Every Tuesday, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
In recent times, there have been some excellent examples of what the true crime genre can do. From the Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America to the BBC’s The Yorkshire Ripper Files, films are being made that investigate the failures of the justice system and the media who report on it, reflecting on crimes against women against the backdrop of an increasingly celebrity-obsessed society. Joshua Rofé’s four-part Lorena, executive produced by Jordan Peele, attempts to follow this blueprint. It’s a story that plugs into contemporary concerns, and is ripe for re-telling. Nuance is badly needed in a case that was bastardised by the tabloids and turned into a punchline by popular culture.
The bare facts read like a 1990s version of clickbait. Lorena Gallo, a teenage Ecuadorian, met and fell in love with John Wayne Bobbitt while in the US on a student visa. They married after a whirlwind romance, but it turned very bad, very quickly. John was abusive – there are disturbing descriptions in the series of extreme sexual violence. One night in 1993, in their home in the small town of Manassas, Virginia, Lorena snapped. She went to the kitchen, picked up a knife, returned to the marital bedroom, and chopped off her husband’s penis.
The first episode details the immediate aftermath of the incident, as first responders were called out to search for the missing appendage. Lorena, in shock, had got into her car still holding the severed member, eventually throwing it out of the window into a grassy lay-by. When found, it was taken to a nearby 7/11, where it was put on ice in a hot dog bag. A nurse describes the almost immediate gender divide as the case came into the hospital, as male staff crossed their legs in sympathy while the female staff wondered what John could have done to provoke such an attack.
What he did was outlined in full at Lorena’s trial, which was televised on Court TV – indeed, according to this documentary, the trial dates were pushed back in order to maximise viewing figures. Outside the courtrooms, feminist groups and the Latina community showed up to offer support to Lorena, standing side-by-side with the small-town entrepreneurs who sold ‘humorous’ T shirt and boxer shorts. They were joined by the inevitable media circus, a circus which John enthusiastically capitalised on for the years to come, with repeated TV and radio appearances.
The Bobbitts’ terrible marriage quickly became the butt of a nation’s joke. Everyone from David Letterman to Robin Williams mined it for material, while Howard Stern staged a New Year’s telethon to raise money for John, designing a ‘penis meter’ that would go up every time a new donation came in. John himself went on to make porn films, got a botched penis enlargement surgery, and had a disastrous stint hosting at a strip club in Nevada. He was also busy adding to his lengthy rap sheet with further assaults on other women who had the misfortune of being involved with him.
Much of this is detailed in the documentary, presumably to highlight the way in which an abuser was feted in the entertainment industry, as an indictment of the nature of modern-day celebrity. But it also points to a failure of the series. While John’s story is given more airtime, Lorena’s quiet interviews take a back seat. It does document the feminist groups who saw the court case as an opportunity to bring domestic violence into the public eye, and to place the Bobbitt case within a wider picture of violence against women – press release after press release was sent to news organisations, overlooked in favour of more salacious headlines. But it’s constantly intercut with John’s story, and the programme finds itself repeating the sins of the past.
What stands out is Lorena’s devastating testimony, shown in court footage, as she details exactly the kind of abuse that her husband meted out. Interviews with friends and neighbours of the couple, many of whom had either experienced spousal abuse or been witness to it in childhood homes, are also powerful reminders of the prevalence of domestic violence. Archive news reports of anonymous women being taken out of their houses in stretchers permeate the series as it continues. In the final episode, we are introduced to Lorena’s “star witness”, Regina Keegan – a stranger who had her nails manicured by Lorena days before the incident, and who could testify to both the injuries she saw on Lorena’s body and the state of mind she was in. Keegan’s fury at the way Lorena was treated is clearly still burning 25 years on, as she describes the public being “entertained on the fodder of someone else’s real human suffering”.
Lorena’s victimisation is not obscured by this documentary, and it’s not an easy watch – not only because it’s hard to hear the details of her abuse. The other early 90s cases referenced here include the Anita Hill hearings, the William Kennedy Smith trial, and the Tailhook scandal, which are offered as a point of reference as to why women were so angry, and felt so powerless at the time. Yet each of those cases bring to mind more recent, high-profile ones, and it’s a depressingly familiar theme. While Lorena demands some work from the viewer to join the dots together, and could have been executed in a more efficient manner, it’s nonetheless a worthy rallying call, as reflective of society today as it is of 1990s Manassas.
Lorena is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.