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HBO’s ‘TINA’ Raises Questions About How We Treat Famous Survivors of Abuse

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Tina Turner performs in Berlin on Jan. 26, 2009.
Tina Turner performs in Berlin on Jan. 26, 2009.  (Michael Gottschalk/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s plenty of disturbing content that stays with you long after watching TINA, HBO’s new documentary about Tina Turner’s life and career. There’s the searing descriptions of the violence inflicted on her by her first husband and collaborator, Ike Turner. There’s the eyewitness accounts of the abuse, including a particularly heartbreaking story from Tina’s late son, Craig. And there’s Tina’s own recounting of both her suicide attempt and ultimate escape, carrying only 34 cents and a Mobile gas card in her pocket. It all makes for extremely tough viewing.

But something unexpected in TINA is, in some ways, even harder to tolerate. And it’s the sound of a woman being forced to repeatedly—and reluctantly—recount the worst things that have ever happened to her. It’s the sound of a woman being defined throughout the decades not by her own talents or worldwide fame, but rather by the monster she escaped before the most successful portion of her career had even begun.

There is, of course, joy in the two-hour film. It’s in stunning live performances, TV appearances, and the sweet relationship Turner has with her current husband, Erwin Bach. It’s also present in the inspiration Tina Turner has provided to other survivors of domestic violence throughout the decades. But TINA ultimately leaves the viewer with a serious moral conundrum. Are we willing to sacrifice the emotional and mental well-being of our musical icons for the sake of our own comfort and—even more uncomfortably—entertainment?

The story of how the press and public has demanded Turner endlessly revisit her past weaves throughout TINA. We hear clips from her very first interview about Ike’s abuse, for a story originally printed in the Dec. 7, 1981 edition of People magazine. “I was living a life of death,” she told then-music editor, Carl Arrington. “I didn’t exist. But I survived it. And when I walked out, I walked. And I didn’t look back.”


Arrington recalls in TINA that “she wanted to just tell it and then forget it. It didn’t quite work out that way.”

Arrington’s understatement is writ large throughout the rest of the film, as we see Turner tolerate—and politely answer—question after (often inane) question about her ex-husband. She often laughs when his name comes up, but the interviews are transparently, consistently painful for her. Her grace and patience under fire is thoroughly impressive.

TINA explains that Turner’s tell-all book, I, Tina (co-written by Kurt Loder) came about as part of the ongoing effort to preempt questions about Ike. As her success exploded after the 1984 album Private Dancer, Turner was besieged once more with queries about her abuser. “They’d bring up the same old stuff, over and over in every interview,” Turner’s manager Roger Davies recalls in the film. “We couldn’t stop it.”

Turner remembers, “Out of all the success I was having, why are they talking about Ike and Tina? I said to Roger, ‘I’m beginning to get really very depressed.’ And he said, ‘Well the only thing you can do is write a book.’ … I wasn’t interested in telling that ridiculously embarrassing story of my life. But I felt that’s one way I could get the journalists off my back.”

I, Tina was an instant worldwide best seller. But it did the opposite of end the chatter. Nowhere is this more obvious in TINA than during a clip from a 1993 Venice Film Festival press conference for What’s Love Got to Do With It?—the biopic based on the book.

After a journalist asks Turner what she thinks of the movie, she replies that she hasn’t yet seen it. When subsequently asked, “Why not?” Turner visibly stiffens, awkwardly fiddles with her microphone, and replies:

I am not so thrilled thinking about the past and how I lived my life. The story was actually written so I would no longer have to discuss the issue. I don’t love that it’s always talked about, you see … This constant reminder is not so good, you know. I’m not so happy about it. So, do I want to sit at a screen and watch the violence and all the brutality? No. That’s why I haven’t seen it.

Turner’s husband, Erwin Bach, does not sugarcoat matters when talking about the effect these kinds of questions have had on his wife during their 33 years together. “When you talk to journalists over and over and over, for 20, or 30, or 40 years,” Bach says, “memories come back. She has, partly, dreams about it. They’re not pleasant. So I think these are the things that come back to her when she opens that book. It’s like when soldiers come back from the war.”

Ironically, Turner has to re-state her position on the matter at the start of TINA. “It wasn’t a good life,” she says. “It was in some areas, but the goodness didn’t balance the bad. So it’s not wanting to be reminded. You want to just leave that in the past. I don’t like to pull out old clothes. It’s old memories. You want to just leave that in the past and be done with it.”

TINA is careful to give focus to the good that’s resulted from Turner’s lifetime spent reliving her trauma for the public. Fans are seen expressing gratitude for it. Playwright Katori Hall says of Turner’s life, “That story reached so many people who felt like they had to keep their secrets locked away, deep down.” And Turner’s friend Oprah Winfrey notes, “Nobody talked about sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic abuse—abuse, period. Our generation is the generation that started to break the silence.”

There’s no doubt that the insights Turner offers here, via old interviews, do offer revelations about how people become trapped in domestic abuse situations. “I felt obligated to stay there and I was afraid,” Turner says of her marriage and early career. “I felt very loyal to Ike and I didn’t want to hurt him. Sometimes after he’d beat me up, I’d end up feeling sorry for him. I was 23 years old or something like that. Early 20s. I was brainwashed. I was afraid of him. And I cared what happened to him. I knew that if I left, there was no one to sing. So I was caught up on guilt and fear.”

And in the end, it’s impossible to leave TINA without a sense of enthralled awe. That’s not just because of Tina Turner’s personal resilience, it’s because of the sheer power of her vocals, her dancing, her talent, her focus and her unerring self-belief.

But the movie is also an important reminder that, as a public, we must learn to honor the struggle of survivors without primarily defining them by it—especially if they’re asking over and over again to be allowed to move on. TINA reminds us that being inspired by other people’s battles shouldn’t require those sources of inspiration to repeatedly re-live their darkest days. Doing so doesn’t just ask that they live in the past, it denies them the autonomy they have fought so hard to get back.


‘TINA’ premieres on Saturday, March 27, on HBO. Details here.

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