Lorena Bobbitt: I was the subject of so many jokes. It was just cruel

She was famous for cutting off her husband’s penis. A new documentary tells the full tale

Lorena is very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. There, she says as she drives us around Manassas, in the US state of Virginia, in her Kia on a recent afternoon, is the hospital where surgeons reattached John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis after she cut it off with a kitchen knife as he slept on the night of June 23rd, 1993.

Fifteen minutes away, near Maplewood Drive, is the gravel-strewn field where she disposed of the detached penis out of the driver’s side window. Why did she throw it away? “I tried to drive the car, obviously, but I had this thing in my hand, so I couldn’t drive, so I got rid of it.” Obviously.

It's the actual story – the one about a young immigrant who endured years of domestic violence, and was raped by her husband that night – that Lorena wants to talk about

Farther down the road is the nail salon where she worked and fled to that night. “I’m not a vindictive person, because I told them where it was,” Lorena Gallo, as she is now known, says. By “them” she means the police who, sometime after 4.30am, clutched their loins and went digging through the overgrown roadside grass for the missing member. They found it, put it on ice in a Big Bite hot-dog box from a nearby 7-Eleven and rushed it to the hospital where, in a 9½-hour feat of urological and plastic surgery, it was reattached and restored to (almost) full function.

These are the details everyone knows and the ones Lorena recites with the stoicism of the waiter at the Tortino Mare Italian restaurant who hours earlier had relayed the specials for us. It's the actual story, she says – the one about a young immigrant who endured years of domestic violence, was raped by her husband that night, had nowhere to go and finally snapped – that she wants to talk about.

Lorena Bobbitt on trial in 1994. Photograph: Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty

"They always just focused on it..." – as in her husband's detached and reattached and then, a couple of years later, surgically kind-of-enlarged penis. That was all the media, before now, before the Women's March and the #MeToo movement, when we were all less evolved as humans, wanted to talk about. "And it's like they all missed or didn't care why I did what I did," she says.

Lorena is correct, of course, that most people forget that before she was tried for what she did, John was charged with marital sexual assault. (He was acquitted.) At the time, marital rape only recently had been made a crime in all 50 states of the US and was nearly impossible to prove in Virginia. Many in the media, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Gay Talese on assignment for the New Yorker, questioned whether it was an oxymoron. (“Wife Rape? Who Really Gets Screwed?” an earlier column in Penthouse read.) Al Franken, as the character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live, implored Lorena to apologise to John’s penis.

And she is correct that people forget a jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. We forget about the string of witnesses at her trial who testified that they had seen bruises on her arms and neck and that she had called 911 repeatedly and that John had bragged to friends about forcing his wife to have sex. In the years since the trial he was arrested several times and served jail time for violence against two women. (He denied the allegations.)

“This is about a victim and a survivor, and this is about what’s happening in our world today,” Lorena says.

That is the story she tells in Lorena, a new four-part documentary, produced by Jordan Peele, on Amazon Prime Video. And that is why she is taking a break from volunteering with her daughter's volleyball team and her work at her nonprofit, Lorena's Red Wagon, which helps survivors of domestic violence, to have lunch and show me around this bedroom community outside Washington, DC, where it all went down.

Even though Lorena has physically transformed, now the picture of an upwardly mobile 49-year-old suburban mom, she has the same sad, dark, orb-like eyes

It has been 26 years since Lorena Bobbitt, a 24-year-old wounded bird of a woman with dark, wiry hair and sad, penetrating eyes, became so enshrined in the annals of popular culture that she makes a cameo in both a Philip Roth novel and Eminem lyrics. Today Lorena is shy, a petite 53kg (8st 5lb) woman in a black blazer, tasteful black stilettos, diamond hoop earrings and a Louis Vuitton handbag. (She says she is telling me her weight because she had weighed 43kg (6st 11lb) in 1993, when John said she had assaulted him.) Even though she has physically transformed, now the picture of an upwardly mobile 49-year-old suburban mom with wispy blond hair, she has the same sad, dark, orb-like eyes.

And even though she goes by her maiden name and, shortly after the trial, the media moved on (thank you, Tonya Harding), people meet Lorena in Manassas, and it doesn't take long for them to make the connection that she is that Lorena in Manassas. "I live here. This is my home. Why should he have the last laugh?" she says when I ask why she didn't move away.

We grab a coffee at Jirani Coffeehouse, near the courthouse where in 1994 the world’s media had descended to cover the Bobbitt trial, where vendors sold “Love Hurts” T-shirts and penis-shaped candy, and where Lorena, originally from Ecuador, trembled as she told a jury about how her husband, a former marine, had repeatedly assaulted her.

These days the attention Lorena gets in this town is mostly positive. A woman who recognises her from a Zumba class runs up to us. “Lorena, right? My father-in-law has the biggest crush on you!” she says.

She smiles politely and poses for a photo. Because even though she didn’t want John, who continued to show up at her nail salon after the trial and still writes her love letters, to control her life, she knows that she cannot run from that phallic last name, not when you are Lorena in Manassas. “I know I am still Lorena Bobbitt,” she says. “That name, you know, it’s very important here.”

For a woman who has been a punchline for most of her adult life, Lorena “Bobbitt” Gallo is a surprisingly sincere person. That is the first thing I notice about her when we meet. She hugs me hello, coming up to my neck in heels, and I am struck by how warm and maternal she is. We talk about being moms and our naturally curly hair. I ask when she decided to go blonde. It wasn’t long after the trial, when a man she worked with at a salon offered to give her highlights. She wasn’t trying to disguise herself or anything, she says, “It’s, like, ‘Oh, your roots are showing,’ so little by little I became blonder ... .”

And just like that, a straight iron and some hair dye and the scared young woman splashed on the cover of tabloids morphed into the sophisticated advocate who now sits across from me.

Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her husband’s penis in 1993. Photograph: Heather Sten/New York Times

Only later do I realise that we have had the kind of easy conversation of manicurist and client. The nail salon, after all, had been Lorena’s refuge before and after the trial. She would talk to clients and learn that they, too, had been victims of domestic abuse. “That’s when I realised what happened to me could’ve happened to any woman in a desperate situation,” Lorena says. She hopes to open her own shelter. “When I was abused I went to the salon, and I didn’t have the key and had to sleep in my car outside.”

In 1994, after she served a brief, mandated stint in a psychiatric hospital, Lorena went back to her life as a manicurist. She later did hair and sold property. She attended her Catholic church regularly and went to community college, where she met David Bellinger. The two were study partners and friends for years before they became romantically involved. She never dated anyone else, she says, because, well, how can you date, really, when you are that Lorena? The couple now have a 13-year-old daughter and live on a tidy street in a cream-coloured brick house.

“When I finished with the trial, in the beginning, Jeez, I couldn’t even go to the grocery store, because people would say, ‘Oh my God, you know what, I know you.’ I just wanted to put my groceries down and go home,” Lorena says in still-accented English. “I just wanted to take care of myself and my family. You know, just to integrate myself into normalcy and a normal life.”

John went on to star in pornographic films (John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut and John Wayne Bobbitt's Frankenpenis). He became a fixture on The Howard Stern Show. "I don't even buy that he was raping her," Stern said on one segment with John. "She's not that great looking." Lorena did some press, but mostly resisted offers to turn their castration saga into a film or TV series. She turned down $1 million to pose for Playboy. "A million dollars is a million dollars," she says. "It would've been amazing. But I wasn't raised that way."

John Wayne Bobbitt in court in 1994. Photograph: Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty

The film-makers who approached her over the years never wanted to focus on the abuse, the story she really wanted to talk about. Even though the “War of the Bobbitts,” as People magazine called it, happened two years after Anita Hill – the law professor who in 1991, accused the US supreme-court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual misconduct – inserted sexual harassment into the conversation and the film Thelma & Louise turned a housewife and a waitress into renegade icons of female revenge, most people never really thought of Lorena in those terms.

Men, speaking from Charlie Rose’s table and Geraldo Rivera’s armchairs, made Lorena seem like an unsatisfied, unhinged wife who had dealt a ghastly blow in the gender wars. And although many women defended Lorena and wondered what John must have done to drive her to it, some feminists argued that she had hurt the cause, making the sisterhood look deranged. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah, so now a lot of women are going to do this’,” remembered Katha Pollitt, who wrote about the trial for the Nation magazine. “I do not remember Lorena Bobbitt, feminist hero.”

Domestic-violence activists tried to refocus the conversation. 'Nobody cared about anything except John and his surgery and his 'loss''

Domestic-violence activists tried to refocus the conversation. “Nobody cared about anything except John and his surgery and his ‘loss’,” said Kim Gandy, a former president of the National Organization for Women. “We did a lot of interviews, and the approach was often something like, ‘Well, that’s what you feminists wanted all along’.”

Then, in 1994, OJ Simpson was arrested and later acquitted in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. That same year the US Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act. “The national dialogue that started with Anita Hill, Lorena Bobbitt, OJ Simpson, finally created a national discourse that gave us some traction on legislation,” Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, says.

So, even though most portrayals of Lorena made her seem like, in her words, “this crazy, jealous lady”, the Bobbitt trial did play a part in the laws changing.

That was the version of the story that Joshua Rofé, a documentarian who had made Lost for Life, about juveniles serving life sentences in prison, wanted to tell. He explained that to Lorena when he contacted her in December 2016, after reading on HuffPost about her work with domestic-violence victims. They talked for nearly a year before Lorena, motivated by her outrage about the election of Donald Trump and, months later, the #MeToo movement, decided the climate was finally right to tell her side.

It just so happened that at the same time, a wave of movies, documentaries and podcasts (I, Tonya, The Clinton Affair, Slow Burn) had shined new light on other women engulfed in scandals in the 1990s. Lorena identified with Harding and Monica Lewinsky. “We were vilified by the media, vilified, and that is so sad. It happens to women,” she says. Maybe, she figured, her story could finally get equal billing to John’s penis.

Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt at their wedding, in 1989. Photograph: Amazon Prime Video

Rofé says that, before his talks with Lorena, he had thought about the Bobbitt case – “the original clickbait,” he calls it – like most people did. “I grew up being told it was common knowledge that some crazy white lady cut her husband’s penis off in a fit of vengeance,” he says. “It was this red-hot thing that everybody got wrong.”

Not long after Jordan Peele won an Oscar for Get Out, Rofé casually brought up his fixation with reassessing Lorena Bobbitt. Peele devoured the ESPN series OJ: Made in America and saw the makings of something similar in Rofé's project. "I loved the way that used 25 years of hindsight to look at this case that we thought we all knew, and I thought this spoke to gender dynamics in the way OJ peeled back the layers of racial dynamics," Peele says.

The documentary mostly unfolds in 1993, the dawn of Court TV and a proliferation of gossipy daytime talk shows. In Rofé and Peele’s hands, the 24-hour news cycle becomes a voracious, multiheaded monster that eventually engulfs everything. “There is a third character to this story besides Lorena and John, and that is us, society, and what we did with the information we had available to us,” Peele says.

Lorena the documentary ends with the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, but the narrative itself doesn’t take a side. It relies on news footage and interviews with Lorena, sitting in her living room. John is extensively interviewed, too, from a lounger in his home in Las Vegas. He has maintained that he planned to divorce Lorena and that after he denied her sex that night, in a vengeful rage, she cut off his penis while he slept.

John Wayne Bobbitt talking from his Las Vegas home for the series Lorena. Photograph: Amazon Prime Video

John, who is in New York preparing to tape The Dr Oz Show when we talk, says that he hasn’t seen the series but that the film-makers have set him up to make him look bad. “She was never abused; she was always the abuser, and she cut off my penis because I was going to leave her,” he says.

I ask John about the additional charges that the film covers, including a harrowing interview with one of his ex-girlfriends, who says he tied her to the bed in his apartment in Niagara Falls and for several days repeatedly raped her. He was convicted and spent time in jail.

"It's all made up, and I'm tired of it," John says. "I was with a lot of women, a lot of women, and none of them ever complained, except Lorena." He pauses. "And Joanna." After we discuss the allegations, he proposes that we keep talking over dinner at the Empire Hotel, where he is staying. I decline.

John came home drunk. He raped her. She went to the kitchen to get a glass of water, spotted the kitchen knife and was overcome from years of abuse

Back in the car, as Lorena points out the hospital where John had his surgery and where, just down the hall, she underwent a rape kit, I ask if she regrets what she did. “How can you regret something you didn’t mean to do?” she says. She explains, again, what she told the jury in 1994. John came home drunk. He raped her. She went to the kitchen to get a glass of water, spotted the kitchen knife and was overcome from years of abuse. She doesn’t remember anything after that. “To me, regret is, ‘Oh, I bought a black car instead of a red car,’ when you don’t choose right,” Lorena says. “I wasn’t in my conscious mind.”

But I don’t just mean does she regret committing the act. I mean, does she regret making John Wayne Bobbitt a household name? Does she regret giving him a modicum of fame and a small but steady lifelong income? But Lorena doesn’t think about things like that. Again, she says, there are only choices. The black or the red car. “He can choose. It’s his life. Basically, I don’t think I have anything to do with whatever he chooses to do with his life, you know, after the incident.”

Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her husband’s penis in 1993. Photograph: Heather Sten/New York Times

“The incident” – that is what Lorena calls the shocking crime that still makes many men grasp their crotch and assume she must be serving a life sentence. Before she agreed to put “the incident” back into the public’s imagination, Lorena talked to Peele, who explained to her that there would, inevitably, be comedy in this retelling.

The documentary, Peele says, fits with his larger mission to make films that give voices to marginalised people, but it’s impossible not to acknowledge that the story has the dark, tragicomic underpinnings of a Coen brothers movie. The first episode, after all, follows small-town policemen digging around a field for a missing penis. “I’d be lying to you if I said there’s not humour in this story,” Peele says. He asked Lorena if she was okay with that. She told him she was.

I was the subject of so many jokes in the 1990s, and to me it was just cruel. They didn't understand. Why would they laugh about my suffering?

“I was the subject of so many jokes in the 1990s, and to me it was just cruel,” she says. “They didn’t understand. Why would they laugh about my suffering?” But a couple decades later, after a lot of therapy, Lorena gets it now. She understands that the reason she has a platform is because of the detached penis, because of the hot-dog box and Frankenpenis and that unforgettable last name. “I’ll put myself through the jokes and everything as long as I can shine a light on domestic violence and sexual assault and marital rape.”

At one point we drive along in silence. I look over at Lorena, her hands gripping the steering wheel at 10 and 2. She stares straight ahead at the road, the same road she had been on that night in 1993, a night that, even though she didn’t want it to, has defined her life. It occurs to me that there would be no documentary, no Bobbitt jokes or permanent place in popular culture, had John severed some vital piece of Lorena.

“They laugh,” she says several times during our afternoon together. “They always laugh.” – New York Times

Lorena is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video