When I was growing up, I knew of two Lorenas: my grandmother, after whom I’d been named, and Lorena Hickok, the journalist friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I was familiar with only as the author of a child’s biography of Helen Keller, which I had read and loved. Hickok and my grandmother died within a year of each other, and after that, since I never was actually called Lorena, I felt the name had perhaps disappeared.
Twenty-five years later, in 1993, it resurfaced in the form of Lorena Bobbitt, who, in wild misery brought on by her husband’s abuse, made the nightly news by taking a kitchen knife into bed and cutting off her husband’s penis. She then flung the penis out the car window into a suburban Virginia field. The media had a heyday. At the time, I turned my back on this lurid story: it seemed to have no real meaning, only shock value and madness. Its real-life squalor (as Alice Munro has written, don’t we prefer literary squalor?) was more than I could bear. Plus there was that name. I didn’t choose to live completely under a rock, but perhaps I curled up fetally and threw some sand in my eyes.
The writer and director Jordan Peele, who has made an interesting reputation by fusing narrative genres of comedy and horror, marbling the meld with politics, has recently produced a four-chapter, Amazon Prime docuseries about the Bobbitts titled Lorena. Its director, Joshua Rofé, who was ten years old at the time of the Bobbitt event, has spliced together new and old footage for the info-mad internet age, to create a meandering, circling story that is indeed part comedy, part horror, part politics. Over four hours long, it has by hour three some compelling emotional heft.
Prior to that, however, one will encounter some puzzling things. For instance, at the beginning, everyone is smiling: police officers, neighbors, prosecutors, dispatchers, urological surgeons. There is the staged noise of rumors. The “appendage” (network news at the time was not allowed to use “the p-word”) initially goes missing, and one rumor has it that it went down the garbage disposal. Another rumor claimed Lorena had swallowed it. (When it was found in that field, it was placed in a hot dog box from a nearby 7-Eleven. Really?) The camera lingers on everyone, holding them in its gaze long enough so that small, uncomfortable grins—rueful, dazed, disbelieving, grateful for a moment to be alive, uninjured, not bored—flicker onto all the faces. This is where the director wants to begin: with the comedy (if disaster plus structure equals tragedy, and tragedy plus time equals comedy, we are starting at the end). Is it simultaneously cruel and nervous laughter on the part of these smilers? It sure does look like it.