A documentarian makes the case for a much-maligned wife and casualty of 24/7 news.
Joshua Rofé was 10 years old when he heard about the scandal.
Something about a jealous woman who sliced off her husband’s penis while he was sleeping, then drove away and threw it out her car window. After doctors stitched him back up, John Wayne Bobbitt went on to milk his 15 minutes before a sympathetic public. His 23-year-old wife, Lorena, became an international punchline at the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle.
As the director and an executive producer of the four-part Amazon documentary Lorena, Rofé hopes that the people who joked about Lorena back in 1993 will take a second look and see that beneath the titillating story lay a dark underbelly of physical and sexual violence.
“There’s a misconception of her,” he says. “She wasn’t this crazed woman. She immigrated here from Venezuela in search of the American dream and fell in love with a former Marine named John Wayne. Then she had to endure years of horrific things.”
Rofé spent seven hours at Lorena’s suburban Virginia home, listening to her describe her experience. She’s remarried now, and has an adolescent daughter.
“What’s interesting is that she’s had two-and-a-half decades to work on herself, but I could see in her eyes that while she was talking, she was reliving these events,” he recalls. “To her credit, nothing was off-limits. She said, ‘Don’t hold back. Everything needs to be on the table.’ As a documentarian, that’s always your goal.”
Her ex was an eager participant as well. Rofé notes that as he and his team set up the cameras in John Wayne’s living room in northern Las Vegas, a YouTube search was on TV. His most popular topic? Himself. “He was and is completely obsessed with his own scandal,” Rofé says. “In many ways, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. He has a love of the limelight.”
The director — who’s helmed two other docs that explore severe trauma — began working on Lorena after reading an essay about her in late 2016. “I started doing the research and realized that we missed an opportunity,” he says. A few months later, his friend Jordan Peele (Key & Peele, Get Out, Us) asked if he could be involved as an executive producer.
“Of course, I said yes!” Rofé recalls. “He has one of the best minds for story, and he was giving me feedback on the rough cuts.” He’s also grateful that his production team tracked down the female court witness who spotted Lorena’s bruises at a nail salon just days before the crime. In Rofé’s project, she recounts that anecdote on camera for the first time.
Still, Rofé admits that timing was the most crucial factor. “I don’t think I could have made this five or 10 years ago,” he says. In the #MeToo era, he adds, “We’re starting to wake up to ideas that had been dormant. And it’s set the stage to recontextualize a story about a woman who was beaten. And yet she was laughed at. I hope our series changed that.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019