I was at the Lorena Bobbitt trial – 25 years later it still makes me wince

The 90s case of the woman who cut off her husband’s penis has been brought vividly to life by an Amazon series. But what was most shocking was the culture clash between the sexes

The chocolate penises lingered in the memory. I didn’t need a television show to remind me of those. The zoo outside the Virginia courthouse, packed with satellite trucks, local entrepreneurs hawking what we didn’t yet call “merch” (including that phallic confectionery), protestors, campaigners, sympathisers, rubberneckers and assorted hangers-on – I remembered that, too. And the snow on the ground, the winter cold – that was still there, somewhere in the recesses of my mind.

But the more arcane details of the Lorena Bobbitt case, the personalities of the duelling lawyers and indeed of the two key protagonists, much of that had faded over the intervening quarter century, even for me who covered the trial as a young reporter for the Guardian back in the first weeks of 1994. I had only been posted to Washington three months earlier, expecting to cover the young presidency of Bill Clinton, his plans for economic regeneration and a post-cold war foreign policy. Instead, I found myself driving to Manassas, Virginia, to report on the story that had captured the imagination of the US and the world. That story is now retold in “Lorena”, a four-part documentary on Amazon Prime, all about the wife who cut off her husband’s penis.

The programme offers many of the pleasures of what is fast becoming a genre – accounts of a past recent enough to provide plenty of video footage, but long enough ago to feel like history. (Netflix’s Wild, Wild Country is the exemplar.) There’s fun to be had gawping at the absurd fashion – lots of big hair, even the odd mullet – and marvelling at the political and cultural climate, which, while not exactly the 1970s, is different enough from our own to induce an occasional gasp.

The series obviously has a bizarre story to tell and the first episode does not hold back on providing the jaw-dropping details. How law enforcement took the 911 call and promptly despatched teams of officers to search for the missing penis, one of them tiptoeing around the Bobbitts’ apartment, even peeking inside the fridge and freezer, another racing to rifle through rubbish bins before they were collected at dawn.

Eventually, the penis turned up on a piece of scrubland, discarded there by the 24-year-old Lorena, who had hurled it out of the window of her moving car as she fled the scene. The officer who found it refused to pick it up, claiming religious sensitivities. Once it was in police custody, it was placed on ice supplied by a nearby fast-food outlet selling – naturally – hot dogs. It was then reattached in a feat of micro-surgery of which the doctors involved are, justly, still proud.

Watching all this induced the same wincing reaction I recalled from 25 years ago, though I don’t think I ever saw the photograph of the dismembered member that the documentary shows us more than once. Perhaps the media were more prim, or more squeamish, than they are now.

Happily, the gruesome details constitute only one part of the first episode. Thereafter, we are into more watchable, and more interesting, terrain. Lorena rightly contextualises this case as one of a string of episodes that saw women complaining of male harassment or violence, only to be disbelieved. It reminds us that the Bobbitt case followed the Clarence Thomas hearings, the acquittal of William Kennedy Smith on rape charges and the Tailhook scandal, which exposed what amounted to a mass sexual assault by more than a hundred drunken navy and Marine Corps aviators in a Las Vegas hotel.

All those cases polarised opinion, but there was something especially stark about Lorena v John Wayne. Women were moved by Lorena’s accounts of horrific abuse at the hands of her husband, which shone a light on what until then had been the rarely discussed topic of domestic violence. Meanwhile, many men, even those sympathetic to Lorena’s story, were insistent that no crime of his could have warranted that specific punishment. (The documentary lets us hear from the men who believed it would have been kinder for Lorena to have killed her husband than to do that.) Looking back, it’s clear that the Bobbitt case did for gender what the OJ Simpson trial would do for the US’s racial divide a year later – revealing a gulf in understanding and experience between women and men, just as Simpson showed the distance between black and white.

More than once, Lorena invites the contemporary audience to feel smugly superior to the 90s generation. Would today’s late-night TV comedians be as ready to see the Bobbitt case as an excuse to make nightly dick jokes? Would even Howard Stern embrace a man like Bobbitt now, hosting a “severed part telethon” to raise funds for him, complete with a live penis-o-meter, in which a mocked-up organ rose higher as the donations came in? One of the hardest moments to watch comes when a pained and distressed Lorena testifies on the stand about forced anal sex with her husband. She was interrogated by a male lawyer – it’s hard to believe that would happen now.

A tacit pointer to the changed climate comes from archive footage of TV hosts Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, the latter chairing a discussion about women suffering abuse and refusing to take it any more. Both men continued as stars of American TV for two more decades, until their conduct was exposed by the #MeToo revelations.

The films are revealing, too, of a landscape before social media, when anxiety centred on the rise of “tabloid TV” (which was to reach its zenith with the Simpson trial). We learn that CNN faced a backlash from viewers when it cut broadcasting from the Bobbitt trial to cover arms control talks between Clinton and the Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.

Which points to the key difference between then and now, one which “Lorena” illuminates perfectly. The 90s was the period sandwiched between the end of the cold war and the start of the war on terror. I have come to think of it as a holiday from history, a decade when, even if wars raged in the Balkans or Rwanda, the news could dwell on stories that did not presage existential gloom. As a US correspondent, I covered the Bobbitts, OJ and the Clintons’ Whitewater scandal, which turned out to be – like Seinfeld, the dominant sitcom of the 90s – about nothing.

At the time, a Newsweek poll found that 60% of Americans were paying attention to the Bobbitt saga. Of course they were: there was hardly anything else going on. Until, that is, Lorena was knocked off the top spot by another US soap opera, one that turned not on gender or race so much as class. For, as a Newsweek editor ruefully recalls, he had to scrap the cover story he had prepared on the Bobbitts – to make way for Tonya Harding.

Lorena is on Amazon Prime now

Contributor

Jonathan Freedland

The GuardianTramp

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