Hypnotized by the endless feedback loops of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s fights, I’ve found myself recalling a novel I read as an impressionable teenager, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.
Like The Great Gatsby, a critique of America’s promises, Theodore Dreiser’s novel was published in 1925. The stock market bubble had created a veritable battalion of the nouveau riche, at the same time swelling the ranks of workers who fed the machine of affluence. Violent union-busting cemented disparities between the haves and the have nots.
The writers had little else in common, Dreiser a thudding Communist ex-newspaperman with an ax to grind, Fitzgerald an Ivy League drunk whose sentences arced like quicksilver. Yet both took class as their subject.
Why are we all missing this part of the story? Both actors are strivers from damaged, marginal backgrounds, that great white underclass of dog fights and addiction, spare the rod and beat the shit out of your wife and kids. Through intelligence, grit, and otherworldly beauty, Amber and Johnny climbed to what the majority of Americans consider the only real success, Hollywood stardom. And then, like all tragic heroes, they fell from great height, in this case, at least figuratively, the Eastern Columbia penthouses.
This is not mere literary conceit. It is historical. The Ballad of Amber and Johnny played out against a time reminiscent of the 1920s: the stock market ricocheting into minus territory, looming recession, plague, the American Dream’s latest iteration threatening to skid into irreality. If Depp is a Horatio Alger story gone dark, Amber Heard is no less so, a Grace Kelly lookalike whose perfect profile belied her hardscrabble Texas roots.
So I am saying this. We are not talking about gender entirely.
After all the talk of the 1 percent, the .02 percent, we remain distracted by sex and celebrity and blind to class. Amber Heard and Johnny Depp are highly paid film actors cosseted by hangers on, cloaked by stylists and yes men. Yet in some deep sense, they are poor white strivers of unusual intelligence and good looks who failed to outrun their pasts.
Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel is a melancholic counter narrative of the Horatio Alger story. The main character, Clyde Griffiths, a handsome young man painfully aware of his family’s poverty and eccentricity is driven to murder and, ultimately, self-destruction by inchoate ambition. Even as a young boy, Clyde is different:
“A tall and as yet slight figure, surmounted by an interesting head and face— white skin, dark hair—he seemed more keenly observant and decidedly more sensitive than most of the others—appeared indeed to resent and even to suffer from the position in which he found himself…”
Later, Dreiser describes him much the way one could characterize Depp, with the actor’s adolescent invocations of rock and roll liebestod. Like Depp, Clyde is marked by “…a certain emotionalism and exotic sense of romance.”
Sex, drugs, rock and roll? Clyde’s first foray into the elite world is working as a bellboy at a swank Kansas City hotel. There he discovers that he is unable to resist the lure of women and drink. Bellboys in the hotel: “were inclined to not only exaggerate the import of all that they saw, but to see in this sudden transition an opportunity to partake of it all,” writes Dreiser.
Not long afterwards, Dreiser encapsulates Clyde’s fatal flaw. Clyde lacks a moral center, but to Dreiser, this is the crux: “For to say the truth,” Dreiser writes, “ Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up.”
Depp’s carefully crafted yet genuine public persona, evident in interviews with Oprah, Ellen, and, with more intelligence revealed, on British talk shows, does not hide an essential toughness when it comes to art and business. You don’t get to be a major Hollywood star without that.
Yet something of the impressionable boy remains in Depp, a 58-year-old man called the diminutive “Johnny” still, apparently by everyone who knows him.
Depp’s childhood was harrowing, far more so than Dreiser’s fictional striver. Johnny Depp, as we all know now, was born in Kentucky. June 9, 1963, in Owensboro, to get the facts out of the way. (A Gemini, not that we believe in that, but it explains a lot, doesn’t it?) He has reported that his parents were always fighting. Like the isolation Dreiser describes as part of Clyde Griffiths’ oddball street preacher upbringing, Depp’s family “had hardly any contact with the outside world.”
They weren’t poor. Not exactly. Depp’s father, a civil engineer, came from a well-established family in the mid-sized city of Owensburg. But his mother, Betty Sue, came from Appalachian poverty. She beat and verbally abused her children, and would order his father, a shy, quiet guy, to beat the kids with a belt.
She also, according to Depp, was violent with his father, who would retreat until he couldn’t take it anymore. When Depp’s father divorced her, she fell into depression and attempted suicide.
In his testimony, Depp sounded as though he’d come to terms with his mother’s behavior, explaining that she’d grown up in a “holler” where beating children was routine, and that she herself had been beaten.
But with a parent like this, there are layers, all that history. How much of Betty Sue’s behavior was attributable to Appalachian culture, to class, isolation, poverty? How much was her individual psyche? These are the questions we all try to answer about our parents. After she got cancer in 2013, Depp visited his mother at the house he had rented for her in L.A., supported her financially, made sure she had private nurses, and at her funeral, called her “the meanest human being” he’d met in his life.
Heard’s background parallels Depp’s. Born in Texas on April 22, 1986, she grew up outside Austin. Her father, a contractor and sometime actor, was an alcoholic and drug abuser, violent toward her mother and to his daughters. In the 1980s, records show that he was arrested for running dogfights. It doesn’t get more white trash than that.
You had to be tough in her family, Heard told the court. Her father taught her to break horses, and you didn’t complain if the horse bucked. You stayed on.
You can hear what must be echoes of her father’s denial narrative in her incessantly played taped conversations with Depp. In one recording, Depp insisted that Heard had punched him with “a closed fist,” prompting her to fire back at him, “That’s the difference between me and you. You’re a fucking baby. You are such a baby. Grow the fuck up, Johnny.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t hit you across the face in a proper slap, but I was hitting you, it was not punching you,” Heard said. “I did not fucking deck you. I fucking was hitting you.”
Was Heard the violent one in the relationship? In one text message, Heard told her mom the “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor was a “madman” — but insisted he was not physically abusive with her. “It’s ok mom. He’s not being violent with me. He’s just even raging in general,” she wrote.
That sounds congruent with Depp’s prior behavior, as attested to by former girlfriends, including the pissed-off Ellen Barkin, who told the court that Depp had thrown something but not at a particular person.
In the courtroom, Heard contradicted the message she'd sent to her mother, testifying to violence by Depp stretching back to before their marriage. While Heard was captured on audio tape admitting to violence, nobody seems to have seen Depp strike Heard, so the question of physical abuse by Depp remained unresolved, at least legally.
But if the jury takes into account verbal and emotional abuse, every addict is an abuser and Depp, despite his charm when sober, was no exception. What’s more striking is the intimacy of violence present in Heard’s family lexicon, which was, if anything, more pronounced that Depp's history of abuse.
“My father was violent to my mother growing up,” Heard testified in the defamation case brought by Depp against the Murdoch-owned British newspaper The Sun in 2020. “They loved each other but he was very violent to her until the end … she passed away.”
Heard’s family history of addiction was equally suffocating. During the trial, Heard testified that Depp disappeared for most of their engagement party, heading upstairs where he was “sharing drugs with my dad.” Heard’s father, David, she said, at the time was addicted to “the same thing Johnny was,” presumably opioids, which Depp said he was addicted to until kicking in 2015. At one point, the soon-to-be father and son-in-law ran out of dope and “needed more, of course,” in Heard’s words. “My dad left with Johnny’s security to get more drugs.”
Heard testified that she did what children of alcoholics and addicts do. She pretended everything was fine. Put on a face, in her words. Broken thought she may have been, and as clumsily as she did it, Heard deserves credit for insisting that Depp get sober. What she never did was walk away. Or call the cops. Violence was normalized.
Children who survive horrific family situations can turn into soaring overachievers. What Depp and Heard had in common, other than childhood trauma, was not the popular psychology phrase resilience, but pure grit. Heard testified that she had won scholarships to Catholic schools and worked to maintain an A average, she said, so she could stay in school. By 16, she was figuring out how to trade her work at a modeling school for head shots. Then, like Johnny Depp at around the same age, she got the hell out.
Beautiful, half-educated but smart, Heard was described by one body language expert as regurgitating textbook PTSD definitions in an attempt to underscore the effects of Depp’s alleged abuse. Too harsh, perhaps, and a remark that may have been a verdict on her acting ability rather than her brains. Heard indeed read books. Apparently she was a big Ayn Rand fan. Bootstrap stuff. To be fair, she’s also listed Orwell as an influence.
If the courtroom experts are to be believed, Heard’s testimony was too implausible to impress the jury. Dressed like a Catholic school girl led astray but returned to the fold, her testimony included accounts of “good” drugs like MDMA and ‘shrooms, but it was widely reported that she’d had a cocaine habit long before she met Depp. Steven Crowley, her co-star in 2008’s Never Back Down, talked about doing lines with her, and seeing a trashed hotel room after her partner Tasya van Rhee showed up and discovered that Amber had picked up a stripper. Hearsay, as the lawyers barked, but plausible. There was also the widely reported altercation between Heard and van Rhee in the Seattle airport. Youthful hijinks, no doubt.
Heard may be a dreadfully flawed messenger for women’s rights, but it’s hard not to feel a perverse admiration for how indefatigably she fights for her share of the spotlight. She allegedly made or ordered phone calls to TMZ alerting them to her arrival time at court to get her temporary restraining order against Depp once she knew he was going to divorce her. She published the oped just as Aquaman was about to open. She might have been willing to scorch the earth, yet there was an air of desperation, as if she knew she was doomed to fail, Gatsby-like. Only instead of landing at the bottom of a swimming pool, she retreated to Yucca Valley, California, a gentrifying desert backwater peopled by neo-Nazis, hipsters, the odd celebrity, and working-class southern Californians.
Jessica Winter laid out the bottom line in the New Yorker:
“I want to move on with my life,” she said. “I want to move on, I want to move on, I want Johnny to move on, too. I want him to leave me alone.” But the consequences of his legal action against her will never leave her alone. This is who she is now—the victim of an unprecedented Internet pile-on, a bruised face on an iPhone, a woman who makes people laugh when she cries.
Johnny Depp cannot be frozen in time in the same way. He has been a household name since Amber Heard was a toddler, and, though it can be difficult to remember now, he was once the most wondrously idiosyncratic brand of megastar: he worked with auteurs, made weird European art-house films, took chances, loaned his clout around, deployed his looks and his sexual magnetism to mess with gender norms. When he accepted a role in a film based on a theme-park ride and played it slant, it counted in Hollywood terms as a subversive act; it made him the biggest movie star in the world and one of the highest-paid, and within a few years he stopped being interesting. As the prow of a five-film Disney blockbuster franchise, he will never be cast out of the citadel of extreme fame and wealth.
What’s so striking is that none of this had to happen. There was no reason for Heard to write the oped that, quite clearly, referred to Depp. Her agent testified that Heard was having trouble getting work, and it’s easy to imagine this was her way of taking matters into her own hands. I am woman, hear me oped! Heard worked with the lawyer to craft language that would skirt legal action. This seems delusional, or at least naive. Or perhaps the need for attention, for control over her image and career, her concept of self-presentation, could not be denied. Perhaps the histrionic personality diagnosis was correct. Giving away $7 million from your divorce settlement if you’re a minor actress without great job prospects might indeed seem, to the rest of us, too grand a gesture. Or yet another fuck you to Johnny. Not exactly an ending.
Depp is the more powerful player here, as Winter points out. But choosing to endure the humiliation inflicted during the trial - remember, it was Depp who sued - seems, paradoxically, brazen entitlement and more masochism. At the least, it was a high price to pay for an uncertain outcome.
Winter describes the trial as offering a window into Depp’s “bleak fortress.” But it did more than that. It showed the poignancy of the striver, the autodidact, the woman who tried to be Howard Roark, and the lost boy who enshrined Hunter Thompson but never ascended, intellectually, to the realm of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the novel Louisville prep-school educated Thompson retyped - every single word - to lull himself with the master’s transparent prose.
The syntax used by Amber and Johnny on the stand could be heartrending on its own. Both tended to speak in ornate, overly formal diction. They used malapropisms, Depp more so than Heard.
Strivers. Autodidacts. Favored by nature and their own effort, yet the past cut deep; deeper, even, than Johnny Depp’s unutterably sad self-harm.
My female friends talked about The Viper Club. Was Amber too young to know those stories? Who did she think she was marrying? Depp’s indulgences were famous; his warmth and loyalty less so. But good qualities don’t count in the end. Addiction, as they say, a progressive disease.
Certainly, the Viper Club was a familiar precinct for Amber. Heard’s parents had apparently fallen to the twin plagues of the American heartland: meth and opioids. At one point, Heard and Depp had his and her nurses, for reasons that in Heard’s case, remain obscure; Depp was trying to kick Roxycodone. According to notes taken by her nurse: “[Heard] reports [a] familial history of substance abuse. Both mother and father have abused and become dependent on stimulants (methamphetamine) opiates and alcohol.”
After her mother died, Heard wrote that her father had beaten her mother until her death yet they had remained in love. The question arises: Is Heard more broken than Depp? More violent? The inimitable Beverly Hills housewife Bethany Frankel said it out loud: “Only Amber Heard could make Johnny Depp look like Gandhi.”
While the jury has been instructed to hew to the defamation question, rather than focusing on the more fundamental question of who did what to to whom, Depp certainly seemed adamant that the last thing he would do was commit violence, do what his mother had done. So he took it out on himself. Cutting, opioids, a clinical diagnosis of self-destructive behavior. A man with hundreds of millions of dollars. Think of it.
Sure, Amber could ride that horse, but Depp operated on a scale beyond the cowboying she’d known. The knife she gave him was inscribed hasta la muerte - until death - but as it turned out, this was theatrics, too. Neither of them wanted to take it all the way.
What about the goddamned American Dream? The striving. The upward mobility. Se murio. Dead. The movie Scarface put paid to that one. How many times do we kill that dream but still dream it?
For decades, we have been trying to expunge that dream, drown it in reality. Writing about the critique embedded in Gatsby and An American Tragedy, literary critic Frederick J. Hoffman called the United States in the era following World War I, a country of "industrial giants" and "moral dwarfs.” He could have been talking about Elon Musk, who played a cameo in the courtroom drama.
The dream is upward mobility. Depp may have flown private to London to play guitar with Jeff Beck while the jury deliberated, but in the end, neither Amber nor Johnny could read or fuck or act or charm their way out of their social class. As the trial started to resemble a cross between Judge Judy and the Jerry Springer show, nobody seemed to understand why either of them would have chosen to humiliate themselves in public.
Depp gave one answer when asked what the allegations of domestic violence had taken from him: “Nothing less than everything.” Perhaps this was neither so elevated nor so profound as it sounds. While it makes sense that both Depp and Heard would crave vindication, for a professional celebrity, said a canny observer, "life is real, and they are real, only when they’re on stage, on camera.”
If you think about Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy, the tragedy wasn’t only his moral weakness, the craven willingness to murder his working-class lover when she threatened to derail his ambition. The tragedy began in his lack of a sense of self, as if he barely existed other than as a yearning for the status and accoutrements of the elite, a life of which he had only a vague, idealized notion. Gatsby, too, was done in by fleeting images of a James Gatz finer and more elevated than the young man who was produced by the accident of his birth. Both proved they would do anything to capture their evanescent, shining, and false reflection.
From Heard’s Washington Post oped to Depp’s apparently relentless legal maneuvers, the behavior makes little or no sense to the rest of us. There is only one explanation. For Amber and Johnny, there was more at stake than mere love.
But there was that, too.
Mikal Gilmore: They Were Shot in the Heart
Depp called me one day, out of the blue, some time after my memoir Shot in the Heart had been published. He told me what the book meant to him, and it was indeed the sort of reaction I’d most hoped the story might invoke: a recognition of the scars that so many of those who have grown up in violent and emotionally nightmarish families must endure, and too often can’t shake.
Depp told me about how, while filming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he’d had to shave his head to play the part of Hunter Thompson, and after shaving his head he discovered he had scars on his head. Seeing those scars brought back what had been done to him repeatedly as a child. I found his account harrowing.
He thanked me for writing the book and I thanked him for sharing with me his pain. He told me details that I won’t repeat here because they are not my details to repeat.
Depp’s testimony in the defamation suit against his former wife, Amber Heard, has been hard to listen to, in part due to something I’d come to realize when I was writing Shot in the Heart: We often decide who to love, and how to love them, as a result of family experiences—in fact, often as a result of how our parents modeled love for us.
It is only natural that when you meet a person and are attracted to the person, you feel you are responding to something ideal. It might be the person’s attractiveness, his or her sexuality. Or the kindness and patience the person shows to you, the voicing of experiences and hopes, dreams of family and partnership and of common values, of a shared union and life—and it all adds up, seemingly, to the recognition and reward of love. You love that person. She or he is, you believe, the sort of heart and mind and body and future that you had dreamed of, that you can live and age with.
Sometimes that’s what happens, and it certainly helps when the people who are falling in love have positive and healthy parental models of love to build on. But here is another truth, and it’s one most people don’t admit to themselves because they aren’t even aware of it: Sometimes we fall especially hard in love with someone because a voice inside is telling us: “This is the person I need to love because this is the person who can fuck me up the most—the person who will ravage and ruin and anger and devastate me in all the ways that I was born to be fucked up.” It might be that there is no way out of that. The formations of the past leave some with no other likelihood. Call it hardwiring.
The passion of such love is indeed a deep and real passion: It’s the passion of a death instinct inculcated perhaps in the first breaths you ever took.
Listening to some of Depp’s testimony, I thought back on what he had told me that day. It’s possible that maybe he could only pick somebody who would fuck him up the most. But there’s another element in that formula: In picking somebody who fucks you up the most, it doesn’t mean simply the person who will hurt you most but also the person who will bring out the worst in you—those traits that you will use, in turn, to fuck them up: the anger and cruelty and violence, your methods of belittling and damaging that person whom, at first, you’d thought was best for you and whom you were best for. Instead, M-A-D: mutual assured destruction; a doctrine that didn't derive from nothing.
Looking at the video of Depp kicking something in the kitchen, raging, slamming counter tops, slugging down wine so early in the day, it seemed quite possible that he had been as ruinous to Heard as he claimed Heard had been to him—that maybe both of these people recognized, “This is the person I need to love because this is the dark heart that will fuck me up the most.” But that sometimes means that you are also telling yourself: “This is a person I need to love because this is a person I can fuck up the most as well, because I wasn’t just born to be destroyed by hearts, but I was born to destroy other hearts as well.”
The trouble is, it’s often quite hard to know what our unconscious internal voices are telling us. They’re buried behind the veil of a past that we might believe we’ve escaped. We can’t hear that voice, and chances are we wouldn’t believe the voice of our self even if we could hear our self. Also, it might be years into a relationship before these workings kick in. There may even be children by then, and that's when and where the bad lineage of love modeling gets passed along. It can be—and too often is—an endless chain.
Sometimes people go in and out of the hell of such relationships not knowing that they had told themselves what would fuck up their own lives most, and what would most fuck up the life of the person they loved. Maybe they then just go on to repeat the disaster in another true love.
It’s astonishing to see this drama narrated and battled before the public day after day in Fairfax, Virginia. It’s also heartbreaking.
Johnny Get Angry ::: Joanie Sommers
It’s A Thin Line Between Love & Hate ::: The Pretenders
Devil Got My Woman ::: Skip James
No Way Out ::: The Chocolate Watch Band
Happens To The Heart ::: Leonard Cohen
Play With Fire ::: The Rolling Stones
Put A Curse On You ::: Melvin Van Peebles
The Devil Had A Hold Of Me ::: Gillian Welch
Run For Your Life ::: The Beatles