Lorena Bobbitt Shines a Spotlight on Domestic Violence for a New Generation
Few women have done more to propel domestic abuse and marital rape into the public consciousness than Lorena “Bobbitt” Gallo. Now she's doing it on her own terms and sparking the discussion for a new generation.
After the infamous incident in June 1993, she was charged with “malicious wounding” for severing her then-husband John Wayne Bobbitt's penis while he slept. Earlier that night, she says, he raped her. After a slew of witnesses testified to the physical and psychological damage John inflicted upon her, she was found not guilty based on a temporary insanity claim of “irresistible impulse.”
As diagnosed by doctors, Lorena, then 24, suffered from battered woman syndrome, a term coined by Lenore Walker, founder of the Domestic Violence Institute. The mental state stems from a three-phase cycle 1) a tension between batterer and the woman 2) violence against the woman and 3) finally a series of apologies, pleas for forgiveness and promises not to do it again.
This cycle of fear and abuse were not what made headlines. Instead the news was filled with bad penis puns. The lurid details overshadowed all in a tabloidization of the news media on par with the sensational coverage of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearing and O.J. Simpson murder stories, before and after. Pundits exacerbated divides in public opinion for and against each side, usually a so-called “battle of the sexes.” John, a former U.S. Marine, was clearly the victim. Lorena, who emigrated from Venezuela, was the suspect, and under intense scrutiny. She was caricatured as a “hot-blooded” Latina and painted as John's lawyers would have it: irrational and sexually unsatisfied. Both were punch lines. The real question of the incident never seemed to come up: What would drive a woman to cut off her husband's penis?
“A lot of people miss what happened, you know. The essence of it was domestic violence. It's a story of survival.” Lorena tells CHICA.
Even a concerted effort by women's groups, such as National Network to End Domestic Violence (1990), and sympathetic reporters (she names Carlos Sanchez from Washington Post as a male one) couldn't penetrate what appeared to be a wall of news editors reveling in salaciousness-for-profit. As Lorena sees it today, some journalists wanted to write the right story, but “their boss or their supervisors were often men who weren't sympathetic about domestic abuse and sexual assault and marital rape. And they're just looking to make it appeal to the general public and make it sensationalistic. Shocking details, and sell it that way.” The focus was on John's “detached appendage,” not exposing social epidemics.
This patriarchal media machine seemed to mobilize in defense of its manhood throughout the sex-related scandals of the 1990s. This was before social media, a time of gatekeepers as well as TV newsmagazines, such as Inside Edition and Hard Copy. It was the heyday of Court TV, and CNN had to follow suit to grab market share. Lorena counts Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky among her peers, two other women who can relate to the sad irony of having their truth hijacked by an incessant, judging, ratings-obsessed, male-dominated press.
With a documentary released on Amazon Prime February 15, Lorena has been able to reclaim her story. Executive-produced by Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele and Get Out fame) and directed by Joshua Rofé (Lost for Life), the four-part series gives a comprehensive and even-handed approach to the narrative surrounding the event. The producers did their research, conducting many interviews with people affiliated with the case that Lorena never met (a team “knocked on doors and approached people at gas stations” according to a Hollywood Reporter interview with Rofé).
Lorena's past is described: She was born in Ecuador, and her family moved to Venezuela when she was 7. After graduating high school, the 18-year-old emigrated to Virginia on a student visa, staying with family friends. She learned her new language through English Second Language (ESL) and watching soap operas and game shows. She met John Bobbitt at a Marine Corps Ball dance (he was a lance corporal), and 10 months later they married — she was 20; he was 22. With a job at as a manicurist a nail salon, she would become the breadwinner.
Though she's the series protagonist, the documentary offers John — who tried to capitalize on his fame by going into the porn industry, followed by a stint at the Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada — a chance to speak. He describes the physical abuse he suffered from his parents when he was a child. One interviewee mentions that John was a nice, mellow guy when sober, but changed drastically after a couple drinks. As we see John accused of kidnapping and raping other women and sentenced to jail time, the viewer is left with little doubt about how Lorena suffered at his hands. (John had been acquitted of rape on the night of the incident, and he continues to deny the physical abuse.)
One reason she endured the abuse, aside from her mental state? He threatened to have her deported. We learn how important Lorena's “American dream” is to her before trial when she turns down a plea deal that could jeopardize her chances at becoming a U.S. citizen, despite a 20-year possible sentence. She didn't want to go back to South America.
As myriad reviews of the documentary have mentioned, the series is a clear indictment of a frothing yet negligent news media. The two-faced nature of the news-entertainment complex is succinctly depicted in a scene where she visits the Steve Harvey show, and the host can't help but grasp at the low-hanging fruit.
As she says in the fourth episode: “When I go on Steve Harvey I know what I'm getting into. I know the jokes are going to be there, but as long as I shine a light on domestic violence — how bad it is — it's worth it.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), citing a 2014 report for the U.S.: “1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services….” That's more than 30 million women in this country.
Not only does the Lorena series act as her public vindication and represent her own savvy use of media platforms, it places domestic violence in the spotlight again. It is the most effective, far-reaching advocacy that she can do.
Lorena is passionate about making sure victims of domestic violence are aware of every resource available. She created the nonprofit Lorena Gallo Foundation and visits shelters in her community in northern Virginia. She goes to the sheriff's office, assesses pamphlets and discusses how resources that victims need are always changing.
“There is a lot of work to be done,” she says, noting that, some elected officials still opposed the Violence Against Women's Act. “That's because some of them don't know how widespread this issue is. And also, we get distracted by the politics.” The most important thing is for victims to know they are supported, and there's support at all levels of government. “Congress recognizes them,” she says.
One reason she did the documentary: “I wanted to create awareness because … I talked to women. When I go to the shelters, I hear the stories, they hear mine.”
Her story involves abuse that took place before the 1994 Violence Against Women's Act (VAWA). “I'm glad I helped push that law. That was amazing that something good came out of the bad situation. And I was happy to hear that there was the creation of laws to protect women.”
In the early 1990s, the laws and resources she needed didn't exist. “During the time that I was abused, I called 911 many times, and no one could help me. The dispatcher had no idea how to help me. Where to send me, to a shelter? There were no shelters in my community for domestic violence. We didn't have the resources we have now.” Today there are interpreters for more than 100 languages and videophones for the deaf, for example. “We didn't have cellphones.” she says. “Today with the touch of our fingers, we have access to shelters, to resources that tell us where to look for help.”
Along with the Me Too wave, her story continues to destigmatize the taboo of talking about sexual assault. “People are becoming stronger and raise their voices up.” With the resources and movements around today, Lorena tells battered women that there is hope. “Silence is not an option anymore.”
In our phone call with Lorena, she addressed several domestic violence related topics with CHICA. With a passionate concern in her voice, she is willing and able to discuss the subject at length.
On advice for victims:
“The best thing to do is to contact the resources that we have like a national domestic hotline, available 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I advise them to talk, talk to friends, neighbors, coworkers can also help, volunteers. Speak up, because it's very important not to be silent.” (Today around 20,000 calls come into domestic violence hotlines a day in the U.S. according to NCADV.)
“People think domestic violence only happens to the poor or people who do not have resources. It basically happens to women everywhere. Domestic violence does not discriminate. It happens to the rich, the middle class, the poor. It happens to the members of the LGBTQ-plus community. It happens to men too, but more to women…. It's a whole worldwide epidemic.”
“They show statistically when there's a gun in the house then situations of domestic violence it increases the risk of homicide by more than like 500 percent, which is ridiculous. We need to do something about that. For example, there is not a day that passes by that I see in the newspaper that a victim is threatened by a gun or an act of DV in my community.”
On men: “Men need to be involved to find a common ground on gender equality. Men have to be involved in women's issues as well. This is very important.”
On education: “We need to work [domestic violence discussions] into education. We need to educate our children in schools and colleges, universities. And we basically start at home too. Have a candid talk between mothers and daughters.”
“Many women, as immigrants, they are the vulnerable ones because they are afraid to call police, and they are threatened by their abusers to get them out of the country, to get them deported. In many cases they are very afraid to report to police officers, and I understand the situation because I was an immigrant and my husband did threaten me, to send me back to Venezuela or Ecuador…“
The next generation
Lorena is very pleased with the documentary, though it obviously evokes painful memories: “I cried every time I watch it obviously. During the time I was in treatment. We were doing the retelling. They show my trial and I was so young and my mother instinct wanted to hug the young Lorena.” In lieu of her younger self, she has her 13-year-old daughter to hug. “She saw the documentary, and it was beautiful because she understood. I feel free. I felt that she needed to know. As a mother, I know that she's going to grow into a woman and go to college and I want her to go to college. And I want her to know that there are resources, there are laws to protect her.“
Speaking of the next generation, she hopes the series creates change for the future and brings more awareness to “the millennials who don't know. Most of them were kids or weren't even born when my situation happened, they are now 25, 26, 27 years old. Even my producers, they were 10, 11, 12 years old. Jordan Peele…and Josh Rofé, they were kids. They grew up just knowing that this woman cut off somebody's penis, and then they didn't know what happened, the essence of the story. These children grew to be men involved in social issues like this … So now they're telling my story, and it's an amazing story and I'm happy with it.”
If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at
1-800-799-SAFE (7233), TTY 1−800−787−3224.
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