In June 1993, Lorena Bobbitt sliced off her husbands penis with a kitchen knife and threw it out her car window. It was recovered, iced in a hot dog bag, then reattached to John Wayne Bobbitt in an implausible, hours-long microsurgery. The Bobbitts became an overnight sensation. There were impersonators, musical parodies, and Saturday Night Live sketches. Headlines obsessed over the act, and begged for laughs: Knife Wife Charged, Painful Separation, and Latest Wedge Between the Sexes Is Also the Sharpest. Lorena thought her life was over.
At the time, I was growing up in a town not unlike Manassas, Virginia, where John and Lorena lived. The 24-hour news cycle was in its infancy, stoked by sensational coverage that often maligned women. My memory of Lorena Bobbitt probably tracks with that of most peoples: Only a crazy bitch could carry out such an unspeakable act. Returning to the decade as a journalist writing a book about 90s media, I realized that at some point, I had mentally conflated Lorena with another tabloid star, Amy Fisher, whod shot her lover Joey Buttofuocos wife in the head.
After my book was published last June, I reached out to Lorena. Not for an interview; I was just curious about what she is like today. We ended up meeting for a three-hour lunch at a Georgetown caf in Washington, D.C., where she spoke openly and unselfconsciously about her past. She now counsels domestic violence victims, and while she isnt supposed to share her own story with them, she does it anyway because they often recognize her, and she believes empathy helps.
Her life is stable, calm, unremarkable even. She and her longtime husband live with their 12-year-old daughter in the suburbs. Shes blonde now. Sitting in front of me in her butter-colored top and sparkly earrings, she struck me as someone who had achieved the American dream. The one she always wanted. She even posted pictures of us, her holding my book, on Instagram. Lorena was sharp, and fiendishly funny, especially when it came to discussing the events that made her famous. For her meal, she ordered thewait for itswordfish. She asked if I knew what her current surname, Gallo, meant in Spanish. I didnt. It means Cock.
Today, Lorena tells the dick jokes.
Lorenas ability to laugh is endearing, and it runs through the new docu-series about her on Amazon Prime Video, executive-produced by writer, director and comedian Jordan Peele. Lorena attempts to revise tabloid history by focusing on the woman instead of the organ, though there is also quite the cast of kooky neighbors, disbelieving jurors, and idiosyncratic forensics experts among the documentarys supporting characters. Many crack penis jokes, including John himself (Glad they found it. Would look real funny on a milk carton.) The comedy of the incident, underscored by punny headlines, sustains the four, hour-long chapters. The humor makes more palatable a tale that, while riveting, can be tough to watch.
Lorena is the latest in a string of misunderstood 90s women getting second looks through a #MeToo and #TimesUp lens. Hers is an immigrants storyLorena, originally from Ecuador, moved from Venezuela to America as a teenager, living with a host family while babysitting to save money for college. She met Lance Corporal John Wayne Bobbitt at a bar and married him 10 months later, when she was 20. She became a victim of domestic violence. She says he beat and raped her. Lorena became psychotic and attacked the instrument of her torture her husbands penis, a mental health witness later testified. Marital rape was legal in some states, and impossible to punish in others.
The media characterized Lorena as a vengeful vixen. She just wanted to hold on to you, shock jock Howard Stern affirms on screen. I dont buy that he was raping her. Shes not even that good looking. Johns mother and lawyer agreed. National Lampoon produced the episode, He Never Gave Me Orgasm: The Lenora Babbitt Story, about a crazy, sexually frigid hysteric.
John celebrated after he was acquitted of spousal abuseautographing steak knives, posing for People, and starring in the Ron Jeremy-directed pornographic film John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut.
Lorena was acquitted of malicious wounding, but sentenced to 45 days in a psychiatric hospital, which looks identical to a prison.
Because she is not too damaged to laugh and has remained in on the joke, Lorena is still an imperfect victim. She belonged to a coterie of 90s women including the aforementioned Amy Fisher and TLC musician Lisa Left Eye Lopes, who torched her abusive boyfriends housewho made headlines for crimes that also violated ironclad standards of femininity. The media characterized them as angry, sexually insatiable, and barbaric.
These were victims of domestic violence and statutory rape who failed to present as docile, meek women. Because they were not perfect victimscredible, pathetic, and sweetthey were not victims at all, but villains for avenging the crimes committed against them. In an important update, both the series and Lorena herself illustrate that there is no such thing as a perfect victim.
Throughout their marriage, Lorena said John swore that if she left he would track her down. Years later, he did. He sent her a creepy amount of manipulative letters and texts, trying to persuade her to return to him. The docu-series intersperses footage of Lorena reading his letters to the camera with John firing a gun at a paper target. He tells filmmakers that reuniting with Lorena would be the greatest love. Reflecting on Johns continued harassment is a reminder that Lorenas abuse didnt begin and end with him. It was a torch gleefully hoisted by 90s media.
Its like, I cut his penis off. Just leave me alone, she tells the camera, bewildered. She seems to address both John and America; her delivery is at once hilarious and horrifying. I actually cackled, then started to cry. Cutting off an abusers penis, which one news outlet called the one act every man fears the most, is not enough to protect a woman from abuse. Its not even close.
Lorena emphasizes how commonly cycles of abuse underpin our lives, while agreeing to an unpalatable truth: Whether or not your suffering matters still hinges on your gender, your race, and where you live. An escort at a club where John worked speaks to this with one of the films truest lines: They can cut like a million clits off in Africa and nobody hears a word. Cut one dick off and the country stops
Its a mans world.
It still is, and its enough to make anyone justifiably crazy. Also crazy-making is the extent to which media depictions of women are still sexistfrom dissing a female politicians clothes or management style to erode her credentials, to censuring women tennis players for exhibiting the same behavior as male competitors, to undermining a sexual assault victim and appointing her accused perpetrator to the Supreme Court. We now know what I did not in the 90sthat sexist media narratives dont reveal individual womens flaws, but are tools to devalue and disempower them.
It is the perfect moment to retell Lorenas story, because its finally clear that the crazy one isnt her at all, its those who got her story so wrong.