ARLINGTON, Texas — Twenty-six years after she became a household name for cutting off her husband’s penis, Lorena Gallo — formerly known as Lorena Bobbitt — has made a new name for herself as a domestic violence victim advocate.
On Oct. 29, Gallo answered questions ranging from personal to political at a Texas Council on Family Violence conference in Arlington. She described the work she does with victims of domestic violence, recounted the 2019 Amazon Prime documentary about her directed by Jordan Peele and, yes, she also discussed the castration of her ex-husband that created a media frenzy in 1993.
In 1993, Gallo severed John Bobbitt’s penis with a kitchen knife after she says he sexually assaulted her for the second time in two days, according to media reports at the time. Two trials, hers and her ex-husband’s, captivated the country. And while Gallo’s story started a conversation on domestic abuse, especially concerning marital rape, the media attention traumatized her.
“I was judged. I was on trial for the particular event and malicious wounding and on trial to testify against my husband,” she said. “But I felt like there was another trial in society and how the media portrayed me.”
What society misunderstood about what she did, Gallo said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was that the castration was not a random act of vengeance; it was caused by domestic violence.
“This whole situation didn’t just happen because I woke up one day and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do to my husband,’ ” she said. “It’s rooted in domestic abuse, in sexual assault, it’s years and years of enduring that.”
Gallo was acquitted of assaulting her ex-husband by reason of temporary insanity. She said John Bobbitt abused her for years, causing her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
John Bobbitt denied — and continues to deny — he ever abused Gallo, and was found not guilty of sexually assaulting her in 1993. The following year, he was convicted on a domestic battery charge against his second wife and sentenced to 15 days in jail. In 2002, he was convicted of another abuse charge for attacking his third wife and served 15 months in jail.
While the Bobbitt story spurred jokes on late-night talk shows — so much so that Gallo’s lawyers told her to stop watching TV at the time, she said — the ordeal gave Gallo a platform to bring attention to domestic abuse.
Through her nonprofit, the Lorena Gallo Foundation, and educating young people at universities, Gallo has become a leader in fighting domestic abuse and the stigma surrounding it.
“I have this 14-year-old daughter and eventually, she will go to college. I want my daughter to feel safe, to walk safe on college campus,” she said.
Most women killed in a decade in Texas
In some ways, talking about domestic abuse may be more important than ever. Gloria Terry, CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence, said 2018 marked the highest number of women killed in the last decade in Texas.
In 2018, 174 women died at the hands of an intimate partner in Texas. In 2017, 134 women were killed by their partners.
“It is disheartening to see the level of increase there is,” Terry said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Terry said interestingly, Hurricane Harvey seems to have played a role in that increase. The council found an increase in homicides in Harris County following the hurricane, 66% of which were women victims. It’s possible a traumatic weather event exacerbated already tense relationships, but the group is still analyzing that possibility, she said.
Firearms were also an undeniable factor in homicides, she said. Fifty-nine percent of perpetrators used a gun to kill their partners in 2018.
The solution to gun violence in domestic abuse is to more effectively enforce gun laws that already exist, Terry said.
“We don’t need to expand the prohibited possessor aspect,” Terry said. “If you are a prohibited possessor, we need to make sure you have no access to those firearms. And that isn’t a change in law.”
Gallo also mentioned firearms, pointing out that mass shootings are often linked to domestic violence.
In Texas, three mass shootings have been directly linked to domestic abuse in the past three years — the 2017 Plano shooting at a woman’s home, the Sutherland Springs Church Shooting in 2017 and the Sante Fe high school shooting in 2018.
Changing political environment
In the 26 years since her trial, society has generally made enormous strides in tackling domestic abuse, Gallo said.
Colleges have educated young women about domestic violence, and movements such as #MeToo helped destigmatize talking about sexual abuse.
But there remains work to be done, Gallo and Terry agreed.
In the past few years, reporting domestic abuse has become more difficult for some women.
Immigrant women may not call the police when they are being abused out of fear that they will be deported or hassled by border patrol agents, Terry said. For those women, they have to choose between personal safety or the potential for their family to be torn apart.
“There are parts of Texas where if you call 911 because you’re being beaten, they will show up with border patrol,” Terry said.
She used to feel confident telling immigrant women to report abuse because the Violence Against Women Act includes provisions to protect women, whether they are documented or not, Terry said.
“I can’t make that guarantee anymore,” Terry said. “The political environment that is amongst us now is what allows us to have those doubts in the system.”
Over the years, Gallo has identified with various women who she says were also treated unfairly by society and the media.
“Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky,” she listed. “I felt very sad even for Marcia Clark when she was (prosecuting) the O.J. Simpson case. Even Hillary Clinton has been stereotyped and vilified as a woman.”
High-profile men who are accused of abuse impact the conversation on domestic violence and sexual assault as well, they said.
“Regardless of who the perpetrator is, the recognition that some people get a pass on their bad behavior or destructive behavior of others, it’s present,” Terry said.
Gallo said her ex-husband still denies he did anything to her.
“I was there in a domestic situation and this happened because of the domestic situation,” she said. “I snapped after so many years of trauma. I basically went insane. He drove me to that. If you ask him, he still denies the whole situation.”
In February, Amazon Prime released a docu-series on Gallo directed by Jordan Peele called, “Lorena.” The four-part series includes interviews with Gallo and John Bobbitt.