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Monday, October 19, 2009

Mike Tyson

I watched "Tyson" Saturday night. It's not something I would have seen on my own, but my son has a bit of an obsession with Mike Tyson, so I tagged along. Much of the movie consists of just Tyson talking; these scenes are interspersed with clips showing various highlights (and lowlights) of his life.

Before the movie started, my son asked me, "Is Mike Tyson a sociopath?" I said I wasn't sure. (But I did come to a conclusion by the end of the movie.)

The obvious answer would be yes. Tyson seems to be out of control. His run-ins with the law, including his rape conviction, his almost bestial quality in the ring, including the infamous ear-biting incident, and his numerous colorful quotes ("I'm going to eat his children," etc.) all emit the odor of sociopathy.

But sociopaths are always, at root, dishonest creatures. A sociopath is concerned with presenting a certain image, and to that end will try to hide his true nature. Tyson is the opposite. His personality is basically just one big primal scream. It can be a scream of joy (when he was on top of the world), of rage (when more duplicitous types took advantage of him), and of regret (more recently). There is an almost childlike quality to the way he talks so honestly about his life, and the way he doesn't try to hide his emotions, raw as they may be. This was particularly apparent when he spoke of his early criminal history and other bad behavior.

The most poignant scene in the movie came when Tyson talked about his relationship with Cus d'Amato, the trainer who semi-adopted him: Tyson's tears welled up and for a while he was unable even to talk. Whenever I've seen a sociopath cry, it is always out of self-pity. (Witness Leona Helmsley breaking down after her arrest.) You can say that Tyson broke down partly out of self-pity, since d'Amato was the only one who ever gave him love and consideration. (You can also say that d'Amato's "love" was also somewhat selfish, since he wanted a heavyweight champion and saw Tyson as that vehicle.) But there also seemed to be genuine affection, on both sides.

Verdict: Mike Tyson, though he lacks self-control, is not a sociopath.

One aspect of Tyson's makeup inseparable from his behavior is his hyperandrogenization, giving him his own inbuilt genetic supply of "steroid rage." He was in the grip of this rage when he bit Holyfield's ear. Evidently Holyfield had continually head-butted him during their match, and referee Mills Lane, an avowed Holyfield fan, had refused to call Holyfield for it. So Tyson became enraged and lost control.

Tyson has certainly had other, better reasons for rage. (At the head of that list would be Don King, who most definitely is a sociopath. Second on the list is Robin Givens, a probable sociopath.)

Another person who may have exploited Tyson is Desiree Washington, the woman whose "rape" he went to jail for. Tyson claims he didn't do it. He admitted having "taken advantage of" other women in the past, but insisted he hadn't done so with her. Given how honest Tyson is in every other aspect of his life in the movie, it seems telling that he is so bitter against her.

Google "Desiree Washington," and you'll find nothing. But look at the Wikipedia entry on Tyson, and you'll see a paragraph about the trial. It came out there that Washington had a history of leading other men on, and despite her original statement, she later admitted that she had had several opportunities to leave his hotel room that evening, but hadn't taken them. The jury was evidently put off by Tyson's demeanor during the trial, which they read as sullen and arrogant. (That may in fact have been a function of his resentment about the false charges.) Such an attitude may be good reason to dislike someone, but it is not reason to convict him.

We'll never know, but my guess is that he was innocent of those charges. It certainly wouldn't be the first time a man has been sent to jail on false rape charges. One can say, given Tyson's admission that he had "taken advantage" of other women, that his conviction was in fact poetic justice. And maybe it was. But our legal system is not set up to render poetic justice.

Tyson represents everything that the black middle and upper classes like to dissociate themselves from: he is primitive, uneducated, lawless, and out of control. (Talk to any member of these groups, and you'll find they almost invariably prefer -- and prefer to identify with -- the lighter-skinned, eloquent and elegant, playful and politicized Muhammad Ali.) But watching this movie, I was left with the impression that Tyson is, in his own way, far more noble than most members of the black -- or white -- upper classes.

There is a nobility in the way Tyson is brutally honest with himself, and the way he makes no attempt to be anything other than what he is. There is a nobility to the way he fought in the ring. (In an earlier era he might have been referred to as a valiant warrior, and not just because of his ferocity; against both Buster Douglas and Lennox Lewis, although he was losing from the start, he kept battling until he was well and truly knocked out. It's called "going out on your shield.") There is a nobility -- as well as a naivete -- to the way he was so trusting of others. (People almost always assume that others are as honest as they themselves are.) Tyson even looks noble, with his outsize cheekbones, arched eyebrows, fierce eyes, and shaved head. (The hulking physique doesn't detract from this impression.) Even the way he tattooed his face with that Maori war motif, at a certain level, showed a certain reckless courage.

You can interpret all of these things as simple-mindedness, and there may be some truth to that as well. But while he is more childlike than most, he is also more manly than most of us could ever dream of being. And I don't mean that in just the physical sense.

If you've seen any of the King Kong movies, you know that King Kong was a scary, elemental force of nature who knew only the laws of the jungle. Everybody loved to marvel at and be scared by his primordial strength and ferocity. He was not well versed in the ways of humans, and eventually fell prey to some cunning showmen. But he was at heart an honest creature who was capable of love. And by the end of the movie, you know that he was essentially far better -- far more noble -- than the people who exploited him.

I emphasize, strongly, that I am not calling Mike Tyson an ape; I am merely making an analogy.


Anonymous said...

What an interesting post, John. I expect most of us have a rather superficial preconception of who and what Tyson is, but your review of the film lays out a much more human and sympathetic picture, while (I think) not quite over-romaticizing (probably no such word I know) the analysis. It's a constant challenge to glimpse truth and reality through the lens of the media and always interesting to have an opportunity to do so.

BTW. I have often used the term "Mike Tyson syndrome" as a shorthand to describe society's propensity to create mega-successful heroes that it showers with riches, only to then see them self destruct and fall prey to the leeches and charlatans. It seems to happen regularly to sports stars with modest education. Lottery winners are another category.

John Craig said...

Thank you Guy. Yes, it's amazing how many athletes succumb to that syndrome. I can think of only a small handful of boxers who ended up hanging on to their money. Tyson obviously wasn't one.

I was always fascinated by him for the same reason everyone else was, partly because he was such a great boxer, and partly because he seemed like such a primitive. But I was always put off by the media's sneering treatment of him. I'll take a noble savage any day over the hypocrites who pose as good guys but then act just as bad in private. Evander Holyfield always advertises himself as a very religious man, a solid church-going type, but he's had something like nine children by something like five or six women. In fact, not just in boxing, but in virtually every field, especially politics, most public figures are hypocrites. Tyson actually seems like one of the least hypocritical celebrities out there. I suspect I am over-romanticizing him, but I also suspect that in the future he will be judged more kindly. Kudos to James Toback for making such a good movie (and for not inserting himself into it). And thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Thanks for a new perspective.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Thank you.

Steven said...

Very good article. I completely agree.

I also think Tyson was innocent and I also consider his honest nature and frankness about his feelings as being a big factor in support of that. I just don't see him lying about this.

I read in a book that a fellow beauty contestant reported Desiree Washington saying some things that indicated she thought he was dumb and she was ready to lead him on for his money. It was declared inadmissible so the jury never heard about it.

John Craig said...

Thank you Steven.

Yes, Desiree Washington just disappeared after that, wonder what happened to her. She must be persona non grata in the black community. (And I would guess Robin Givens is not popular in that community either.)

Steven said...

I've been reading Tyson's autobiography. Its good and obviously you could make a much more in depth assessment from it. He certainly is very candid about everything, including his own faults. He seems to be very self aware, though I don't know how much the ghost writer had to do with it.

Anyway, there's a lot of very interesting stuff in there, esp about his childhood and the environment he grew up in.

He actually talks about 'playing the roll of the arrogant sociopath' in his early career.

John Craig said...

Steven --
That all does sound like Tyaon, though I agree with you that the ghost writer probably made him sound both more intelligent and more self aware than he was.

Yes, he did play that role the way the public wanted to see him play it. He was unquestionably a thug, though I as I said in this post, I wouldn't say he was a sociopath.

Steven said...

I just re-read the post John and its an excellent analysis with quite a sensitive appreciation of him. I think you're absolutely spot on.

I might share this to facebook some time. He is often dismissed as an animal and this really sheds light on him.

I've been complimenting you a lot lately. I'll have to stop it lest it seems like I'm blowing smoke up your ass.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Ha! I was about to make the same point, but I was going to encourage you to continue.

Just kidding. I try not to let the compliments influence me anymore than the insults. I would appreciate it if you put this on Facebook, though. It was actually just linked on some MMA message board recently too.

Steven said...

Okay, I'll do it sometime but it probably wont get many hits from it actually. People mostly *like* either personal or trivial things. That seems to be the name of the game on fbook.

Interesting tidbits from the book: Tyson slept in his mother's bed, with her, til he was 15. Despite that, he didn't have much of a connection with her as she was an alcoholic and usually drunk. Also some doctor had said he was something like 'retarded' when he was an infant and he felt his mum never had any hope for him from then on.

When he moved to a worse ghetto at about 7 or 8, he noticed that the people were more aggressive and crude. He seems to have been a sensitive child. And he certainly experienced fear throughout his life, which goes against sociopathy.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Good point, sociopaths are usually relatively fearless. I remember when he was going to jail he was terrified of being raped. I can't quite see him as someone who would be in big danger of that, not only because he wasn't feminine, but because the other inmates would have protected him because of who he was and what he represented.

Some doctor says he was retarded? That doesn't mean much, people are misdiagnosed all the time, especially as infants. But the bit about how he slept in his mother's bed till he was 15 is certainly a surprise.

Steven said...

He makes the point himself that you'd think letting him sleep with her til he was 15 would mean he got love from her but she actually didnt give him much love or attention and was an alcoholic so drunk most of the time.

The point of the retarded thing is how it affected his mother's expectations. He felt that the doctor robbed him of his relationship with her, that she lost hope for him right then. I don't know about that but certainly as he got older, his mum felt he was lost to the streets.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Aha, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Nice article! I questioned if he was a sociopath but he is too honest. Great insight and perspective.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this post.

- Susan D.

John Craig said...

Thank you Susan.

The Ambivalent Misanthrope said...

And here I go again being wowed by another great post. Thank you for this insightful, fair and sensitive post about Tyson.

I never followed his career and did not know much about the man beyond the ear-biting incident with Holyfield. However, my peripheral vision of him always left me with the impression that you so well fleshed out here.

And just like you, I completely agree with you about taking the side of a sincere, childlike 'noble savage' over a slick, polished worldly 'mover and shaker' --- any day, any second.

Also your post touched me on a very personal level, as I hold close to my heart someone who is similarly inclined --- and misunderstood on the surface appearance of things. Thank you. You've made my --- year.

And seriously, I'm truly not brown-nosing! I am simply expressing my gratitude at meeting up with a mind that so resonates. :-)

John Craig said...

Ambivalent Misanthrope --
Thank you very much. We do seem to think alike. Always meant to do more "saint alerts" (not that Tyson would have qualified for that) to go along with all the sociopath alerts. But so far I've only written one, about Jane Goodall. There seem to be a lot more sinners than saints, and the former are more fun to write about anyway. Though I do have one more prospect in mind for sainthood.

Did you ever read those two posts I suggested, about college websites and the practical college?

And don't you owe me an email? (Doesn't have to be about the subject we discussed.)