my mother had proudly shown him how she’d managed to remove some stubborn marks from their new paintwork with sugar soap. Out of nowhere and for no reason she could think of, from a standing start, he started bellowing at her. Screaming. Like a man possessed; spittle flying, eyes blazing, face red with heat. This woman, carrying new life and full of love for the man she had recently married, joyfully removing paint stains from her new home, just froze. This did not make sense. She had never experienced anything like it, she had no frame of reference.
My father, apparently now finished with the tirade, left her shaking in the hallway to finish his lunch in peace or go back to work, I cannot remember which. My mother folded in on herself, felt burning shame and humiliation and wondered what she had done to provoke him.
This quiet headmaster was someone else entirely.
She said she took days to recover from that first time. But I don't think she ever really did. My father on the other hand understood quite quickly, I think, that he had found someone who would bow silently to him. She would not throw a vase at him or call out for help; she would just swallow the shame.
Over the years my father’s screaming episodes would become a part of normal life in our home and we learned to live in a state of nervous, silent tension.
I recall quietly loving Saturday mornings as a child, the shops would be buzzing with families loading up their station wagons before everything closed at midday for the weekend. Mum, Dad and I would often go on this expedition together and come home and make lunch. In summer we’d sit outside, happily eating our soft white sandwiches and talking. Until something would happen, something small and simple. My brothers would hit their cricket ball too hard and knock over a pot plant. The kids next door would be screaming over their game of hide and seek. My mother would mention my Aunt and Uncle were coming for lunch after church next week. And everything would stop. My father would rise from his seat and begin shouting, pacing, gnashing his teeth.
I soon learned not to let myself feel too happy, or too relaxed.
My mother's story of abuse came out slowly, over many years.
I was her confidante and friend, helping her nurse Dad through a series of gruelling nervous breakdowns that went on throughout my childhood and teens and right up to the time of his death when I was 32.
It was not until I was in my twenties that my mother told me and my siblings that my father was physically abusing her and had been right through their marriage. She finally told us because she feared he would kill her, and she knew she was in real danger. Things had become so bad that he had strangled her, causing her to lose her voice for days, her larynx and throat taking weeks to heal.
When this happened, she finally threatened to call the police if he ever touched her again. This, she told me later, was his greatest fear. She also broke the veil of silence by telling us. She had never told anyone, not even her sister, because she was sure no one would believe her.
Who would believe that the calm, intelligent headmaster was abusive?
Besides, we’d lived under the same roof and never witnessed one single hit.
Of course, I knew my mother was telling the truth. It did not surprise me that she would have taken beatings in silence, in order to spare us the pain of knowing what was really going on. I also knew it was the truth as I had witnessed her getting dressed many times since I was a little girl. She dressed in a very old fashioned and modest way, the result of many years dressing in front of others in a shared dorm in nurse’s accommodation. I remember always seeing bruises on her upper arms and on her chest. I'd seen them so often and from such a young age that they just seemed normal, a part of her.
When I learned of my father’s abuse, the memory of these bruises came back to me like snippets from a dream. Like pieces of a puzzle falling into place in my adult consciousness. I can see my small self, sitting on my parents’ bed, my father long gone to work, chatting away to Mum. Blissfully unaware of how much pain she must have been feeling and hiding from me, in an effort to protect my innocence.
Whenever we talked about why she did not leave him, there were always the same answers. There was nowhere else she could go. She had no money. She was sure no one would believe her. She did not want people to know.
She also told me that when he pushed her beyond what she felt she could bear, she had fought back, had hit him back. But this only made her feel worse, more entrenched and more ashamed.
She hated the fact that her externally perfect marriage was in fact a violent, frightening hell. She hated herself for being a woman who hit her husband.
Who had she become?
As I watched Amber Heard recount the horror and the humiliation of the physical, sexual and verbal abuse she has suffered, I saw her truth. I also saw a beautiful white-haired lady, her blue eyes filled with tears.
Both women trying to tell the world, in their own ways, what fate had befallen them. A fate that is often private, with few if any, eyewitnesses.
I am in awe of the courage of Amber Heard, facing the baying internet crowds, the courts and the lawyers in an attempt to tell the truth about male violence.
I think my mother would feel the same way.