Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Susie Banikarim (00:00):

Hi everyone. Just a note that we discuss sexual and domestic violence in this episode.


In 1988, Robin Givens, a well-known actress, and her husband, Mike Tyson, the heavyweight champion of the world, gave an extraordinary television interview to Barbara Walters of ABC News. As Mike sat quietly, his arm draped around Robin, she addressed persistent tabloid rumors that he was violent and abusive.

Clips (00:27):

Does he hit you?


He shakes. He pushes. He swings. Sometimes I think he’s trying to scare me. There were times that it happened when I thought I could handle it, and just recently I’ve become afraid. I mean, very, very much afraid.

Susie Banikarim (00:45):

It’s a stunning interview, not just because of its honesty, but also because of what you suspect she’s still holding back. But far from eliciting sympathy for Robin, which is what you’d expect, or drawing condemnation of her husband, the interview would lead to a nasty backlash against Robin Givens. One month later she would file for divorce, and soon thereafter, she would become commonly referred to in the press as the most hated woman in America.


I am Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (01:19):

And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (01:21):

This is IN RETROSPECT where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett (01:26):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim (01:28):

Today we’re talking about the vilification of Robin Givens, a talented actress who in the 1980s became known for her violent marriage to Mike Tyson. But we’re also talking about the way she was treated by the press, what it teaches us about domestic violence, and the role race played in all of it.


This is part one.

Jessica Bennett (01:50):

So Susie, for our listeners, I just want to reset the scene here a little bit. What we’ve just heard is an interview that Robin Givens and Mike Tyson have given to Barbara Walters. It’s 1988, and Robin has described the abuse she’s been suffering at the hands of her husband. He happens to be the heavyweight champion of the world at this time. First off, this clip is pretty stunning to hear, but it’s even more stunning to watch.

Susie Banikarim (02:17):

Yeah, I mean, it’s actually riveting television for better or for worse.

Jessica Bennett (02:21):

Yeah, it really is.

Susie Banikarim (02:22):

You just really see how honest this moment is. I think we’re just not used to seeing celebrities in this unguarded a way. Even now in the age of social media, they sort of pretend they’re sharing their real lives with you, but it’s all very managed. This feels like just a very honest confession at a time when that was truly very unusual.

Jessica Bennett (02:46):

Yeah, absolutely. But before we get into all of it, what led Mike Tyson and Robin Givens to be seated together side by side on that couch for this national television interview?

Susie Banikarim (02:56):

Well, I think the primary reason they do it is because they’re doing damage control. There’s constant rumors about the violent nature of their relationship. The tabloids are hounding them. They’ve only been married eight months at this point, and his people really want to rehabilitate his image. They hope that he’s going to do more TV and film, so they need things to quiet down a bit in terms of the public perception of their marriage. So they agree to do this interview, partially also because Mike really wants to show off his new opulent mansion to Barbara Walters-

Jessica Bennett (03:34):

Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim (03:35):

… and they’re hoping… Yeah, it’s an interesting detail, right?

Jessica Bennett (03:36):


Susie Banikarim (03:37):

And they’re hoping that it will make Mike seem like a sweet family man and to some extent also it’ll rehabilitate Robin who’s being very negatively portrayed at this time.

Jessica Bennett (03:49):

That’s so interesting because it basically just all backfires in that regard.

Susie Banikarim (03:53):

Yeah, I think looking back, it’s very clear that the interview does not go as planned. I mean, Robin seems to reveal much more than she was prepared to reveal. She almost seems, once she reveals it, to immediately seem a little off that she’s done it. You can see her looking into the distance. She seems to almost immediately regret it. But I think what it really shows you is what a gifted interviewer Barbara Walters was.

Jessica Bennett (04:18):

It’s so interesting because what happens is that instead of people having sympathy for her, they actually turn on her.

Susie Banikarim (04:25):

Yeah, absolutely. Robin gets branded a gold digger, a liar. The coverage is just so much worse than anything you’d expect. The rabid attention to their relationship really only increases as a result of this.

Jessica Bennett (04:37):

I mean, I can absolutely see why you wanted to unravel this. There’s so much to unpack here.

Susie Banikarim (04:42):

They were also really young. I think that’s one thing people don’t realize. They were 21 and 23 at the time of this interview. They were babies. But I think because they’re both so larger than life, in a way, they read as a little bit older. Even when you’re watching it, I don’t know if you had that reaction, but I kept having to sort of remind myself how young they were. I’ve always kind of wondered about Robin Givens because at a time that you and I’ve talked about where there’s all this sort of revisiting of women and women characters-

Jessica Bennett (05:11):

In a post-MeToo world or whatever.

Susie Banikarim (05:12):

Right, I don’t think she’s ever really been given the chance to have her story revisited in a way that feels true to what really happened to her.

Jessica Bennett (05:22):

Yeah, absolutely. But can we backtrack for a second? Maybe walk us through what they were like back in the 1980s because these were two 20 somethings.

Susie Banikarim (05:31):

Well, I mean, I think it’s really important to understand that Mike Tyson was literally one of the most famous people in the world when this interview aired. Boxing now just doesn’t have the same kind of appeal it once did, but at one point, boxing was more popular than football in this country. She was famous too, in her own, but she wasn’t anywhere near his level of fame. So I think their relationship from the moment it began… Not long before this interview, to be honest. They hadn’t been together so long. There was a lot of scrutiny to it. She was sort of this impossibly glamorous, I mean, Robin Givens-

Jessica Bennett (06:06):

She’s so beautiful.

Susie Banikarim (06:07):

… is so beautiful. There’s something really regal about her. I think there was an automatic assumption that she was this icy butch, for lack of a normal way to put it, because I don’t think she is those things. But her appearance automatically lent to this real contrast between Mike Tyson, who’s kind of this big bear of a man who grew up in the streets of Brooklyn. So I think that in and of itself drew a lot of attention to them.

Jessica Bennett (06:38):

Yeah, that makes sense. But wait, Robin was already acting by this time, right?

Susie Banikarim (06:42):

Yeah, so she was starring in Head of the Class, which started in 1986, which was a very popular sitcom about a bunch of kids in a gifted program in a New York City high school. I grew up watching that show, and I loved Robin Givens. Her character was a bit of a spoiled, rich girl, but she was smart and funny, and she was ambitious, and she was a black student in a mostly white honors class. I related to that, I was also-

Jessica Bennett (07:10):

In real life or in the show?

Susie Banikarim (07:11):

Oh, in the show. In the show, sorry.

Jessica Bennett (07:12):

In the show, okay.

Susie Banikarim (07:13):

She was also very smart and clever and ambitious in real life. But the character she played, Darlene, was sort of an extension of her in some ways. I think she became conflated with that character. So that’s also why people sort of assumed she was this spoiled, rich girl, which she wasn’t by any measure.

Jessica Bennett (07:29):

Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about who she was prior to this in her real life?

Susie Banikarim (07:34):

Yeah. So Robin is really interesting and her background becomes kind of weaponized against her. She was born in 1964 and she’s raised by this single mom, Ruth Roper, who ends up being a really significant part of the coverage of Robin and Mike’s marriage, sort of Chris Jenner’s like mum-ager before that’s a thing. But she very much poured a lot of her energy into her daughters. Robin had a sister named Stephanie. She raised them.

Jessica Bennett (08:05):

Where did they grow up?

Susie Banikarim (08:06):

Oh, they grew up in New York, and Ruth and Robin’s father divorced when Robin was two years old, and she really raised them to be goal-oriented and hardworking and ambitious. In fairness to Ruth, she was all of those things. She never went to college, but by the time Robin is acting, she has built a $2 million a year consulting business that designs computer systems for banks and brokerage firms. I mean, that’s not an easy business to break into while you’re raising two kids. So she is really doing everything she can for her daughters. Robin does start working a bit as a kid. She occasionally modeled. She was in 17 Magazine, and she does a little bit of acting. But the thing that gets a lot of attention in pieces about her at the time is that she’s incredibly smart. She went to private school. There’s a People Magazine article in ’87 that mentioned she had a 3.8 grade point average, and she finishes high school at 15 and enrolls at Sarah Lawrence College.


So she is legitimately, I think, a genius maybe, and she’s one of the youngest people ever to enroll at Sarah Lawrence, and she graduates in 1984 at 19 when a lot of people are just getting to college. So that is a big part of how people think about her in relation to Mike Tyson, because there’s a lot of assumptions made about his intelligence. He doesn’t graduate from high school. So that’s something that gets talked about a lot. When she graduates from college, her mom really wanted her to become a professional. Her mom didn’t really see acting as a real job, which, I mean, I can relate to that. My mom wouldn’t have seen that as a real job. She enrolls in classes at Harvard. It’s unclear if she’s taking some pre-med classes to eventually go to medical school. But in her book, she says she never applied to medical school, but she was taking some classes to eventually do that.

Jessica Bennett (10:00):

Okay. How does a person who’s graduated from Sarah Lawrence at 19, is maybe enrolling in medical school, go on to be with Mike Tyson?

Susie Banikarim (10:09):

Well, there’s a long journey to get there. So while she was in college in 1984, she books a guest role on the Cosby Show. Bill Cosby, who at that time was also one of the most famous men in America, becomes her mentor.

Jessica Bennett (10:24):

Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim (10:25):

Bill Cosby just pops up into the story. The reporting at the time is that he convinces her mom to let her drop out of Harvard. He says to her, mom, “If she doesn’t get a job in six months, then I’ll pay for her to go back later.” He takes a real interest in her and convinces her mom that acting is a real option for her. Ruth agrees, and they move across the country to LA and move into Bill Cosby’s home, which I have a lot of questions about.

Jessica Bennett (10:58):

His real life home, not the Cosby House?

Susie Banikarim (11:00):

No, I mean, there was no Cosby House. It was like a set. Yeah, no, they move into his real life home.

Jessica Bennett (11:06):


Susie Banikarim (11:07):

Yeah. I mean, I feel like I have questions about that knowing what we know now about Bill Cosby, but I don’t have any answers for you on that front. He helps her get an agent, and acting does work out. A couple of years later in ’86, she is cast in this sitcom, Head of the Class, that I mentioned, and she stays for the full five-year run. It’s a successful show.

Jessica Bennett (11:29):

I seem to remember that it wasn’t just Mike Tyson, she dated. She had dated a lot of famous men, and that sort of gets used against her, I think. But who was that?

Susie Banikarim (11:39):

Yeah, later on when there’s all this sort of coverage of her as this conniving, gold digger, whatever, it gets mentioned a lot that she dated Eddie Murphy. When she was in college. She met him at a comedy club. She was 16, and he was just starting out in Saturday Night Live, so I think he was 19 or 20 at the time, so not that much older than her, although 16 is pretty young to be dating a guy who’s a full-time cast member on Saturday Night Live. You have to imagine that that was a bit wild. She calls him her first boyfriend. So that was a real relationship, and they continue to be friends to this day, I think. But she also briefly dates Michael Jordan, who was not nearly as famous as he would become in the nineties, but another sort of very famous black man.

Jessica Bennett (12:28):

This is then used.

Susie Banikarim (12:29):

Used, but also the sense that she’s targeting these successful black men, which I don’t know, is that targeting? I want to date really successful, cool people too. Isn’t that just what everybody wants? Is that some sort of scheme? I don’t know. Then she meets Mike Tyson, and that becomes the defining relationship, unfortunately, I think from her perspective of her life. Although she will, luckily for her, go on to much healthier relationships later on.

Jessica Bennett (12:55):

Okay. Mike Tyson, I mean, he was huge in this era. I feel like the thing that I remember most is him biting that guy’s ear off.

Susie Banikarim (13:03):

Yes, Evander Holyfield.

Jessica Bennett (13:05):

Which maybe happened in the nineties.

Susie Banikarim (13:07):

Yes, it happened much later. Much later than this, yes.

Jessica Bennett (13:09):

Okay. So who is Mike Tyson at this point?

Susie Banikarim (13:11):

So he is 20 years old when they meet. He has become the youngest heavyweight champion of the world, which means… I had to look it up because I didn’t know exactly what that meant. That he’s the boxer who holds world titles from all of the major sanctioning organizations simultaneously. So he’s won a lot of fights, I guess, is what it means. He’s a multimillionaire. He’s reportedly worth $50 million when they meet. Some from his fights, a lot of that money actually is prizes from the fights, but also he has a Pepsi deal, and he has this really popular Nintendo game called Mike Tyson’s Punch Out.

Jessica Bennett (13:47):

Oh, wow, okay. I remember that.

Susie Banikarim (13:49):

Yeah, that game was very popular.

Jessica Bennett (13:51):


Susie Banikarim (13:52):

To give you an idea of just how quickly he’s risen to this fame and fortune-

Jessica Bennett (13:56):

Yeah, because he didn’t come from money.

Susie Banikarim (13:58):

No, I mean, he did not come from money at all. But he literally went from making $500 for his first professional fight when he was 17 to just three-and-a-half years later, making $20 million for a fight. So you just sense that it’s just been this really fast-paced success. So he is incredibly successful and famous, but he hasn’t really adjusted to that yet. He doesn’t have this machinery that a lot of people who have that kind of wealth have around them. It’s all still kind of-

Jessica Bennett (14:29):

Right, the agents, the managers, the whole entourage.

Susie Banikarim (14:31):

Yeah, it’s all just really hectic. There’s all these people sort of coming in and out of his life. He’s still trying to adjust to this new life.

Jessica Bennett (14:39):

He, if I remember correctly, had a pretty traumatic childhood.

Susie Banikarim (14:42):

Yes, like a very traumatic childhood. So he was born and raised in Brooklyn, mostly in this neighborhood, Brownsville, which is pretty rough and tumble. It was the center of race riots and police violence. There was a lot of poverty in the sixties and seventies there. His mom was an alcoholic who died when he was 16. He didn’t know who his father was. There’s a man who was on his birth certificate, but a different man is the man he refers to as his father. What he says about that man is that he was essentially a neighborhood pimp, and that’s sort of who he knew to be his father figure at that time. He essentially kind of grows up in the streets. He’s like a pickpocket. He’s involved in a lot of petty crimes. He’s a street fighter. Have you heard Mike’s voice? Tyson’s voice, he has this little speech impediment that he still has, it’s like a lisp that gives him almost like a-

Jessica Bennett (15:37):

Yeah, he does. It’s like a soft-spoken quality to it.

Susie Banikarim (15:41):

Yeah, it’s like a childlike quality, and he’s often teased for that, and he wears glasses.

Jessica Bennett (15:47):

Oh, interesting.

Susie Banikarim (15:47):

So he says he started to fight to defend himself because he would get teased. Also, a thing about Mike that’s often discussed is that he raised pigeons from a very young age. He’s really obsessed with pigeons in particular, but birds in general. It’s used in profiles to depict him as this kind of gentle giant. He has said that the first fight that he was in was because an older boy killed one of his birds, and he avenged the bird, and it felt so good to beat the shit out of this bigger kid. That’s when he realized that he could fight, really fight. By the time he’s 12, he’s been arrested 38 times.

Jessica Bennett (16:29):

Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim (16:29):

Yeah, I mean, he really leans into the fighting. Another thing that he’s just recently talked about publicly is that also during this period, he experiences a sexual assault. We don’t know a lot about that. He doesn’t really want to share a lot of details about it for understandable reasons, but he’s only really talked about that since he’s turned 50. So it’s a fairly recent thing that he’s admitted. But I think his childhood was rough by every measure.

Jessica Bennett (17:03):

Yeah, okay. So how does Mike go from being a street fighter to boxing professionally?

Susie Banikarim (17:08):

So when he’s 14, he gets sent to a juvenile detention center because he has stabbed someone. So at the juvenile detention center, he meets a trainer who teaches him to box and then eventually introduces him to this pretty well-known boxing coach named Cus D’Amato, who really takes him in. He becomes his mentor. He becomes his father figure. He moves in with Cus D’Amato and his family. Cus teaches him to read and write, and then he-

Jessica Bennett (17:43):

He didn’t know to read and write?

Susie Banikarim (17:44):

He didn’t know how to read and write at that time, not really. He sends him to school. He does eventually drop out of high school his junior year, but for a couple of years he goes to school because Cus and his wife really take an interest in him. That is what fundamentally transforms his life.

Jessica Bennett (18:00):

You can see they couldn’t come from more different backgrounds.

Susie Banikarim (18:04):

Yeah, I mean, they grow up in such different ways. She is definitely sheltered. She is protected. Her mother is very careful what Robin and her sister Stephanie are exposed to. Mike is the opposite.

Jessica Bennett (18:31):

So Robin Givens and Mike Tyson are living these really different lives. How do they actually meet?

Susie Banikarim (18:36):

So they meet in 1987, and at that time, Mike is a little bit on his own. Cus D’Amato, who is this man who is essentially his father at this point-

Jessica Bennett (18:47):

Yeah, like father, manager, coach?

Susie Banikarim (18:49):

Yeah, basically has died in 1985, a couple of years before Mike became the heavyweight champion of the world, which I think is something that is hard for him.

Jessica Bennett (18:58):

It’s hard, yeah.

Susie Banikarim (18:59):

He’s sort of surrounded by a lot of people who are making their living off of him, managers and trainers. So that’s where he is when they meet. He sees her on television. He sees her on Head of the Class, and he asks to meet her. I guess someone gives him her mother’s contact information and so he repeatedly leaves messages with her mother Ruth’s assistant.

Jessica Bennett (19:25):

Oh, interesting, okay.

Susie Banikarim (19:26):

Ruth ignores it initially. For all these sort of rumors afterwards that Ruth has targeted Mike Tyson and is trying to… She initially does not see Mike Tyson as a serious prospect for her daughter. She wants her daughter to marry a doctor or a lawyer. She’s not looking for some street fighter, whether or not he’s the most famous man in the world. So she ignores the calls for months, and then finally, I guess, she decides to just mention it to Robin.

Jessica Bennett (19:53):

Oh, she hasn’t even told Robin at this point?

Susie Banikarim (19:55):

No, she doesn’t even tell Robin initially that these calls are coming in, but it’s so persistent and goes on for so long finally, she’s just like, I guess I should just mention this. Robin defies her and is like, “No, I want to meet him. I want to go on a date with him.” Ruth doesn’t love that, but she agrees to set it up. Then when they go on their first date, I just think this is the funniest detail, she brings her mom and her sister and her agent and publicist with her. That’s like this sort of summit meeting or something, right? When they finally meet, it’s kind of this sort of wild coming together.

Jessica Bennett (20:29):

So I assume that dinner goes well.

Susie Banikarim (20:31):

Yeah. It’s interesting because I read Robin’s book. She wrote a book in 2007, long after this called Grace Will Lead Me Home. At times it’s quite harrowing, but this section, she describes it as this whirlwind and magical romance. You have to remember, she’s like a 22-year-old girl, and Mike sweeps her off her feet. She loves how much it feels like a fairytale. She describes it as so exciting. She tells a story about how one night they go out for dinner and Sylvester Stallone walks into the restaurant, who’s just like this huge star, and he comes over to say hi to them. Mike says to her, “See, I’m a star to the stars.” You can see how that would be so exciting.

Jessica Bennett (21:15):

Yeah, you can see the appeal, someone whose life has been very controlled. This is very enticing.

Susie Banikarim (21:21):

One thing she talks about in the book a lot is that her father abandoned her as a child. She didn’t really have a relationship with him after the divorce. That feeling of being rejected leaves her craving this kind of attention that Mike is giving her and this sense that he’s strong so he can protect her and care for her. There’s something in that, that feeds something in her that she feels she’s been missing and he’s a little dangerous. When you’re 22, that can seem fun and exciting as opposed to vaguely terrifying. So that’s kind of where they are when they meet.

Jessica Bennett (21:55):

So at what point does the relationship get serious?

Susie Banikarim (21:57):

It seems like it gets serious pretty much right away. The way she describes it, he is just a full court press from that point forward. He’s calling her. He wants to see her all the time. There’s just this kind of, what we would now describe as love bombing, I guess. But that’s what happens. At the same time, what she will reveal in the book much later, is that in these first few months, it’s also the first time he hits her. They have this fight. She describes in detail, he’s not listening to her, she’s trying to leave his apartment and he hits her and she is stunned by it. She immediately runs to a friend’s house but can’t bring herself to tell the friend what’s happened. She describes a set of emotions that now we’ve come to expect from someone who’s suffering from domestic violence, this shame and also this belief that she must have done something to deserve it. She also has this naive 22-year-old belief that she can somehow heal him. She can somehow fix him.

Jessica Bennett (23:00):

She wants to save him, yeah.

Susie Banikarim (23:01):

Right, because he is very vulnerable with her. He tells her what a messed up childhood he has. He actually very explicitly at different times, early on in their relationship, asks her to take care of him or to promise she’ll never leave him. So she doesn’t, and they’re married 10 months later, so in February of 1988. A lot will eventually be made of the fact that there is no prenup and he is 21 and she is 23 at that point.

Jessica Bennett (23:29):

Oh, he’s younger than her?

Susie Banikarim (23:30):

Yes, he’s a couple years younger than her, which also is often pointed out, as if 23 and 21 are 30 and 21. You know what I mean? She’s not some sophisticated woman of the world, but she presents a real sophistication. I think there’s something naturally really sophisticated about her. So I think that’s also really drawn as a contrast between them.

Jessica Bennett (23:51):

So the marriage, as I understand it, is really tumultuous from the start.

Susie Banikarim (23:55):

Yeah, it only lasts eight months. This relationship that will go on to be defining for both of them for the rest of their lives is over in less than a year. These allegations that he’s abusive and cheating on her start to trickle out in the press, I mean, he’s not doing a lot to cover up his activities.

Jessica Bennett (24:16):

Meaning he’s hitting her in public?

Susie Banikarim (24:18):

There are incidents where he does hit her in public. There’s a particularly famous incident that I’ll explain in more detail later where he chases her and her mom around a hotel lobby. But I think just in general, there’s a lot of scrutiny on them and there’s all this tumult around them and it’s hard for them to keep that out of the press. She confirms in the memoir also that he is cheating on her, even in these early stages of their marriage, and that he doesn’t even try to hide it from her. He’s not really trying to hide it from the press either. He flat out tells her about it and taunts her about it.

Jessica Bennett (24:55):

Oh, wow, okay.

Susie Banikarim (24:57):

Yeah, he does not come off a good man. He’s also prone to jealous rages. So while he’s cheating on her pretty openly, he’s resentful of her career. He wants her to quit acting. He’s pushing her to have kids right away. There’s this other piece that I think plays a really fundamental part and why there is so much being leaked to the press. So as I’ve said, Cus D’Amato who is his original coach and trainer, has died already. He has another manager who he’s pretty close to who dies right around this same time. So those two deaths combined leave him really vulnerable to this whole host of pretty terrible men who are trying to figure out a way to make money off of him, including people you’ve heard of Don King and Donald Trump, A whole host of bad men appear in this episode. We’ve already had Bill Cosby. Now we have Donald Trump.

Jessica Bennett (25:56):

Yeah, this is so interesting.

Susie Banikarim (25:58):

Yeah, I mean, Trump and Tyson have been friends since the late eighties. Around this time, Trump is trying to get him to have his fights at his casinos, trying to become one of his promoters. There’s a particular manager, Bill Cayton, who really resents Robin’s influence and her mother who comes with her. They are bringing more scrutiny to the kind of deals he has. When they meet, this guy, Bill Cayton, is taking a third of all his earnings and they renegotiate that down to a quarter, which is significant. I mean, he really doesn’t have anyone looking out for his interests. Now, there is this woman who is smart and her mother who is shrewd, and they are just asking what seem to me like very reasonable questions. But all these people around him who really would rather operate in the dark hate it. A lot of the leaks in the press are coming from them. She’s kind of being depicted in the media as the Yoko Ono of boxing, which is a quote.

Jessica Bennett (27:01):

Oh, wow. That’s an actual quote?

Susie Banikarim (27:03):

Yeah, that’s an actual quote. Obviously Yoko Ona could be her own episode, right, the way she’s sort of depicted as the reason the Beatles breakup is ridiculous, so…

Jessica Bennett (27:13):

Okay, I see. So this is where the gold digger, in it for the money, never signed a prenup, influencing him narrative about Robin begins to take hold.

Susie Banikarim (27:24):

Take shape, yes. We’re talking about a lot of money, right? These guys have a lot of money at stake. He’s making $20 million a fight. So if you’re taking a third of that versus 20%, that’s a huge amount of money.

Jessica Bennett (27:41):

What else at this point is the press saying about her?

Susie Banikarim (27:44):

The coverage of her in general is just scathing. She’s portrayed as ambitious and greedy and also just daring to meddle in men’s business. The sports writers really come after her right away, and it’s hard not to see kind of a racist undertone to it. It kind of feels like they’re just one step away from calling her uppity.

Jessica Bennett (28:04):

Uppity, yeah.

Susie Banikarim (28:05):

It’s just like how dare she think that she deserves to speak in this space or have an opinion about her husband’s business?

Jessica Bennett (28:14):

It’s so interesting too, because it’s like if she’s uppity, he is like this savage brute who people didn’t expect more from in a way.

Susie Banikarim (28:23):

Yeah, there’s definitely racism in the way he’s treated as well. I think it’s just this idea that what did she expect? Didn’t she think he was going to be a thug? He’s this kid from the streets of Brooklyn. There is just racism weaved into a lot of the way they’re both talked about at this time. Even in the way that her mother is talked about, because she’s also described as really ambitious, and that is also made to seem like something disgusting. I think in general, this is kind of a thing we all experience as women. I remember once a mentor said to me, as he was trying to convince me not to take another job, that I was too ambitious. I’ve never really understood that criticism of women. I feel like we just celebrate ambition in men, and yet somehow women are supposed to sit quietly and wait. I don’t know. It’s very weird.

Jessica Bennett (29:12):

Well, that’s the whole Sheryl Sandberg thing, however you feel about Sheryl Sandberg. Yeah, she made the point, which was correct, that we rarely call men too ambitious because ambition in men is the default. But in the eighties, we certainly didn’t have that context.

Susie Banikarim (29:25):

Right and also I think the coverage really focuses on her mom’s ambition. That’s also kind of playing into this stereotype about her because her mom is young and attractive, and that makes people really suspicious of her.

Jessica Bennett (29:40):

So the mom actually gets kind of dragged into the negative press coverage?

Susie Banikarim (29:44):

Yes, very much.

Jessica Bennett (29:45):

Okay, so this is all happening super fast. They haven’t even done the interview yet, right?

Susie Banikarim (29:49):

Yeah, this sort of all happens in rapid succession. So they get married in February and a couple of months later in April, Givens becomes pregnant and that is made public in May. A lot is made of the fact that they purchased this fancy country estate in New Jersey for more than $4 million and that Mike has asked Ruth to pick it out. In a lot of ways, that’s used as evidence that Ruth is manipulating him when he’s just asked her to do this because he has something he needs to be in, I think, Japan for. He’s always fantasized about living in these big English manners that he saw as a child. So that is the first time that Ruth becomes involved in his finances, as does Robin, and it’s when they begin to realize what all the financial arrangements are with his manager. So that is a first moment of real tension around that.


Then in June, Tyson has this huge fight with Michael Spinks in Atlantic City that gets a lot of coverage. It’s a $21 million fight. To give you an idea of how much Robin is disliked going into this fight, there were a number of articles about their relationship and how it might have destroyed him and whether or not she’s ruined his ability to fight, whether just her sheer presence in his life has sapped him of his mojo or something. I don’t know, it’s so insane.

Jessica Bennett (31:09):

You can’t be in love and be a fighter.

Susie Banikarim (31:11):

Yeah, like she’s this Jezebel who’s stolen his skills. I don’t know. It’s the craziest thing. Then when she’s introduced at the fight, the crowd boos her, which just must’ve been awful for her. Just FYI, he knocked out Spinks in 91 seconds. It was a record. So she has not destroyed him in any way, shape or form. If anything, he’s working on destroying her.

Jessica Bennett (31:36):


Susie Banikarim (31:41):

Later that month, she miscarries.

Jessica Bennett (31:42):

Oh, okay. So they don’t have children.

Susie Banikarim (31:45):

So they don’t have any children.

Jessica Bennett (31:47):

Is that reported then in the press too?

Susie Banikarim (31:49):


Jessica Bennett (31:49):

All of this is public, that she’s pregnant, that she miscarries.

Susie Banikarim (31:52):

It feels like everything that’s going on in their life is public in ways that don’t seem to be in their control, just like there is no way for them to operate without this enormous spotlight on them. We say this a lot on this show, it’s like reality TV before reality TV. I think before we had this kind of access into people’s lives, there were certain figures that became stories that got followed as if their lives were fictional.

Jessica Bennett (32:19):

Every little move.

Susie Banikarim (32:20):

Yeah, where their humanity almost gets lost and they just become a fun narrative to follow. No one’s really paying attention that this is a real thing that’s happening between two people.

Jessica Bennett (32:31):

And so is the abuse consistent throughout this time?

Susie Banikarim (32:34):

It seems pretty consistent. I mean, another thing she talks about in her book is that after this big fight, they throw a big party in New Jersey at their mansion. To give you an idea of just how famous they are, the first guest to arrive are Oprah and her longtime partner Steadman. They’re there for a parade the town has arranged in his honor, and Mike doesn’t show up to the parade. So Robin and Oprah go to lead the parade, and then he finally shows up and they go back to the house and with all the guests downstairs, Mike just goes upstairs and she follows him. Obviously, out of sight of all the guests, he slaps her and grabs her by the throat. It seems like that’s just a consistent thing that’s happening in the background, and she’s just consistently kind of trying to pretend like it’s not happening and putting on a happy face.

Jessica Bennett (33:23):

The other thing too is he struggles with real mental health issues as well, is that right?

Susie Banikarim (33:28):

There is a lot of mental illness, but at that point he hasn’t faced that yet. They’ll eventually be a diagnosis and some conversation around that. But at this point, this fight takes place in June, and she says that by early September, Michael is completely unraveling. He’s staying up all night. He’s depressed. He’s manic. He threatens suicide because he thinks Givens is ignoring him at times. Then there’s this huge tabloid incident, which is that one day he hits her and she flees to… They have an apartment in New York. She goes to New York and he keeps calling to convince her to come home. When she doesn’t come home, he essentially says he’s going to do something drastic and he takes her BMW and drives it into a tree.

Jessica Bennett (34:15):

Oh, wow. See, it’s so interesting how I don’t remember so much of this story. So is that a suicide attempt?

Susie Banikarim (34:22):

I mean, it seems very much like it’s a suicide attempt by any sort of objective measure of what that is, although he does deny that afterwards. It’s essentially, I think, an abusive cry for attention. He’s not getting what he wants from her. He’s like, “I’m going to make you pay,” and the way he does it is this accident, I guess we’ll call it. This gets a ton of coverage, obviously, I mean, he’s one of the most famous people in the world. He’s gotten into this terrible car accident. There’s ambulances and police, and she rushes to be by his side. But even then, the way it’s portrayed in the press is that he’s insecure when it comes to her, that somehow she’s to blame for him having done this thing. There’s a subtle and implicit-

Jessica Bennett (35:04):

He’s so sick, he drove his car into a tree.

Susie Banikarim (35:06):

Right, this implicit sort of blame on her. He’s not an adult who’s in control of his actions. He’s just so enamored by her. It’s almost like she’s like a witch who’s put a spell on him or something. I don’t know. It’s the strangest way to talk about a grown man, but that’s just part of the racism that’s part of this coverage, I think, in a way. I think the way in which she’s infantalized is certainly part of that and the way that she’s vilified, and we will talk about that more with Salamishah Tillet, who as you know is a writer for the Times, and we’ll get into some of those details. But here there is this sense that he can’t be expected to be in control of himself.

Jessica Bennett (35:45):

It’s so interesting how the press has really taken a side early. But isn’t there some trip to Russia that also occurs?

Susie Banikarim (35:51):

Yes, and to get away from all the attention, right, all this tabloid attention to his car accident, he decides he’s going to go with Robin to Russia where she’s filming a special set of episodes for Head of the Class, her sitcom. While they are there, they get into some altercation and he is again violent with her. He ends up chasing her and her mother around the hotel lobby in a very public way. Obviously there’s press there because they’re covering his visit to Russia, so that gets a lot of attention as well. Coming off of that, I think essentially she insists that he see a therapist of some kind, and he announces publicly that he is suffering from manic depression, which we now call bipolar disorder. So he really starts to face the fact that he needs a psychiatrist and he starts to take lithium.

Jessica Bennett (36:53):

Okay, and just to situate us, basically it’s like all this stuff is leaking. She gets booed at this fight. He runs her BMW into a tree in maybe a suicide attempt. Everyone’s like, oh, poor Mike, he can’t be in control of his actions. This is all in the months leading up to the Barbara Walters interview. All of this is happening super quickly, right?

Susie Banikarim (37:15):

Yeah. I mean the car accidents at the beginning of September. By the end of September, he’s publicly announced that he is seeing a psychiatrist. So all this drama is eventually what leads us to the infamous Barbara Walters interview.

Jessica Bennett (37:47):

Susie, before you walk us through the actual Barbara Walters interview, maybe it would help to give listeners just a little sense of what a big deal Barbara Walters was in 1988.

Susie Banikarim (37:57):

Yeah, she was a huge celebrity. She’s just an absolute powerhouse in television news. She broke so many barriers for women, and her interviews always got a lot of attention. She was famous for these really intimate celebrity interviews where she would get people to cry. As the New York Times put it when she passed last year, “At a time when politicians tended to be reserved and celebrities elusive, Ms. Walters coaxed kings, presidents and matinee idols to answer startlingly intimate questions.” So she was really known for getting those moments, and this interview certainly delivers on that.

Jessica Bennett (38:35):

So about the interview, it takes place at Robin and Mike’s mansion in New Jersey. Walk us through it. What happens?

Susie Banikarim (38:42):

The interview itself, this sort of infamous Robin and Mike interview, is part of an hour of television. It honestly kind of takes forever to get there. It starts with an interview of Mike alone where he denies being violent with his wife. Then there’s an interview with some random psychiatrist, who does not in fact treat Mike Tyson, but who is asked to comment on whether or not him taking lithium will make it impossible for him to continue to box, which just reveals how little mental health was properly understood. Then there’s an interview with Ruth, Robin’s mother, and Barbara asks her about whether or not she’s controlling him and his money, and she denies it, of course. I don’t know what the expectation is, that she’s going to be like, “Yes, I’m a monster.”


Then there is also an interview with his manager who I mentioned, Bill Cayton, and he essentially says he thinks that Mike is not mentally ill, he’s not violent, and any medication he takes will take the “spark”, in quotes, that’s what he literally says, “The spark out of Tyson,” and will mean that he can never box again. Just this idea that they need him to be whatever he is, because they think any change might impact the money they’re making off of him. If he’s mentally ill, they would rather he go untreated, if the risk of him getting help is that somehow he becomes different in the ring, and so they’re all really invested in not getting him the help he needs.

Jessica Bennett (40:15):

Okay, so it’s an hour of television focused on Mike. All these people are interviewed. Then did we finally get to Robin?

Susie Banikarim (40:20):

Yes, we finally get to Robin. She’s not interviewed alone. She’s interviewed with Mike, which I think is an interesting choice. He sits beside her the whole time.

Jessica Bennett (40:30):

Yeah, I can picture them. I mean, so they’re side-by-side on this kind of floral couch. He’s in this almost Cosby like sweater.

Susie Banikarim (40:38):

It’s very eighties.

Jessica Bennett (40:39):

She looks stunning and beautiful and poised. She’s wearing this kind of eighties blue like shoulder pad shirt. He has his arm around her. It’s around her as they’re talking together, and then it just kind of stays there.

Susie Banikarim (40:51):

Yeah, they’re sitting side by side and Barbara Walters asks her, “What has this rollercoaster of a relationship been like?” Robin responds with the other part of this interview that gets played over and over again, she says, “It’s been torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine. Every day is a battle, some kind of fight with managers, family, trying to hold onto your dignity.” What’s so interesting to me about this is that second part, right? She’s making it pretty clear that what she’s saying is not that the relationship with Mike is pure hell, but that every day is a battle with all these people around him who are clawing at him. Instead, when this interview is replayed over and over again, it’s just the first part that gets played that she said that being with Mike Tyson was torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine.


It’s one of the ways in which she’s made to seem like a bitch. How could she sit next to him and say that about him? But it’s pretty clear she’s saying that about all the men around him who are trying to control him and that she’s mad at them. I mean, they’re leaking all these nasty stories about her, of course that is hell for her. Then what comes next is Barbara very flatly asks, “He chased you and your mom around Russia. He has a volatile temper. Is that true?” I’ll let you just sort of listen to the rest of this.

Clips (42:17):

Extremely volatile temper. I think people see that about every three months. He’s got a side to him that’s scary. Michael is intimidating to say the least. I think that there’s a time when he cannot control his temper, and that’s frightening to me or to my mother and to anyone around. It’s scary.


What happens?


He gets out of control, throwing, screaming.


Does he hit you?


He shakes. He pushes. He swings. Sometimes I think he’s trying to scare me. There were times that it happened when I thought I could handle it, and just recently I’ve become afraid. I mean very, very much afraid. For instance, Russia, I was afraid.

Jessica Bennett (43:20):

I just want to emphasize that watching this is so surreal. As this is happening, as she’s saying this, they’re side by side. His arm is still around her. But at the start of this interview, he has this sort of plastic smile, it like stays there. Then you watch as he’s answering this question, his face, I don’t know, it almost falls or it goes blank and suddenly you start to see his chest go up and down. His breathing is becoming something-

Susie Banikarim (43:48):

But it’s very subtle. It’s like he’s obviously really trying to control his reaction and he is disciplined, that is part of being a good boxer.

Jessica Bennett (43:57):

Right. It’s fascinating television and it makes you want to… From our perspective, was he prepped beforehand?

Susie Banikarim (44:02):

Oh, sure, yes.

Jessica Bennett (44:03):

Did he know this was coming? I mean, my interpretation was that he absolutely did not and that Barbara Walters part of what she did so well was she just asked the question bluntly, like she just said the thing that people don’t say and that Robin answered truly, authentically.

Susie Banikarim (44:22):

Yes, I think both of those things are true. I think he was definitely prepped. He’s very much trying to stay in control of the situation, but it is also pretty clear to me when you watch Robin’s face after Barbara Walters goes back to Tyson and asks him what it’s like to listen to this interview-

Clips (44:38):

This is a situation in which I’m dealing with my illness and basically there’s my wife and we’re dealing with it.

Susie Banikarim (44:46):

There’s this kind of moment on Robin’s face where she looks kind of in shock. She can’t believe what she’s admitted. She’s not sure if she’s gone too far. But one thing that’s interesting is she did say later on that they went out and celebrated after this. They thought this interview had gone well. So it’s not entirely clear how much they are both processing this thing in the moment. I think it’s just kind of happening and they’re trying to make sense of it. It’s pretty difficult when you’re in those interviews, when someone’s got all these cameras in your face, you almost black out a little. I’m not sure they realized how far they’d gone until there was a public reaction to it later on.

Jessica Bennett (45:29):

And, of course, you never remember the sound bites that are going to be taken and replayed.

Susie Banikarim (45:33):

Right. Interestingly, now when celebrities do these interviews, their publicists record them, like they record them on their phones so that they know what happened, because it is very hard when you’re in the heat of the moment to keep track.

Jessica Bennett (45:47):

That’s such an interesting point because hearing these clips, you think it’s so damning, but the fact that they went out and celebrated. Then later on in the interview Barbara Walters asks again why she’s doing the interview. She basically is defending him. She’s explaining, and she doesn’t want him to seem like a bad guy and so maybe this is helpful context in understanding where they’re both coming from and his untreated mental illness. I mean, in some ways, they are really breaking ground by talking openly about his illness.

Susie Banikarim (46:16):

Yeah, and she’s saying, very authentically it seems like, he’s been untreated. It got worse because it gets worse in your twenties, that’s just how this particular disease works, and we’re fixing it. I think she really believes that. Right? By all accounts and her own telling in her memoir, she’s kind of naive about what’s going on around them. Then the interview airs.

Jessica Bennett (46:40):

That actually feels like a really good place to leave it for today. So if you want to hear what happens after the interview airs, check out part two.

Susie Banikarim (46:55):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a cultural moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (47:09):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (47:20):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (47:29):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart podcast and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (47:41):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe and Mike Coscarelli. Sound correction and mastering by Amanda Rose Smith. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (47:59):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.