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There are touchstones in history that reveal the dark side of the American soul—from the Salem witch trials three centuries ago to last summer’s rampage in Charlottesville—when the torches are lit and the pitchforks are sharpened and the mob is hungry for blood. Such was the town of Manassas 25 years ago in the wake of the Slice Heard Round the World, when Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis with a kitchen knife and left the evidence by the roadside.
When the incident first made the news, it came as no surprise to many that the cheeseball protagonists resided in Manassas. Jaded locals just shrugged: “Sounds like classic Manasshole.” That was the nickname for the festering sore on the soft white underbelly of the Beltway, this never-surrender Civil War town pinned by the suburban sprawl of Northern Virginia, its paranoid residents convinced that enemies had them surrounded and the battle of Armageddon was nigh. Manassas had long been making news-of-the-weird headlines, a steady supplier of raw material for the tabloids and for Virginia’s death row.
I had worked for a local daily in the early ’90s, reporting on the everyday mayhem. I had seen the local yahoos howling their rebel yells and running amok in their monster trucks and their jerry-rigged liquor cycles, and then, in court, hiding their tattoos in their Sunday best, now contrite and sullen-faced under their greased-down, rat-tailed mullets. The daily police report was The Smoking Gun decades before the website existed. The Bobbitt attack was no aberration.
As the big-media buzzards swarmed in for a ratings-boosting feast of tabloids-on-steroids road kill, it seemed like a good time for City Paper to report on the specifics of the place—a deep dive into this vortex of sordidness and cultural discombobulation known as “Manasshole” that had brought the circus to town. That sense of place was far more compelling than the perpetrators, and it became the focus for the story I wrote.
What I tried to show was the predicament of those trapped in a landscape ravaged by greed and so-called progress. What lent the scene a tragic dimension was the natural beauty that framed the strip-mall-and-subdivision desecration wrought by developers and planners. To the west of town the majestic Blue Ridge loomed like an eternal reproach from the All Mighty, towering over the inhabitants of Manassas. They were trying to grub out a living, lucky to find a trailer or townhouse they could afford, a scrum of angry rednecks and transient interlopers vying for their own half-acre to raise pit bulls, ferrets, and a few kids.
At the heart of the Bobbitt trial that put Manasshole in the spotlight was a brazen display of the American caste system. The highbrow came to pass judgement, the middlebrow came to gawk, and the lowbrow came to cash in. All camped outside the courthouse. Vendors hawked tasteless T-shirts and souvenirs of the severance as feminists held aloft the results of their all-night poster-making projects in an attempt to transform Lorena Bobbitt into Susan B. Anthony, while an immaculately tailored Gay Talese, on assignment for The New Yorker, shuddered in revulsion to find himself in a tacky suburban-sprawl hell that made Dante’s Inferno look as quaint as Old Town Alexandria.
The story found a divided audience. I was a guest on WTOP’s drive-time morning show to try to explain the concept of “Manasshole” to the hordes of stuck-in-traffic masses. It was quite a coup for a greenhorn City Paper staffer to appear on old-folks AM talk radio in an era when the F-bomb-dropping and muckraking alternative press was relegated by mainstream dailies of record like The Gray Lady to the same seedy ghetto of the fourth estate as Hustler and Screw.
A friend who’d lived in Manassas for years crowed that I had “nailed it,” and then started bitching about a dickweed neighbor he wanted to kill. Meanwhile, the hate mail came in. Usually a sign of a job well done, this batch had a nasty tone that bordered on psycho. Many of the angriest letters came from local high school students who seethed that a reporter from D.C., then famous as “the murder capital,” had the gall to do a hatchet job on their hometown. They didn’t understand that as a Virginia native born just north in staid, boring Fairfax, I had become somewhat smitten by the outlaw spirit that roamed free in their anti-Mayberry USA. My only regret in reporting the story was I didn’t buy a souvenir severed part T-shirt.
The Manasshole of yore is no more. For the most part, Manassas is just another homogenized Washington suburb. The redneck demarcation line has shifted south, somewhere in between Fredricksburg and Kings Dominion, near the tobacco barn where Union troops shot John Wilkes Booth, who was, if not the first angry redneck, the first to make headlines.