In June 1993, Lorena Bobbitt sliced off her husband’s 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 people’s: 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, who’d shot her lover Joey Buttofuoco’s 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 café in Washington, D.C., where she spoke openly and unselfconsciously about her past. She now counsels domestic violence victims, and while she isn’t 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. She’s 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 the—wait for it—swordfish. She asked if I knew what her current surname, Gallo, meant in Spanish. I didn’t. It means ‘Cock.’
Today, Lorena tells the dick jokes.
Lorena’s 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 documentary’s 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 immigrant’s story—Lorena, 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 husband’s 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 don’t buy that he was raping her. She’s not even that good looking.” John’s 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 abuse—autographing 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 boyfriend’s house—who 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 victims”—credible, pathetic, and sweet—they 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 John’s continued harassment is a reminder that Lorena’s abuse didn’t begin and end with him. It was a torch gleefully hoisted by ’90s media.
“It’s 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 abuser’s penis, which one news outlet called “the one act every man fears the most,” is not enough to protect a woman from abuse. It’s 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 film’s 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…
“It’s a man’s world.”
It still is, and it’s enough to make anyone justifiably crazy. Also crazy-making is the extent to which media depictions of women are still sexist—from dissing a female politician’s 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 ’90s—that sexist media narratives don’t reveal individual women’s flaws, but are tools to devalue and disempower them.
It is the perfect moment to retell Lorena’s story, because it’s finally clear that the crazy one isn’t her at all, it’s those who got her story so wrong.