Lorena, Amazon’s new four-part documentary series about the circumstances surrounding Lorena Bobbitt’s 1993 dismemberment of her husband John Wayne, offers a fresh perspective on its tabloid subject, casting it as not only a tawdry tale about mutilation most foul but also a saga about ugly domestic abuse and misguided media priorities. Turned into a “crazy woman” punchline as her former husband exploited his newfound notoriety for 15 minutes in the spotlight (replete with porn movies marketed on the basis of his reattached penis), Lorena is depicted as the story’s true victim, having allegedly suffered first rape and battery at the hands of her spouse, and then mockery from a public that refused to grapple with the harrowing trauma that compelled her to commit her fateful act.
And no one comes off worse in this non-fiction portrait than Howard Stern.
By 1993, Stern had established himself as the premier bad boy of talk radio, replete with his self-anointed “Wack Pack,” a collection of freaks, misfits, racists and wildly inappropriate weirdos that Stern (and his fans) found to be the height of hilarity. As a result, it was no surprise that, when John Wayne Bobbitt rose to infamy on the basis of his groin injury (which was remedied through reattachment surgery; Lorena would later be acquitted of “malicious wounding”), Stern viewed him as a veritable gift from the gods. To borrow the title of one of John’s X-rated movies, here was a man with an actual Frankenpenis!
As detailed in director Joshua Rofe’s Lorena, Stern’s love affair with John began shortly after the calamity, when he invited John to be the guest of honor at his 1994 “New Year’s Rotten Eve Pageant.” That event was designed to raise money for John, and it commences in typical Stern fashion, with sidekick Robin Quivers dubbing him “twenty stiches away from oblivion,” and the host announcing, “John, I’m glad you could come,” to which John replies, “I can’t, Howard.”
Stern recounts John’s ordeal via a three-minute pre-taped segment full of corny dramatic recreations that generally end with “jokes”: a dog eating John’s penis; a cop putting John’s penis in a hot dog container (and then almost consuming it while driving); John spraying pee everywhere at a bathroom urinal. It’s a consistently unfunny affair—Stern’s concluding line, “A penis is a terrible thing to waste,” is brutally lame—and is followed by the unveiling of a donation meter (dubbed “a penis tote board”) that, you guessed it, looks just like a giant penis.
The rest of the festivities aren’t any better. Before indulging in a shameful blackface bit with Sherman Hemsley, Stern produces a clip of none other than the Bee Gees singing, “Don’t ever piss off your wife, you’ll lose your penis,” and asking for donations to help defray John’s medical costs. Later, Corbin Bernsen provides a similar PSA, cautioning, “All it takes is the rage of one angry woman and a stainless steel knife to sever a man from the one thing that makes him a man.” Stern even offers to pay John $15,000 to show the world his surgically repaired penis, to which he reluctantly declines.
Stern and his vulgar cohorts predictably ignore Lorena’s abuse, regardless of the fact that, as Lorena elucidates, she testified in court that John used to beat and anally rape her. This Z-grade event is designed to revel in the freak-show nature of the tale, fashioning John as a figure to both laugh at and sympathize with, and positing Lorena as the embodiment of male sexual anxieties; in the dramatic recreations, she’s portrayed as nothing short of a slasher-movie villain. It’s a tack that was taken by much of the media during the era. True to form, Stern manages to take things further than his broadcast (and print) compatriots—and he’d continue to do so in the ensuing years, lowlighted by a series of disgusting conversations between the two.
During a particularly egregious interview replayed in Lorena, Stern states, “I don’t even buy this whole thing, that he was raping her and stuff. She’s not that great looking. She’s got a lot of pimples, your ex-wife.” In a later appearance timed to John’s penis-enlargement surgery courtesy of Dr. Mel Rosenstein—which, as Rofe’s series details, turned out to be a disaster—Stern again turns his attention to Lorena. Amidst a discussion about the former couple’s sex life, which John naturally claims was great, Stern proclaims, “She didn’t want to leave him.” John agrees, replying “She punished me for leaving her…She didn’t want me to leave her”—a regurgitation of John’s oft-repeated argument that Lorena’s motivation was fear of abandonment, versus the idea that she was striking back against a man who had for years physically and psychologically tormented her.
“She must have liked it if she didn’t want him to leave so bad,” Stern states. “I go with him on this.” Regarding John’s new relationship, Stern asks, “Did you have to smack this new girlfriend around, or was she ok?” It’s yet another example of the shock jock making light of John’s abusiveness, and moreover, condoning it, as he continues, “You know, sometimes they don’t listen.”
Lorena counters such callousness by focusing on Lorena’s misery, which peaks with harrowing, uninterrupted footage of her courtroom testimony about John’s malicious behavior. In those sequences of a scared, horrified Lorena struggling to articulate the nightmarish crimes perpetrated against her, Rofe puts the lie to John’s “woe is me” claims. Moreover, it shames the media—and those who eagerly ate up its sensationalistic coverage—for failing to recognize and report on the Bobbitts for what they really were: a case study in domestic terror, and the violence it can breed in both the abuser and the abused.
Rofe’s series is thus a much-needed corrective, shining a caustic spotlight on the media’s disinterest in grappling with the misogyny that begat this entire sordid circus in the first place. In doing so, it illustrates how catchy headlines and shock-tactic titillations were prized above the truth. That’s a lesson still applicable in today’s clickbait-driven online environment. And it’s one epitomized by Stern and his rancid exploitation of Lorena Bobbitt’s anguish.