The woman who cut off her husband’s penis after years of alleged abuse is the subject of a new true crime series. Stylist speaks to director Joshua Rofé about why the time is right to revisit her story.
What Lorena Gallo — or Lorena Bobbitt as you might know her best — remembers most about her time in the news cycle are all the jokes. Penis joke after penis joke, jibe after jibe, gag after sensationalist gag.
This is because, in 1993, Lorena cut off her husband John Wayne’s penis while he slept and fled the scene with the dismembered member.
As Lorena later argued in court, the incident occurred after years of alleged domestic abuse and rape. Lorena was frightened of her husband and the power that he had over her. Taking a knife to sever his penis was a desperate, last resort act.
But all the media and, indeed, anyone cared about were the penis jokes. “The cut felt round the world,” People magazine splashed. During the trial, opportunistic bystanders sold boxer shorts emblazoned with the slogan “love hurts”. In a stand-up routine, Whoopi Goldberg skewered Lorena’s decision to admit to the location where she dumped the body part. “I wouldn’t have told them where it was!” Goldberg joked, a sly grin on her face as the audience cheered.
“Even though there were these allegations of horrific domestic and sexual violence, even though Lorena was on the witness stand during her trial giving the most painful testimony imaginable in graphic detail… All anyone could focus on was the cut-off penis.”
Rofé was 11 at the time of the trial, but he distinctly remembers the “perverse false narrative” in the media about her. Now, 25 years after the case was first tried and both Lorena and John Wayne were found not guilty (she of mutilation and he of malicious sexual assault), Rofé believes that the time is right to revisit her story.
Especially, he adds, in light of the #MeToo movement. Not because we’ve learned any lessons in the last quarter of a century about the way women who want to tell their experience of abuse are treated, but precisely because we haven’t.
“Isn’t it horrifying,” Rofé muses, when I bring up #MeToo and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanagh. “Just the things you have mentioned make it so clear that we have learned little to nothing.”
“People refer to this [era] as ‘the reckoning’. And if it is, in fact, we’re just scratching the surface. I don’t think we’re going to know for another quarter century what kind of progress we’re making.”
“If you have conversations with the people in your life, particularly the women, they all have these horror stories and most people just sort of live with that as a buried secret, because look at what a world that is dominated by men does to a woman when they try to unearth that buried secret of their trauma or the abuse or harassment that they have suffered. It’s disgusting.”
Lorena granted Rofé an interview for the documentary after reading his impassioned email pitch.
Rofé wanted to Lorena to finally have the chance to tell her story, without it getting mired in penis gags. He, and executive producer Jordan Peele, wanted the docuseries to spark the conversation about domestic violence and spousal abuse that the case should have sparked in the first place, had it not become sensationalist fodder for the emerging 24 hour news cycle.
The sexist characterisation of Lorena as a foreign vixen, hysterically hellbent on ruining her all-American husband’s life, is a cautionary tale in going beyond clickbait headlines, Rofé says.
It’s the same treatment that some of the Nineties’ other most famous figures — from Monica Lewinsky to Tonya Harding — received. And both Rofé and Peele believe that we are all complicit in this. “There is a third character to this story,” Peele told The New York Times. “And that is us, society, and what we did with the information we had available to us.”
“It’s so easy, especially in this era, to quickly glob onto these salacious headlines,” Rofé explains. “But when we do, we become complicit in the victimisation of people who are often misrepresented… I know that my own personal experience since making this series has been that when I see one of those headlines, even though my initial thought is probably still ‘Oh my God, that is crazy’, I very quickly have a second thought, which is ‘What really happened to lead to this?’”
Rofé is speaking to Stylist.co.uk early in the brisk Utah morning just hours after Lorena’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It was an emotional, highly-charged evening, with Lorena herself in the audience. After all four hours of the series aired, she received a standing ovation.
“Honestly, I’m just so happy for her,” Rofé says. “I think last night was probably one of the first times that she was showered with love and support in the way she should have been not only 25 years ago, but over all these years. To see her get that kind of response, and to see the people… God, they really understood. I don’t even have the words,” Rofé breaks off, apologising. “Sorry, I’ll get emotional on this phone call.”
Rofé wants everyone who watches his documentary to go beyond all the sniggering headlines and all the many, many penis jokes. He wants people to be interested not in the what Lorena did, but the why.
It’s a question that is summed up neatly in a brief moment from Lorena’s first episode. At one point, it emerges that both Lorena and John Wayne are being treated at the same hospital: he for blood loss and penile reattachment surgery, she for a rape kit and shock. A female nurse, who tended to them both, recalled the sight of male police officers refusing to look at the severed penis as they crossed their legs tightly in the hospital corridor.
But she and the other female nurses had a different reaction: “We were just wondering what he did to make her do it.”
Lorena airs on Amazon Prime from 15 February.