The Lorena Bobbitt Case at 25: Why She’s Moved on and John Wayne Hasn’t (2024)

Lorena Bobbitt, photographed in Gainesville, Virginia. “The media was focusing only on the penis,” she says. “I wanted to shine the light on spousal abuse.”

Photograph by Mark Mahaney.

The case was an immediate sensation. How could it not have been? It was Lysistrata as performed by an especially raucous set of guests on the Jerry Springer show. Or maybe you saw it in more prosaic terms, a run-of-the-mill marital spat with a Grand Guignol twist. Either way, its cultural influence is pervasive, abiding, undeniable. You can find allusions to it in Philip Roth’s misanthropic masterpiece Sabbath’s Theater (1995), in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), also a misanthropic masterpiece, and in the Eminem song “Evil Twin” (2013), among other unlikely places, including a field guide to marine invertebrates. (It has a namesake worm, one that attacks prey with jaws that resemble scissors.) And soon it will be the subject of a four-part docuseries on Amazon, executive-produced by Academy Award winner Jordan Peele. This thing that happened 25 years ago tells us all we need to know about the current moment—politics, celebrity, #MeToo, reality TV, fake news, POTUS, runner-up POTUS . . . the works. You probably think of the principal players as either symbols or laughingstocks—she a personification of female victimization or a psycho bitch, he the living incarnation of male brutality or the poster boy for unlucky in love. The truth is, as always, considerably more complicated. Understand these two as caricatures and as people and you will begin to grasp the range and possibilities of American life in 2018.

On June 23, 1993, between 3:30 and 4:30 A.M., Lorena Bobbitt, 24, cut off the penis of her sleeping husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, 26, in Manassas, Virginia, a small town 30 miles west of Washington, D.C. She fled the scene, penis in hand, in a 1991 Mercury Capri. At the intersection of Maplewood Drive and Old Centreville Road, she flung the penis out the driver’s-side window, before continuing on her way. The penis landed in a grassy field opposite a 7-Eleven.

We, Bobbitt

How that particular organ wound up across from that particular convenience store on that particular night is a matter of some dispute. John and Lorena could not agree on a common set of facts then, nor can they now, a quarter of a century later. There is only one point on which they see eye to eye: it was a bad marriage.

Lorena Gallo, born in Ecuador in 1969, raised in Venezuela, became besotted with the America she saw in our movies and TV shows. In 1987, she came to the U.S. on a student visa, enrolling in Northern Virginia Community College. She worked as a manicurist at the salon of a local businesswoman, Janna Bisutti. At a dance hall near the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico, Lorena met Lance Corporal John Wayne Bobbitt, of Niagara Falls, New York. The attraction was instantaneous, powerful, mutual. Lorena: “I thought John was very handsome. Blue eyes. A man in a uniform, you know? He was almost like a symbol—a Marine, fighting for the country. I believed in this beautiful country. I was swept off my feet. I wanted my American Dream.” John: “Lorena was pretty. She was innocent. She was real, real sweet.” On June 18, 1989, they wed. The bride was 20, the groom 22.

The union went south quick. Lorena blamed John’s violence: physical (he beat her, she claimed), sexual (he forced her to engage in anal intercourse, and later to undergo an abortion, she claimed), emotional (he threatened to have her deported, she claimed). John, who denies all such allegations, blamed Lorena’s greed. “Lorena was a good wife a lot of the time. But she was obsessed with having her American Dream, her American Dream, her American Dream—she said it all the time. Janna Bisutti had a big house, a cabin cruiser, a Mercedes. Lorena wanted those things. She just wanted too much, too fast.”

In 1991, John was discharged from the Marines and found himself without steady employment. Lorena became the main breadwinner. Their fights escalated. She called 911 (so did he). Lorena was caught embezzling $7,200 from Bisutti (she stole the money out of desperation, she claimed, because she was supporting both her and John). The couple’s house went into foreclosure. They broke up. A year later they reconciled. It didn’t take.

Lorena imposes on her life a new story line, one lifted from the Hollywood movies that so enchanted her as a teenager.

John and Lorena had already agreed to separate again when, in the early-morning hours of June 23, 1993, John returned to their apartment with his friend and houseguest, Robert Johnston, after a night of drinking. Johnston retired to the living room; John to the bedroom, where Lorena was asleep. According to Lorena, John raped her before falling asleep himself. She went to the kitchen for a glass of water. She saw a knife. She used it to cut off his penis. “I didn’t want to teach him a lesson,” says Lorena. “No, it was survival. Life and death. I was fearing for my life.” According to John, the sex was consensual. “I was leaving her for good,” says John. “It was what my mom said—If she couldn’t have me, no one could. And there was the green card, too. That didn’t come to my mind at the time, but it’s obvious. You have to be married to an American citizen for five years to get one, and we’d only been married for four.”

Lorena got into her car and drove to Janna Bisutti’s house, flinging the penis out the window en route. Bisutti called the police, gave them its rough coordinates. Officers recovered it and brought it to Prince William Hospital, where Johnston had taken John a short time before. It was re-attached by Dr. James Sehn, a urologist, and Dr. David Berman, a plastic surgeon, in a near-miraculous nine-and-a-half-hour operation.

On November 11, 1993, a jury of nine women and three men found John not guilty of marital sexual assault. Two months later, on January 21, 1994, a jury of seven women and five men found Lorena not guilty of malicious wounding due to temporary insanity. Both offenses carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

Audiences Say

Legally, the case was a draw. By acquitting both John and Lorena, the judicial system was basically throwing up its hands, admitting it didn’t know who to blame. The public, however, was neither so confused nor so equivocal. Complexity and ambiguity be damned. They wanted a villain—John, an under-employed former Marine barfly with barbells for brains. And a heroine—Lorena, a young woman tipping the scales at 92 pounds who could hardly speak except to weep. This wasn’t life, it was TV. In fact, it was reality TV, or would have been were such a term yet coined.

The case was emblematic of the times: In the early 90s, the gender wars were especially bloody, casualties running high on both sides. Thelma & Louise, the inciting incident of which was a thwarted rape, was the big movie of 1991. That same year, Anita Hill testified about co*ke cans and pubic hairs at the confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Camille Paglia declared Lorena’s deed a “revolutionary act.” Feminists supporting Lorena flashed the V-for-victory sign, then turned it on its side so it became a pair of scissors: snip snip.

CNN aired Lorena’s trial in its entirety. When coverage was interrupted to show President Clinton’s press conference on Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament, the switchboard lit up with calls from irate viewers who didn’t want to miss a single second of the proceedings, the minutiae of the couple’s squabbles—over whether to buy a real Christmas tree or a plastic one, for instance—riveting in their banality. Comedians hadn’t had it so good since a Long Island teenager named Amy Fisher knocked on the door of Mrs. Joey Buttafuoco—and not to sell Girl Scout cookies. Outside the courthouse, vendors hawked Slice sodas and hot dogs, penis-shaped chocolates, T-shirts bearing the legend LOVE HURTS. Lorena expressed the hope that Marisa Tomei would play her in the movie. Once John’s trial wrapped up, he embarked on a 40-city tour in which he participated in “Stump the Bobbitt”—that is, tried to guess punch lines to jokes about his mutilation—went on radio programs, autographed steak knives, and appeared as a judge on Howard Stern’s New Year’s Eve pageant (fellow judges included Tiny Tim, Mark Hamill, and Daniel Carver, the Grand Dragon of the Georgia K.K.K.).

Critics Say

It’s the case that launched a thousand op-eds and very-special-episodes, most of them hand-wringing in tone, dedicated to such weighty themes as Gender Inequality or Female Rage or A Society That Turns a Blind Eye. And a persuasive argument can be made for the Bobbitt story as domestic tragedy. Lorena and her lawyers certainly saw it in those terms: An immigrant girl comes to the greatest nation on earth with stars (and stripes) in her eyes. She marries a local, a pretty-boy brute, who abuses her, routinely, systematically. She takes it and takes it until she can’t take it anymore.

Here’s the thing, though. We Americans are uneasy with tragedy. It brings out our native insecurity. Tragedy is not for the likes of us—too fancy. A few of us might manage to acquire a coat of polish, but deep down we’re simple, plainspoken folk who can’t tell the salad fork from the dinner. And tragedy, according to the classic Aristotelian model, demands, if not nobility of birth, nobility of character. Sure, King Lear can descend from majesty to horror. But can John Wayne Bobbitt, a man with the same name as a cowpoke movie star, a onetime employee of Red Lobster, who uses phrases like “hurtin’ for a squirtin”’ (this in reference to a woman’s desire for org*sm)? No. Because how is majesty possible in such tacky circ*mstances? You can’t fall from the bottom, can you? And yet Lorena and John certainly experienced horror. She suffered in a marriage that was a torment for her, and he could have died, bled to death, or gone through the remainder of his life without the appendage that, for many men, makes life worth living.

John Wayne Bobbitt at his wife’s trial, in Manassas, Virginia, 1994.

By Wilfredo Lee/A.P. Images.

Lorena Bobbitt gives testimony during the trial.

By Jeffrey Markowi Tz/Sygma/Getty Images.

They also, however, experienced farce. An equally persuasive argument can be made for the Bobbitt story as precisely that. It has the rhythms and structures, the wayward energies and emotional madness of low comedy. A wife chops off her husband’s penis, doctors sew the penis back on. He’s charged, she’s charged. Both get off, though conventional logic dictates that if he isn’t guilty, she is, or vice versa. As resolutions go, it’s not just comic, it’s Shakespearean comic. And then there are the details. Exhibit A: when Lorena reached for John’s penis that night, he initially believed she was attempting to administer a hand job (“I thought she was trying to get me hard again”). Exhibit B: as Lorena fled the apartment, she stopped, according to Robert Johnston, to steal $100 and his Nintendo Game Boy. Exhibit C: the mode by which the penis was transported from the side of the road to Prince William Hospital. Says Paul Erickson, John’s media adviser, “The last instructions the medical team gave the police were ‘If you find his missing member, put it on ice and rush it to the hospital.’ I was told later by a charge nurse that after the police found it, they went over to the 7-Eleven and filled a Big Bite hot-dog box with ice and that became the carrier.” Exhibit D: the first words John heard from Dr. Berman upon awakening from surgery: “The operation was a success, but your penis could still turn black and fall off.”

The Bobbitt story is, in fact, horror-farce par excellence. And while the combination isn’t uniquely American, we happen to do it better than anyone else. Just ask Mark Twain or Flannery O’Connor or Richard Pryor or Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

New Dreams

Once her trial ends, Lorena is able to impose on her life a new story line, one that could have been lifted from a Horatio Alger novel, or from the Hollywood movies and TV shows that so enchanted her as a teenager. Hers becomes a tale about making it in America with nerve, pluck, and grit.

After a 45-day psychiatric evaluation, doctors decide that Lorena isn’t a threat to herself or the community. She’s released from the psychiatric hospital. “I had no money, no job,” she tells me, as we sit in the kitchen of her house, a two-story affair in the quiet, suburban town of Gainesville, Virginia, a mere stone’s throw from Manassas. There’s a bowl of fruit on the table, family photos cover the walls. She continues, “I could go back to Venezuela and my parents, but I want my parents to come here for a better life. I have nothing, but I still have my American Dream.” That summer, she becomes a citizen. Her father, mother, brother, and sister are on hand to witness the proud moment. They stay in the hopes of being granted citizenship themselves. Lorena supports them all as an administrative assistant and a manicurist.

A film deal based on her life story fails to materialize, which is O.K. by Lorena. She’s still dazed and blinking from the glare of the spotlight, has no desire to have it trained on her again. She and John divorce. She reverts to her maiden name. While she makes paid appearances in South America, she refuses many lucrative offers in the U.S., including, she says, one from Playboy: a million dollars to pose nude. “My family, we just ate beans and rice and hot dogs because that was the cheapest thing,” she says. “Do you know how much a million dollars would have helped? But I stood up for my beliefs, my integrity, my Catholicism.” If cutting John turned her from a normal woman into a sideshow freak, she’s going to turn herself back, purely through force of will.

John and Trump are the gold standard for a new kind of fame—a knockoff of real Hollywood fame eclipsing the original.

She re-enrolls in community college, where she meets her partner of the last 20 years, David Bellinger: “I didn’t just fall in love with David like I did with John. It was a friendship that grew into love.” In 2005, she gives birth to daughter Olivia. In 2007, she starts a foundation dedicated to the prevention of domestic violence. “The media was focusing only on the penis, the sensationalistic, the scandalous. But I wanted to shine the light on this issue of spousal abuse. When I went to Knoxville [to speak at a symposium for Lincoln Memorial University’s law review], the president of the school introduced me as a celebrity. I said, ‘Thank you, but let me correct you. I am not a celebrity, I am an advocate.’”

What Lorena, 49, wanted with John she got with David: the family—not just her daughter but her brother and sister and parents, all of whom live close by—the job, the home. And the Lorena of today seems like a different Lorena. Gone is the tear-stained child-woman hiding behind the curtain of long dark hair. For one thing, she’s a blonde now. And though slim, she appears not in the least frail. Nor is her personality meek or retiring. In fact, she’s commandingly confident, particularly when discussing the Lorena Gallo Foundation or her support of Hillary Clinton or on being regarded by some as a #MeToo pioneer. And why should she lack for assurance? It’s been, against all odds, nothing but progress and ascension for her since she walked out of the Central State Hospital on March 1, 1994.

The Lorena Bobbitt Case at 25: Why She’s Moved on and John Wayne Hasn’t (2024)
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