Mike Tyson is absolutely, 100 percent, no-question about it sure that he did not rape Desiree Washington. “She knows it, God knows it, and the consequences of her actions are something that she’s got to live with for the rest of her life,” he avers on page two of his new memoir. In the HBO documentary he gives a shorter, more petulant version. He proffers little actual evidence to support this mind-reading, but then this is a memoir (and a film) titled, apparently unironically, Undisputed Truth. In other words: it’s not the time for argument.
The presentation of Tyson as an unvarnished truth-teller is central to the redemption narrative he’s selling in this late state of his celebrity. It’s the thing Spike Lee, who directed the documentary, which will air this Saturday, says about his subject: Tyson’s “the most honest human being” Lee has ever met. It’s the thing that the New York Public Library told me, a few weeks ago, when I asked them why they’d invited Tyson to speak: “I do not stand here in judgment and Mr. Tyson is forthright about his life and frailties, in unsparing ways.” The problem with telling this story about Tyson is that it prevents you from asking what it is, actually, that Tyson is being honest about.
I mean, I could tell you that little Tyson writes in this book really supports his claims of innocence. His arguments about what Washington must have known when she got into that limousine on a cold night in April 1991 – it was after midnight, what kind of woman gets into a car after midnight, etc. — were explicitly rejected by the Indiana Court of Appeals, because it simply does not matter if it seems like a woman wants to have sex with you an hour before you rape her – if she says no in the moment, that’s it. I could add that the rest of his parsing – that she didn’t scream enough, there wasn’t enough bruising and tearing – is pretty standard rape-denial stuff.
But I don’t kid myself that most people care about that.
I could even say that when Tyson argues that Washington had falsely accused someone before, he’s just following an old script about gold-diggers and “hos,” one he certainly did not write but is happy to deploy to attract sympathy to himself. I could add, to that, any number of quotes from this book in which Tyson is very honest about his general contempt for women, and black women specifically. At nearly every stop in his narrative, he’s remarking on women as though they were the spoils of war.
It gets worse when he knows them for longer than an evening. He’s not half as hard on Washington, for example, as he is on Robin Givens and her mother Ruth, whom he called “The Ruthless.” Givens herself is a “manipulative shrew who could bring me to my knees.” She scammed him into marrying her, he says, faking a pregnancy. She slept with other men, including Brad Pitt. She ruined his life, he says, and just judging by the minimal commentary I could find around the web on what Givens is doing today, well, people believe that. People believe that Mike Tyson has been used and abused by people his whole life, and that women have played a big role in that. Perhaps they were not quite the users someone like the promoter Don King was. But they too took things from a Great Man. And Tyson, in this narrative, is just being “honest” about that when he refers to them as “hos” he does so with a straight face.
Now that I have read this long, long book and seen the documentary and read a good deal of what everyone else wrote about Tyson, I do understand some of the appeal he holds. I can see that his particular kind of dysfunction has a kind of satisfying moral in it: you can grow up in hell and survive it. And watching him in action, he has a certain baby-voiced charm, a fluidity to his limbs that can, even when he’s doing a goofy onstage mime of his boxing steps, be enchanting.
I also know that his trial occurred in the context of an American justice system where black masculinity is demonized. I understand, as the black feminist Joan Morgan wrote in the Village Voice back when she was reporting on the trial in Indianapolis: that Tyson came from “a community that desperately needs to hold onto its few living heroes,” that “his life has been visited with nothing but opportunistic mothafuckas from D’Amato to Kind who claimed to love him yet allowed him to remain sick and undereducated for the sake of riding a $100 million gravy train.”
But then Morgan both believed this, and believed that the media imagery around Washington required qualification:
With her black middle-class breeding in full effect, the Miss Black America Pageant contestant was also a BAP, a Black American Princess. And in her, Tyson had found a most worthy opponent. BAPS are raised with a sense of entitlement and privilege that arrogantly defies the widely accepted premise that black women are born to be the mules of the world. Hence the existence of a woman who could wander into the bedroom of that particular man without expecting to give up the punanny. With her heightened sense of self-esteem and autonomy, a BAP would honestly believe that it is her right to be able to say “No” and “I’d like to leave now” to a wall of sculpted muscle more than twice her size and expect to have her wishes respected, the same way Donald Trump’s daughter would.
In other words, it’s not as simple as the story Tyson wants to tell about his life. There are other narratives going on here, other people’s stories to consider.
Those who consider themselves masters of nuance will say a lot of things this week like, “Well, he served his time.” That’s just what people say about Tyson, in part because he won’t go away, and he won’t go away because we are still fascinated by him, and we want that to be all right. The one unquestionably Undisputed Truth of this latest leg of the redemption tour is that people are very attached to their own images of Tyson, facts and argument be damned. I just keep wondering what Washington and Givens – neither of whom seem to have spoken about the book yet – have to say about that.