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How Do We Know When To Believe Abuse Claims? Understanding DARVO In Johnny Depp V. Amber Heard

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Johnny Depp, Amber Heard

In the wake of the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial, many people have argued over who is the actual victim and who is the perpetrator in both their relationship and the case.

And though the public should never have declared themselves judge and jury in the trial, the debates around the case have likely damaged the work of experts who have sought to educate us on how to respond to abuse allegations.

Depp's defenders have long advocated for the public to believe men coming forward with domestic abuse claims.

This is a noble effort and an important one.

But, when both partners in a relationship are accusing each other of abuse, who do you believe?

In a lengthy Twitter thread, Dr. Nicole Bedara, a sociologist who has studied sexual violence, shed some light on how we can figure out if men's claims of abuse are real, or when they are DARVO.

By definition, DARVO is an acronym for "deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender." Many researchers have categorized it as a common manipulation strategy of psychological abusers.

"First, a quick primer on DARVO for anyone unfamiliar with the term. DARVO is a concept developed by Dr. Jennifer Freyd to describe how (very real) perpetrators react when confronted with allegations of their violence," Bedara explains.

When instances of abuse are false and fall under DARVO, it means they will "deny that they committed violence, then attack the victim's credibility."

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Finally, they claim they are the "true victims," and according to Bedara, they use one of the following rationales: "This was a vengeful attack on my reputation." "The other person drove me to violence with their crazy behavior." "The other person was violent toward me too."

For many, a DARVO response can be confusing, mostly because the perpetrator is trying to make it harder for people to figure out who the actual victim of abuse is.

Bedara listed a few examples of patterns that experts look for when trying to determine the victim in instances of violence. 

"Perpetrators mostly use violence to control their victims. Victims mostly use violence to defend themselves from an ongoing or impending attack," she explains.

"Perpetrators usually blame their partners for their violence. They minimize their own roles in conflict. Victims usually blame themselves and are quick to take accountability for their actions. They are less likely to deny acting violently."

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Bedara added that perpetrators also tend to "exaggerate their own injuries" while also downplaying the injuries they've inflicted on their partner. While victims often "minimize their injuries" and aren't open about their own sufferings.

"After a relationship has ended, perpetrators often try to gain access to their victim and continue to seek control over their lives. Victims are usually eager to maintain space from their former partner. They prioritize their own safety and autonomy," she continued.

Bedara also posed a question that leads to a single theme: "Is this person trying to control the other's life? Or are they simply trying to regain control of theirs?" 

Throughout the legal battle between Heard and Depp, both parties have recounted allegations of violence against the other. 

While speaking to NPR, Bedara challenges the mindset of the "perfect victim trope," saying tropes like that are "really common in cases like this, where perpetrators will claim that they are the true victims."

"We're seeing it on display really clearly in this case, where Johnny Depp is denying — not that he was violent, he actually is still admitting that there was violence coming from him in this relationship," Bedara says.

"But he's denying that Amber Heard's story of it is trustworthy, and instead saying that she drove him to violence."

In a series of texts Depp sent to his friend Paul Bettany in 2016, in which Depp discussed the idea of killing Heard, which he said on the stand was "abstract humor."

Depp also claimed that Heard was the one who always turned their fights physical.

"It's crucial that we can tell apart DARVO and men's experiences of victimization. Otherwise, we will often find ourselves on the wrong side and hurting the victims who need our help."

If you or anyone you know may be experiencing intimate partner violence, please do not hesitate to keep this list close to develop a safe exit strategy. There are tons of free resources for individuals experiencing intimate partner violence — you are not alone.

Understanding the nuances of all the resources can be overwhelming, however you can get started with the National Domestic Abuse Hotline any time of day by calling 1−800−799−7233.

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Nia Tipton is a writer living in Brooklyn. She covers pop culture, social justice issues, and trending topics. Follow her on Instagram.