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‘Lorena’ Transforms a Punchline Back Into a Person

Plus some other random thoughts about the superb, poignant new Lorena Bobbitt documentary series

As someone who came of age in the 1990s, I resent the growing waves of nostalgia for the Clinton years. Whether it’s Weezer’s recent comeback or the steady stream of rebooted movies from the era, that decade is being cynically repackaged to aging Gen-Xers and their kids, who are growing tired of 1980s recycling and now want to sample their parents’ Pavement records and claim Friends as their own. In hindsight, who wouldn’t be fond of the 1990s, a decade of relative prosperity, a time before 9/11 and America’s endless War on Terror? Everything was so much simpler back then, apparently. Of course, that’s not true at all, but people wearing rose-colored glasses about the past aren’t so interested in reality.

Among its other considerable achievements, the new Amazon documentary Lorena stabs at the heart of such gooey nostalgia. The four-part, four-hour series, directed by Joshua Rofé and executive produced by Jordan Peele, is chiefly a sobering reassessment of Lorena Bobbitt, who the culture largely remembers as the woman who cut off her husband’s dick. As an aforementioned ‘90s kid, I remember what a punchline she (not to mention her ex-husband John Wayne Bobbitt) was back then. Lorena restores Lorena’s dignity, not only aligning her ordeal with the modern-day #MeToo movement, but perhaps more crucially, eviscerating the smug, lazy, sensation-driven treatment she received at the time. It’s easy to wag your finger at “the media” as the cause of all social ills. But Rofé doesn’t stop there, indicting a culture that used Lorena as the butt of too many jokes while never listening to what she had to say.

Much like O.J.: Made in America, another documentary about a very 1990s tabloid event and subsequent trial, Lorena goes beyond the headlines to offer the context for why this salacious incident occurred. Unlike the O.J. Simpson film, though, Rofé is able to speak to the participants, conducting lengthy sit-down interviews with both Lorena and John (separately). Even if you haven’t seen them (or thought about them) in years, it’s remarkable how little these people have changed over time. John’s hair is receding, and Lorena looks more composed and comfortable than she did back then — who could blame her? — but they’re almost eerily the same. And now that decades have passed, it’s clear who was most profoundly wronged — and it wasn’t the spouse who lost his penis.

Rofé does something incredibly sneaky in Lorena, which might initially seem off-putting. In the series’ first episode, he retraces the actual incident, on June 23, 1993, in which Lorena cut off her husband’s dick, interviewing medical personnel and law enforcement who were there at the time. Wherever Rofé trains his camera, he finds someone who, years later, still seems deeply amused by the fact that John lost his penis. (Even the doctor who had to reattach John’s member has a chuckle.) We’re made to sorta relish the comic weirdness of what happened, just as the public did back in 1993 when it made big news. And in these moments, Lorena comes across as a little glib. But that attitude is a feint, a way to suck us into the juvenile mindset that consumed so many who became obsessed with this married couple and pressed their noses up against the glass to see what would happen next.

But soon, the terrible truth comes out. Yes, Lorena cut off his penis, but as she explains, that violent act was the delayed, anguished reaction to habitual abuse (verbal and physical) at the hands of John. We hear her stories, but we also hear from their neighbors and friends, who paint John as a sometimes charming guy who could snap. Suddenly, Lorena’s faux-humorousness fades away as we realize the hell Lorena endured. (Occasionally, the series can be downright haunting: One of Lorena’s clients at a local nail salon tearfully recalls seeing her with horrible bruises on her arm, desperately pleading with Lorena to get away from her husband. Lorena told her it wouldn’t do any good — he’d find her.)

From there, Lorena takes us on a tour of how the Bobbitts’ story was told, both in the news and on talk shows. It’s, frankly, loathsome, with so much of the coverage focused on John’s penis and how hilarious/frightening his ordeal was. For a year, the nation seemed consumed with one man’s dick and the audacity of a woman to cut it off — a metaphor for our patriarchal society that, if it happened in fiction, would be dismissed as pathetically on-the-nose commentary. No one comes off well in these archival clips: not Hugh Downs (who seems aghast that anybody would do such a thing); not Howard Stern (who immediately takes John’s side and calls Lorena unattractive); and not even David Letterman (who turns the attack into a Top 10 list). Unsurprisingly, all of them are men, and it’s telling that the few women we see on-air understand exactly what prompted such a violent act.

To be fair, tsk-tsking unenlightened men from 25 years ago is like shooting problematic fish in a woke barrel. Making Lorena Bobbitt a poster child for #MeToo is equally simple. But Lorena digs deeper, exploring why it’s so easy for our society to obsess over the man and sideline the woman in abuse cases. For Lorena, the problem wasn’t just that she was female: Born in Ecuador, she had the unfortunate liability of being an outsider in America, her English broken and her features “foreign.” Sexism and xenophobia conspired to doom Lorena in the court of public opinion, and it’s wrenching to hear from advocates of spousal abuse talk about their inability to get the news media to care about the underlying reasons for Lorena’s assault. But again, we couldn’t stop thinking about that dick.

One would be predisposed to be sympathetic toward Lorena anyway, but Lorena doesn’t oversell that sentiment. She comes across as a quiet, thoughtful woman who has painstakingly moved on with her life. (She now has a teenage daughter with her partner of 20 years.) In the #MeToo age, there’s been many reminders about the importance of not referring to people who have endured abuse as “victims” — rather, they are survivors. Lorena comes across in Lorena very much as a survivor, and not a victim.

Now compare Lorena to her abusive ex-husband, whose life became more and more pathetic after Lorena’s act. Rofé goes out of his way to be charitable to John, who talks about his difficult childhood, in which he suffered abuse, and presumably, went on to perpetuate that cycle of violence in his adult life. Lorena makes room to consider how such monstrousness begets more monstrousness, and how hard those toxic lessons are to unlearn.

But the documentary rightly casts its lot with Lorena. As someone who remembers the Bobbitts’ media circus from my youth, it’s shameful how little of the actual story I knew. Beneath the flash and spectacle of the 1990s — the Bobbitt trial neatly coincided with the rise of cable news, the late-night talk-show wars and the emergence of A Current Affair-style sensationalist newsmagazines — real pain like what Lorena experienced was going on. That kind of trauma tends to get glossed over when we breezily recall bygone eras. But if we’re going to nostalgically revisit the past, we might as well get our disgraceful history correct.

Here are three other takeaways from Lorena

#1. Why do men wince when someone else gets hit in the balls?

While watching Lorena, which obviously includes a lot of talk about John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis (including an image of the severed member), I involuntarily winced many times. This is a common response from men when talk of injured genitalia comes up. (In fact, when I told a MEL colleague I was writing about Lorena, he instinctively winced remembering what had happened to John.) But why do men do this?

Much to my shock, there weren’t 150,000 online pieces explaining the phenomenon. As a result, desperate online folks turn to destinations like Quora and Yahoo! Answers in the hopes of having this eternal question resolved. Funny enough, it’s sometimes women who want answers: About seven years ago, “LatinaAndLovinIt” wrote (sic throughout), “Last night i was watching scream 4 with my guy friend and one of the characters is shot in the balls at one point and writhes in pain and my guy friend cringed and was very uncomfortable at the sight of this but i don’t get it…” The men responding to her had similar explanations, basically offering that the involuntary, pained reaction is out of sympathy. But then you have dudes like this guy, who had this asshole rebuttal: “Try getting poked in the eyeball with a stick. Maybe if your ovaries were on the outside you’d understand. It’s more than pain, it’s a shock to your whole abdomen and usually makes you throw up. Then your scrotum swells up like a grapefruit for several days. Kapiche?”

After doing some digging, however, I finally found a sound scientific explanation. Over at Gizmodo, writer Esther Inglis-Arkell investigated “the neurology behind sympathy pain,” mentioning how an Italian neurophysiologist, Giacomo Rizzolatti, studied the ways that monkeys processed information, with certain neurons being triggered by, say, picking up a peanut. Humans are no different, Inglis-Arkell wrote: “Everyone has a section of their brain that goes ping when they see actions they recognize, whether those actions happen to them or to others.”

And there’s why guys get testicular empathy:

The somatosensory cortex is the part of the brain which deals with direct stimulation from the sensory neurons. Heat, pressure and force are all perceived here. This part of the brain can’t be touched by a mirror response. However, the cingulate cortex and the insular cortex both light up when we observe people undergoing pain and trauma. The cingulate cortex deals with learning and memory. The insular cortex is all about self-awareness and emotion. Between the two of them, they force a person to experience all the unpleasant parts of pain — without the pain itself. You are wired to learn from other people’s pain, because you have a share in it.

Of course, you may be one of those people who finds it hilarious when men get hit in the junk, but John Wayne Bobbitt’s injury is so severe that we share his pain, even if we find him to be a creep.

#2. Let us now remember Sidney Siller, founder of the National Organization of Men.

Among the idiotic talking heads we meet in Lorena’s archival news footage is Sidney Siller, a name I wasn’t familiar with. He founded the National Organization of Men. Just guess what their agenda was.

According to a 1985 Chicago Tribune profile, the National Organization of Men (or NOM) started in the early 1980s, its creation the brainchild of Siller, a New York divorce attorney who’d gone through some tough times in his own marriage:

It all started in 1964 when Siller, himself the father of two children, tried to get a divorce and ran ankles-first into an antiquated New York State law which permitted divorce on one ground only: adultery. That law had withstood revision for more than 175 years. Legal-beagle Siller became one of the architects of the reform movement.

With Siller’s help, the state’s divorce law was liberalized in 1966. He subsequently remarried. But there were still a lot of guys running around with back-breaking alimony obligations, so during the 1960s and 1970s Siller continued the campaign for redress under the aegis of the Committee for Fair Divorce and Alimony Laws, of which he was general counsel.

NOM grew out of that committee, and the organization took aim at feminist groups such as the National Organization of Women. “American men, particularly under the age of 40, have been wimp-ified,” Siller says in the Tribune piece. “They’ve been emasculated by listening to the monologue and rhetoric of the feminist leadership.”

During the Bobbitts’ scandal, he was out there beating the drum for men’s rights and demonizing Lorena, telling The Washington Post, “I think they are championing a true criminal. This woman does not deserve any support. This case is another indication of reverse discrimination and gender bias.” He also wrote a column for Penthouse for more than a decade.

Siller died in 2016 at the age of 89. As best I can tell, NOM no longer exists, which shouldn’t be confused with the current pro-feminist National Organization of Men Against Sexism. In 1985, he was asked about those who criticized his chauvinist beliefs. “I don’t expect to be one of their heroes,” he said of his critics. “They’re hoping that I die and fade away.”

#3. Entertainment Weekly reviewed John Wayne Bobbitt’s porn debut.

In 1994, as John Wayne Bobbitt was struggling for money and hoping to capitalize on his notoriety, he got the idea to go into porn. It was short-lived, but it did produce movies like his starring vehicle, John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut, which was directed by Ron Jeremy. Amazingly, Entertainment Weekly had one of its lead critics, Owen Gleiberman, review the film.

First, some plot: Uncut is a fictionalized version of John losing his penis. (Porn star Veronica Brazil played Lorena.) In the film, John (playing himself) sits in a hospital bed, trying to figure out what happened. “As he languishes, dazed and confused, he’s informed that it will be two years before he can use his newly reattached member,” Gleiberman writes. “But this is a triple-X porn feature — where else would the ‘nurses’ wear hats with red crosses on them? — and so it’s more like two minutes.” And, yes, you do get to see that “reattached member.” Gleiberman offers a full account: “Well, there’s a faint pink scar, but no real stitch marks, no overt sign that it was once separated from itself. Slowly, Bobbitt and one of the nurses begin to grind away, and, yes, ladies and gentlemen, there it is, it’s doing what comes naturally. As a mad scientist once observed … it’s alive!

Gleiberman wasn’t a fan of Uncut, giving it a C, but it went on to become the bestselling adult video of all time. However, he does point out what it was about Uncut, like the scandal itself, that captivated people. “[T]he Bobbitt story emerged as a kind of national myth waiting to happen, a tabloid feminist parable for the era of the dwindling white male,” Gleiberman writes. “In the dream life of the nation, it was the bloody culmination of a 30-year war: for women, the ultimate payback; for men, the ultimate nightmare.”

Thankfully, Lorena gives the proper context and perspective on that bloody culmination.