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For those who remember, the case is infamous.
Twenty-six years ago, in the bedroom community of Manassas, Va., a 24-year-old woman cut off her husband’s penis with a kitchen knife.
Her name was Lorena Bobbitt. Countless headlines, in the United States and abroad, and endless commentary followed. But behind every sensational story, there’s bound to be suffering.
“Lorena,” a new, four-part Amazon docuseries executive produced by Jordan Peele and Joshua Rofé (who also directs), examines the misery and domestic violence that came before Bobbitt’s notorious act.
The Lily gathered a group of five women last week, ranging in age from 19 to 49, to watch and discuss the first two episodes at the Hamilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. The youngest among us were wholly unfamiliar with the story of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt; others remembered the gruesome details but didn’t recall, or never knew, the nuances. Here’s what surprised, shocked and resonated with the women.
Responses have been condensed for length and clarity.
It happened in June 1993. “It” being the amputation. Lorena Bobbitt, an immigrant born in Ecuador but raised in Venezuela, was 24. After what Lorena described as one of many instances of marital rape, she mutilated her husband, former Marine John Wayne. But the world wouldn’t immediately learn her side of the story.
The documentary begins with police receiving the 911 call.
Doty, 19: I was really confused in the beginning. The name sounded familiar, but I really had no idea what any of this was about.
Lavoie, 21: Literally Googled it.
Doty, 19: It’s crazy to me, this was from before I was born, we were born.
In the early ’90s, talk of the Bobbitts was ubiquitous — in print and TV news, in comedy. The first episode of the documentary, awash with story snippets from the era, provides a glimpse of the media free-for-all. Much of the coverage would be deemed highly insensitive by today’s standards.
Scores of people seemed aghast by Lorena’s act, and less so by allegations of John Wayne’s physical and sexual abuse. One 1993 Washington Post headline reads, “For men, the unkindest cut of all; report of mutilation draws powerful responses.” Another reads, “Wife who cut husband is suing for divorce; Va. woman alleges ‘marital sexual abuse.’”
Lavoie, 21: I thought it was hilarious when, at the beginning, nobody would say “penis.” They were like, “uh, his, uh,” and I was like, his penis. Just say it. They continued going on about how it was crazy that she would cut off his penis, but it’s not crazy that a man would rape a woman.
Whoopi Goldberg, who was interviewed in the documentary, is one of the few comics depicted who seems to empathize with Lorena and seriously consider the dangers women face. In a 1994 set, a fragment of which is included in the docuseries, Goldberg said, “Women live with the knowledge that weird s--- could happen at any point. You go down a dark alley, and whoosh, somebody grabs you. And now, men actually have to think about this.” She goes on to say, “She should get some time off. She should. Because she told them where the d--- was. See, I wouldn’t have told them.”
Doty, 19: It was upsetting for me to see these famous comedians that I’ve seen now, in more current times, blatantly and awfully making jokes of her situation and just making an absolute mockery of this trauma she went through. And it’s crazy because now, with the Me Too movement and everything, the culture shift is huge.
Passafiume, 49: I was a college student at NYU when this went down, and it was such a circus. Keep in mind that all this went down pre-Internet, that’s a very important point. The only information people were getting about this case was on daily newspapers and television. And you had to wait for that, unlike now, where you’re getting practically a second-by-second update. The thing is, the film unfolds the way it unfolded then, which is, it was this insane story that people joked about, because she absolutely was portrayed, at first, exactly like that — “She’s crazy, look at what this crazy woman did.” It was a huge joke.
Lavoie, 21: I got mad when they were making jokes about it, not about the jokes, but at her. But it was misplaced anger. It was obviously a spur-of-the moment thing, and I was so mad that she acted that way because if that hadn’t happened, that first episode wouldn’t have even existed. It would just have started out with, he raped her and there were all of these dozens of times where he beat her in their home, and then that would’ve been the highlight.
Raja, 35: It wouldn’t have been a story then.
Wang, 31: It would’ve disappeared forever.
The unique details of the Bobbitt case captured the public’s imagination, but domestic violence isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s commonplace.
As an immigrant, Lorena — who now goes by her maiden name, Gallo — faced an even higher risk. The documentary discusses how Bobbitt, whose family lived in Venezuela, came to the United States as a young woman on a student visa; she spoke little English when she met John Wayne.
Wang, 31: It’s not until the second episode and you’re moving through the trial, a defense team is putting together its argument, that you really get a sense of just how much suffering and abuse she went through. And the fact is that she reported multiple times, neighbors knew what was going on. I think that that’s something that happens all the time now, to this day. His friends knew.
Raja, 35: I think the most stark thing for me and the hardest part for me watching this is how little things have changed. We only talk about domestic violence when you have a situation as drastic as this. And what most domestic violence looks like is what her life looked like prior to that incident. We have resources, we have the Violence Against Women Act, we have 25 years of laws on the books. You can set up laws and money, but at the root of it, it’s misogyny, and at the root of it, we just still don’t trust women.
Wang, 31: They’re completely disposable.
Raja, 35: Yeah, they’re completely disposable, and that idea of a woman just being dumb and not knowing how to navigate life, it’s still so ever-present. So it makes sense to me what she did. She did seek support from law enforcement, but what we know now, as issue experts on domestic violence, is that, if you’re a woman of color — if you’re black, if you’re brown, if you’re an immigrant — you’re less likely to go to police. If you’re less likely to go to the police, you’re going to stay in an escalating situation for much longer.
Doty, 19: I wrote down what stood out to me was when they talked about being a victim versus being a strong woman, like she had to choose one narrative, and that was ridiculous.
Raja, 35: It’s also the trap of the perfect survivor, where you should present a certain way. And to this day, if you’re dealing with a case of sexual assault or domestic violence, it’s absurd that you’re having to think about what you’re wearing to court.
Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, was interviewed for the docuseries. In the fourth and final episode, which delves into the dynamics of domestic abuse, she says, “Many of us saw this case as an opportunity to bring domestic violence into the public eye, and I know that there were a lot of women who were holding their breath for her. Who saw themselves in her plight. Who thought, if I did something to extricate myself from this situation, what would happen to me? Would there be mercy?”
A quarter of a century has passed since the Bobbitt case. While Lorena and John Wayne both faced trials — she was charged with malicious wounding; he was charged with marital sexual assault — neither was found guilty.
Our language surrounding relationships, sex and consent may have evolved, but many of the women felt our criminal justice system and cultural attitudes still have a long way to go.
Wang, 31: What I found really fascinating was the media circus, and seeing the way it was back then. But also, as soon as Charlie Rose’s face showed up onscreen, and Matt Lauer’s face showed up onscreen, I was like, oh, this is primarily driven by network and cable television at the time. Who is the driving force behind media, who are the faces of the media at that time? Who is in power, who gets to shape media landscapes and the narratives? To this day, it’s getting better, but it’s still predominantly driven by white men in power. How much different would this coverage have been if there were women who were running those media empires?
Wang, 31: The comfort with which young people talk about sex and consent and domestic violence and trauma, I think, is a marked improvement from what we saw in the video, and that’s something to be very grateful for. But also we need to be even more resolved to make change. Seeing this, I was like, oh, nothing has changed with regards to domestic violence and the fact that it is a silent epidemic across the country.
Lavoie, 21: I think that it’s solidifying the fact that we need to teach men to not rape women.
Archival footage shows one woman, a protester, saying this in the final episode: “How many more men are going to go out there raping women? When is domestic violence going to end? When is our system going to explore the issue and do something about it so women do not have to be pushed to the extreme of taking matters into their own hand? This is not just about Lorena Bobbitt. What affects one affects us all.”
Illustrations by Amy Cavenaile for The Lily