'A dented can of Red Bull': the uncut story of John and Lorena Bobbitt
The revision about the women at the centre of the biggest news stories of the 1990s goes on. The People v. OJ Simpson shamed us for the way we all reduced Marcia Clarke to her frizzy haircut. I, Tonya gave more nuance to Tonya Harding’s story than the most basic soap opera bits of her story that obsessed the media at the time.
Monica Lewinsky hasn’t had the same sort of Hollywood treatment, but she does give TED talks on shame and victimhood. The MeToo movement has made us look again at any number of sexual crimes against women.
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And so it was inevitable that we would, eventually, turn to Lorena Bobbitt, who was seen in the early 1990s as a perpetrator and a punchline all rolled into one.
She will be the subject of a new documentary series, Lorena, to air next week on Amazon Prime, and it promises to explode some of the mythology around the case.
Given the irresistibly trashy particulars of the story, the real wonder is that it took this long to revisit it. It was kind of Sigmund Freud meets Jerry Springer, and there was so much to wince at.
This young, slight Venezuelan woman’s last name had an onomatopoeic perfection – it even sounded like a short, sharp chop. Her small-town husband’s first name was the aptly patriarchal John Wayne – and he was a US marine. The act at the centre of the story was a brutal symbolism that was, depending on your point of view, the apogee of hands-on feminism or the personification of the frat boy maxim “bitches be crazy”.
The documentary, which premiered at Sundance last year, traces the background to this impulsive emasculation. In her teens, Lorena had moved from Venezuela to America and got a job working as a manicurist. She met John Wayne at a dance hall and they were married in 1989, when she was just 20 and he 21.
The marriage soured quickly. She blamed John’s sexual and physical violence. She also alleged he forced her to have an abortion. John, who denies all these allegations, blamed Lorena’s greed. The fights got worse.
Their house was repossessed. They broke up and got back together. It didn’t last.
He later said that when she took his penis in her hand that fateful night in June 1993 he simply presumed she was giving him “a handjob”. An hour later, Lorena was flinging his severed penis out the window of her car into a grassy knoll by a 7/11 shop.
She drove to a friend’s house and the friend phoned the police and gave them the rough coordinates of the discarded member. The police found it, put it in a carton of ice and brought it to hospital.
By a miracle of surgery, doctors then managed to re-attach it to the heavily sedated John Wayne Bobbitt. The documentary reveals, when he awoke from the operation the surgeon told him “the surgery was a success, but your penis may turn black and fall off again”.
Lorena’s trial was one of the first to be broadcast live on American television – CNN had it on all day. The public interest was not just because of the lurid comedy of the crime.
It also came at moment when people seemed ready for a story of female revenge – Thelma & Louise, with its story of rape and sisterly retribution, was sitting atop the film charts. Millions watched rapt as Lorena described how John had returned home from drinking and raped her in their bed.
He said she was upset he was about to leave her and desperate for the Green Card which would only come after five years of marriage (they had been married for four). Outside the Virginian courtroom, feminists held signs and posed for camera making the victory sign which they then turned sideways to imitate a scissors. US writer Camille Paglia pronounced Lorena’s deed a “revolutionary act”.
The thing – besides the visceral image of a severed penis – that made the case so compelling in the 1990s was that legally speaking, Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt fought each other to a draw.
He was eventually acquitted of abusing her during their marriage and she was, at length, adjudicated not guilty by reason of temporary insanity for her moment of madness with the kitchen knife.
The new documentary gives the win to Lorena, however. It recasts her as an advocate for partner violence, a newly minted MeToo heroine.
“I was the subject of so many jokes in the 1990s and to me it was just cruel,” Lorena told The New York Times.
To some extent, that would still seem to be the case. Although Lorena implores us all to take the whole thing more seriously, in the documentary the experts interviewed generally have trouble keeping a smirk from their lips.
Muddying her reinvention as a domestic violence advocate was Vanity Fair’s revelation last year that in 1997, Lorena was arrested for allegedly assaulting Elvia Gallo, her mother. A neighbour in that case testified that Lorena jumped on her mother while she was watching TV, hitting Elvia’s head with her fists.
In court Elvia claimed, through a translator, that her facial injuries were caused by “a pimple, a big one”. The judge in the case was quoted as saying: “If you asked me if I think (Lorena is) guilty, I’d say yes. I have reasonable doubt, so I’ll find her not guilty.”
John Wayne Bobbitt famously went on to put his newly re-attached penis to good use. He starred in a number of porn films, including Uncut (allegedly one of the highest grossing adult movies of all time) and Frankenpenis and was hired to be a “greeter” at Moonlite BunnyRanch, a high-class Nevada brothel.
Dennis Hof, the recently deceased brothel owner (and sometime politician) said that, according to the girls who worked for him, Bobbitt’s famous penis looked like “a dented Red Bull can”.
In the late 1990s, John Wayne pleaded guilty to a charge of grand larceny and got five years probation. In 1999, he was found guilty of harassing his porn star ex-girlfriend. These days, he lives in Las Vegas and lives off the proceeds of a car accident settlement. Vanity Fair called him Trump to Lorena’s Hillary. Lorena, meanwhile, says she identifies with Monica Lewinsky.
The Bobbitts no longer speak, but their fates are forever intertwined, twin poles of an era when gender politics and celebrity culture looked very different. Both think of themselves as victims, but for a brief moment their lives shocked and amused the world. And like so many other 1990s cause-celebres, their strange little story still sparks nostalgia, horror and amusement in equal measures.
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