Before Lorena Bobbitt’s story was treated as a great tragedy, it was treated as great comedy.
Bobbitt was 24, a relatively recent immigrant to the U.S., when, in the summer of 1993—finally breaking, she would later say, after years’ worth of escalating physical and mental abuse from her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt—she took a large knife from their kitchen, approached her sleeping spouse, and severed his penis. What happened next was profoundly predictable, even without the aid of some 25 years’ worth of retrospect: all the gleeful “A Night to Dismember” and “A Slice of Wife” headlines. All the jokes about the need for men to be wary of women lest they, too, be Bobbitted.
Soon, the Late Show with David Letterman was offering up a list of Top 10 Lorena Bobbitt Excuses. Robin Williams was including a Lorena bit in one of his stand-up shows—complete with a mocking Spanish accent (born in Ecuador, Lorena had moved from Venezuela to Virginia, where she had family, in the late 1980s). Rosie O’Donnell and Mike Myers appeared as Lorena and John, respectively, on Saturday Night Live, speaking with Al Franken’s character, Stuart Smalley, the perma-smiled self-help guru. After asking the faux Lorena why she’d been mad at John—“He forced me to have sex!,” she replied—Smalley asked her to speak to John’s penis and apologize for what she had done to it. SNL’s studio audience howled with laughter.
The jokes, and the evident delight the Americans of the time took in them, are among the many things to come up for censure in Lorena, the Amazon docuseries exploring the tangled fates of Lorena and her now–ex-husband. The four-hour-long retrospective, directed by Joshua Rofé and executive produced by Jordan Peele, reads, overall, as a catalog of condemnations: of the American media, of the American justice system, of entrenched racism, of systematized sexism, of a culture that continues to confuse people with punch lines. It is telling, in that regard, that Franken and Letterman make appearances, via archival footage, in the series. Matt Lauer, reporting on the case as it played out in the news, makes one, as well. So does Charlie Rose, through his now-canceled show, speaking with guests who explored the assumption that Lorena was simply unhinged. (One newspaper headline, clipped in the film, refers to her as a “hot-blooded Latina.”)
The #MeToo movement functions as a spectral character in Lorena; this is fitting for the film, which is not merely a reconsideration of the past, but also an indictment of the present. Lorena was an immigrant and a person of color and a young woman; the game was rigged against her from the beginning, the film suggests. In many ways, it still is.
Lorena is an entry in an ever-growing genre: the film that takes a major news story—typically a tabloid-friendly one—from the American 1990s, and reassesses it. Whether they’re feature-length or serialized, whether documentary in approach or lightly fictionalized, films of the category typically revolve around acts of empathetic revisionism, rewriting the records of people—Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, Marcia Clark, Tonya Harding, and in some ways O. J. Simpson—who were mocked or marginalized or otherwise misunderstood. There’s often a tone of soft triumphalism in these works, the reconsideration itself presented as its own evidence of progress. Here are the true heroes given their due, and the true villains exposed; here is justice, belatedly and incompletely but intentionally, restored. The rosy lens of hindsight.
One of the many striking elements of Lorena, though—despite the film’s unflinching examinations of the ways the American culture of the ’90s failed its star and subject—is that it offers no such assurances. The series is not at all convinced that the Americans of today are much better than we were back then. It communicates that, in part, through #MeToo’s filmy presence: the acknowledgment of how many of the power brokers telling Lorena’s story at the time were the same people who would later be revealed to have demeaned other women. Lorena emphasizes how squeamish many in the media were to talk about domestic violence as a widespread phenomenon, and how reluctant some of the same people were to acknowledge marital rape as actual rape—how willfully the scribes of the national story ignored the horrors at the heart of all the humor. Many women reporters, the documentary makes a point of emphasizing, wanted to write about the Bobbitt case in terms of domestic abuse; they were often rebuffed by male editors who saw the whole thing in decidedly simpler terms. A woman gone crazy. A knife—a slice—a joke. A Night to Dismember.
Lorena ends with a series of women discussing how little has changed, in their estimation and experience, between now and then—all the ways Lorena’s story, as singular as it was, remains tragically common. The final image the documentary shares is the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Its inclusion, in this film about the moral failures of the past, is another indictment.
“I heard a lady say one time that a woman’s body is her home. That her body is the most intimate contact that she has with her soul. To rape a woman is not only a violation of her body, it is also a ravishment of her soul. It is a direct attack on the emotional structure that holds a woman together.”
It was January of 1994, and Lorena Bobbitt’s defense attorney, Blair Howard, was offering his closing argument on behalf of his client. The summation would prove, as a matter of jurisprudence, successful: The jury in Bobbitt’s trial would find her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, acquitting her on the charge of malicious wounding. But the attorney’s carefully anthropological approach to his client’s defense was effective in another way: It neatly summarizes the cultural attitudes that were prevalent at the time.
The womanly body, as magic and mystery, as a puzzle to be solved and a thing to be explained, by someone other than herself—it was a sentiment fit for a moment that resulted from both the women’s movement and the backlash to it. And it’s one that remains, in many ways, within a current political environment that treats women’s bodily autonomy as a debate rather than a fact: a time of serialized challenges to Roe v. Wade; a time in which the comedian who joked that men are “the No. 1 threat to women” has been revealed to be a source of that harm; a time that finds The Handmaid’s Tale functioning as both a dystopian fiction and a real-world warning.
Lorena took the stand during her own (televised) trial, and Lorena includes portions of her testimony, unedited: harrowing accounts of marital rape, of psychological abuse, of threats and gaslighting and cruelty. She’d gotten pregnant, she testified, and was excited to become a mother, in part because she’d thought a child might encourage John to be gentler toward her; concerned about their finances, he had forced her, she said, to have an abortion. He drank, she said; that made it worse. She supported both of them on the income she earned from her job as a manicurist. This appears to have established a pattern: John, relying on women for financial support; John, raging at them, both despite and because of their assistance.
The filmmakers speak with Desiree (identified only by her first name, her face shadowed), who met John in Las Vegas and helped him rent an apartment near Niagara Falls in the years after the trial. Like Lorena, Desiree accuses John of raping her—“He told me that I was his Lorena now,” she says—and battering her. After one beating, the police arrived, and Bobbitt was arrested. John, who had been acquitted of sexually assaulting Lorena, was ultimately convicted of harassing Desiree not because the judge in the case had taken the woman at her word, but rather because a young neighbor who had stayed home sick from school the day of that beating had happened to see John dragging Desiree down the hall of their apartment complex.
That the John Wayne Bobbitt who was found guilty of that act of violence is the same John Wayne Bobbitt who went on Howard Stern’s show, joking about his “Frankenpenis”—that all the horror and all the humor are elements of the same story—is, of course, horrific in its own way. Within the film, the whiplash serves as its own form of censure. John’s side of things, in Lorena—the filmmakers interview him, as well—features no wonderingly poetic discussion of the complicated interplay between the manly body and the manly soul. It asks no questions about bodily autonomy at all, because the answer is so thoroughly implied: The male body, in American culture, is assumed to be the complete kind of body. Manliness can’t be a mystery, because manliness is—still—the ideal around which all else, as a matter of simple physics, revolves.
Lorena begins by recreating the events of that early morning in June of 1993, as law-enforcement officials frantically searched for the body part that Lorena had severed and then held until, on the road as she fled her apartment, she tossed it out the window of her car. The film quotes a police dispatcher who attempts to convey the urgency of the matter to the small army of people who are working to find the organ in time to have it surgically reattached: “Apparently the hospital needs it ASAP to try and salvage this man’s dignity.”
John’s dignity, as it would turn out, was recovered: His severed penis was found, and then rushed to a nearby 7-Eleven, where it was put on ice and then carried, in packaging typically reserved for hot dogs, to the hospital. Lorena interviews one of the surgeons who performed the reattachment, who emphasizes how thoroughly the seconds counted when it came to dignity-salvaging. “At that point,” Dr. James Sehn recalls, “the only option was to do what we call a perineal urethrostomy, which is to expose the mid-bulbous urethra to the perineum—so he could sit to pee like a woman for the rest of his life.” The doctor grins widely at the camera, seemingly amused by the absurdity of the notion. (That option was ultimately unnecessary: The reattachment was successful, and John, in addition to stressing that in media interviews, further emphasized the point by going on to star in pornographic films.)
Lorena emphasizes and ironizes those equations of penis and dignity. The film re-airs footage of an episode of The Jenny Jones Show featuring John’s brothers, Todd and Brett Biro. “What was your reaction when you found out what happened to your brother?” Jones asks.
“If I’d have seen her, I would have killed her,” Todd Biro replies.
At that, several members of the audience break into applause.
Todd Biro explains things more fully. “She did worse than kill him,” he says. “She took away the thing that means most to a man.”
That foundational disconnect—the woman’s body, assumed to be vague and mystical, a matter of contingency and of Cartesian magic; the man’s, so powerful and purposeful that losing his penis becomes worse than losing his life—permeates Lorena’s story. The man’s body, glorified; the woman’s, commodified; the man’s body, assumed to belong to himself in the most intimate and implicit of ways; the woman’s body, answerable to everyone. (“I don’t even buy this whole thing, that he was raping her and stuff,” Howard Stern said on his show, in the ’90s, when John came on as a guest. “You know, she’s not that great-looking.”) Lorena was marketed as a nuanced consideration of a single act of violence; it is in fact an exploration of the layers—of power, of privilege, of difference, of indifference—through which one person comes to assume that he is entitled to the body and the loyalty and the love of another. Lorena, when she first married John, a dashingly handsome marine, thought she was living a fairy tale; Lorena acknowledges how easily, for so many women, the dream that is sold to them becomes a nightmare.
Near the end of the series, the filmmakers sit with their main subject in her home in Virginia, which she shares with her partner, David, and their 13-year-old daughter. Lorena reads through a large pile of letters and greeting cards she has received over the years. They are from John, she says. She reads some of them out loud for the camera. “Dear Lorena,” goes one, “I miss you very much and if there was a choice to have any woman in the world, it will be you. I love my wife, I love your heart, and I love you very much. From, your cold, insensitive husband.” Another reads, “Lorena, do you remember when you told me that I didn’t know how to treat a woman? Well, you were right. I didn’t know how to treat or love you.” Another announces, “I just wanted to let you know that I thought about you today. And, like always, it made me smile.”
Lorena’s large table is completely covered with the scattered letters and cards. As she narrates the notes, old photos of her—one with a black eye, another with a broken lip—flash on-screen. Those are followed by images of more communications—texts, emails—John has sent her, she says, over the years: “Yes I was a bad husband” in 2009; “Goody morning sexy” in 2010; a picture of Joey, from Friends, captioned “HOW YOU DOIN?” appearing within a series of Facebook messages sent just after a Valentine’s Day. Lorena’s voice is both sad and resigned as she reads the words sent by the man who keeps pursuing, who keeps revising, who keeps insisting. One of the letters, scrawled in looping cursive, is signed, “Your Eternal Flame, John.”