Tina Turner Was Open About Her Abuse. Now, Her Legacy Is Saving Survivors
Ruth Glenn remembers the first time she read I, Tina, the powerful 1986 autobiography in which Tina Turner details the extensive abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, Ike.
Glenn, who read the book when it was first published, was “moved and encouraged” by Tina’s personal accounts; they were particularly momentous because it was at a time when “we weren’t even talking about domestic violence yet.” In the 1980s, this wasn’t something celebrities — or, really, much of anyone — discussed publicly. People didn’t have “the right words” or language to describe it. “Here’s this icon saying: It’s okay to talk about this,” says Glenn. “She broke that barrier.”
Glenn also recalls thinking, “If this can happen to this beautiful, strong, wonderful Black woman who has all of these things going on for her, it could happen to any of us.”
Six years later, Glenn would leave her own abusive marriage. Fifteen years after I, Tina became a national bestseller, Glenn would read the book again, when it was taught as part of a domestic abuse course she took at the University of Colorado.
The professor taught the students that Turner’s book was “outlining the domestic violence 101 dynamics,” says Glenn, who is now CEO and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In addition to the extreme physical abuse she endured, Turner spoke about Ike’s need to control her, his manipulation, and his financial abuse, a controlling tactic that is very common but not often discussed.
Tina left her husband and manager Ike Turner in 1976 after he repeatedly punched her while traveling from the Dallas airport to their hotel during their tour. In her book, Tina wrote that she looked at a sleeping Ike just before she fled and thought, “You just beat me for the last time, you sucker.” She put on sunglasses to disguise her black eyes and ran across several lanes of traffic on a highway, nearly getting hit by a truck. While she only had 36 cents in her pocket, she convinced the white hotel clerk to give her a room at the Ramada Inn, before eventually fleeing to Los Angeles.
At a time when abuse survivors were still being called “battered wives,” and their experiences swept under the rug or treated as private matters to be handled at home, Tina Turner was boldly and courageously depicting how horrendous living with abuse was, with her unflinching honesty.
Beginning with a 1981 interview in People magazine, Turner revealed her experiences suffering from domestic abuse in her 16-year-marriage to Ike. She would go on to detail horrifying allegations of abuse in countless interviews and two memoirs, as well as a documentary released in 2021. She reported incidents of Ike burning her with coffee, beating her with shoes and hangers, raping her and breaking her jaw and nose before they took the stage and performed together.
Glenn tears up as she talks about reading Tina’s book. “I will never forget the image I had in my head of her running across the highway, bleeding, being strong and saying ‘I have got to do this.’ To be Tina Turner, with pocket change, saying ‘Enough.’”
“She left a legacy in as much her music as being a survivor and speaking out,” adds Glenn, who recently published her own memoir detailing her abusive marriage. “A Black woman survivor speaking out — and even the challenges that she had after that as a Black woman and a survivor.”
Part of why Tina went public with the abuse is that the music industry was having a tough time understanding why she was starting her own solo career. “I wanted to stop people from thinking that Ike and Tina was so positive, that we were such a great team,” Tina recounted in her 2021 HBO documentary. “So I thought, if nothing else, at least people know.”
After her divorce, Turner cleaned houses and would perform her former hits as cabaret acts in Las Vegas, until she released her breakout solo album, Private Dancer, in 1984. She won three Grammys, and her career took off. Meanwhile, she continued to talk about her experience leaving her abusive marriage in blockbuster interviews with Oprah and Gayle King. Her autobiography was turned into a 1993 movie What’s Love Got to Do With It starring Angela Bassett. (“How do we say farewell to a woman who owned her pain and trauma and used it as a means to help change the world?” Bassett said in a statement after Turner’s death. “Tina Turner showed others who lived in fear what a beautiful future filled with love, compassion, and freedom should look like.”)
For Black women in Turner’s generation, she was “a person they could look up to, to lead them out of their situation,” says Alana Brown, executive director for The Safe Sisters Circle, which provides culturally-specific services to Black survivors. She says that there’s a cultural stigma against speaking out about abuse and that because of this some survivors aren’t even aware they are being domestically abused and sexually abused at the same time.
“The fact that she came out publicly is a big deal, it made people not feel alone,” says Brown. This is crucial, she notes, when one takes into account that Black women are more likely to be affected by domestic abuse and sexual assault, and women of color are more likely to be killed by their abusive partners.
“Survivors sometimes blame themselves,” says Maureen Curtis, vice president of criminal justice programs at Safe Horizon, the largest victims services agency in the country — which is why it is so impactful to hear from other survivors who have safely left their abusers.
“Particularly somebody like Tina Turner who is successful, powerful, beautiful and can speak out,” says Curtis. “She has made a world of difference to so many survivors.”
Curtis recalls Turner’s interviews played at a conference for domestic abuse advocates and survivors a few years ago. She says it’s also important not only for survivors to hear other survivors’ stories, but also for first responders such as police. “The more famous they are, the more impact they can have,” says Curtis. “She definitely had a major impact.”
And Turner’s legacy as a survivor is not limited to those who grew up with her songs at the top of the charts. On Tuesday, a day before Turner’s death, Glenn was looking at the #domesticviolenceawareness tag on TikTok when she stumbled upon an interview where Tina talks about Ike breaking her nose before a performance: “I had put everything on hold because it was an existence of children being involved, debts […] Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.” The video clip ends with Tina advising survivors not to go back to their abusers and in the comments, there are TikTok users saying that the singer inspired them to leave their abusive partners.
Four decades after reading Tina’s account of running across the highway, Glenn was once again seeing the singer’s influence on conversations around domestic abuse, this time in front of an entirely new generation.
“I wasn’t just running away from Ike,” Tina wrote in her second memoir, My Love Story. “I was running towards a new life.”
If you are currently experiencing domestic violence and are seeking help, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or text “START” to 88788.