Speaking of Ears and Savagery

On June 28, 1997, in Las Vegas, during the rematch fight between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson—a fight billed as “The Sound and The Fury”—things weren’t going well for The Fury.

Round 1

“Like Dempsey, he has the power to galvanize crowds as if awakening in them the instinct not merely for raw aggression and the mysterious will to do hurt that resides, for better or worse, in the human soul, but for suggesting the incontestable justice of such an instinct. …”

—Joyce Carol Oates, “On Mike Tyson”

On June 28, 1997, in Las Vegas, during the rematch fight between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson—a fight billed as “The Sound and The Fury”—things weren’t going well for The Fury.

Tyson had already been beaten badly by Holyfield in the previous fight, suffering a TKO, or “technical knockout,” in the 11th round after a sustained pummeling. That match had shown Tyson to be vulnerable, and he looked every part of the sports cliché “a shadow of his former self.” He made excuses afterward, claiming Holyfield had used intentional head-butts to cut and daze him when the two fighters entered into a clinch. Most people believed Tyson had lost his edge, had grown fat on the largess of his life or been corrupted by the influence of Don King—all of which was true.

Tyson’s complaints, however, were not totally without merit. Holyfield had long been known as a master of the subtle head-butt, a tactic that, while common, is hard to spot and is potentially devastating. A head-butt in boxing is not the exaggerated forward strike you see in professional wrestling or movies, but a more subtle tactic of close-in, hand-to-hand combat, a swift strike with the crown of the head to the thin-skinned brow, cheek, chin or forehead of an opponent. Done correctly, discretely, it can quickly disable an opponent by knocking him stupid or by causing swelling to the eye or excessive bleeding, which blinds the fighter.

Intentional head-butting is against the rules of boxing, a violation similar to a punch below the belt. The head-butt is considered a “dirty” tactic—just the sort of trick you’d think a man like Mike Tyson, not a man like Evander Holyfield, would use to gain an advantage over his opponent. Perhaps because of this, all of Holyfield’s head-butts were judged to be “accidental.”

As the rematch fight entered the second round and Tyson’s furious efforts to slow the fundamentally sound and patient Holyfield seemed fruitless—several clean punches failed to deter Holyfield’s steady advance—the two men entered into a clinch, and another head-butt from Holyfield opened a sizable gash above Tyson’s right eye. With blood streaming down his face, Tyson complained bitterly to the referee and admitted later that he was dazed and scared, feeling vulnerable, but the referee, Mills Lane, ruled the head-butt was unintentional.

Angered by the head-butt and Lane’s refusal to intervene, Tyson came out for the third round and unleashed a barrage of punches at Holyfield, but his rally barely fazed the champ. The two men clinched up, and again Holyfield head-butted Tyson, who, at this point, became convinced Lane wouldn’t protect him. He was desperate, angry and determined to defend himself.

Tyson, despite all his fury and bluster, always spoke with a lisp, and his characteristic high-pitched, nasally voice made him sound like a man-child, a curious mix of innocence and aggression. Tyson always, always fought as if he’d been beaten back into a corner and told to stay there. Like everyone else in the world, I’d come to love Tyson for his naive ferocity, for the brutality with which he dispensed opponents, often exploding as if he’d been unchained and turned loose from his corner. He didn’t just beat his opponents; he went out there in his black trunks, black shoes and short socks, and he humiliated his opponents. We loved every terrifying second of the carnage, especially when he threw his uppercut, a punch that seemed capable of knocking a man’s head clean off. Most of us wanted him to destroy Holyfield, to show the world that Iron Mike was still a force to be feared. But something was wrong from the beginning. Tyson wasn’t himself, wasn’t the Fury we expected. Instead, he became something else entirely, something much worse—a mirror, a reflection of our own bloodlust, a vessel for our collective savagery. Tyson lost the artistry that made his brutality beautiful. It disappeared into the fog of fear.

Lane separated the two men, and the fighters exchanged a few punches before locking up again. As they did, Tyson spit out his mouthpiece. When Holyfield’s head came up, Tyson twisted his neck, tucking into the side of his opponent’s face almost as if to kiss him on the cheek or nuzzle his neck.

Tyson opened his mouth wide. He bit down hard on Holyfield’s upper right ear, severing the helix, the outer section of cartilage. Holyfield jumped back, shoving Tyson, who spit out the chunk of ear onto the canvas. As Lane tried to figure out what had happened, Holyfield hopped around the ring, gesturing at his head with his glove as blood poured from the wound.

The boxers were sent to their corners. Everyone watched. Then, perhaps caught up in the moment and not fully aware of the extent of the damage to Holyfield’s ear, or perhaps so sucked into the adrenaline of blood-sport that he was blinded to the reality of what was happening, Mills Lane allowed the fight to continue. He wanted it to continue.

After exchanging a few punches, the two fighters locked up again. This time, Tyson bit down on Holyfield’s left ear—not as hard as the first bite but still hard enough to cut and leave a mark and send Holyfield jumping back, flailing his arms hysterically and pointing first at Tyson and then at his own head with his cartoonish red gloves.

Lane again sent the fighters to their corners and finally ended the fight, waving his arms in the air and disqualifying Tyson, who exploded in rage and rushed at the Holyfield corner, throwing punches at anyone who got in his way. Soon, the ring was flooded with thick-necked sheriff’s deputies in beige uniforms.

As Tyson exited the ring, boos erupted from the crowd. The whole place seemed to surge and pulse with adrenaline. Tyson bulled his way toward the exit, and a fan threw a water bottle at him. He jumped over the barrier, charging into the crowd, screaming profanities and pointing at people, raging at anyone near him. Members of his entourage and security personnel dragged Tyson out of the stands and pushed him toward the exit.

Unable to look away from the television screen, I watched the spectacle unfold from a safe distance. Red gloves. Black men. The bloodied helix. The noisy physics of Tyson’s fury. And part of me wanted to be waiting in the locker room as Tyson came back. Part of me wished I could get close enough to touch his unchained violence, but most of all, I wanted to see the severed ear, the bloodied helix, lying on the canvas or cupped in a white towel, nested in a bucket of ice.


Round 2

“I just want to conquer people and their souls.”

Mike Tyson

David Lynch, the mind behind such cinematic creations as “Twin Peaks,” “Eraserhead,” “The Elephant Man,” “Dune” and “The Lost Highway,” also wrote and directed 1986’s “Blue Velvet,” a movie that changed forever the way I thought about ears.

In particular, it changed the way I thought about ear-related savagery, about the meaning of severed ears. Such thoughts aren’t something you always want. Perhaps you unwittingly stumble into Lynch’s vision. You’re simply watching a young man walk through a field of overgrown grass in the opening scene of “Blue Velvet,” and you have no idea what to expect. Perhaps you watch him closely, this tall, pasty-faced man in Lumberton. Everytown, America. Innocent but curious. A man, but just barely. Jeffrey Beaumont. He’s cutting through this overgrown lot after visiting his dying father in the hospital. He’s not expecting any complication to his life. He has no idea how quickly things can change, how one small discovery in a field of secrets can crack open his world.

Jeffrey finds an ear in the grass. A human ear. Severed from the skull, it becomes like a window, or a rabbit’s hole. Lynch said of this scene, “I don’t know why it had to be an ear. Except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body, a hole into something else. … The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind, so it felt perfect.”

The brilliance of the scene is captured in the dilemma it hands off to the audience: The question put before them is “What would you do?” It implicates us in everything that follows—the twisted search for answers that leads to Isabella Rossellini and the infamous scissors, Frank and the mask, hiding in the closet, the car ride, the dancing, the drinking, the kidnapped boy, Dean Stockwell, nitrous oxide and Roy Orbison—all of it spinning madly out of control. And it all begins with curiosity, attention to an ear and a lingering question: What would you do? Could you stop yourself from falling, too? It’s strange how a subject overtakes you. This thing that Jeffrey cannot leave alone, this thread he cannot stop tugging, makes everything come undone. Lynch’s camera takes you down into the ear, and you fall into the darkness. Your life is never the same.

Again and again, I fall into the severed ear in this scene, disappearing into its rabbit’s hole. This ear replaced Van Gogh for me—the easy, comforting allusion of aberrant emotion Lynched forever after, corrupted and complicated in ways that are so much more unsettling than the anecdotal violence of Van Gogh’s severed ear. Now, when I hear “severed ear,” it’s not golden sunflowers and unrequited love I think of, or even a drunken quarrel between rival artists, but, instead, the mess of Mike Tyson or David Lynch’s particular brand of savagery.


Round 3

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

—Mike Tyson

The word “earmark” appears to have originated in the 15th century, referring to a notch cut into the ear of cattle or sheep to indicate ownership. When I was 18, done with team sports, I pierced my left ear to declare some small measure of independence from my parents’ shepherding influence. I marked the other a year later because I appreciated symmetry. I kept my ears adorned for over a decade and only took the jewelry out when I had my first job interview for a teaching position. I don’t wear jewelry in them any longer, but I don’t need the decoration for them to get noticed. I have large ears with prodigious lobes, which dangle down like tiny saddlebags.

Next time you’re in a classroom or a restaurant or some public place, look around and see how many ears you can spot. Pay attention to how people wear them, cover them and show them off, however subtly or unintentionally. Pay attention to size and angle of articulation. Pay attention to gender. Ask yourself—if you can stand the self-consciousness—how much effort you put into your own ear display.

Aside from some new mysterious hair sprouting from them (and inside them!), I don’t have to worry much about my ears. I live in a climate where frostbite is a concern only for fruit. I might suffer the occasional sunburn if I’m not careful. Most of the time, though, I take my ears for granted. If they weren’t attached to my head, I’d probably leave them in coffee shops and bars, drop them on morning walks, lose them in the cushions of the couch. I’d probably find the dog in the backyard, chewing on one of my ears, or have to scold my toddler daughter for depositing my ear in the fish tank. I’d buy extra pairs of ears—the cheap kind you get at convenience stores—just to have some backup pairs.

I have large saucer-like auricles, maybe a little too big for my head, a little like costume ears. Some people in my family—but not me—have ears that stick straight out from their heads; my dad jokes that they “look like they’re driving down the street with their back doors open.”

Some people crack their knuckles or chew their fingernails (which I also do when I’m forced to sit still for more than a few minutes). My whole life, I’ve played with my ears. I can’t help it. I like the stiff leathery feel of them; the soft, squishy, peach-fuzzed lobes; even the cheesy stink you get sometimes behind the ear. They feel cool and stiff sometimes, like plastic props or like, I imagine, a dead body; other times, they’re warm and pliable as bat wings. If I’m having a really hard time—say I’m at a particularly odious meeting or poetry reading—I’ll tug hard on my ears, yanking them down and twisting them, sometimes rocking back and forth in my seat. I’m sure I look like some kind of mental case, but it’s the only way I’ve learned to stay in my seat.

Most of all, though, I like to fold one of my auricles (usually the right one) down and stuff it into the ear canal.  If it’s cold, the ear will stay folded and stuffed for a few seconds or until I flex a muscle in my face and the ear pops out. I do this sometimes absentmindedly or, if I’m in a class, when trying to sit still and pay attention.

I can also wiggle my ears, causing them to wave back and forth subtly—a trick that unnerves some people and makes others say, “Oh, that’s easy,” as they begin the pained effort of attempting to do the same, which usually just results in them raising their eyebrows up and down in an exaggerated motion, looking even sillier than I do.

It’s not easy. I trained myself to wiggle my ears, practicing in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at myself, pinching and flexing face muscles until I got it right, until I could move them on command. My father can do it, too. As a boy, I stood awestruck before him, demanding he repeat it over and over again, just as my daughter does to me now about my ear-stuffing trick, saying, “Daddy, I want an ear trick,” and giggling hysterically when my ear pops out.

The truth is all human ears are somewhat interchangeable. They share physical characteristics, the same language of structure—the “helix” and “antihelix” ridges, the subtle “antihelical” fold between them, a small canyon of flesh; the shadowy “scapha,” “fossa,” “concha” and the somewhat superfluous “lobule”; and before you reach the “external auditory meatus,” you have to negotiate the “tragus” and “antitragus.”The differences between one person’s outer ears and another’s are subtle, slight and usually a matter of inheritance, aesthetics and centimeters.

We may take it for granted, but the human ear—the first sensory organ to develop in the womb—is responsible for a surprisingly complex mission of protection and service. On one level, the outer ear, also known as the “pinna” or “auricle” (yes, sounds like “oracle”), is basically just a large sound-wave deflector, which keeps noise from zipping past our listening holes, but the ear’s shape and design is far from arbitrary.

The curves and folds in your pinna are designed to funnel sound waves down into the inner ear’s more subtle and delicate machinery, which lies just beyond the “tympanic membrane.” It’s here that the more complicated work of hearing is done, where the waves are translated into electronic impulses, which fire neurons and other brain receptors, generating what our brains recognize as sound.

While the inner ear is responsible for our sense of balance and equilibrium (something else we often take for granted until we lose it), the outer ear also works to help regulate body temperature, with our auricles serving as thermometers and heat transference devices. Perhaps most striking, the outer ear is surprisingly, often embarrassingly, responsive to emotion.

If I get embarrassed or nervous or scared, my auricles flush red and feel hot to the touch, erupting from the side of my head like flares or flags signaling emotions I want to keep bottled up. I’ve often been told I have a terrible poker face. This is true. My ears are part of the problem.

Still, I appreciate their personality. I need my ears, and for more than just their necessary physical functions, more than hearing. I need them for the physical act of thinking, for listening to myself and essaying one tangent or another. Just as my kids did when they rode on my shoulders, I often use my ears as handles, places to put my nervous fingers. I tug and twist them. They are touchstones for me. Talismans. Tangible things I can use to keep my hands and brain busy, to help me find thoughts lurking at the edge of clarity, to keep me grounded and listening for more.


Round 5

“To come to a scene and you see a fellow human being ripped apart, I feel for that.”

— Officer Frank Chiafari, Stamford Police Department

Travis, a 200-pound, 15-year-old chimpanzee, lived in a private home in Connecticut for most of his life. His owners, the Herolds, operated a tow truck business, and Travis used to ride along in the truck to help stranded drivers. He was something of a local celebrity, an animal that acted the role of family member and friend. He drank wine, ate steak and enjoyed many of the finer things of human life, but it seems Travis was also a sad chimp—perhaps even a depressed, anxious and fed-up chimp, frustrated with his own brand of captivity, tired of the expectations that he be so tame, so unnatural.

On the last day of his life, Travis was particularly agitated and was given Xanax for his rage. It didn’t help. He’d gotten outside the house, out of control, and he was angry. His owner, Sandra Herold, called her friend Charla Nash as a last resort. Travis knew Charla and seemed to trust her. She had a calming way. Charla pulled up to the house and stepped out of her car. All she wanted was to get Travis back into the house, to get him to calm down and feel safe again.

But Travis had crossed over. He’d escaped the role assigned to him.

Charla barely made it a few steps before Travis viciously attacked her in the driveway. By the time he’d finished, he’d bitten or ripped off Charla’s nose and lips, her eyelids, part of her scalp and most of her fingers. One of the first responders on the scene said he couldn’t believe an animal had done that and said it looked as if her hands “went through a meat grinder.” For his part, Travis had suffered a stab wound to his back when Sandra Herold plunged a steak knife into him in a futile attempt to stop the attack.

Officer Frank Chiafari was among the first responders. He’d known Travis and liked him. But as Chiafari pulled into the driveway, Travis was no longer endearing, no longer an innocent pet; he’d become something else entirely, a manifestation of savagery unchained, the worst side of nature.

 Charla lay semi-conscious and horrifically maimed on the ground. Before Chiafari could react to her condition, Travis approached his car, knocked off the side mirror as if “it was butter,” grabbed the handle and yanked open the door. In some awful approximation of a horror-movie scene, Travis stood there covered in Charla’s blood, opened his mouth to shriek and bared his teeth.

Chiafari, cowering in his car, shot Travis four times with his service revolver. Travis stumbled away from the car, back into the house, crawled into his bed and died where he slept most nights.

Afterward, the officer was haunted by what he’d seen and by what he’d done.  He couldn’t visit a mall or an amusement park without being haunted by images of faceless women. He avoided zoos or the circus or any place where he might see a chimpanzee, an animal that Chiafari knew was capable of perhaps the most human and natural instinct of them all, extreme violence and savagery.

For some reason, Travis didn’t touch Charla’s ears.

During her appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2009, Charla’s ears were, in fact, the only feature that allowed you to recognize the thing on top of Charla’s shoulders as human, the only recognizable facial feature on a head that looked more like an abstract sculpture of a head. Charla’s eyes had been removed, and she drank through a hole in her face. She had only one thumb remaining.

Charla Nash could still hear just fine. And this, it would seem, was both a blessing and a curse. She still felt like the same person inside, and because she couldn’t see or touch her face with anything besides her one remaining thumb, her main understanding of how she looked was gained by listening to other people’s reactions. She could only hear what others saw—or didn’t see—in her face, and she wore a veil to protect us. She said she still felt like the same person—still felt like a person.

“I just look different,” Charla said.


Round 6

“My style is impetuous. My defense is impregnable, and I’m just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat his children. Praise be to Allah!”

—Mike Tyson

Fifteen years later, Mike Tyson is only mildly repentant for biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear. Basically, he’s sorry he was forced to do what he did. A recent documentary on Tyson’s life seems to support his claims that Holyfield used head-butts for a tactical advantage in each of their fights and that, for whatever reason, the referee in each fight mostly ignored the tactic.

Is it possible that Tyson became a victim of his own image—the mad dog fighter, the Fury? If everyone else believed it, why wouldn’t the referees also buy into the hype, the belief that Tyson represented something animal and primal while Holyfield symbolized the Sound, the humble, soft-spoken gentleman boxer who would never intentionally head-butt an opponent?

You can watch videos of the incident online. As bizarre and grotesque as it is to see the ragged tear on Holyfield’s ear and the blood pouring down his head, to watch Tyson spit out the chunk of helix, and to think about what it would take to bite through flesh and cartilage, to sink your teeth into someone’s ear, it is also strangely unsurprising. Normal. Even predictable and, in some ways, entirely justified if you think about it. You might have done the same if you were in Tyson’s shoes. Really, what would you do? How would you defend yourself from head-butts?

Aside from the impulse to self-defense, the instinct to bite is ugly, but it makes sense. It’s natural. As someone who obsessively chews his fingernails and his pens, who has watched his babies’ faces contort with teeth-pain relieved only by chewing or biting down into something, who has seen a frustrated toddler bite because she can’t do anything else, I can recognize that the urge to bite is not always an urge to hurt but sometimes an effort to find comfort and security, intimacy and escape from pain. It’s a desperate effort at self-soothing. My daughter has bitten me when we are playing happily, rolling around on the floor. She’s not trying to hurt me. She just gets overly excited.  She’s trying to hold me, to be close to me. She wants a connection closer than touch, wants to feel safe and secure.

Tyson’s no child, and I don’t mean to infantilize him, but I believe his actions were not so much those of a violent man but instead the existential jaw-clenching of a lonely, frightened human being—desperate, tragic for sure, but not necessarily chaotic or aberrant, certainly not inhuman. To me, watching the videos of the incident now, Tyson looks like a man who wanted to be held. I hope that if I had been there in the locker room, if I’d been a different person, someone in Tyson’s inner circle, I would’ve recognized that need in him and pulled him close, wrapped my arms around his broad, sweaty back, pressed my cheek against the rough nap of his hair and whispered in his ear, “It’s all right, Champ. It’s all over now.” Sometimes, we all need such touch.

Perhaps you think I’m an apologist for brutality. And perhaps I am. Perhaps I simply want to accept the possibility in each of us. Was the blood or gore or pain of what Tyson did any worse than a head-butt? Tyson, too, was bloodied. Tyson, too, had cut flesh, bruising and swelling. But I understand the difference. There was, in fact, something about putting his mouth to another man’s ear, his teeth into another’s flesh, something so intimate, the severing so desperate and personal, that it made us recoil and call Tyson an “animal,” “psychotic,” “savage,” or, worse, “inhuman. ” I believe what burned us most was the naked humanity, the unfettered vulnerability of what he did. What frightened us was his fear. What disappointed us was his weakness. We are so awful in our love for fighters.

Several years later, in an interview after a warm-up victory against Lou Savarese before a 2001 bout with Lennox Lewis, Tyson seemed juiced with rage, charged full of adrenaline as he barked at reporter Jim Grey a series of mumbled prayers to Muhammad. Grey, already looking ahead to Tyson’s bout with Lewis, asked if the fight, which ended in a TKO after only 38 seconds, had been Tyson’s shortest fight ever.

Tyson then launched into a monologue wherein he talked at least twice about having to bury his best friend, about how this fight was for the dead friend. He was grieving publicly, painfully, and you could see him focus his grief and his rage on Grey’s question and on his role as Tyson the Fighter. You could see the switch flip, a manufactured persona rising to the surface, and Tyson seemed to rev up even more, comparing himself to Alexander the Great, Sonny Liston and Jack Dempsey, calling his style “impetuous,” before eventually threatening to eat Lennox Lewis’ children.

Lennox Lewis did not have any children when Tyson said this, but the line, delivered at the end of an outpouring of grief over the loss of his friend, has become, in popular memory, another tag, another mark—further evidence that there is something wrong, something dangerous about Mike Tyson.

It makes me love him even more.

You see, I liked to nibble on my children’s ears. Sometimes, I even did it in public. I did it with my lips curled over my teeth so it wouldn’t hurt. I nibbled gently like a dog biting a puppy’s ears or a monkey grooming his baby. When I carried my daughter on my hip, her round, soft face and ears sat right at mouth-level, and it was all I could do most times not to nuzzle her cheek, kiss her face and nibble on her ear, rolling the flesh and cartilage between my incisors, the helix of the outer ear between my lips, never my uncovered teeth, never that sharp. It was a way to hold her and keep her close. It was like a kiss, a cuff and a tug to tell her I love her.


Round 7

“Tyson suggests a savagery only symbolically contained within the brightly illuminated elevated ring.”

—Joyce Carol Oates, “On Mike Tyson”

Sadly, the ear is an often forgotten, underestimated or disregarded appendage. You’re not likely to respond to “I love your ears” as a pickup line. Nonetheless, we depend on the symmetry and subtlety of our ears, their unobtrusive presence as counterweights to each other and aesthetic accessories to our skulls. We notice only when something is wrong. Some of us need them as talismans and triggers for tangential thinking; and nearly all of us know of Van Gogh, the tortured artist and lover who cut off his own ear. We keep this story close as a kind of parable, a lesson or warning, perhaps a story of mythic love—at least, until it begins to mingle with other stories, other parables of severed ears, savagery, mystery and madness; until it is replaced by Lynch and Tyson, and Travis. For me, there is as much gravity in the story of Van Gogh’s desperate act as there is in that image of Holyfield’s bloody helix, that small curve of cartilage severed from the rest, and as there is in Lynch’s ear cradled in a bed of grass, or Travis’ choice to leave Charla’s ears alone, a kind of aesthetic and ethical weight that shakes up our measure of the balance between human and inhuman.

We’d like to be able to dismiss Tyson as “animal,” a mentally deranged savage who is nothing like you and me. We don’t want to admit it, but perhaps it’s not that easy to separate us from him. Tyson is no animal, no inhuman fighting machine, no simple boxer; instead, he is perhaps more honestly and innocently human, more vulnerable and real and dangerous than most of us can ever hope to be. To me, Tyson always seemed to be fighting himself with as much savagery as he fought his opponents, and he always seemed sublimely, purely alive in the ring in a way I could never dream to achieve in any context. We want to believe that we’re not like this Mike and that we’re far from Travis and his brand of savagery, too, but try as we might, we cannot always remove ourselves completely from the urge to bite, to sink our teeth into something substantial, something firm but forgiving, tangible or terrifying or terrestrial—especially when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable, or when our plans collapse and we just want to be close enough to hold someone closer than seems physically possible, to consume that person and keep him inside us forever.

About the Author

Steven Church

Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: on Work, Fear, and Fatherhood and One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals.

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