Is the photograph of John Wayne Bobbitt’s severed penis one of the original dick pics? The beginning of a long tradition of phalluses in the public eye? Copious coverage of the 1993 Bobbitt scandal — John Wayne’s wife, Lorena, sliced off his member in a fit of rage, prompting a months-long media spectacle and tabloid notoriety for the couple — kicked off two decades of penises inserting their way into the national discourse. Brett Favre, Anthony Weiner, Jeff Bezos… Take your pic(k). It is impossible not to consider this ongoing national obsession with dicks while watching Amazon’s new four-part documentary series, Lorena, which revisits the Bobbitt incident (and the two trials that followed it — Lorena’s for malicious assault, John’s for marital sexual assault) in the glare of the #MeToo movement.
What we all seem to remember most vividly is the story of the penis: how it was rescued by a team of frantic emergency personnel from the open field in suburban Virginia where Lorena had tossed it, tenderly cradled in a hot dog container with ice from the local 7-Eleven and then rushed to the hospital, where it was returned to its owner through a miraculous and costly surgery. Triumphantly, that penis would later work in porn.
What we failed to acknowledge, caught in a heady swirl of punny headlines and late-night one-liners about the episode, was the abuse that led to that dick’s maiming in the first place. But Lorena, produced by Jordan Peele and directed by Joshua Rofé, is here to make us confront our willful ignorance.
The series begins at the entry point of collective memory, revisiting the night of the mutilation and the hunt for John’s penis. “You’re not going to believe this,” one officer said to another. “But this guy’s wife pulled his dick off!” Wry memories from first responders who watched policemen unconsciously crossing their legs in the hospital waiting room belie how disturbing the act had been for all involved. “Oh man, I started thinking about my wife….” says another cop. The stage was set: It was a barbaric twist to the battle of the sexes, and everyone had an opinion.
It wasn’t just the visceral shock of the crime that made the story an instant sensation. The Bobbitts were an attractive young couple — he a boyishly handsome Marine, she a petite, cherubic-faced beauty. In the second installment, a love song plays to a reenactment of a 19-year-old Lorena, a recent immigrant from Venezuela, at the officers’ club where Lance Corporal Bobbitt first asked her to dance. She had never danced with anyone, and to her, she would later recall in tearful courtroom testimony, he was a dream come true. But after their 10-month courtship and quickie wedding, things devolved rapidly. John couldn’t keep a job. He bullied his wife, who worked full-time as a manicurist to (barely) support them. Soon, she says, his failure became her pain. He drank more and more, hit her, shoved her and called her names. Neighbors and co-workers support her allegations, describing in court as well as in new interviews how they watched this tiny woman shrink inside herself, saw her bruised and battered, heard her scream from inside the apartment she and John shared.
At some point, the violence turned sexual, and John began regularly pinning her down and anally raping her as she wept. (Two friends testified to hearing him brag about liking to make women “squirm” and “bleed” during sex.) The abuse became multifaceted and ever-present, according to Lorena — he threated to have her deported, told her she was hideous, threw her against walls, raped her repeatedly.
Because the laws were different in the Nineties, none of that evidence was allowed during John’s prosecution for marital sexual assault, no doubt attributing to his acquittal. It was presented instead in Lorena’s trial, archival footage of which feels like an upside down world. Inside the courthouse, she describes a wretched life of torture; outside is a circuslike atmosphere where cameramen from news outlets around the world jockey for space and penis-shaped cookies and jokey T-shirts (“Manassas, Va. — A Cut Above the Rest!”) are for sale. Much of the coverage presented her as “crazy” or “hot-blooded.” Perhaps she was jealous, people surmised — of what, exactly, was never clear.
In the aftermath, the Bobbitts went two very separate ways. Lorena was acquitted by reason of insanity and served 45 days in a state mental hospital. Then she chose a quieter life, going to college, remarrying, having a child, starting a non-profit for domestic violence victims. She refused the fast money of overnight celebrity, allegedly turning down a million dollars from Playboy to pose nude.
John, on the other hand, took every opportunity to milk his infamy. He went on “tour” after their trials, hosting cheesy events at strip clubs. He frequently appeared on Howard Stern, touting a freebie penile enhancement surgery. He made a porn film based on his and Lorena’s story. When that money ran out, he moved to Las Vegas, where he worked at the famed Bunny Ranch brothel as a greeter, though even there he ran afoul, drinking too much on the job and menacing the management when they fired him.
He also racked up a decades-long rap sheet of violence against multiple women in several states. (For one offense, he served 15 months in prison in Nevada.) Throughout the series he offers his version of events from his current-day home in Las Vegas, seated in a set of cream-colored luxury recliners, a trusty Big Gulp cup in hand. Outside, his Jeep Cherokee bears the vanity license plate “DJTRUMP.” His attitude is like that of a long-haul trucker, journeying back into the dark night of his foggy memory. He spends a lot of time dismissing Lorena as a feisty Latina who was demented and vengeful. He has similar words for his other victims — gold-diggers and opportunists all.
Then, in the last 15 minutes of the series, things take a surreal turn as John tries to justify his actions. “I …I…can kind of relate to Lorena,” he begins. “Because my mother went through the same thing.” He sputters out a few gruesome details of a toxic childhood where his father drank and beat his mother, and John and his brothers were molested by an uncle. It feels like both a meaningful character development and a last-ditch excuse. Even more bizarre, Lorena reveals that he still writes to her — via Facebook, text and old-fashioned love letters. She selects some from a pile to read: He says she is the love of his life, that he “deeply regret[s]” the way he treated her. Also, that they could make a lot of money if they got back together.
Remorse arrives reluctantly for John, in fits and starts of conscience that seem beyond his control. Resolution, even after all this time, feels like it’s on shaky ground. In the final scene, the camera lingers on Lorena as she drives, her eyes fixed forward. With this series, she has reclaimed the narrative, taking it away from the almighty penis. But for as self-assured as she’s been throughout, there is something haunted in her expression, as if the pain she’s suffered is not so far behind. Though it’s been 25 years, for us, too, progress has been slow. In the era of Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves and Donald Trump, Lorena’s rage lives on, simmering just below the surface.