Bobbitt Fever

AT THE STATE DEPARTMENT last week, while Bill Clinton launched his first major tour of Europe, the secretaries sat glued to the television. But they weren't following the diplomatic dispatches. Like millions of us, they were watching the Bobbitts. As more important matter passed quietly, the story that people couldn't get enough of was the one playing out in a small-town courthouse 30 miles outside Washington, D.C., where a teary Lorena Bobbitt put a new face on a tale that has titillated Americans for seven months. "He hurt me." she testified, barely able to continue as she described a marriage of abuse, humiliation and forced sex.

With 16 satellite-uplink trucks outside and 200 reporters lined up for seats in the courtroom, the story turned from a running joke or twisted revenge fantasy into something more telling. CNN, which carried the trial live in simulcast with Court TN, doubled its ratings, and got flooded with viewer complaints when it cut away to some Russian summit. NEWSWEEK Poll showed that 60 percent country was following the trial, men a equally. It was great television: his denial that he beat her, her testimony that she couldn't remember her infamous act, and an inventory of marital horrors even our comics don't kid about. And a nation watched.

Every once in a while, American criminal justice produces a case big enough to ignite the public imagination. It tells something new about us all, not just the victim and the accused. We're fascinated and repulsed all at once. What we previously thought existed only in the realm of B movies or diabolical fantasy or soap opera has now become real. Nine years ago it was a Bernhard Goetz and his .38 caliber on a Manhattan subway who made us ask: is this what urban life has come to? In 1989, Erik and Lyle Menendez blew away their wealthy parents because they supposedly abused them; both are on trial for their lives, though last week a mistrial was declared for one of them because the jury was gridlocked. Is this the nuclear family?

Since last summer it has been the ordeal of John and Lorena. At a time when Americans are debating questions of sexual warfare, the Bobbitt saga has evolved--humor intact--into a cautionary fable, just lurid enough to allow us to snicker our way through a modern Gothic tale: girl meets boy (a marine, no less), girl marries boy, boy mistreats girl, girl cuts off boy's penis (postscript: organ reattached in a 9 1/2-hour operation after a search-and-rescue team finds it in an empty lot near a 7-Eleven). At the same time they are a classic, handsome American couple. Just look at Lorena Bobbitt--person-conventional, she could be the local manicurist. Is this what the battle between the sexes has come to? "A case like this alters our reality," says Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University. "It can't happen, but it did. We don't know what to make of that kind of disconnect." Underneath the jokes (What's the difference between Bob Barker and Lorena Bobbitt? He's a slick pricer.) is an ugly snapshot from the war between men and women. The gallows humor gives us an excuse to stare.

Outside the Manassas, Va., courthouse last week, the burlesque clashed with the darker side. More than 100 Hispanic activists supporting Lorena vied for attention and air time with dueling vendors hawking T shirts embla-zoned REVENGE--HOW SWEET IT IS and LOVE HURTS ($20, autographed by John himself). A radio station gave away Slice soda and cocktail wienies. Even the Humane Society and the Make-A-Wish Foundation were out in force to sell merchandise. (Call it Bobbitteering.) The media covering the event--from the tabs to Gay Talese, on assignment for The New Yorker for months--were torn between trumping up the story and complaining about how the press trumped up the story. Among the networks, only CBS stayed away. At one point, "Entertainment Tonight" and the Comedy Central channel were interviewing each other about the Bobbitt obsession. While a verdict will likely come by the end of this week, the hand-wringing will last much longer--at least until the week after next.

Inside the courtroom. the laughing stopped. John was no longer the buffoon who appeared on a New Year's Eve special with Howard Stern, Lorena just another complaining wife. Little of the evidence that emerged last week should have seemed new to those who've read some of the 1,639 stories (on just the Nexis computer database) that have appeared since she mutilated her husband. She in Vanity Fair, he with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric--criminal justice was almost an afterthought. But John's trial wasn't allowed on the tube. Lorena's came live into our living rooms, bringing home all the alleged abuses--and underscoring the fact that, if convicted, Lorena faces up to 20 years in jail and deportation.

Lorena's lawyer graphically described her defense. "What we have is Lorena Bobbitt's life juxtaposed against John Wayne Bobbitt's penis," Lisa Kemler told the jury "It was his penis from which she could not escape." The prosecutor said simply that she was accountable for her actions, taken on a man in "a deep sleep." John, of course, was the state's star witness, such as he was. He mumbled, he hesitated, be asked to have questions repeated, he pleaded a faulty memory. But his version of events was about the same as it's always been. "Throughout our marriage, I did everything I could to make [it] better," he said. "I never forced my wife to have sex, ever." Indeed it was Lorena, nine inches shorter and 98 pounds lighter, who abused him during the marriage. No, he never said her breasts were too small, though he did acknowledge telling her that "her butt was too big." And he denied he did anything on June 23 other than suggest sex and then pass out. "I have nothing to hide," John offered.

A parade of defense witnesses berated John's credibility. Yet it would be Lorena's performance on the stand that determined her lot. Sniffling and sobbing, wearing a small cross around her neck, she relived four Years of marital Armageddon. She told of a husband who bragged of affairs with other women, used "Marine Corps torture techniques" to hurt her, made fun of her being an immigrant, pretended he was karate man Jean-Claude Van Damme, read aloud "How to Satisfy Your Wife and Have Her Beg for More" and taunted her about an abortion he forced her to have. One night, she said with her voice breaking, the TV was too loud, so John forced her to have anal intercourse. "He grabbed and he turned me, she said, "and I was with my stomach down and he did it. I was bleeding." Every time they had sex thereafter. he threatened to do it again.

And then. on Friday, she testified about the notorious night of June 23, 1993. John returned home to the apartment late, after a night of barhopping. He raped her, she said, and then he went to sleep. "Maybe," she pleaded with her defense attorney, "you don't understand because you're a man and he doesn't understand because he's a man. But it hurt me." The lawyer paused. Lorena explained how she went to the kitchen for a drink of water. She saw the 12-inch fillet knife. Even so, contradicting what she said at john's trial, she testified she couldn't remember cutting off his penis. Next thing she knew. she was in her car in a panic, two thirds of a penis in hand. In cross-examination, the prosecutor zeroed in on the blank in her memory. Hadn't she previously provided details about entering the bedroom and pulling back the sheets? The prosecutor attacked Lorena as well on her honesty, pointing to past incidents of petty theft. And why didn't she just leave that night-or any other when he behaved like a pig? Finally, in a coup de grace, the prosecutor asked if Lorena had not once told an acquaintance that if her husband ever had an affair, she "would cut his penis off." No, Lorena cried.

For Lorena, freedom is on the line. For John, the case almost was a trifle; he's still worrying whether he'll ever regain sexual function. While other witnesses portrayed him as an insensitive boor, John sat in a secluded witness holding room paving spades with friends and family. (His new girlfriend was not there.) On a day off from trial, said the gossip pages, he shopped for a $45,000 Toyota Supra twin turbo; John has financial problems, but presumably his $260,000 take from the Stern show helped ease the hurt.

On Court TV and elsewhere, the pundits were as obsessed as the rest of us. Not only would men be less likely to insist that women belonged in the kitchen--but men would finally understand just how horrible sexual abuse was--regardless of the particular verdict on Lorena. "in the last few weeks, the avenging wife has become a new media model," says Debra Haffner, executive director of the U.S. Sex Information and Education Council. "[She's] part of this idea of women standing up for themselves and getting even, getting theirs. Lorena Bobbitt has created a lot of fear in men." In Ecuador, Lorena's native country, a feminist organization threatened to castrate 100 American men if Lorena did any time. During various recesses on Court TV, experts in evidence, ethics and trial strategy blathered on about why Lorena was allowed to weep interminably during cross-examination or whether the same commonwealth attorney had a conflict of interest in prosecuting both John and Lorena.

The issue of her defense strategy was the question most likely to linger after the screen goes dark. Even if John did repeatedly abuse Lorena--and the jury believes it--that doesn't automatically let her off. Lorena still has to convince those seven women and five men that she wasn't criminally responsible for her actions. Under Virginia law, that means showing she had an "irresistible impulse" to bob her husband. Legal scholars spend lifetimes defining that phrase, but it boils down to: she really really couldn't control herself, she had been victimized enough, thus don't convict her. In Lorena's case, it amounts to a hybrid of insanity and self-defense. She knew the difference between right and wrong, so she's not crazy She wasn't in fear of her life, so deadly force wasn't appropriate.

The problem is that Lorena's primordial act also sounds a lot like the handiwork of a bedroom vigilante--simple revenge. And this isn't even the stuff of Dumas, the righting of a monstrous wrong by grand design. How many of us have never thought of striking out against a sibling, a lover, an editor, a Teamster who cuts you off on the interstate? Marital abuse is certainly a grave offense. But Lorena didn't act impulsively. She cut John well after the alleged rape and after going to the kitchen. Advocates for battered women say that men can be so emotionally overpowering that their women have no out--that, in fact, violence is the only escape. Yet Lorena's lawyers didn't even make that argument last week. Her wrath was exquisitely focused, Biblical in its precision. She complained to police the next day about her husband's love-making. "He always [has an] orgasm," she said. "He doesn't wait for me. He's selfish. I don't think it's fair." Yes, well, that may or may not be justification for taking the law into her own hands.

That's for a Manassas jury to decree. If it acquits, the message seems clear. Vengeance is not just the Lord's. It now belongs to each of us.