HAYMARKET, VIRGINIA ― On a recent trip to Target, Lorena Bobbitt struggled to use the computer at the digital photo center. She was trying, unsuccessfully, to put her 11-year-old daughter’s picture on a Christmas card. A young male employee came over to help. When they were done and she was typing in her first name for payment, he audibly gasped.
“I thought the machine must be broken,” she recalled. “But he said, ‘I know who you are!’”
These days, getting recognized by strangers happens far less often. Her long hair is now a shimmery pale blonde (as a licensed cosmetologist, she sometimes highlights it herself), and 23 years have passed since her face was plastered on the front of major newspapers and magazines across the country.
Still, each new acquaintance she makes eventually puts two and two together, even when she uses her maiden name, Gallo. It is an inescapable part of her life, a fact she has accepted with remarkable poise. She grew used to the guffaws and the stares a long time ago.
“All the jokes, it hurt at first,” she said. “Now, I don’t care. I laugh, too.”
According to her telling of the story, in the early hours of June 23, 1993, her husband, former Marine John Wayne Bobbitt, came home drunk and raped her. He was frequently violent with her, she said, and forced her into sex whenever he liked. (John Wayne denies raping her, and he was acquitted of marital sexual assault in a separate trial in November 1993.)
Something in her broke that morning, Lorena said. She grabbed a knife from the kitchen and sliced off her husband’s penis as he slept. Then she fled the apartment, tossing his penis out the car window as she drove away. (It was later recovered by police and reattached in an operation lasting nine and a half hours.)
Almost overnight, the case became an international sensation. It was the original clickbait: An amputated penis. A young and pretty Latina woman. An all-American husband. Accusations of rape and assault. Love, sex and violence. The names, too, were gold. “John Wayne,” the archetypal alpha male, and the all-too-evocative “Bobbitt.”
In 1993, the country was still one year away from the O.J. Simpson case and the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. There had not yet been a national conversation about domestic violence, even though the leaders of the women’s rights movement were trying hard to launch one.
In an alternate version of history, the sad and horrible story of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt would have served as the perfect opportunity to start the dialogue. That year, an estimated 2,160 women were killed by their intimate partners, according to data collected by James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University.
There was a desperate need to improve services for victims, to raise funds and, crucially, to change the culture that enabled abusers to beat their families in private with impunity.
Instead, the story descended into a joke, with Lorena Bobbitt as the punchline. As the cover of People magazine declared, it was “the cut felt around the world.”
On a recent December morning, Lorena Bobbitt, now 47, was organizing Christmas presents inside her home in a gated community in suburban Virginia, as her dog Ringo, a 12-year-old bichon with thinning white hair, scampered under foot. She lives with her longtime partner, Dave Bellinger, and their only child.
As she does each year, Bobbitt had collected gifts for children in domestic violence shelters around the state. Board games, dolls and stuffed animals in various stages of gift-wrapping were scattered across a long table in her living room. Some were marked with the ages and genders of prospective recipients.
For kids living in a shelter, Bobbitt explained, the holidays can be especially hard. They may not have a Christmas tree or get to share a special meal with their extended family. But at least they would have a present to open.
She didn’t know about shelters back when she was married to John Wayne. It wasn’t until she went to trial that she learned there was any help available for people like her.
These days, Bobbitt lives a 20-minute drive from the two-story brick courthouse in downtown Manassas, Virginia, where she stood trial all those years ago. She never left the county, let alone the country. Why would she?
“I would have been recognized anywhere, and I liked it here,” she said.
Bobbitt, who was born in Ecuador and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, said she fell in love with Virginia when she first visited as a teenager. After graduating from high school, she moved to the U.S. and took classes at a community college. She thought perhaps she would become a dentist, like her father.
To support herself while in school, she took a job as a nanny. Later, she trained to be a manicurist and worked in a salon. As she describes it, her aspirations were simple: She wanted to marry and start a family.
She met John Wayne at a bar on the Quantico Marine Corps base. Her English wasn’t great, so they danced more than they talked. He became her first boyfriend, she said, and she enjoyed the courtship. They would see movies, go out to dinner and eat ice cream at Friendly’s, always with a chaperone.
She was a bit naive, she admits now.
“I was 19, but I was a young 19,” she said.
When she was 20, they married and moved in together. She was a virgin, she said.
Not long after, she said, the violence started. First, it was just verbal abuse, ugly name-calling and yelling. Then, she said, her husband began to hit, push and strangle her. It’s worth noting that strangulation, a common and frightening tactic used by abusers, is considered a serious risk factor for future lethal violence and is now treated as a felony offense in many states.
Prince William County police told ABC’s “20/20” that they responded to complaints of domestic violence at the Bobbitt residence half a dozen times, arresting John Wayne on one occasion for hitting Lorena in the face.
After four years of marriage, the couple were planning to divorce. Their story ― an average tale of abuse, awfully familiar to many ― would have remained within their personal circles. Except that on the night of June 23, 1993, she cut off John Wayne’s penis.
Maybe it looked like a reality show from the outside, but we were not in a cast. It was real life.
Bobbitt was charged with malicious wounding, which carried a possible 20-year sentence. During the eight-day trial in January 1994, her defense attorneys argued that she was driven into a temporary fit of insanity after suffering years of rape and physical violence by her husband.
A parade of witnesses supported her story of domestic abuse, saying they had observed her with bruises on her wrists, arms, shoulders and head. Others recalled seeing him hit and shove her for minor transgressions, such as how she cooked. An educational pamphlet on rape, given to her by her neighbor shortly before the incident, was discovered on the couple’s dresser by police.
She doesn’t like to dwell on the details of the battering now, but Bobbitt said she is surprised that she made it out.
“I don’t know how I survived,” she said.
In photos and video from that time, she is a whisper of a person, painfully thin, with dark hair framing her gaunt face.
The scene outside the courthouse, with one radio station giving away Slice soda and cocktail wienies, was macabre. Baltimore Sun reporter Wiley Hall described it as a “grotesque carnival” and expressed shock at the crowd’s overt hostility toward Bobbitt and women in general.
The public was transfixed. A Newsweek poll found that 60 percent of the country followed her trial. CNN provided live coverage to spellbound viewers, while NBC and ABC televised live reports every night. Gay Talese was there on assignment for The New Yorker and would later chronicle the experience in his book A Writer’s Life.
Much of the media portrayed Bobbitt as a crazed, vengeful woman who had perpetrated every man’s worst nightmare. Details of the incident became fodder for late-night comedians. The public made up their own jokes and songs about the sordid circumstances.
It didn’t matter there was overwhelming evidence that John Wayne was abusive, with even the prosecution’s own experts concluding that he had beaten and raped her. (In the years since, John Wayne has been arrested five times and convicted twice for domestic violence offenses involving two different women.)
“They wanted to talk about his penis, not my story,” Bobbitt said with a shrug. “Maybe it looked like a reality show from the outside, but we were not in a cast. It was real life.”
Kim Gandy, then-executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, recalled the media circus eclipsing any meaningful examination of violence against women.
“Domestic violence organizations tried to have the conversation, women’s organizations tried to have the conversation, but the media wasn’t having any of it,” Gandy said. “I just remember feeling that there wasn’t any traction on the domestic violence part of it.”
The nature of the act Bobbitt committed ― cutting off a penis ― took over the discourse completely, said Jackson Katz, an activist who was working to engage men in preventing gender-based violence at the time.
“The fact that she was a victim of marital rape or domestic violence was a secondary aspect to the story,” he said. “It immediately became a story about his victimization at her hands.”
The jury deliberated for just over six hours before acquitting Bobbitt by reason of temporary insanity. In a statement read aloud by the owner of the nail salon where she had worked, Bobbitt encouraged other abused women to seek help.
“She did once and will again seek her American dream when she is able, and if the publicity of her abuse can help one person find freedom, then all of this is not in vain,” the statement said.
Before she could go home, she was required to spend 45 days in a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. It wasn’t a nice place, she said, but it felt good to ditch the media who were tailing her every move.
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If there’s one mantra that Bobbitt adheres to, it is “stay positive.”
She is relentlessly optimistic and has an aversion to lingering long in the past.
“In the beginning, I’d say, ‘Why me?’” she said. “But honestly, the way I see it, it happened to all of us … all women who were abused. I just happened to be the Lorena, but I’m not in the fight by myself. I’m in it for all women who have been victimized or will be victimized.”
In the years since her acquittal, she has worked quietly to help other victims of domestic violence.
Around nine years ago, she launched Lorena’s Red Wagon, a charity to help domestic violence victims and their children. When I met with her, she was busy planning a toy drive at a local restaurant. Patrons could drop off gifts for kids throughout the month of December. For one evening, a percentage of all restaurant sales would also be donated to domestic violence victims.
“I realized I may as well make a good thing out of a bad thing,” she said.
Bobbitt has trained to be a domestic violence advocate, occasionally helping to facilitate a 15-week educational and support group with abused women in her county.
Once in a while, she appears on television to talk about her notorious case. She has made a shrewd calculation: The host may tell jokes at her expense, but she’ll get the chance to raise awareness about domestic violence. It’s a sacrifice she is willing to make.
“Trust me, this skin is very strong,” she said and then added, “That doesn’t mean I’m a woman of steel or anything.”
Three times a week, Bobbitt takes a Zumba class. It’s a Latin-inspired cardio-dance workout, incorporating moves from hip hop, salsa, merengue, samba and mambo, and it’s her favorite form of exercise.
At the studio near her home recently, she greeted her Zumba classmates, mostly older women, with a characteristically warm smile, and they smiled back. They were all clearly regulars.
For an hour, she bopped, shimmied, bounced and jived in royal blue leggings. She rolled her hips, tapped her feet. Her hair, pulled high into a ponytail, flew around her face as she spun with abandon. She was happy.
“I am fine. I am very well aware of who I am. I accept myself,” Bobbitt said. “I believe I have a purpose in life. I won’t be stuck in the past.”
Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.