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The Hidden Faces of Domestic Violence

Beloved celebrity Johnny Depp has come under media scrutiny in the past few weeks following accusations of domestic violence. The Pirates of the Caribbean star allegedly struck his estranged wife Amber Heard with a cellphone, and photos of the incident have splattered tabloid covers, along with lurid details of the couple’s tumultuous relationship and Depp’s substance abuse. Friends of Heard say it is not the first time Depp has been physically violent, and it was Heard’s close friend who made the 911 call when she realized Heard was unwilling to do so.

However, in the court of public opinion, many people have ferociously defended Depp. Stars such as Benicio Del Toro have come forward on his behalf, stating that Depp is “very nice” and questioning Heard’s integrity.

This is an all too-common refrain, whether the man accused is a Hollywood celebrity or a next door neighbor. Statements like “He’s a nice guy” or “He always seemed calm to me,” or “I just can’t imagine him doing that,” often pop up whenever a man is accused of domestic violence.

And no wonder. It is hard for people to imagine their friendly coworker or their close friend being violent with their spouse. Yet statistics tell us that they are. 1 in 3 women have been victims of domestic violence, and every 9 seconds, a woman is beaten or hit in the United States alone.

We might wish to believe that the perpetrators of these crimes are the stereotypical Hollywood villain with the evil glint in his eye. But, in reality, domestic abusers look like the average Joe–they are often gracious, successful and attractive people, the kind of guy you would like to talk to at a party, the kind of guy you would smile at on the street.

That’s what makes abusers so scary. They can be charming and delightful…until you make them angry, or until they have too many drinks, or until things aren’t going their way.

The reality is we don’t know what happened between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. When it comes to domestic violence, we only see the aftermath. The bruises. The shame. The fear. So much is hidden and locked away, only to be seen by the victim herself when she cries alone at 3 a.m.

But there is one thing I do know: This is much bigger than just another Hollywood breakup. Because when we talk about what happened between Depp and Heard, women are listening. Girls are listening. They are listening to how quick people are to jump to Depp’s defense, to how easily they accuse Heard of lying and gold-digging. They are watching as the man is protected and heralded by his peers, and they are thinking, “Ah, so that’s what happens to women who speak up. That’s why there is no point in asking for help or in calling the cops. No one will believe me.”

Because, believe me, if you talk about Depp and Heard in a roomful of people, your audience will almost certainly include a woman who has been hit by a partner, or a woman who knows someone who is a victim, be it their mother or their best friend. So when we talk about these cases, we aren’t just talking about distant celebrities–we are talking about the women we know, the women we work with, the women in our church, the women on our street.

Until we change the way we talk about domestic violence and sexual violence, the crime will never go away. Because every time we shame and silence one victim, a handful more hear and retain that message. Even those that are not abused will still get the message–“I am not worthy,” “If I get abused, it’s my fault,” or “Nice girls don’t get treated that way.” As such, they will continue accepting and even seeking experiences and relationships that will validate those conclusions. They won’t date men that uplift them and honor them, because those men won’t even come into their field of vision.

Maya Angelou once said “When you know better, you do better,” and I think it can also be said that “When you know better, you love yourself better.” We can’t teach women to love themselves while simultaneously defending alleged abusers because they are “nice guys.” Ultimately, it is not our job to decide Depp’s criminal fate, although it is likely he will face no repercussions. But it is our job to make sure our communication on the matter (and on all matters of violence against women) is rooted in love and radical compassion. You just never know who might be listening, and you have no idea how powerful your words might be.

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