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The (In)Visibility of the Battered Face (escrito inédito)

Although my article “Coloniality, performance and gender: The saga of Lorena Bobbitt” has been published on several occasions, there is one final section of said article that I have failed to publish.  I believe that this failure may have been an act of self-censorship given the conservative atmosphere that looms heavily over debates on our island.  In order to counter the “chilling effects” of the conservative push and as promised and presented in my last post, below is the unpublished section entitled “The (In)Visibility of the Battered Face”:

The evidence of John Wayne’s abusive behavior towards Lorena was profuse throughout the trial. Many witnesses testified that Lorena was frequently beaten and bruised by her husband. Neighbors, co-workers, friends, clients and doctors all had damning testimony concerning John Wayne. [1] One of the most harrowing testimonies was from Lynn Acquaviva, a client of Lorena.

It was a very hot day. I’m going to say it was approximately July. Ms. Bobbitt was attired in multiple layers of clothing which I found unusual for the weather, but I didn’t say anything. She was wearing leggings, a tank top or t-shirt. A sort of shirt over that under which you could see the t-shirt. And then a sweater over that.

As she worked on my hands that morning I noticed as she moved around, tossed her head back from side to side to move her hair away, and her sweater and shirts would slide from one side or the other, extensive iridescent royal blue bruising across the top of her skull, down the side of her skull, down her neck, across her chest. As her sweater would move up, and her legging would move up as she sat at the chair, the iridescent royal bruising continued over those parts of her body as well.[2]

In addition, although the defense did not deploy the term race, there was also testimony regarding racism in the relationship. A co-worker, Margaret McGary, “heard him call her, “stupid,” and say—kind of relate that to being Spanish, and once he said, “You’re lucky that I took you,” or something; “Most men wouldn’t want a foreigner like you.””[3] According to Lorena’s testimony, John Wayne implied that a mixed race child would be ugly [4], interfered with her application of a green card[5] and made reference to how no police officer would believe her complaints because of her bad English[6]. In response to the defense lawyer’s question, “did he talk about your figure?,” Lorena said:

Yes, he said that I’m Spanish, that I don’t have blond hair, I don’t have blue eyes, and I’m too small and skinny, and he want a bigger woman. And he told me that I was Spanish, and I didn’t deserve him. All this was with bad words together. For example, he would say “F” Spanish—I’m sorry, I can’t say it. [7]

However, despite the abundant evidence of physical and verbal abuse, the obsession over the reconstruction and recovery of John Wayne’s penis obscured the relationship between his plight and his abusive behavior. The trial lays out the homoerotic fascination with the penile reconstruction saga by showing how so many men, from policemen to doctors, literally and delicately handled the member to ensure its return to its rightful place [8].  The world obsessed over the recovery and re-memberment of the appendage when John Wayne, an epitome of White American militaristic manhood, lost his penis at the hands of his “delicate” Latina wife.

Popular media portrayed John Wayne as having “suffered a mutilation that few had previously endured, the cruelest cut, every man’s worst nightmare.”[9] Initially there was concern over John Wayne’s capacity to urinate, but it quickly honed into the question of the possibility of future erections. “The shock of recognition of the male body’s vulnerability turned from horror into pride as discussions concerning sexual ability came to dominate even the medical discourse on Bobbitt, itself a discourse replete with imagery of virility and potency.”[10] Howard Stern held a New Year’s Eve Telethon to cover John Wayne’s medical and legal expenses.[11] The obsession over the recuperation of the member reached its apex with what became the number one porno movie in the US: “Bobbitt: Uncut” (1994). John Wayne shows the world what they have all been waiting to see, but his penis cannot quite keep the erection, undercutting the recovery fantasy of the film.

In the process Lorena’s battered body was blocked from visibility behind the efforts to re-member the towering penis. The photos of the severed penis were heavily sought after in general and frequently shown over the internet in contrast to images of the abuse Lorena had withstood for years. The obsession over the bodily recovery of John Wayne “obfuscates the abuse suffered by Lorena Bobbitt. Masculine dismemberment monopolizes attention, turning it away from the violence done daily to women’s bodies.”[12]

It is hard to imagine similar efforts to recover a body part of a woman who has been mutilated by a man. Has there ever been a breast rescue mission? Could a severed breast invoke such frantic concern?[13] John Wayne’s penis, as a fetish of White male imperial power, obviously had much more traction to invoke social concern than a lost breast. It’s not just that it is impossible for society to assimilate the reality of abuse, but for Lorena herself, she could not face the fact of her abuse that pictures of battered women made too graphic for comfort. Before the final cut, Lorena could not countenance looking at photos in a brochure on domestic abuse given to her by Mrs. Jones, a neighbor.

I went back to the apartment and I tried to just look at it, but I didn’t want to look at it because I saw ugly pictures. I didn’t feel comfortable looking at it, so I put it—I just put them away.[14]

But after the final rape and before the severance, Lorena recovers her capacity to see the “photos” of violence in her head that she had earlier refused to look at in the brochure.

I get the glass of water […], trying to calm myself […] and I saw the knife.

(The witness remains in tears)

I remember many things, things that—I remember a lot of things he said to me; I remember the first time he raped me; I remember when he told me about the syringes to go through my bones and I was going to die [at the abortion clinic].

I remember the put downs that he told me. There was just so many pictures on my head. And they were just pictures there, in my head.

I remember the insults and the bad words that he told me. I remember every time that we had anal sex—anal sex with me. It hurt me, it hurt me.

I remember everything, everything, I remember when he told me about the abortion. I remember everything.[15]

Felman speaks of the cultural invisibility of the battered face and domestic violence in the O.J. Simpson trial and how the legal process ratified the invisibility of the domestic violence.  The cultural boundaries between seeing and not seeing depend on the limits and exclusions of a frame of reference[16] that pits the historical trauma of gender (the battered face) against that of race in a competition for visibility. For Felman the legal process in the O.J. Simpson trial made them mutually exclusive and created a “judicial blindness”[17] that privileged race over gender in the adversarial structure of the trial.[18]

[…] two traumas-that of race and that of gender-have been set in competition with each other in the adversarial structure of the lawyers’ arguments in such a way as to confuse and radically complicate both the perception of the trauma […]. Yet, in the adversarial structure of litigation, the two “domestic” traumas (gender, race) also dispute, deny each other’s claims to visibility. Each trauma, in competing for exclusive visibility, at the same time blinds us to the other. The result is that the trial can by no means totalize, or give to see in its totality, the trauma underlying it. The complexity of the traumatic structure of the trial thus effectively prevented the trauma from becoming fully visible, in creating a specific form of judicial blindness that, paradoxically, was part of the legal achievement of the trial.[19]

One of the jurors in the Simpson trial went so far as to refer “to her judicial experience of looking at the evidence of domestic violence as a “sheer waste of time.” As a key witness to the trial, she therefore testified to the recalcitrant invisibility of the domestic violence, as well as to the jury’s legal and judicial act of looking through the beaten body […]. [T]he jury did not so much “nullify the evidence” as it nullified its visibility of the face. In other words, the jury used the court’s authority to ratify, indeed, the inherent cultural invisibility of the battered face.”[20]

In contrast, Lorena’s lawyers were successful in making visible the battered face at the level of the trial.  However, as discussed in other sections of this article, the strategy to make visible the abuse was articulated through a legal portrayal that reified Lorena as belonging to a timeless and unchanging culture locked in the mores of tradition, Catholicism and family values.  The defense embedded Lorena in a space of backwardness and fixity from which she purportedly could only break away by psychotic ruptures of excess and irrationality.[21] In order for the battered face to become visible, Lorena had to be “tropicalized” by the defense, namely, the defense had to resemantize Lorena as a devout Catholic who fervently believed in family values, marking what Aparicio and Chavez-Silverman call hegemonic “tropicalizations” whereby Latino symbols or cultural productions are mainstreamed within “more normative and dominant values that make them attractive to a dominant American public whose reception reaffirms its dominance over minority cultures. […]  This whole gamut of themes suggests cultural integration yet also transforms them into objects of consumption rather than social and cultural practices.”[22] Furthermore, the visibility of Lorena’s battered face for the jury may have also hinged on the defense’s legal strategy of presenting Lorena as the supplicant immigrant and her subservient gendered performance during the trial rather than on the actual battering alone.[23]

The defense did not explicitly invoke the angle of racial abuse in making visible the battered face, but rather focused on violence related to gender. In this way, testimony of Lorena and her witnesses pertaining to racism seemed to fall under the rubric of gender abuse more generally.  Making visible the battered face was contingent on the privileging of gender abuse at the expense of undercutting the angle of John Wayne’s racist treatment of Lorena. Contrary to the O.J. Simpson trial wherein the privileging of race over gender in the adversarial structure of the trial led to the invisibility of the battered face, in Lorena’s trial the defense tellingly played down the racial dimension and privileged the gendered dimension of abuse in order to make the battered face visible. This strategic subsumption or erasure of race under gender most likely reflects the defense’s concern to avoid being accused of “playing the race card,” which would have subjected them to harsh criticisms in the highly volatile terrain of racial cultural anxieties of the US and undermined the probability of Lorena walking away as a free woman from the trial.  Overall, although the defense’s strategy was successful from a conventional legal standpoint, the indictment of gender violence was an ambivalent indictment insofar it was at the expense of tropicalizing, stereotyping and pathologizing Lorena.

Ultimately, it was in the spectatorial rings beyond the trial that the most transgressive social implications of the cut were detonated. The Bobbitt trial marked moments of schism in many popular appropriations of Lorena’s purported breach as in fact redressive action for past forms of abuse, gendered, racial or colonial in nature. For instance, in Ecuador there were popular reinterpretations of the trial in the context of anti-imperialist struggles against abuses by multinational interests, which could equally apply to counter-hegemonic readings by certain women and minorities in the US who felt vindicated by Lorena’s actions.  The Lorena trial was read as the story of a “First-World man exploiting a Third-World woman,” making Lorena’s cut an “incisive critique of a specific regime of power: phallocracy, phallocentrism, patriarchy in all its forms. As the Lorena Bobbitt for Surgeon General buttons in the U.S. intimated, Lorena’s carving skills were surgical strikes.”[24]

With her rise to notoriety, Lorena’s body became a performative vehicle that could undermine the very norms projected upon her, enabling subversive parodic misreadings [25] and, as a result, Lorena’s location in the social imaginary became one of terminal ambivalence. As a highly volatile figure in the contact zone of the trans-American imaginary, Lorena became the site for the deployment of tropes of Americanness that either revealed the discursive seams of the coloniality of power or subjected her to “tropicalized” reinterpretations of the cut that occluded its radical implications.

Notas al calce    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Ella Jones, a neighbor, said that Lorena had confessed to being raped. PETER KANE, THE BOBBITT CASE: TRANSCRIPTS OF THE SEX TRIAL THAT SHOCKED THE WORLD 124 (Pinnacle Books, 1994) (hereinafter “Transcript”).  Bobbie Jo Lore, a co-worker, saw bruises and witnessed “hysterical crying” on more than one occasion. Id. at 126. Terri McCumber, a friend also noticed bruises and witnessed an incident of violence at the beach. Id. at 126-129. Susan Inman, a doctor, referred Lorena to protective services after Lorena told her she had been raped. Id. at 131-132. Roma Anastasi, a customer, noticed Lorena’s swollen face and depression as well as John Wayne’s harassment to get money from his wife. Id. at 139-140. Mary Jo Willoughby, a neighbor, saw more bruises and abuse. Beth Ann Wilson, the apartment manager, noticed the bruises and emotional upheaval of Lorena. Id. at 141-142. Mercedes Castro, a friend of Lorena’s family, took pictures of Lorena’s bruised body as evidence of abuse. Carol Palmer, a forensic scientist, did a PERK exam that revealed sperm as evidence of the sexual intercourse that John Wayne had originally denied.
  2. Id. at 136-137.
  3. Id. at 296.
  4.  Id. at 195.
  5. Id. at 188-189.
  6. Id. at 197.
  7. Id. at 205.
  8. On the way to the hospital and believing his penis was lost forever, John Wayne said to his friend, “they better be able to make me a new penis.” Id. at 40. Thanks to the very timely and detailed instructions of Lorena, Sergeant Willard Hurley “and some rescue personnel searched for Mr. Bobbitt’s penis.” Id. at 72. Howard Perry, a police officer, had “received information that the penis was at the intersection” and when located, he “picked up the penis and placed it in a clear, plastic bag and packed it in ice.” Id. at 69. The organ arrived at the hospital in the knick of time, that is, precisely when John Wayne was entering the operating room. The urologist testified that John Wayne “had a complete amputation of the penis […] severed right at the body wall.” Id. at 75. Yet, “fortunately it had been brought to the hospital on ice by the police department in very good condition and the first thing, of course, I had to inspect it and it appeared very clean and very undamaged in every respect apart from obviously this cut. And it appeared that we had a good chance to re-implant it.” Id. at 77. The testimony included three photos of the severed penis and its process of reattachment. John Wayne later thanked on national television his surgeons for the wonderful job of reconstruction. Id. at 40.
  9. Kim Masters, Sex, Lies and an 8-inch Carving Knife, Vanity Fair, November 1993, at 170.
  10. Melissa Deem, From Bobbitt to SCUM: Re-memberment, Scatological Rhetorics, and Feminist Strategies in the Contemporary United States, 8 Public Culture 511, 516 (1996).
  11. Elizabeth Gleick & Rochelle Jones, Battle of the Bobbitts, People, November 22, 1993, at 57-58.
  12. Deem, supra note 10 at 516.
  13. Clearly breast replacement surgery after a mastectomy and breast enlargements or cosmetic surgeries figure prominently in media representations and discussions of women’s bodies, but they are driven to a significant degree by male desire contrary to the breast rescue mission which invokes a scenario of abuse.
  14. Transcript, supra note 1 at 211.
  15. Id.
  16. SHOSHANA FELMAN, THE JURIDICAL UNCONSCIOUS 82 (Harvard University Press 2002).
  17. Id. at 60-61.
  18. Id. at 61.
  19. Id. at 60-61.
  20. Id. at 79
  21. This latter point is addressed in detail in the third section of the published article. Said section analyzes the stories put forward by both the defense and the prosecution and how they reenacted highly problematic racial and sexual tropes characteristic of the coloniality of power.
  22. Frances Aparicio (interviewed by Juan Zevallos Aguilar), Latino Cultural Studies, in CRITICAL LATIN AMERICAN AND LATINO STUDIES 3, 25 (Juan Poblete ed., University of Minnesota Press 2003). “Many oppositional cultural practices are tropicalized in this way. Hegemonic tropicalization gives way to a discourse that delineates the Latino as an exotic and primitive other, the dominant society’s object of desire. These discourses continue unabated in tourism, education, cinema, music and literature.” Id. at 29.
  23. This latter point is addressed in detail in the fourth section of the long English version of the published article. Said section analyzes Lorena’s performance at trial from the perspective of Butler’s theory of gender performativity.
  24. Suzana Sawyer, Bobbittizing Texaco: Dis-membering Corporate Capital and Re-membering the Nation in Ecuador, 17 Cultural Anthropology 150 (2002).
  25. Butler distinguishes between domesticated and subversive parodic appropriations: “Parody by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony. A typology of actions would clearly not suffice, for parodic displacements, indeed, parodic laughter, depends on context and reception in which subversive confusions can be fostered.” JUDITH BUTLER, GENDER TROUBLE: FEMINISM AND THE SUBVERSION OF IDENTITY 139 (Routledge 1990).
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