When you first get a glimpse of actress and activist Robin Givens, the first thing you can’t help but notice is her physical beauty. In person she is radiant, glamorous, confident, and looks at least half her age.
But if you are fortunate enough to meet her, you realize that her greatest beauty lies in her undying willingness to share her own personal experiences as a domestic violence survivor in the hope that she can save the lives of other abused women.
At STAND!’s 17th annual Rebuilding Lives Luncheon, Givens said she was honored to be this year’s speaker, and she brought guests to tears with the story of her abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, Mike Tyson.
Not only did she speak from her heart, but she revealed the complex levels of abuse and how devastating it is for anyone who has suffered domestic violence.
After her speech, I had the opportunity to speak with her about how she managed to escape the abuse, a story that brought the issue of domestic violence to the forefront of the national discussion in 1988.
Robin comes from three generations of women who were abused, but she always planned to be the woman to break the cycle. There were many days when Robin accepted that “I would die.”
Once her mother told her to play dead if she wished to live. And because all she knew she learned through her role models, Robin continued to accept the abuse, thinking she could fix everything if only she “just tried harder.”
She looked back on how she used to feel “grateful” that he promised he would never punch her in the face because the bruises would embarrass him.
However, on a vacation to the Bahamas, Tyson did hit her in the face, and she realized with terror how the danger had escalated.
“It’s strange how you can be in such a crazy situation and yet think you’re thinking straight at the time,” Givens said. “But things had gotten way out of control, and that night I believed it would be my last.”
Givens said they got into a sick pattern, in which he would hit her, and then call and cry for her to come back. “I would console him, and here was this great big and powerful man lying on my lap just sobbing,” she recalled.
“I’d help him in any way I could even though I was abused. I felt it was my mission to fix him, and I would say, ‘I’m going to love you; I’m going to make it all better; I’m the one who is going to do it.’”
The first time Tyson hit her was before they’d gotten married. She was 21 and said they were just two naïve young kids in the limelight of their celebrity. When she looks back, she realizes she was just a baby at the time.
And because she grew up in a family where domestic violence was the norm, she didn’t view the abuse as a deal breaker. She said that growing up without a father played a big role in her need for male attention, even if it meant bad attention.
She said if you were regularly around Tyson, you would face his abuse. “Basically, if you were there, you were getting screamed or raged at. We were all kind of running for our safety.”
The moment Robin decided to leave for good was when she and her sister were hiding from his rage and he was pounding on the door like a monster. “My sister was hysterical but in a calm way I had never seen before. She was shaking quietly when she looked at me and whispered, ‘How long are you going to put us all through this?’”
“It was that moment when I realized the abuse was affecting my whole family, and that I had to get out of the relationship that day.” She trembles, recalling what he often said to her: “You know I can kill you, and no one will care, and I’ll get away with it.” During her marriage, she even thought about their abusive marriage in a dreamy way. “I would always say I would love him forever no matter what,” she said.
Robin is an entirely different person today, and feels worlds healthier. But she still occasionally suffers from the trauma. “Sometimes I get this overwhelming fear that at any moment something bad is going to happen,” she admitted.
Domestic violence experts say this feeling is common for abuse survivors, similar to veterans of war, rape victims, and victims of other traumatic experiences. Although a person may have survived a horrific ordeal, they feel the effects forever.
Givens made a conscious choice not to watch Tyson’s recent interviews with Oprah, in which he garishly promoted a documentary about his life and violent past.
Robin had no interest in his self-aggrandizement and instead chose to do what she treasures most: spending time with her precious sons, ages 10 and 16, whom she has taught since birth that it is “never okay to abuse anyone.” She feels that it is her responsibility as a mother to raise decent and respectable young men.
However, she does feel slighted that she wasn’t contacted for her side of the story, especially since Tyson called their abusive marriage a “two-way street.” She said there’s a big part of her that wants to say she doesn’t care what he says. “I am hurt that I was not called for a response until after the show, and I thought, what do my opinions matter now?”
She said she wished he had been honest about the abuse. “But in a way, he has,” she said, with a look of both disgust and weariness on her face. “He did an interview once in which he said that the best punch he ever threw was one against me.”
Givens thinks most people have a difficult time dealing with the issue of domestic violence. “I think it’s too much for some people. They see someone as a hero who might be a monster.”
“I am the woman who lived with the man who bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear,” Robin said. “I lived with the man who was in jail for raping a woman; I lived with the man who at 13 did time at a boys’ prison because of his out-of-control violence.”
Robin said that when she was a baby, her father hit her. That was the moment her mother realized her children could also become victims of abuse. One of Robin’s earliest memories was when she and her mother hid outside for hours from her father’s rage.
Today, she understands how her mother felt because she has experienced the powerful change motherhood created in her. “I never had the innate ability to know how to protect myself and make boundaries, but once I had children, I felt an innate way to protect them which in turn has allowed me to finally protect myself,” she said.
Robin has written about the intergenerational cycle of abuse in her powerful and touching memoir, Grace Will Lead Me Home.
“Before you are even born, ‘who you are’ is largely there right from the start,” she said. “We all have history from our families that plays a significant role in who we eventually become.”
Had she not suffered the abuse, she would “definitely” not be the same woman. “The experience of surviving such a terrible ordeal has made me the strong woman I am today...You have to do whatever you can to survive, and there must be a purpose in everything.”
“Michael showed me some terrible things,” she said. “But I learned through my own brokenness a sense of compassion for others I didn’t feel before, so perhaps that is the purpose.”
Givens said that while visiting a shelter, she talked with a woman who she knew was going to return to her husband. “It was like she was physically right in front of me but was already planning her return.”
“It’s amazing how you can wear all that abuse, look so beaten down, beaten up, her soul crushed, and I promise you that although she was physically with me, she was already on her way back to him.”
“When I talk with abused women, I feel I am still in the midst of my own journey and healing, and that I am really not so alone,” Givens said. “Abuse can make you feel isolated, and I need to tell women, ‘You are not alone.’”
This connection is why it was so important for Robin to speak at this year’s Rebuilding Lives Luncheon, as she admires the work STAND! does each day for women who would otherwise continue to suffer abuse and even death.
Robin feels a new “mission” today. She plans to tell her story to anyone willing to listen. “There are times when I still feel like a failure and could have made everything better, although it happens less and less,” Givens said. “It is my mother who brings me down to earth when she says, ‘He would have killed you, you know,’ and I know that he would have absolutely gotten away with it.”
She said her life today is “just really, really happy . . . My house isn’t always perfect, but we laugh, we sing, we dance, and we love each other.”
Givens believes that if you are living and breathing, you are simply going to go through a difficult time at one point or another. “Everyone has their own personal and valuable story to tell that may just teach and help others.”
“But I do believe there’s opportunity in all stories. When I was with Michael, I thought that I was either going to be fine or go completely insane. But today, I can finally embrace who I really am and learn from both the good and bad experiences I have faced.”
Today she is a strong and determined author and advocate for all women who face losing their lives to domestic violence on a daily basis.
Givens said that life is getting better all the time, as she feels so loved and safe with her children. “I think that your parents begin raising you and that your children finish raising you,” she said with a warm smile.
She intends to raise her boys to be gentleman in the most literal sense, breaking the cycle of violence and abuse in her family once and for all.