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Why Is the NYPL Hosting Convicted Rapist Mike Tyson?

Yesterday, I got an email from the New York Public Library announcing that Mike Tyson had been added to its popular LIVE! From the NYPL conversation series. Here’s how they describe the evening:

Boxing champion, Broadway headliner, felon—Mike Tyson has defied expectations and conventional wisdom during his three decades in the public eye. Tyson, the one-time heavyweight champion of the world and a legend both in and out of the ring, joins LIVE for a conversation about his tumultuous life in the same straightforward and sincere tone seen in his new memoir, Undisputed Truth.

One of the most thrilling and ferocious boxers of all time, Tyson’s brilliance in the ring was often compromised by reckless behavior. Years of hard partying, violent fights, and criminal proceedings took their toll: by 2003, he hit rock bottom, a convicted felon and completely broke. Yet Tyson managed to regain his success, his dignity, and the love of his family. With his new-found happiness and stability as a father and husband, his story is an American original.

I admit it was the total absence of the word “rape” in here that made me do my first double-take.

Caveat emptor: I am not a boxing fan, and so there is a whole aspect of Tyson’s public persona that is basically in a foreign language for me. But I find it strange to refer to his documented history of violence as a “tumultuous life.” I find it odd not to use the word – rape – which describes what he was actually convicted of doing. And that’s not to mention that as a frequent attendee of the NYPL’s talks, myself, I recognize this as an off-the-beaten-path choice. These things aren’t usually such direct exercises in controversy.

So I decided to email the NYPL and ask about their choice. In response, I received a comment from Paul Holdengräber, the Director of LIVE from the NYPL, who says he chose Tyson himself. Here’s his reasoning:

I carefully research and select guests based on a number of factors, but a sense of “cultural urgency” is probably the biggest factor. Mike Tyson has straddled fame and infamy for years. His recent reappearance in American culture, from The Hangover to a Broadway show, “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth,” directed by Spike Lee (who also appeared some years ago LIVE from the NYPL), is the latest example that his athletic career is only part of his controversial story. I also find it interesting that he is a voracious reader, though he did not have the privilege of a formal education. He spent a lot of time in prison reading. Machiavelli is his favorite writer, which I find intriguing. We are going to have a far ranging and honest conversation with him. He has an incredible story to tell about sports, New York, culture, challenge, failure and redemption.

I also asked Holdengräber what he would say to someone who criticized the choice based on Tyson’s past crimes, and particularly the sexual violence charges. He replied:

Having Mike Tyson as a guest at LIVE from the NYPL is in no way a dismissal or an endorsement of his prior actions or his conviction. I do not stand here in judgment and Mr. Tyson is forthright about his life and frailties, in unsparing ways. As Spike Lee said recently about Mr. Tyson’s willingness to delve into his dark past and demons, “he is the most honest human being I have ever met.” I of course understand why people might criticize this choice, and it would be naive for me to think that my decision to bring Mr. Tyson here would be free of controversy. His contested place in American culture — in spite of or because of his convictions — is part of what intrigues me about him. But I believe strongly in The New York Public Library’s history of being a forum for open, honest, intelligent discussion and debate on all topics, even controversial ones. I look forward to an open, honest, and intelligent discussion with Mr. Tyson.

Holdengräber also clarified that Tyson is not being paid for his appearance.

My reaction to these responses is mixed. I understand, to an extent, Holdengräber’s position. On the one hand, Tyson is indeed a figure of public interest, for better or for worse. Holdengräber is right that Tyson’s public image sits at an intersection of race, sports, sexual violence, and class in America. It’s not the kind of figure these NYPL talks typically cover, though; they tend to choose novelists, public intellectuals, and leaders of the Warren Buffett variety. They are, for many patrons, the last bastion of a certain kind of public life of the arts in America. And that kind of public life typically isn’t about popular “trainwreck” celebrities.

Moreover, Tyson’s celebrity and popularity are shaped by his violent behavior, and also by his unrepentant public posturing about it in a way none of this seems to acknowledge. For example: While Holdengräber seems focused on the redemptive journey, Tyson continues to publicly deny that he committed the rape he was convicted of in 1992. In 2003, he even went so far as to utter the following on television, about his present views on the victim: “But now I really do want to rape her and her fucking mama.” And that hasn’t actually changed: just this past August, he told Matt Lauer he still didn’t feel the need to apologize. “I really didn’t do anything to her. I didn’t rape her. I didn’t beat her, I didn’t do anything to her. And I’m not gonna make amends. I made amends to myself,” he said, “But to her, no.” Is a person like this really redeemed? Moreover, what kind of message does the NYPL send by giving this sort of thing a platform? There’s something vaguely discomfiting about the urge to excuse this on redemptive grounds when redemption isn’t even being sought by the redeemed.

That’s not even to mention that there are other signs that Tyson has not actually moved on from a dysfunctional past. Tyson also told Lauer that he’d been lying about his sober status to the press for years. “I’m on the verge of dying because I’m a vicious alcoholic,” he said. Even if you want to parse Tyson’s violence as the result of the disease of addiction and, by all accounts, a pretty horrific childhood, his assertions that he is even now near death are troubling. They raise the whole question of exactly who and what is served by the narrative surrounding Tyson’s “recovery.” Is it Tyson? Or is it his handlers?

And more importantly: is it the NYPL?

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