Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt became the fodder for an international news frenzy after she cut off his penis and threw it out the window of her car.
Jordan Peele's "Lorena" Bobbitt docuseries, premiering today on Amazon Prime in its entirety, is hoping to expand the narrative of this true-crime saga that gripped the nation in the 1990s beyond the severed penis at its center.
In some ways it was a very tedious exploration of the entire sordid saga that began when Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband John Wayne Bobbitt's penis with a knife and tossed it into a grassy knoll, but it certainly stands as the most exhaustive recounting of one of the most sensational cases of all time outside of having lived through it day by day.
"Lorena," directed by Joshua Rofé ("Lost for Life"), doesn't shy away from the aforementioned member, even going so far as to show the same gruesome photos jurors saw of the horrific injury, but it doesn't stop there. For most people today, and for many back then, that severed penis was the beginning and the end of the story, and the root of so many jokes.
The Bobbits very names became punchlines to jokes about a woman scorned, but underneath the salacious and dark, twisted humor the public found in what she did lies a story of domestic violence at a time when women's issues were still not being taken seriously enough.
We were just coming out of the Clarence Thomas scandal that saw his accuser, Anita Hill, vilified in the media, and we were a few years away from the same happening to Bill Clinton's accuser Monica Lewinsky. This was still the era of male power at its zenith with women struggling to have their voices heard and be taken seriously.
And while the #MeToo movement has gone a long way in beginning to shape and change that narrative, "Lorena" tells us that this story nearly began to shape and change that narrative 25 years ago. They just struggled to get anyone to pay attention to any detail other than the severed one.
One could argue we're in an eerily similar situation today with Brett Kavanaugh accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford facing a similar drubbing in some corners as Anita Hill did all those years ago while our president, Trump, has made horrifying statements about women ("grab them by the p---y") with no consequences. At the same time the toppling of Harvey Weinstein and the burgeoning #MeToo movement has seen real action taken against abusers.
It's clear that one of the key messages of this documentary is to illuminate how far we haven't come since this lurid scandal helped create the tabloid news cycle of today, and how easily we can be distracted from the real issues underlying a story if it has a detail in it as lurid as a severed penis.
Neither Bobbitt was found guilty of the crimes they were charged with in this case, but they both became victims of media notoriety. It would haunt them for years to come, and their names remain as alive today as they were a quarter century ago. But what do people really know about the case and the two people who were at the heart of it?
"Lorena" smartly doesn't try to confront the discrepancies in their stories. And it mostly stays away from challenging either party during the toughest allegations, which can be frustrating at times when you really want to know what one or the other has to say about this. What it does well, though, is allow both parties to reveal themselves slowly so that by the end of it, you can reach your own conclusion.
Is that conclusion somewhat manipulated into your head? Perhaps a little bit, but if so, it's done the same way it would be done in a trial, with hard evidence and allowing the parties to speak in their own words. They don't tell you who to believe, but we feel pretty confident some people are not going to be happy with how their story came out in this narrative.
Well worth the watch, if a little long overall, "Lorena" is a fascinating look at how one strange case revealed the shallowness of the populace and the media that is supposed to serve it, and tried its best to shine a light on what this story should really be about.
Check out the 13 most fascinating, bizarre or downright startling facts about the Bobbitts revealed in the doceseries below:
While the docuseries gets more serious as it goes on, even John Wayne Bobbitt himself was laughing when talking about his own penis getting cut off. And he wasn't the only one.
The urologist who helped reattach it, Dr. James Sehn, was laughing when talking about how his original plan was to sew John up so he'd have to sit down to pee for the rest of his life.
It was the problem with this narrative then and it is still a problem. We can be very juvenile when it comes to what we focus on. As a society, we are obsessed with sex tapes and leaked nudes and anything salacious to the detriment of more serious issues and concerns.
Obviously it was the most lurid detail of the crime, but it was also not a word that anyone was comfortable with yet.
Dispatchers recalled being hesitant to use it during calls out to their officers that they needed to track it down if John Wayne was to have any hope of it being reattached. "Apparently the hospital needs it ASAP to try and salvage this man's dignity," they said.
When the story finally broke, the media found themselves faced with a word that traditionally they would never use in a news story, and yet it was such a crucial piece of the story, they struggled to get around it. "At the time, you could not say penis, you did not say that in family newspapers," said local newspaper reporter Vonda Vandaveer, "So how do you refer to this body part?"
Lorena's attorney James Lowe said, " I think this was the first time that word came out of the closet in American culture in the New York Times."
Bobbitt Names Nearly Not Released
It is thanks to one fateful decision that we've even ever heard the names John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt. At the time, Lorena was obviously charged with cutting off his penis, but he was also being charged with domestic violence. In those types of cases, the names of the victims are left out of the media, and that was the case here as well ... for awhile.
"Then I learned one day that Lorena had hired a public relations firm," said Washington Post journalist Carlos Sanchez. "I called my editors and let them know of this development and the editors said, 'Okay, if she's hired a publicist, then she knows that we're going to use her name. She wants her name used.'"
That started an avalanche of publicity that quickly overwhelmed the town of Manassas, Virgina where the crime and both trials were set to take place.
It was a common thread that went from his own attorney, through friends and colleagues and even his own father. Even his defenders were saying, nice guy but not the sharpest crayon in the box. His own attorney said, "John is not capable of telling a lie because he can't do the complexity that's required to sell a lie."
The prosecuting attorney, who interestingly enough tried both cases, said of John, "He wasn't the brightest bulb that ever burned."
Later in life, he found himself working at a club where they tried to cross-train him in other positions. "We were trying to teach him behind the bar, but he wouldn't retain too much information," said his boss Madam Suzette. "He was kind of ADD and scattered a little bit."
They then tried to have him drive the limo, but that wound up an actual wreck. "You give him a job to do and he doesn't realize the gravity of it," said another coworker. "That if you're supposed to drive the limo, you're supposed to drive the limo. You don't let like an 18-year-old drunk girl drive the limo for you."
When Sensational News Became News
"CNN was kind of the dominant news broadcaster at the time," Sanchez said. "For the first time, I think CNN was feeling the pressure to compete with these tabloid channels and tabloid programs." It was the era of syndicated tabloid shows on broadcast television and across the expanding cable landscape.
And suddenly, here was a story that people were eating up. It wasn't hard news, but it was hard to resist that it drew viewers in huge numbers. This was one of the first instances of the public telling the news media what news they wanted and the media actually listening, rather than tell them the news the media felt they needed to know.
"When CNN cut away to coverage of arms talks they were deluged with complaints about how could they do so," said Newsweek journalist David Kaplan. "The public obviously wants this crap, but in my view, it's crap. It's about arousal."
At the same time, he doesn't have a problem with the line blurring between entertainment and journalism. "Not everything has to be spinach. There's nothing wrong with tabloid stories."
"There is this notion that people in a newsroom are smart enough to weigh the pressures of competition against ethical considerations," Sanchez added. "But the pressures of competition will always win."
Lorena's trial in the assault on John was scheduled to air December 23, but her aforementioned publicist Alan Hauge -- who inadvertently got her name revealed -- didn't like that at all.
"I said, nobody's going to watch this at Christmas-time, you've gotta be kidding me," Hauge recalled. "Move it into January. If you look at Nielsen ratings, viewership goes way down because people are out shopping or they're with their families and all that."
Later, Hauge dropped a bombshell accusation about Barbara Walters after refusing to allow her to speak with Lorena. He said he told Walters, "'You're part of the Illuminati, you're part of the Trilateral Commission, you're part of the feminist movement. Those are all things I don't want Lorena to have anything to do with. I just want her to be able to tell the story."
And yet there was zero follow up on those conspiracy-theory driven claims.
Nevertheless, the trial got bumped to January, prolonging the process for both Bobbitts, for the sake of television ratings. This is where things were truly sidetracked from the legal process toward the spectacle and sensational and profit-driven side of things.
"Sixty percent of the country was paying attention," Kaplan added.
Prosecution Gave Defense Star Witness
According to Regina Keegan, who became a key witness in Lorena's defense, they have the prosecuting attorney to thank for it. She recalled seeing Lorena as a client a few days before the trial, noticing bruises and having Lorena confess to her systemic abuse at the hands of John.
When she called the court, she got Paul Ebert, who was trying the case against Lorena. "I told him the story. He said, 'Son of a bitch, if I had had this I could have nailed that bastard,'" Keegan recalled. "I'm going to give you a phone number and I want to you to call this phone number. It belongs to Mr. Blair Howard." Howard was Lorena's defense attorney.
"He could have buried me," Keegan continued. "He could have just said, 'Goodbye, Mrs. Keegan, thank you for calling. He was the one that said, 'You can't help me, but you can help Lorena.'"
Ebert neither confirmed nor denied Keegan's claim, saying, "Just like any other case, you just go for it and see what happens. And that's what we did." He then cracked a smile. "The state's doctor that we were relying on, changed his testimony in the middle of the trial, for one reason or another."
Keegan chimed in on this development, too. "He told that psychiatrist to call me," she said. "I know he did because that psychiatrist said, 'Mr. Ebert told me to call you and speak with you."
Clay Cocalis, the foreperson in Lorena's trial, believes that many on the jury did not buy Lorena's version of events, nor did they think she was temporarily insane.
"I was the only holdout," Cocalis said. "Most of the jurors, whether they would admit to it or not, might have thought that Lorena was guilty, but they didn't want to see her punished because of the way her husband John had treated her in the past.
"They felt that he got what he deserved. Ultimately I kind of just acquiesced and said, 'Okay.'"
Hiding a Dead Body
"There's two sides to him," said Dennis Hof, the owner of the club John worked at. The really, really nice guy, mild-mannered, really pleasant. Then, the stone fucking asshole. From nice guy to fucking asshole in three drinks."
Another coworker echoed that story, saying, "When he drank he became very verbally and physically abusive." But it was a different coworker who would tell the most harrowing story of the entire series.
This female coworker told the story of how she helped set John up with an apartment back near his family and she financially supported him, paying rent and everything, for a couple of years.
I had come back to make sure that the apartment was going to be taken out of our name into just his name. John flew off the handle and he beat me with just about everything that was loose in that apartment. John forcibly took me out onto the balcony and pushed me over the edge of the balcony and was holding onto me by my lower legs, dangling me over the balcony, threatening to drop me. People in the street saw what happened. He pulled me back up by my hair, by my limbs, drug me across the railing. I was thrown into the bedroom, I was tied to the bed, stripped. He repeatedly raped me, he sodomized me, he told me that I was his Lorena now and neither she nor I or anyone he had been with would ever escape him. After three days of almost endless torture, I thought if I played dead he would just leave me be, and after trying to rile me and talk to me and checking to see if I was still breathing, he untied me and he started gathering sheets like he was going to wrap me up in them to hide my body. And when he had me completely untied he started to make his way to the door and I ran.
John's response in the documentary to this story was consistent: "I never used violence against another person pretty much ever," he said. "There's probably a lot of women who were victimized, women who were legitimately victimized by men, alcoholics, abusive guys."
"But there's women who are opportunist gold diggers that use it as a stepping stone to advance their career. Just like the immigrant that marries a guy. When it's not working out, they can do the same thing as the gold digger." This, of course, was referring to Lorena.
John Was Abused
John gave a lot of confusing answers, but at one point he started to open up about some details from his own life without even realizing what he was saying, and even possibly contradicting his own earlier denials.
"I could kind of relate to Lorena because my mother went through the same thing," he said. "There is a lot of anger in my family with my dad and he was abusive. My uncles would come over and beat him up because he was being violent or touching their sister or whatever. Eventually he ended up leaving and my mother had a mental breakdown."
According to John, he and his brothers wound up living with their aunt and uncle with their mother showing up at holidays for awhile before fading away altogether. But it didn't stop there.
"Then we had a pedophile uncle that kind of abused us," he continued. "We were six, seven, eight. He's passed away now, but we were young, alcohol was involved and he molested some of us. We don't talk about it, you know, so, yeah, so, yeah. Yeah."
While Lorena has moved on with her life, and John says he has to, she had a stack of letters and evidence of text messages and emails he's sent her through the years. "I think she contacted me first asking me basically how much money I had and this and that, so, I really didn't get into it," John said. "And then later I tried to contact her for closure."
At this point, though, the film showed a lengthy text message he sent to her that said, among other things, "We would make a lot of money if we got back together again." He also talked about how much the media would love it if they had a baby together. He even speculated about what a romantic love story it would be should they reconnect.
"It's like, leave me alone," Lorena said. "It's like, I cut his penis off. Just leave me alone."
Lorena Works with Abuse Survivors
Lorena says she's finally found her path in life. She is married and has the family she's always wanted. But she truly found her passion when she first stepped into a women's shelter. "I started to go to shelters and talk about my experience as a victim of domestic violence," she said.
"It was difficult at times to share the stories, but the more I talked to them, the more I found out that their stories are the same as mine. I realized that I'm not alone and I wanted to keep talking more about it. I was getting stronger and stronger. I was healing and that's what lift me up and that's how I did it."
"I basically serve people," she said. "To me it was very important to give, you know, anything."
There Are Still Few Definitive Answers
Early on in the documentary, Lorena's credibility was called into question many times. There are allegations that she had fabricated her stories of domestic abuse and even that she had cut her underwear with scissors to corroborate her story that he had ripped them off.
Later, John's credibility was trashed on multiple occasions and the docuseries could do nothing to give viewers any clarity as to what really did or didn't happen aside from that one part we know for sure happened, but we don't even have that full story. John says he was exhausted and she tried to make sexual advances on him. She says he was drunk and raped her.
Lorena's story is that she suffered temporary insanity after this latest assault and cut off his member. She also says she has no recollection of anything after she saw the knife in the kitchen. Is that how it happened? We'll never know for sure and this documentary doesn't really care. Insane or not, the narrative here is that many believe she was justified in what she did after suffering years of abuse.