Lorena Leonor Bobbitt became a national folk heroine when, after her husband allegedly raped her, she cut off his penis with an eight‑inch carving knife and tossed it out her car window as she drove away. The story, with all its gory symbolism, provokes passionate reactions from men and women around the world. As Lorena goes to trial, she tells KIM MASTERS the story of the real people and real pain behind this shocking new round in the battle between the sexes.
Lorena Bobbitt is a “very young” 24-year-old whom friends feel the need to take care of. In the early hours of June 23, using his knife, she took matters in her own hands.
When John Wayne Bobbitt walked into the emergency room at five A.M. with blood‑covered hands pressed to his groin, the technicians did not realize that he had been seriously injured. The doctor asked to see Bobbitt's wrist.
"That's not where I am cut," the handsome, 26‑year‑old man replied calmly. Too calmly; it was eerie. For Bobbitt had suffered a mutilation that few have previously endured, the cruelest cut: every man's worst nightmare. Underneath the bloody sheet he carried, Bobbitt had, as police officer Cecil Deane would later testify, "just testicles where the penis would have been, a red substance. It looked like a nice, even, straight cut."
Within days, as the details of Bobbitt's story became known, there were headlines around the world. The tale quickly took on a life of its own. In what was easy to categorize as the latest, and perhaps the ultimate, escalation in the battle between the sexes, Bobbitt's wife, Lorena, had attacked her husband while he lay sleeping in bed early on the morning of June 23. In one swipe, she slashed off his penis and ‑knife and organ in hand‑ dashed out the door of their apartment. At approximately four A.M., as she drove off, Lorena tossed the severed appendage out the window of her 1991 Mercury Capri. Police would find it, later that morning, in the grass near the Paty‑Kake Daycare Center, where Lorena had told them to look. Howard Michael Perry, a fire‑department volunteer who joined in the search, says he has been asked not to talk to the news media about the thoughts that ran through his mind as he picked up John's severed member, placed it in a Ziploc bag, and wrapped it in ice. But even as he politely declines to comment, he can't help admitting, "It was different."
No one can resist the tale of Lorena and John Bobbitt. Not the Lorena supporters who have transformed the v‑for‑victory sign into a symbol of solidarity by making scissors-like motions with their fingers. Not the clerk in the Manassas, Virginia, courthouse who rolls her eyes when asked for the case file by number and says, "That's the one." Not the Marine Corps public‑affairs officer who provides a few dry morsels on John's stint in the military and then adds, “I saw his wife on television and she looked pretty timid." Certainly not the urologist or the plastic surgeon who spent nine and a half hours reattaching the organ and many more hours since talking to reporters and radio call‑in show hosts about it.
The public is hungry for details, yet many women don't need many to form an opinion. Before they knew anything about the Bobbitts or the circumstances that provoked Lorena, before they knew that Lorena had accused John of raping her before she retaliated, women seemed nearly unanimous in their response to what must rank as the ultimate crime against manhood.
It is, perhaps, less than completely fair to chart the reaction to the Bobbitt saga solely along gender lines. But women, in fact, do seem to love it. Their eyes brighten and their pulses race at its mere mention. However controversial the ubiquitous critic Camille Paglia may otherwise be, she seems to speak for women across the country when she suggests that Lorena Bobbitt committed a rather thrilling act of revolution. "It's kind of like the Boston Tea Party," she says gleefully. "It's a wake‑up call…It has to send a chill through every man in the world."
Lorena Bobbitt has taken a mythic leap into our collective consciousness with an act so primal and basic that anthropologist Helen Fisher of New York's American Museum of Natural History is surprised that it hasn't happened more often, especially given the high incidence of violence between the sexes. Attacks of this nature are, in fact, so uncommon that the surgeons who reattached John's organ could find nothing comparable in the English‑language medical literature in the past several years (though for some reason in Thailand such attacks are not unknown). Psychiatrists and anthropologists agree that the cutting of the penis is an act that would be freighted with symbolism in any culture. As New York psychoanalyst Michael Trupp put it, "It's a universal no‑no.” Men react with horror at the mention of the act, cringing as they cross their legs. As one Washington writer put it, "the response is so rooted in the neural substratum and reptilian back brain that men cannot find words to express their shock."
James Sehn, the surgeon who has now succeeded in getting his patient to urinate normally, says he finds that men feel "emasculated" by the story, while women feel "empowered." The doctors have before‑and‑after photographs of the operation, and Sehn says his wife's friends have begged to see. "Most men have no interest at that level," he says.
So reflexive is most women's sympathy for Lorena, so deep‑seated the rage against John, that Sehn's wife, Christine, has been hounded at her beauty salon, at a "lady's luncheon," and even outside her church by women who side with Lorena. Incredibly, Christine Sehn says that some of those who have accosted her aren't too pleased that her husband sewed the thing back on. "I've heard women say, 'I wish she'd put it down the garbage disposal," she says.
The tale of Lorena's retribution satisfies as an act of perfect vengeance against an oppressor. Our reaction to the tale removes us from the people involved and the violence of the act. But the real story saddens; it is more complicated. Many of those who sympathize with Lorena don't realize and may not care that she herself says…