Edward Scissorhands is an uncommon gentleman. The Mad Hatter is an interesting and colourful character. Jack Sparrow is a pirate fueled by wit and negotiation and opts for this instead of force. Johnny Depp is none of these characters in real life.

Depp, who is not Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands or any of the characters he pretends to be on screen — opted for force.

Which is why when news broke that actress Amber Heard filed for a restraining order and came forward with claims that she was violently abused by Depp it was hard for folks to believe.

People don’t want to believe it.

Edward ScissorhandsAs the story developed, Depp’s exes have reportedly come to his defense. His supporters have taken to the Internet to take his side and his friends have his back. In an effort to protect the accused, attention has quickly shifted from helping the victim to clearing the abuser.

This is why and how abusers often get away with crimes.

“When there’s somebody that we like — it is so very hard to want to accept that this is what they’ve done within a relationship,” explains Sheila Macdonald, clinical manager of the sexual assault domestic violence care centre at Women’s College Hospital and provincial coordinator for the Ontario Network of sexual assault/domestic violence treatment centres. “They put out a persona. That’s why people in positions of power can get away with so much. We don’t want to believe it.”

But Heard has come forward saying Depp has been violent many times. She claims to even have video evidence of one of the domestic violence incidents. Still, folks are doubting it.

Instead of focusing on the victim’s courage to make such a disclosure — people and the media are sniffing out ways to discredit her. There’s an effort being put out to protect him.

“Make it not about Johnny Depp and about someone else,” says Macdonald, who has been doing her work to fight against sexual assault and domestic violence for more than 25 years, “Depending on who we want to believe commits domestic violence — who does, who doesn’t — you get a different story.”

It’s understanding the story that makes all the difference. Macdonald thinks we need to strengthen the support for victims when they’re ready to come forward and make abusers accountable for their actions.

But what does a victim look like?

As a society, we rely on stereotypes and representation to help us understand people and behaviours. We want so badly to profile people and simplify complexities in order for us to wrap our minds around social situations.

Spoiler alert: a victim can look like anyone.

Amber Heard

“There’s a misperception on who victims are,” says Macdonald, “There are women who, in their work lives, have positions of authority or power — appear to be decision makers and autonomous people — but in the dynamic of personal relationships, can be under the control of the abuser.”

That’s how abusive relationships go — it’s about the power and control of someone else sexually, financially, emotionally, physically, socially or psychologically. They are about one person controlling another person — steering someone through fear and threats.

This happens in insolation. It’s impossible to gain full insight in people’s private affairs — and how they behave or respond behind closed walls is often different than how they appear in public. Victims are born from an unfortunate opportunity of isolation.

How do we make this situation better?

It’s about bettering our understanding of what healthy relationships are. Encouraging power balances and knowing what a good relationship looks like — especially when trying to avoid finding ourselves in domestic abusive situations.

Macdonald thinks it’s about encouraging women to get education, helping them assert independence and being self-reliant — these things can help avoid domestic abuse situations. Financial control is often a method abusers opt for.

“Women fleeing domestic violence have to do things like hoard away money,” explains Macdonald, who also acknowledges that female victims sometimes have the responsibility of children to consider.

Abusers may also take power by hiding documents, from health cards to passports, to make it difficult for victims to access support and resources. Without documentation, identities are compromised and mobility becomes a task.

It’s important to also keep in mind that safety in so many areas of this makes it a challenge in all of this.

“We need to create the social environment that encourages victims to come forward,” says Macdonald, who admires the extraordinary lengths victims take to keep children and themselves safe when in domestic abusive situations. “People need to know that they can come forward to get support and assistance — sooner than have to continue to stay in a relationship for all the reasons mentioned: fear, shame, self-blame — all of that.”

No one deserves to be in a domestic abusive situation.

There are places such as Women’s College Hospital that can help.

While the original mandate of Women’s College Hospital was sexual assault — it has been extended to include domestic violence. Women’s College Hospital aids in creating early intervention opportunities to assist victims.

The folks at Women’s College Hospital offer support; document incidents and injuries and help victims build their case. They offer access to legal aids and can link victims to a lawyer and provide other resources, from help lines to shelters.

But at the end of the day, Women’s College Hospital gives victims agency and when it comes to leaving a bad domestic situation — they understand that it’s the victim’s decision to make. They are there to help pay attention to and maintain a level of safety and build evidence for possible legal proceedings.

Women’s College Hospital is just one of the 35 hospital based programs across Ontario. Though effort to make changes is starting to happen, work still needs to be done. “Some things are changing — not enough,” says Macdonald, “Not fast enough.”

When it comes to the Depp and Heard drama, we need to believe Amber and not make this about Johnny Depp.

“Survivors of domestic violence truly are survivors,” says Macdonald.


Image credit: Tumblr/timburtoninfinity/amberhearddaily