Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Why Mike Tyson Is Not A Serial Killer

The ways in which we distinguish Mike Tyson types from serial killer types

Let's look at the construct of the serial killer persona for a moment. The persona can perhaps best be encapsulated by an intangible essence: that creepy, goosebump-causing sensation that runs up and down one's spine when I sense a sort of foreign and frightening aura carried by someone, a certain someone who seems to not care, to not feel remorse, to not respond to reason. This is the kind of person that shoots dozens of classmates despite a nurturing familial environment, or the kind of person who kills people over the span of years and "the neighbors never suspected."

The problem in popular culture, I believe, is that we too often make the mistake of over-simplifying this evil personality structure and we end up lumping together all who do evil things without necessarily taking a closer look. We tend to think of evil as simple. You either are or you aren't evil and I can tell the difference from all the way over here. And, I'm not going to step any closer as I can sense your evilness from all the way over here. Take Mike Tyson for example. My sense is that over the years, as his self-destructive behavior and dirty laundry has been aired in public, he has been perceived as akin to a serial killer type. We don't often give pause to consider the truly sensitive and nuanced notion of personality. Instead we draw thin-sliced conclusions based upon snapshots of life experience and we safely conclude that someone like Mike Tyson is cut from the same cloth as a serial killer. And then we convict and dismiss without an afterthought.

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Fortunately for Mike Tyson and all those who wish to preserve the image of personality structure as complex, fluid and contradictory, the documentary that came out earlier this year, " Tyson," draws clear and emphatic lines in the sand. The result is a shockingly intimate portrayal of Mike Tyson that clearly and eternally distinguishes him from those who have serial killer personalities.

The documentary starts where most people who have an opinion about Mike Tyson start, with the assumption that he is a serial killer type. After all, if viewed from afar, Tyson's resume reads like one. We recall that as a child he lived on the street corners and in juvenile facilities, as an adolescent he thieved, drugged and hustled, as an adult he assaulted harmless citizens, allegedly raped a woman and definitely bite an ear. All too often he presented himself as a screaming, scary lunatic, exuding that serial killer essence we can all instinctively sense.

But because the notion of personality only comes in complex terms, the answer to the question, "Did Mike Tyson do bad things?" is a lot simpler and a lot different than the question, "Is Mike Tyson a bad person?"

The documentary is a 90-minute case study in which the psychologically-minded, reflective and vulnerable Mike Tyson constructs a narrative that thoroughly explains his inner and outer worlds. It plays out like a really intense Intake therapy session and it allows us to answer the aforementioned personality question with confidence.

Personality structure is subtle, it is found in the "why" of behavior. It's the difference between doing a bad thing compulsively and gleefully versus doing a bad thing as the result of subconscious suffering from unresolved pain. Let me qualify that last part by saying that personality should not necessarily influence the consequences of bad behavior, and it certainly does not excuse bad behavior. You do something bad and you should go directly to jail and you should stay there for as long as everyone else. But understanding the inner forces that drive that bad behavior can be predictive of future behavior - is this person redeemable, forgivable? It's a point of fairness and precision, and it can be best measured by prominent projective tests like the Rorschach Inklbot Test, which basically asks the following questions: how does Mike Tyson view himself and others, how does he perceive the world and his future in it, what is his default response to stress, how well can he identify and express his emotions, how do all these things impact his judgment, thought process, behavior?

Please take the following with a gigantic grain of salt as it is an armchair analysis of a 90-minute, biased documentary of a person I've never met.

The short answer: he does not have a serial killer personality. What he does have is something that can be confused with a serial killer personality, something that I will call the traumatized child personality.

The following narrative is my reading of the psychological subtext of the documentary:

He was born a sensitive soul. He endured a brutal childhood complete with neglect, abuse and trauma. He learned that the world was a scary and unpredictable place, that others could not be trusted, and that he was worthless. Then he grew up. He carried great anger with him, which he failed to identify and subsequently bottled up. Because effective managment of emotion or emotional intelligence is a skill that is learned and because Tyson was too busy being neglected, abused and traumatized to be taught it, the anger was mischanneled into unregulated anger toward self and random others. His discomfort with emotion is reflected, for instance, in the hoarse, uncomfortable noises he makes when he's about to cry.

He exhibited certain innate capacities that serial killer personality types don't have, and that traumatized child personality types had stolen away through insufficient nurturing. He showed the capacity to experience the full array of human emotion, the ability to connect with and love others, and the ability to reflect upon and change his sense of self. We can hear this capacity in his teary reflection of the time he mourned the passing of his first trainer and surrogate father, or when he noted the academic aspirations of his children.

These natural capacities interacted with learned beliefs and psychological deficiences to create certain drives or core beliefs. Mike Tyson needed, desperately, to feel safe and to be loved. Any human being who was not protected and loved as a child would be preoccupied by this in adulthood. This is the redeemable-forgivable factor I referenced earlier. At the root of every self-destructive moment in Tyson's life (it's a long list) seemed to be a frantic pursuit of love and safety, the core needs he never received. This quickly became a problematic pursuit because as Tyson aged into an adult his preoccupation sidetracked him from what most others his age were doing, developmentally speaking, which was giving love and safety to others, not looking all around for it. This pursuit was rendered further problematic by the fact that Tyson pursued these core needs in an extremely ineffective, ill-informed manner. This makes sense. He was driven by the fear and anxiety that any of us would feel if we perceived the world around us as dangerous and erratic. His fight-flight response went into overdrive at the slightest touch, the result of which was impulsive-poor-judgment-acting-out craziness like cheating on his wife instead of talking with her, or yelling obscenities at his opponent instead of training for the fight.

The traumatized kid personality is not the end of the story, however. As Mike Tyson entered adulthood, one could imagine that he faced one of three life trajectories - the traumatized kid becomes the recovered adult, the traumatized kid becomes the enraged criminal, or someone in between. I'm being very overly-simplistic and I don't know nearly enough about Tyson to offer an opinion on this, but since this is a blog I'll offer an opinion for the fun of it.

My initial vote is that his personality structure leans toward the enraged criminal end of the spectrum. You see, as time passed and his personality structure cemented, the things that happened to him and the environments he found himself in could not help but further perpetuate his problems. It's too bad that Tyson's surrogate father died when Tyson was only 19 years-old, or that his first wife seemed a little too desirous of the limelight, or that he endured three yeas of prison or that Don King was so corrupt. And, of course, it's too bad that Tyson's pre-existing fears, negative beliefs and poor coping abilities interacted so violently with these things. It would seem predictable that these experiences would only serve to reinforce the profound sense of worthlessness, abandonment, mistrust and paranoia that had ruled his psychological world since childhood.

But then I realized that Mike Tyson had been constructing his self-narrative for the past 90 minutes with so much insight, vulnerability and openness. He did not appear angry, guarded or paranoid. He did appear to be subconsciously seeking love and safety, and certainly not through ineffective means. In fact, he seemed charming, apologetic and sympathetic. Those natural capacities for warmth, curiosity and engagement were poking through like slivers of sunshine through a shaded window.

Maybe he's closer to the recovered adult.

Either way, he's definitely not the serial killer type, and this may surprise some, if not most. Then again, if he bites another ear, should I reconsider? I mean, how many times can a person bite an ear before receiving the serial killer personality stamp? Email with thoughts!

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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