If it is possible to feel outraged over a quarter of a century after an incident made news, then watching the TV film, I Was Lorena Bobbitt brings out a kind of baffled anger.
Those who reached adulthood in the Nineties, he would know the name, Lorena Bobbitt, who, was tabloid fodder for months after the ‘incident’ in June 1993.
Tired of repeated violence and sexual abuse by her husband John Wayne Bobbitt, Lorena picked up a kitchen knife and cut off his penis. Then she drove to the home of her employer, Janna Bisutti, pausing to throw the “appendage” as so many in the film refer to it, out of her car window, and chucking the knife in the trash.
The cops were more interested in hunting for the chopped body part so that it could be stitched back, and save the “man’s dignity.” The dignity of a battered, raped, traumatized young woman was not top priority. In a nine-and-a-half hour feat of microsurgery, the penis was reattached, and reportedly restored to full use.
The two trials that followed, John’s for marital sexual assault, and Lorena’s for malicious wounding became a media circus, and the lurid headlines, with execrable puns, turned a woman’s suffering into entertainment, as the real Lorena says in the film.
During her marriage Lorena was at a disadvantage—she was young, not fluent in English, and came from the conservative Catholic culture that taught her that all men are “bad-tempered” and it is a wife’s job to keep her husband happy. She worked as a nanny and manicurist to support the hard-drinking and abusive man, who resorted to beatings and rape at the smallest excuse—Lorena buying an artificial Christmas tree, requesting him to turn the TV down, protesting the constant presence of his buddies in their tiny home, or wanting to have a baby, that he forced her to abort.
Worse, the law was not much help; complain of domestic violence were treated as a private matter, and ignored. Lorena called the cops several times, but could not escape from the violent marriage. He told her that even if she got way, he would find her and rape her whenever he wanted to. He also threatened to get her deported. Obviously, the system would believe a white male American marine over a Latina immigrant. There were no helplines for women in distress, hardly any shelters for battered women and the Violence Against Women Act was a year away from becoming a law.
Lorena was helpless, until the night when she could take no more and picked up the knife. It was the nature of the crime that attracted so much media and public attention—TV hosts and stand-up comics found material to lampoon on their shows—the attack on John’s “manhood” became a national joke, and the hapless Lorena was portrayed as a “crazy” woman.
I Was Lorena Bobbitt, the dramatized version of the story, written by Barbara Nance and directed by Danishka Esterhazy for Lifetime, that premiered in May, came on the heels of the four-part Amazon series, Lorena, that was screened last year. The documentary series, co-produced and directed by Joshua Rofe, got not just the two protagonists of the story to speak on camera, but also the cops who worked the case, lawyers, jurors, witnesses, doctors, therapists, journalists—an exhaustive list of people who help reconstruct the background of the crime, the two trials and the aftermath.
Lorena Gallo (played in the film by Dani Montalvo) was an 18-year-old Venezuelan immigrant—a shy, tiny, large-eyed, bird-like girl– who met and fell in love with the handsome Marine, John Wayne Bobbitt (Luke Humphrey). But her hopes of romance and the American Dream soon crashed against the brutality of her husband.
Rofe said in an interview to USA Today, “If Lorena had slit his throat ear to ear we would never heard her name. She cut his penis off and guys couldn’t deal. Castration anxiety is a real thing that really set in.”
John Bobbitt got all the support he could from men, while opinion was divided over Lorena’s crime. Female victims of marital violence showed some solidarity, but many feminist groups shied away from the case, because they were afraid they would be portrayed at castrators of men by an already hostile media, in which all editors were male.
John Bobbitt was acquitted, because the jurors obviously came from a society that did not even think there was such a thing as marital rape; and then there were ridiculous arguments presented in court; previous instances of abuse were not admissible, and in the case under trial Lorena did not have any wounds, nobody heard her scream, and the panties that John allegedly ripped off were shown by a forensics expert to have been cut!
There was more media interest in Lorena’s trial, however, and while cameras were not permitted in court during John’s four-day case, they were allowed in Lorena’s trial that dragged on for twelve days, and the young woman had to face the humiliation of answering embarrassing questions, when she did not even have the vocabulary to describe what she had been subjected to. But when her lawyers came to her with a plea bargain that could have avoided the ugly trial, she refused. She wanted to tell her story, never mind the outcome. Had she been found guilty, she could have faced upto twenty years in prison.
Her lawyers proved that years of abuse had caused post traumatic stress disorder, and it was in a state of temporary insanity that she had mutilated her husband. He, of course, maintained his innocence and claimed Lorena did it because he wanted to divorce her and she did not want that.
In spite of the bizarre media coverage, and the ludicrous sight of T-shirts and merchandise (penis shaped candy!) being peddled outside the court, the Lorena Bobbitt case brought the issue of domestic violence out of the dark corners of homes, and into open discussion. Activists made sure that this time, women’s voices were not silenced. Today, the law and the media treat complaints of marital abuse seriously and Lorena Bobbitt deserves some gratitude.
What happened to the key protagonists after the noise and dust of the scandal subsided? John appeared on talk shows and acted in porn movies. Lorena refused offers to turn her story into film or TV, and declined a million dollars to pose for Playboy.
He was arrested several times and spent some time in jail for violence against two women. She went back to school to complete her education, is in a steady relationship with David Bellinger and has a daughter. She continues to work for victims of domestic abuse.
The long term effect—the word Bobbitt became synonymous with penis removal. The worm that attacks its prey with scissor-like jaws, is named Bobbitt. Strangely, there were no copycat cases of rapists being Bobbitted, though a lot of women interviewed for the series, wished they had the courage to go what Lorena did. What she did convey to women was: “Silence is not an option.”
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated June 3, 2020)