Lorena begins with the search for a dick. It’s a severed dick from the body of John Wayne Bobbitt, whose wife Lorena Bobbitt cut it off in the night with a kitchen knife. Interviewed police officers who were on the scene tiptoe around the fact that they were searching for what they call, in stumbling tones, “an appendage.” One officer refused to touch the “appendage” when he eventually found it. Even Lorena giggles, behind her hands, as she talks in the present day about how it must have looked when it was discovered.
Chronicling the trial of Lorena Bobbitt for the “malicious wounding” of her husband’s penis in a four-part Amazon series, Lorena opens the door to this story with a chuckle, but it quickly leaves those laughs at the door. Because beyond the titillating shock, Lorena seeks to paint a larger, far more somber picture about the ways in which society fails to recognize the everyday horror of intimate partner violence and the perceived mundanity of women’s trauma, still to this day.
Lorena is the kind of thorough, deeply contextualized true crime documentary that is becoming increasingly rare in an era in which such documentaries pop up every minute. The series is a culmination of dozens of witnesses and neighbors, jurors and lawyers, women’s rights activists and journalists, and of course Lorena and John themselves, who all lay out the case in minute detail. One night in 1993, after John allegedly raped the 22-year-old Lorena, following years of alleged rape and psychological abuse, she grabbed a knife from the kitchen and cut off his penis, driving off in a daze until she landed at the police station to report her own rape of which her husband was eventually acquitted.
Unlike many of the 1990s tabloid narratives that have warranted revisitation in the past few years, from the trial of O.J. Simpson to Tonya Harding, Lorena doesn’t just take the easy route and chalk up the cultural fascination with the crime to a new, exploitative breaking news industry (though it does explore that in several disturbing anecdotes featuring Geraldo Rivera, who clearly had zero ethics.) Instead, it weaves deftly through issues of racism regarding Lorena’s “hot-blooded Latina” image, a burgeoning understanding of domestic violence at the time, and a cultural “battle of the sexes” underlined by third wave feminism.
The series is a corrective for a 1990s media (a shout out here to Howard Stern, who is the most disgusting offender in the misogynist commentary department) that largely accused Lorena of being a lying, “crazy bitch,” and which greatly favored John as the victim rather than the wife he allegedly assaulted regularly. And at the end of the series, during which Lorena reads aloud from a mountain of handwritten letters and Facebook messages that John has been sending her for years in an attempt to get back together, it’s clear his warped perceptions of his good guy status are still going strong.
The central question at the center of the Lorena Bobbitt trial was: is a man’s dick worth the life of a woman? John seems to think so, considering at one point he says, in the present day, that the verdict was as if he “lost a loved one and the person who did it got away,” the “loved one” apparently being his penis (which was later successfully reattached.) So much of Lorena’s trial hinged on the fact that her lawyers needed to convince a jury that the abuse she endured was truly traumatic, with her sobbing on the stand explaining how it felt like her vagina was “ripping up” while being raped.
“Maybe you can’t understand because you’re a man,” she says through tears during the televised trial. The underlying implication of all the convincing is that a woman’s sexual, physical, and emotional trauma, no matter how much of it she has endured, still can’t stack up to a man losing his penis.
What’s striking is how much Lorena’s defense mirrored language that men frequently use to justify why they’ve raped; Lorena possessed an “irresistible” impulse to harm John, harm which he essentially “asked for” because of his own actions. And yet the irresistible, violent behavior excuse so casually allowed in men with nonexistent provocation is suddenly apparently unbelievable in a woman like Lorena who actually had the emotional and physical trauma to back up the claim. When women are driven to impulsive violence, they are apparently “crazy.” But when men are driven to the same, they are just men.
What was lost in the conversation surrounding the trial was the fact that Lorena Bobbitt’s life as an abused woman was extremely common. In a time in which the Violence Against Women Act did not yet exist and the National Domestic Violence Hotline wouldn’t be instated for a few more years, feminists at the time were trying to shift the public’s excitement over the Bobbitt case to pressing issues concerning intimate partner violence at large. After all, the penis mutilation happened just two days after Lorena attempted to file a restraining order against her husband, but returned home out of fear that her friends would find out he was still abusing her. But Kim Gandy, who was the executive vice president of the National Organization for Women at the time of the trial, says that reporters did not come to them to aid their coverage. “I think domestic violence wasn’t covered because a lot of the editors were men,” Gandy says. “There were a lot of women reporters who tried to write stories and they would say, I tried to write this and my editor said nobody cares about that.”
To watch Lorena in 2019 is to take stock of how this country still fails victims of domestic violence and intimate partner violence, not just in the way people excuse men like Rob Porter or Lance Mason, but in a failure to confront the fact that domestic violence is as common a fixture in the average American home as a television set. There is an undeniable link between domestic abusers and mass shooters, though the connection is not as acknowledged as it could be in coverage of mass shootings. More than half of murder victims in 2017 were killed by their partners or family members, leading the U.N. to conclude that the most dangerous place for women to be is in their own home. That Lorena was also an immigrant whose husband frequently threatened to have her deported also reflects the fears many women face under the current administration, which wants to turn away domestic violence victims seeking asylum.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women experience severe intimate partner physical and sexual violence. And yet despite the trauma Lorena endured, the physical abuse and emotional torture, the repeated sexual assaults, none of it was enough to bring a flood of cameras to her doorstep. What did, in the end, was the violence endured by a single dick.