Even in a world overflowing with d— jokes, the name “Lorena Bobbitt” has proved to be one of the most enduring punchlines that pop culture’s ever had. The extremity of the inciting situation — which left her husband mutilated and both of them on trial — immediately captured the country’s attention and became a genuine phenomenon. The ins and outs of the cases were covered obsessively, kicking off debates and controversy that consumed the media and its consumers alike. And yet, 25 years later, the one detail that most will remember about Lorena Bobbitt is that she once snapped and cut off her husband’s penis. Her experience, for those who don’t remember or weren’t around for the trials, has been reduced to shorthand for the worst thing that a woman scorned could possibly ever do.
But that narrative, as Joshua Rofé’s new docuseries “Lorena” convincingly argues, is a shortsighted and sexist piece of revisionist history. The truth is infinitely more complicated, messy, devastating, and downright infuriating — and not always in the ways one might expect.
Over four episodes that premiered Tuesday at Sundance, Amazon’s “Lorena” traces the histories of Lorena and her husband John, their tumultuous marriage, the muddled cultural conversation bubbling up around consent and abuse, and the many, many ways the media failed all of the above in covering their trials. (His, for marital sexual abuse, was not televised; hers, for mutilation, was.)
By the end it’s abundantly clear that “Lorena,” like Lorena’s own defense team in 1994, sets out to prove that she didn’t cut off her husband’s penis for the hell of it as so many terrified men immediately assumed, but because she was a desperate woman trapped in a horrifically abusive marriage from which she saw no escape. It’s less trying to rewrite history than shine a stark light on it; like “The Clinton Affair” and “Surviving R. Kelly” before it, “Lorena” wants to us to reckon with the wrenching truth of a supposedly juicy tabloid story, and the role that our culture’s fascination with exploiting it played in making it all so much worse.
Having not been cognizant of the case when it happened in 1994, I was ashamed to realize just how much I didn’t know about it. I didn’t know how damning the evidence was that John physically and sexually abused Lorena for years. I didn’t know that Lorena was a Latin American woman terrified that she could lose her chance at citizenship if her husband’s temper flared up too hard one day. I knew, but never quite absorbed, just how gleeful the media at large was when it seized upon the case, from “Vanity Fair” staging photos of an overwhelmed Lorena in a swimming pool to Howard Stern making it his personal mission to redeem John to the point that he held a fundraiser in his honor, complete with a giant penis raising to attention with every donation. (Stern, who declared on air that Lorena was obviously too ugly to rape because she had acne, and Geraldo Rivera, who apparently hounded her with autographed pictures in the attempt to secure an interview, should watch this series and seriously reckon with their own part in causing yet more useless pain.)
None of these facts in and of themselves are inherently surprising. 25 years might have passed, but many of these racist, misogynistic power dynamics remain much the same. Still, it remains jarring and horrifying to see Lorena’s trial and public humiliation play out, both in the past and reflective present.
One of “Lorena” strongest attributes is that it features interviews with not just Lorena and John, but their neighbors and co-workers, first responders and medical specialists, domestic violence experts and comedians, judge and jury. Whenever possible, it juxtaposes images of everyone now, older and a little harder around the edges, versus them all blinking through disbelief at what was unfolding before. None, however, strike quite as hard as Lorena herself. The court footage of her testimony, in which she sobs while trying to recount the specifics of being raped, is especially gut-wrenching — and Rofés lets it be so, playing as much as possible without providing the relief of cutting away.
The series’ attention to detail is painstakingly thorough, which is sometimes to its detriment. In between forceful testimonies and interviews, it lapses too frequently into distracting reenactments of people watching TV, folding laundry, holding hands. That bizarre cutesy affect extends to superfluous directorial flourishes like multiple zoom-ins on a “Virginia is for Lovers” sign, or underlining Catholic guilt with cuts to nuns praying, that aren’t half as clever as they want to be.
The most frustrating thing about these staged gimmicks is that they prove especially unnecessary given the the very real footage and cultural insights that “Lorena” otherwise has in spades. From the beginning of both the docuseries and the trials themselves, there is a deep and obvious divide between those who empathize with Lorena and those who do with John. Nothing sums up that split quite like a nurse who was there the night both of them ended up in the hospital (John to have his penis reattached, Lorena to undergo a rape kit examination). The cops, she recalled, were sitting in the hallway awaiting results with their legs crossed as if to stave off phantom sympathy pains. But the nurses, largely women, were “just wondering what he did to make her do it.”
For some, or even many, Lorena Bobbitt slashing her husband’s penis was never going to be anything but proof that some bitches be crazy. For others, like the women who recognized Lorena’s visceral fear and the men with loved ones who were abuse victims like her, she was emblematic of a survival instinct they understood with a jolt of revelatory horror. As we’ve seen in brutal detail over the past couple years, that extreme split doesn’t just exist today, but continues to thrive. If we don’t acknowledge that and take it seriously beyond buzzwords and jokes and breathless breaking news alerts, there’s no telling how many times this painful cycle might repeat itself going forward.
Docuseries, 60 minutes. Premieres February 15 on Amazon Prime.
Crew: Executive producers: Joshua Rofé, Steven J. Berger, Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, Tom Lesinski, Jenna Santoianni.