One night in 1993, in Manassas, Va., Lorena Bobbitt cut off the penis of her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, as he slept and left their home with it, later throwing the appendage from her car.
If you’ve reached a certain age, you will certainly remember the case. In 1993, daytime TV was soaring in the ratings, as lurid story after lurid story was thrashed out by braying hosts and their studio audience. And the Bobbitt case was the most lurid of them all. It was about, as one TV host said, “the one act that every man fears the most.” What unfolded, as Lorena and John Bobbitt became fodder for all manner of jokes and sick humour, amounted to a terrible distortion.
That’s the view taken in Lorena (streaming on Amazon Prime Video), a four-part documentary series that sets out to chronicle the events with the advantage of distance in time and emotion recollected in tranquility.
It’s a splendid series, highly recommended, and deeply revealing about how a woman’s story was perverted and then mocked, and it was done so recently. It is about our perception of domestic violence, sexual assault and marital rape.
Also, it’s part of a trend right now to re-examine key events of the 1990s and how they affected public perception of so many issues. It aligns with the two Ryan Murphy-created dramas, The People vs O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, as a rethink, in a new light, of how the public was manipulated. (It was 1994 when Simpson was accused of murdering Nicole Brown and it was 1997 when Versace was murdered by Andrew Cunanan.) As such, it is as much about narratives created by media as it is about the main players.
The series opens with a detailed account of what actually happened. Police and forensics officers recall the events of that night and the following days. The minutiae is fascinating. The police officers handling the case were reluctant to say the word “penis” on police radio. The officer who found the appendage would not actually handle it, saying he was “religious.” John Bobbitt is seen declaring, at the time, “She was playing around with me as I was sleeping,” and that he believed she acted because he’d told her the marriage was ending. We see John’s brother declaring he wanted to find and kill Lorena.
When Lorena is finally part of the story, she says that when she went to the police that night, “I told them John was raping me a lot.” There follows a segment on the matter of marital rape law in the United States at the time. It barely existed. Hounded by the media, Lorena hired a PR professional who set up her first interview and photo shoot with Vanity Fair. That set the template. As then-Vanity Fair writer Kim Masters recalls, Lorena was adamant she would not pose in a bathing suit, but was soon persuaded by the photographer, a woman. Lorena was naive and, well, her English wasn’t very good. As Masters (who has since won awards for her reporting on the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements) says, “She just wasn’t in a place to present her case to the world.”
That part of Lorena’s story – the fact that she was an immigrant and barely articulate in English – was buried at that time. Instead, she became known as a “hot-blooded Latina” and jealous of other women who admired her husband. She was branded, tagged and stereotyped as a Latin American she-devil. In fact, she was an immigrant from Ecuador, traumatized by her husband’s behaviour and further traumatized and bewildered by the media circus she created.
John Bobbitt was tried and acquitted of marital sexual assault. Perhaps the most telling sequence in the series is a set of interviews with two jurors on that trial, one a woman, the other a man. The man remembers focusing on Lorena’s clothing and her attire failing to convince him that she was a battered wife. The woman says, “We lost sight of what he was on trial for.” Even then, the female juror knew that the trial was a farce.
Then came the televised trial of Lorena for “malicious wounding” and what, even now, looks like outlandish media frenzy. She was found not guilty because of temporary insanity and ordered to spend time in a psychiatric hospital. She was crazy, was the gist. Meanwhile, John Bobbitt’s lawyer has got him work on a ranch in Colorado to get him away from media attention. Then one day, he walked away, having heard that a John Bobbitt lookalike competition was happening at a local Hooters, and he was determined to crash it.
The timing of the Lorena series is felicitous. The woman gets to tell her story, at last. That she was never believed in the 1990s is the point of it all. She had, after all, committed, “the one act that every man fears the most.”