MANASSAS, Va. >> Lorena is very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. There, she said as she drove us around in her Kia on a recent afternoon, was the hospital where surgeons reattached John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis after she cut it off with a kitchen knife as he slept on the night of June 23, 1993.
Fifteen minutes away was the gravel-strewn field where she disposed of the detached penis out the driver’s side window. So, why did she throw it away? I asked. “I tried to drive the car, obviously, but I had this thing in my hand so I couldn’t drive so I got rid of it.” Obviously.
Further down the road, is the nail salon where she worked and fled to that night. “I’m not a vindictive person because I told them where it was,” Lorena Gallo, as she is now known, said. By “them” she means the police who, sometime after 4:30 a.m., went digging through the overgrown roadside grass for the missing member. They found it, put it on ice in a Big Bite hot dog box from a nearby 7-Eleven and rushed it to the hospital where in a 9 1/2-hour feat of surgery it was reattached and restored to (almost) full function.
These are the details everyone knows. It’s the actual story, Lorena said — the one about a young immigrant who endured years of domestic violence, was raped by her husband that night, had nowhere to go and finally snapped — that she wanted to talk to me about.
“They always just focused on it …” — as in her husband’s detached and reattached and then, a couple years later, surgically kind-of enlarged penis. That was all the media, before now, wanted to talk about. “And it’s like they all missed or didn’t care why I did what I did,” she said.
Lorena is correct, of course, that most people forget that before she was tried for what she did, John was charged with marital sexual assault. (He was acquitted.) And, she is correct that people forget that a jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.
We forget about the string of witnesses at her trial who testified that they had seen bruises on her arms and neck and that she had called 911 repeatedly and that John had bragged to friends about forcing his wife to have sex. In the years since the trial, he was arrested several times and served jail time for violence against two different women.
“This is about a victim and a survivor, and this is about what’s happening in our world today,” Lorena told me.
That is the story she tells in “Lorena,” a four-part, Jordan Peele-produced documentary that will debut on Amazon Prime Video on Feb. 15. And that is why she took a break from her work at her nonprofit, Lorena’s Red Wagon, that helps survivors of domestic violence, to show me where it all went down.
It has been 26 years since Lorena Bobbitt, a 24-year-old wounded bird of a woman with dark, wiry hair and sad, penetrating eyes became enshrined in the annals of popular culture. Today, even though she has physically transformed — now the picture of an upwardly mobile 49-year-old suburban mom with wispy blond hair — she has the same, sad, dark, orb-like eyes. And even though she goes by her maiden name and the media moved on (thank you, Tonya Harding), people meet Lorena in Manassas, and it doesn’t take long for them to make the connection that she is that Lorena in Manassas.
For a woman who has been a punch line for most of her adult life, Lorena “Bobbitt” Gallo is a surprisingly sincere person. That afternoon we grabbed coffee near the courthouse where in 1994 the world’s media had descended to cover the Bobbitt trial, and where inside Lorena, originally from Ecuador, trembled as she told a jury about how her husband, a former Marine, had repeatedly assaulted her.
In 1994, after she served a brief, mandated stint in a mental hospital, Lorena went back to her life as a manicurist. The nail salon, after all, had been Lorena’s refuge before and after the trial. She would talk to clients and learn that they, too, had been victims of domestic abuse. “That’s when I realized what happened to me could’ve happened to any woman in a desperate situation,” Lorena said.
She later did hair and sold real estate. She attended her Catholic church regularly and went to community college, where she met David Bellinger. The two were study partners and friends for years before they became romantically involved. The couple now have a 13-year-old daughter.
John went on to star in pornographic films (“John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut” and “John Wayne Bobbitt’s Frankenpenis”). He became a fixture on “The Howard Stern Show.” Lorena did some press, but mostly resisted offers to turn their castration saga into a film or TV series. She turned down $1 million to pose for Playboy.
The filmmakers who approached her over the years never wanted to focus on the abuse, the story she really wanted to talk about. Even though the “War of the Bobbitts,” as People magazine called it, happened two years after Anita Hill inserted sexual harassment into the conversation and “Thelma & Louise” turned a housewife and a waitress into renegade icons of female revenge, most people never really thought of Lorena in those terms.
Then, in 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested and later acquitted in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. That same year Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act. “The national dialogue that started with Anita Hill, Lorena Bobbitt, O.J. Simpson, finally created a national discourse that gave us some traction on legislation,” said Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
That was the version of the story that Joshua Rofé, a documentarian who had made “Lost for Life,” about juveniles serving life sentences in prison, wanted to tell. He explained that to Lorena when he reached out to her in December 2016, after reading about her work with domestic violence victims in HuffPost. They talked for nearly a year before Lorena decided the climate was finally right to tell her side.
It just so happened that at the same time, a wave of movies, documentaries and podcasts (“I, Tonya,” “The Clinton Affair,” “Slow Burn”) had shined new light on other women engulfed in scandals in the 1990s. “We were vilified by the media, vilified, and that is so sad. It happens to women,” Lorena said. Maybe, she figured, her story could finally get equal billing to John’s penis.
Not long after Peele won an Oscar for “Get Out,” Rofé casually brought up his fixation with reassessing Lorena Bobbitt. Peele devoured ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” and saw the makings of something similar in Rofé’s project. “I loved the way that used 25 years of hindsight to look at this case that we thought we all knew, and I thought this spoke to gender dynamics in the way ‘O.J.’ peeled back the layers of racial dynamics,” Peele said.
The documentary mostly unfolds in 1993, the dawn of Court TV and a proliferation of gossipy daytime talk shows. “There is a third character to this story besides Lorena and John, and that is us, society, and what we did with the information we had available to us,” Peele said.
“Lorena” ends with the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, but the narrative itself doesn’t take a side. It relies on news footage and interviews with Lorena. John is extensively interviewed, too, from his home in North Las Vegas. He has maintained that he planned to divorce Lorena and that after he denied her sex that night, in a vengeful rage, she cut off his penis while he slept.
John said he hadn’t seen “Lorena,” but he said the filmmakers had set him up to make him look bad. “She was never abused; she was always the abuser, and she cut off my penis because I was going to leave her,” he said.
Back in the car, as Lorena pointed out the hospital where John had his surgery and where, just down the hall, she underwent a rape kit, I asked her if she regretted what she did. “How can you regret something you didn’t mean to do?” she said.
But I didn’t just mean did she regret committing the act. I meant, did she regret making John Wayne Bobbitt a household name? Did she regret giving him a modicum of fame and a small but steady lifelong income? “I don’t think I have anything to do with whatever he chooses to do with his life, you know, after the incident,” she said.
“The incident” — that is what Lorena calls the shocking crime that still makes many men grasp their crotch and assume she must be serving a life sentence. Before she agreed to put “the incident” back into the public’s imagination, Lorena talked to Peele, who explained to her that there would, inevitably, be comedy in this retelling.
“Lorena,” Peele told me, fits with his larger mission to make films that give voices to marginalized people, but it’s impossible not to acknowledge that the story has the dark, tragicomic underpinnings of a Coen brothers’ movie. “I’d be lying to you if I said there’s not humor in this story,” Peele said. He asked Lorena if she was OK with that. She told him she was.
“I was the subject of so many jokes in the ’90s, and to me it was just cruel,” she said. But a couple decades later, Lorena understands that the reason she has a platform is because of the detached penis. “I’ll put myself through the jokes and everything as long as I can shine a light on domestic violence and sexual assault and marital rape,” she said.
It occurred to me that there would be no documentary, no Bobbitt jokes or permanent place in popular culture, had John severed some vital piece of Lorena.
“They laugh,” she said several times during our afternoon together. “They always laugh.”