On June 23, 1993, something inside of 23-year-old manicurist Lorena Bobbitt snapped.
Her marriage to her husband of four years, John Bobbitt, was simmering with hatred and it had plunged into a terrifying spiral of abuse. The Virginia couple was planning to divorce. She was, she said, frequently subjected to violence and forced into sex.
She’d had enough.
And June 23 was her breaking point. In the early hours of that summer morning, her bar bouncer husband returned home drunk and, according to her, she was raped.
While he dozed off beside her in bed, Lorena made a split-second decision. She stormed into the kitchen to grab a 12-inch knife. Then, she returned to the bedroom and sliced off her sleeping husband’s penis.
As he lay there bleeding, she fled their apartment. Then she jumped in the car and, realising she was still carrying his severed penis, tossed it out the window into a field as she sped away.
The case was destined to become infamous. Almost as soon as the media caught wind of it, it dominated worldwide headlines. A young Latina wife. An all-American ex-marine husband. Sex. Domestic abuse. Unthinkable violence. It contained all the ingredients for a sensationalist, tabloid spectacle.
Lorena could not escape it. Her name became synonymous with cutting off a man’s appendage. ‘Bobbitise’ entered medical literature. Her life became the butt of cruel jokes and friends would laugh about ‘pulling a Bobbitt’.
But while the world chuckled and chose to focus on the lurid details of the case, a hugely important discourse was being left untouched. It should have been an opportunity to launch a global conversation about domestic violence. Instead, the public was cracking penis jokes.
And it wasn’t because Lorena wasn’t trying to talk about domestic abuse. Oh, she tried, and she tried.
“They wanted to talk about his penis, not my story,” she told Huffington Post in a 2016 interview. “Maybe it looked like a reality show from the outside, but we were not in a cast. It was real life.”
Shortly after Lorena mutilated her husband, she realised the gravity of what she'd just done. She called the police. After an extensive search, detectives found John's penis and it was successfully reattached in a nine-and-a-half hour operation.
When Lorena was arrested for questioning, the nature of her volatile relationship with John began to surface.
Lorena, originally from Ecuador, met John in 1989 when she was 19 years old. He was two years older and in the navy. Her English wasn't great, but she found him charming. They were married later that year, and that's when she said things began to change.
According to Lorena, he became verbally, physically and emotionally abusive.
In court in 1994, it was claimed that he beat her so badly she at times looked like she had been maimed by a "wild animal", that he pressured her into an abortion, that he was openly unfaithful to her, that he forced her into anal sex and that he stole her earnings, the LA Times reported.
Her defence team argued that she was driven over the edge by too many sexual assaults during John's "reign of terror".
Police backed Lorena's story, telling 20/20 there had several complaints of domestic violence at the Bobbitt home. In one incident, John was arrested for hitting Lorena in the face.
An army of witnesses also supported Lorena's claims, saying they had seen bruises and swelling all over her body, the LA Times reported. Friends said they'd seen her "really scared and crying" and that she grew visibly fearful when her husband approached.
"You could see the fear in her. It was obvious she was having a terrible time," one woman said.
Others said John had privately admitted he got excited by forced sex that involved "hitting women in the behind, making them scream, making them bleed and making them crawl", according to the Washington Post.
Hours before the castration, a neighbour gave Lorena some pamphlets on rape. Police later found these on the bedroom dresser.
Lorena was facing 20 years in prison as well as deportation, but her lawyers continued to emphasise one crucial point: she was the victim of constant and relentless violence, she was clinically depressed, and on the night of June 23, she committed an act of desperation, one she was powerless to control. She pleaded not guilty due to insanity causing an irresistible impulse.
During the trial, John tried to make out that his wife was the violent partner, the Washington Post reports. It was a claim that was difficult to make sense of. His 180cm tall, 86kg build swallowed up her slight, 41kg frame.
"I don't believe in violence... I don't have anything to hide," he said in court, shooting his wife a look. "Of course, Lorena does."
He said he didn't remember admitting to several abusive acts to a social worker and denied pleading guilty to an earlier assault on Lorena.
John's lawyer argued Lorena was "vindictive" and calculating, that she hacked off his penis under the thinking: "If I can't have John, no one can."
But the jury wasn't buying it. The evidence of John's tyranny of abuse was overwhelming. Even the prosecution's experts said he had beaten and raped her. Lorena was found not guilty and required to spend 45 days in a psychiatric hospital.
Then, finally, she was free.
After the trial ended, John had a string of jobs in an apparent attempt to capitalise on his newfound notoriety. He started a band, he acted in pornographic films and appeared on TV. Most strikingly, in the years since the case ended, John has been arrested numerous time and convicted twice for domestic violence on ex-partners.
Lorena, however, retreated from the public eye. She remarried, had a daughter, and stayed relatively quiet. She was aggravated at how the media circus around her trial had eclipsed what was at the essence of her story: that she was a victim of domestic violence. And she was one of millions.
But eventually, the punchlines, the T-shirt slogans, the TV parodies and the advertising gimmicks fell away. Domestic violence began to dominate public discourse as a major societal issue. Statistics that one in three women across the globe had experienced violence shocked the world. Laws were tightened, sentences were strengthened and funding was boosted.
In 2009, Lorena seized on the momentum. She founded a charity to help victims of domestic violence, named Lorena's Red Wagon, and she acts as an advocate for abused women while also helping to run a support group in her local area.
Privately she goes by the name Gallo. But publicly, she still uses Bobbitt. It was a name that brought her such pain, but today, she has reclaimed it as a force for good.
"I use that name, the Lorena Bobbitt name, to help others,” she told NBC in 2014. “Something good has to come out of this tragedy like mine.”
Now, tech giant Amazon has commissioned a documentary series on Lorena Bobbitt, hiring Get Out director Jordan Peele as the executive producer.
“When we hear the name ‘Bobbitt’ we think of one of the most sensational incidents to ever be catapulted into a full blown media spectacle,” Peele told Variety.
“With this project, Lorena has a platform to tell her truth as well as engage in a critical conversation about gender dynamics, abuse, and her demand for justice. This is Lorena’s story and we’re honoured to help her tell it.”
And finally, it is being told the way it should have been, all those years ago.
If this brought up any issues for you, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.
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