BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The 90s imprinted certain images on our collective imaginations that we wholeheartedly embraced. Images about certain kinds of women, ambitious, raging women, who made salacious headlines a generation ago. Monica, Tonya, Lorena.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Monica was a young tramp.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Monica Lewinsky's behaviour was unacceptable.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: There is something about Monica. Her lips never say no.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I got this great idea of how to get rid of Nancy Kerrigan.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Kill her now.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: She felt the husband was selfish because he had an orgasm and she didn't. So she grabbed a handful and sliced. I mean this was one angry woman. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, and it may just be the passage of time, it's our outdated tribal loyalties fade, we increasingly see how ill served we were by our media and our biases. And we're finally able to peer through a clearer lens to consider information that was always there but that we chose to ignore. First Monica, the young intern who allegedly seduced a president and threatened the presidency.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: First line from Monica Lewinsky's new book Me and My Big Mouth.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I think Monica Lewinsky is the one who should apologize to America. She's the homewrecker and if anybody really owes an apology I think it's her. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Today David Letterman's joke is not funny. And Bill Maher's high dudgeon is even more puerile and self-serving than usual, in part because the woman herself, once said 22 year old intern entranced by the leader of the free world, took time to grow up and speak on her own behalf. Here's part of her 2015 TED talk two years before the #MeToo movement took off.
MONICA LEWINSKY: In 1998, after having been swept up into an improbable romance, I was then swept up into the eye of a political, legal and media maelstrom like we had never seen before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She spoke about how digital media turned an inevitable barrage into an epic global bombardment.
MONICA LEWINSKY: I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously. In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity. I lost almost everything. And I almost lost my life. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Recently her story was revisited in-depth in the celebrated podcast Slow Burn.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: As scared as she was on that Friday afternoon, Lewinsky was unwilling to get wired up and sent off to spy on the president.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: That is where she comes through. I mean, as--as I can't imagine anybody else would. She just said 'no.' I think there's an honesty, perhaps, under everything else that there is, in the way Monica Lewinsky presents herself. She doesn't disguise herself. I just think that's admirable. I just persist in thinking that's admirable. She didn't do it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: With the passage of time, her tormentors too have been made to reflect.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Now I started to feel bad because, myself and other people with shows like this, made relentless jokes about the poor woman. She was a kid, 21-22 something like that.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: She's now 49.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I feel bad about my role in helping push the humiliation to the point of suffocation. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Had we journalists, comedians, the general public and, yes, the supposedly enlightened liberals and feminists of the day, got Lewinsky wrong. What about Tonya Harding, the ruthless skater whose ex-husband hired someone to smash the knee of her competitor Nancy Kerrigan?
TONYA HARDING: My skating was great but my life was in shambles.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: She came from absolutely nothing.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: People called her poor white trash.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Tonya Harding was absolutely screwed over.
TONYA HARDING: I get angry. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The villain of the 1994 Winter Olympics got an updated depiction with the 2018 documentary Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story, which portrayed her not simply as a vicious fighter but as an abused girlfriend, an abused daughter, a perpetual outsider mocked relentlessly for her low class and pedigree. And who the Olympic Committee and the public were only too happy to watch fall from grace.
MARGOT ROBBIE AS TONYA HARDING: America may want someone to love.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
MARGOT ROBBIE AS TONYA HARDING: They want someone to hate.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
MARGOT ROBBIE AS TONYA HARDING: They want it easy. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This from I, Tanya, the biopic that also came out in 2017, rendering the once simple narrative even more complicated. Here too, we didn't need new facts, we simply needed a new lens on an old story. And then of course there was Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused then nominated Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Hill might not have been universally condemned but she was repeatedly humiliated. Take the November 1991 People magazine cover featuring Virginia and Clarence Thomas in an embrace with the headline How We Survived. Survived, that is, the allegations from the sex crazed or love struck clerk.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a martyr complex?
ANITA HILL: Ha, no I don't.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Have you studied in your psychology studies when you were in school and what you may have followed up with the question of fantasies? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It looked bad then, it looks a lot worse now. That case too received a documentary revision and a docu-dramatic one on HBO–also before the Trump election and the subsequent #MeToo movement. And as of this week, we can add one more woman and one more story to the list of the revisited and revised.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This was a modern love story. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy marries girl, girl cuts off boy's penis. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lorena Bobbitt the aggrieved Manassas, Virginia wife who in 1993 cut off her husband's penis. As men held their collective groins, Lorena instantly became a national, no, a global joke.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: It was December 22nd 2016. I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw a headline a Huffington Post headline it said Lorena Bobbitt is Done Being Your Punchline.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joshua Rofé is the filmmaker behind "Lorena," a four part documentary series available now on Amazon Prime. He barely remembers when the story blew up.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: I was 11 years old--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: --when this happened. But I grew up with this piece of ill informed, perverse, common knowledge that some crazed middle aged white woman cut her husband's penis off in the middle of the night and threw it out the car window. When the reality is she had come here at age 18 from Venezuela in search of the American dream and she thought she found it when she met this handsome charming Marine named John Wayne. John Wayne Bobbitt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The story was called the Battle of the Bobbits, which made it seem roughly as if they were two equals.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: This goes to show the weight that was given to what she did to him as opposed to what he had done to her over and over again–serially abusing and raping her for years. Her one act was given the same weight as his four years worth of acts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I was thinking that if you were to render the story in cartoon form, the main character was just really a severed part of one Bobbitt. This story followed how it was detached, where it was thrown, how it was found, whether it's still worked.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It's a really uncommon injury. I've never done one, never seen one.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Will he ever, ever have a normal sex life again?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I'm optimistic that whole again virtually all of its normal function. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And most important, what some tabloids quoting Shakespeare called 'the unkindest cut of all,' did it hurt? It was about penis.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: It was all anybody cared about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which reminds me, that at this point in time, respectable publications and news outlets didn't use the word penis.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: In the beginning of episode one, one of the police officers talks about having to get onto the radio and try to convey to the other officers what the situation was. They were all speaking in vague terms about a missing appendage and some of the police officers thought that it--'is it a finger? Is it a toe? What--what are we looking for?'
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What with the mores of the time that were shaping the coverage?
JOSHUA ROFÉ: If you go back just a couple of years before Lorena's story hit, and we do this in episode one, we take you back to Anita Hill and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, the Tailhook scandal. And in every instance, any time that a woman or a group of women, in the case of Tailhook, came forward and expressed clearly that they had been harassed or assaulted in a sexual nature and they were discredited, vilified. The justice system turned its back on them. It was without fail, a losing proposition for a woman who is coming forward. And so in 1993, when this young girl named Lorena Bobbitt is now in the middle of all of this, she really didn't stand a chance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And sketch in the media landscape, Cable TV was blooming and prominent among the proliferating channels was Court TV.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: This story in many ways was the original clickbait. It had the ultimate headline. Once that headline about a severed penis grabbed everybody's attention, there was this moral misstep which was 'keep the headlines on the penis.' The media is absolutely complicit in the misrepresentation of this story. This is a story not about a cut off penis. This is a story about a woman who was beaten, she was strangled, she was raped, she was sodomized and it went on for years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From your footage it didn't seem like the attitudes towards Lorena were universally condemning. There was an interesting exchange between Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters on their popular show.
BARBARA WALTERS: I do think that men and women see this very differently. And men see it as a man being mutilated, I think in the most awful way a man could imagine. Many women see a woman abused to such a degree that she struck out at the area that was doing her the most harm.
HUGH DOWNS: You can still being very sensitive to the need to cut down on abuse of women and see this act as different from the act of many women who are abused, who may kill their husband.
BARBARA WALTERS: If you're a man you may.
HUGH DOWNS: Haha.
BARBARA WALTERS: And you are.
HUGH DOWNS: I guess I can't think help looking at it that way. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ: To me, one of the most interesting things in terms of the archival footage that we found was the sort of man and woman on the street interviews that shows like Jenny Jones or even the nightly news would do. And there were a number of women who did not think that even if she was raped that there was any excuse.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I think she did it so he wouldn't have sex with anyone else. I think that was the real reason why she did it. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ: Some of them just flat out didn't believe her. That said, there are also many women who did believe her.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I would have liked to do that.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: You would have?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Huh, yes. Yes. If I was raped or wronged, of course that's your first feeling–to get back at somebody. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ: Many women in the media at the time, they were trying to write the stories that would have propped Lorena up more as what she was but the editors were men. You see the cover of Time magazine from during Lorena's trial and it's a pig in a business suit and the headline is Are Men Really That Bad? And that is in response to this woman who was on the stand having a panic attack telling you of the way she was beaten, raped and sodomized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A 1993 op-ed in the LA Times by Robyn Abcarian argued that to make Lorena Bobbitt into a symbol for anything other than a sick marriage between two immature angry people, is to compromise the legitimacy that has finally been conferred on battered women who strike back in self-defense.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: Battered women's syndrome, as it was starting to become known, was a new phenomenon. And so, you know, I think part of this is about class and race. If Lorena had been a white, rich woman from an affluent area I don't think that she would have been categorized as that piece in the LA Times categorized her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In January of 1994, Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted in Detroit and the media had a new tabloid story to focus on–the saga of Tonya Harding. And because of the short attention spans some important moments in the Bobbitt story were missed. How John beat his next two partners and this--.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: John forcibly took me out onto the balcony and pushed me over the edge of the balcony and was holding onto me by my lower legs, dangling me over the balcony threatening to drop me. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would a longer gaze on this story have led to a different assessment?
JOSHUA ROFÉ: Impossible to say, I think. But we were not out to unearth anything. It was all there 25 years ago in plain sight. Just a fresh perspective and having the facts contextualized as they should have been in the first place was all it would take.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So many strange details that I didn't know. The pictures that were available of her abuse, John Wayne's bald faced lying in the face of indisputable evidence. The rush to judging from people from whom I would have expected much better than this given what was available. It was like a collective blindness. For the series you talk to journalists and activists and nurses and doctors and lawyers who were present for the original story. You talk to Lorena. You talked to John. You don't talk to Howard Stern.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: I tried to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah?
JOSHUA ROFÉ: Listen we wanted to talk to Howard Stern. We wanted to talk to Charlie Rose. We wanted to talk to Matt Lauer. We wanted to talk to Geraldo Rivera.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: She felt the husband was selfish because he had an orgasm and she didn't. So she grabbed the handful and sliced. I mean this was one angry woman. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ: Howard Stern aside, those other guys were exposed for predatory behavior. And so I'm actually glad, obviously, that they were exposed. But had they never been exposed and we interviewed them, all they would have given us their forward facing you know line of B.S. Looking at the series and seeing them just in there being the ones who are reporting the news to us speaks far more than anything they would have said to us--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mmhm.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: --that would have been disingenuous anyway.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Howard Stern though did go some distance and turning--.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: Despicable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --John Bobbitt into a star.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: So during Lorena's trial, again, while it is so clear that she has been abused by him it's even been corroborated by a piece of paper that he had signed admitting to abusing her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not to mention all the neighbors who saw it.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: Many, many people. John Wayne called into the Howard Stern Show.
HOWARD STERN: I don't even buy this whole thing that he was raping her and stuff. And she said, you know, she's not that great looking. She's got a lot of pimples your ex-wife.
JOHN BOBBITT: Yeah.
HOWARD STERN: I thought so. Her skin didn't look that good.
JOHN BOBBITT: Uhuh.
HOWARD STERN: I think she needs a little vitamin Bobbitt.
JOHN BOBBITT: Haha. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ: I would ask him what he was thinking back then. Had he not heard and seen everything that was clearly available? And I would ask him what he has to say today. Does he feel any sort of remorse for speaking about somebody who was a victim of such horrors in such a despicable way?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know Jordan Peele is the executive producer of this film. I'm curious how he got into that position. If you could tell me a little bit about what his expectations were.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: Well Jordan I meant in, God, I think it was October of 2013 at a screening of my first documentary. It's called "Lost for Life" and it's by juveniles who are serving life without parole. And he expressed really loving the film. And so we connected and we became friends. We'd have these weekly excursions to go get Chinese food where we would talk about work and life and whatever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this is before "Get Out.".
JOSHUA ROFÉ: This is well before "Get Out." And then it was January of 2017 when Lorena had agreed to do this project with me that, during one of those Chinese food excursions, I said 'you're never going to guess who I'm making my next project about Lorena Bobbitt.' And he, right away, was fascinated and had a million questions and admittedly had the same preconceived notions that that I had had– that all of us had had. And this is now leading up to "Get Out" being released. And every time I saw him all he wanted to talk about or ask about was this project. He couldn't believe how many layers there were to it. How much depth there was. How--how, you know, he hoped that maybe telling a story about gender and sexual assault and domestic violence that maybe this could do for that what the OJ doc series could do in its examination of race. And it was literally "Get Out" opening weekend that he just turned to me and he said, 'what's going on with the Bobbitt project?' That he loved to be a part of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's interesting because the media have been such a double edged sword for Lorena. I mean since her trial, she's used the media to advocate for battered women. It's given her life a direction. She's willing to tolerate or cut through the jokes to make the most of any platform that she can get. Like on the Steve Harvey Show.
STEVE HARVEY: What--What made you take it though? I mean, you cut it off. Why you leave with it? That's what--.
STEVE HARVEY: You--you didn't think to just like lay it on a pillow so when he wake up--.
LORENA GALLO: I'm glad that after 22 years you still laugh about it. I''m here to tell you and to tell you what happened when a woman gets abused by a man.
CROWD: Woo [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most people whose lives the media chew up and spit out aren't able to emerge with this kind of strength and agency. Why do you think she was able to do it?
JOSHUA ROFÉ: I mean I truly don't know. Her level of resilience is unlike any I've ever seen. It's not only that she was able to make it through this and claim for herself the life that she dreamed of having, which by the way is just the simple quiet life. She didn't want anything extraordinary. She didn't want anybody to know her name. She just wanted to, in her own words, 'live the American dream.' Coming here, finding an honest job, falling in love, having a family–end of story. That's all she wanted. First John Wayne Bobbitt ripped that from her and then the media and the American people and the world at large continued to pull that even further and further away from her. And yet still, she was unstoppable. She got it and that's an extraordinary feat in and of itself. But to me the thing that is, perhaps, even more amazing is she's still just so, her spirit has not been destroyed. There is a purity and a levity to her that, I don't know how she's able to possess those things in light of everything that's happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The series ends on a pretty bleak note.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: If Lorena's story today, Fox News would take the place of Howard Stern and the 24 hour news cycle to focus on what she did rather than what he did. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you assume that we the media and we the public wouldn't process these events differently now?
JOSHUA ROFÉ: I think that we still see a great rush to judgment. I think that we can see somebody life sort of torn apart by a tweet that runs wild for a couple of hours. I think that even though we are finally talking about all of these issues there are so many victims of domestic violence and sexual violence that continue to suffer. That far outweighs, unfortunately, any progress that we've made. And so people can read into the ending, you know, however they like, but I think that it should be a challenge to us all to make sure we do better and to try and bring empathy forward as the thing we used to appraise the situation. The ending of the series is the phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. That was something that was important to us. It was something that is important to Lorena. That is the way Lerena has gotten the last word. We are making it very clear that's what this is about. This is for the victims.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joshua Rofé directed "Lorena." Available now on Amazon Prime. I spoke with Lorena, who goes now by Lorena Gallo, about how she's worked to take control of her own story and redirect the media attention onto a national epidemic.
LORENA GALLO: At first it was very difficult. But since I've been an advocate against domestic violence, listening to the stories of survivors, the victims who are trying to leave but they're not there yet–that give me strength. That give me more courage to tell my story. To do this documentary. Basically, my story, I share it with a lot of people within my community because I go to the shelters and I volunteer and as an advocate I know I have a voice. And my goal is to reach out to the victim and the survivors too. Because, you know, survivors go through post-traumatic stress disorders as well. It really ignite fire in me and telling and retelling my story because there is hope and there is help.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After you were acquitted of malicious wounding, you didn't want go to the hospital as the law required. But in the end, you were glad you did?
LORENA GALLO: Yes, I was confused. I didn't know where they were taking me. When I heard that I was acquitted by a temporary insanity. I want to go home. They felt that John should have been there. You know, he was an abuser. He needed to be treated. But--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It did help you?
LORENA GALLO: I don't know if it helped me so much because they were questioning me. I just finished incredibly, you know, emotionally and traumatic interrogation which was the trial–two trials actually. His trial and my trial, my own. And then I was questioning again and again and again and it seems like it didn't stop. But in terms of being quiet and taking care of my own self, it was the start of the healing process. Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as we follow your path, you see people who you relied on as friends taking advantage of you. You realize that your parents weren't really in a position to help and became another responsibility when they came to America. The pressures didn't cease, obviously, after you left the hospital. Was there a moment when you just said, 'enough. This is my life and I will choose to tell it when I choose. And how I choose.'
LORENA GALLO: From the moment I felt that I wasn't alone, I felt security in going to shelters and sharing the stories. So the more I talk, the more I wanted the whole world to actually know what happened. And I started telling this story but it wasn't enough. My whole story, when it first came out 25 years ago, it reached out so wrongly. I felt like the media failed me, the justice system failed me. I felt that all society failed me. And I know that if I'm going to tell my story again and feel justified even though--if I go to a comedian's show, I didn't mind the jokes anymore. As long as I shine the light on domestic abuse and make an awareness against domestic violence, then my mission is a noble mission. And, you know, basically I grew stronger and stronger. And they make me the person that I am today. And I didn't let that or anybody or even John, define who I am.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lorena, thank you for being here.
LORENA GALLO: Thank you so much for having me. And also thank you for the opportunity to let me talk about the documentary. I think we're going to help a lot of victims just to bring awareness. This is such an incredible opportunity.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Lorena Bobbit, who now goes by Lorena Gallo, who is the focus of a documentary called "Lorena" available now on Amazon Prime.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, Black History Month is not what it was supposed to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media.