Tina Turner Left Her Abusive Marriage, So They Could Too
Written by on June 2, 2023
For Felisha Robinson, it was the scene in the biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It” in which Tina Turner runs across the highway, face bloodied from having been beaten by her then-husband and performing partner, Ike Turner, to escape her abusive marriage with nothing but 36 cents and a Mobil card in her pocket.
As Robinson, 42, was getting out of her own abusive marriage in 2020, she found herself gravitating toward the 1993 film that made waves around the world for starkly depicting the violence Tina Turner had endured. “I literally bawled,” she said.
She had watched it when she was younger, but felt she now understood all that it took for Turner get there. Looking back at the singer’s interviews, books and songs helped Robinson process her own experience.
“I could relate to that on a level that most people can’t,” she said. “The desperation that was in her, like, ‘I have got to get out of this situation. I am tired. I’m better than this. I’m stronger than this.’”
In the wake of Turner’s death last week, millions remembered the singer’s generation-defining contributions to the music industry. But for some, what stayed with them for decades was her coming forward about her abusive relationship. By being so frank about her experience and by summoning the courage to leave the relationship in the first place, Turner helped change the conversation about domestic violence.
For Robinson, Turner’s work made her feel not just understood but also hopeful for a different future. “That movie, her story, the book: It’s just hope. She gives you hope,” Robinson said. Over time, Robinson too realized that she should leave her husband: “I didn’t have to stay with him to be successful in life. And I feel like when it comes to Tina, she realized that.”
The movie, which starred Angela Bassett, was released in 1993, and in the decade before, Turner had been coming forward about the violent abuse.
In interviews and books, Turner described a marriage with Ike Turner that included vicious beatings, broken bones, financial tyranny and sexual assault. She managed to escape while her husband was asleep at night in 1976, fleeing a Dallas hotel. Ike Turner died in 2007.
“When I walked out, I didn’t look back,” Turner told People magazine in 1981, the first time she spoke publicly about the abuse.
Part of Turner’s legacy now “is that she courageously spoke about domestic violence at a time when not many were,” said Tonya King, a vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. By sharing her own experience, Turner removed the shame associated with talking about abusive relationships and made it possible for other survivors to share their stories. Some were even moved to leave their abusive partners.
“Her willingness to share her story was inspiring to me as a Black woman,” King said. “It showed many, including me, that I was not alone. That domestic violence can happen to anyone, anywhere and any time, including someone with Tina Turner’s celebrity status.”
Turner’s 1984 album, “Private Dancer,” was seen as a musical comeback after she divorced Ike. One of the hit songs from that album, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” is often seen to be about a no-strings-attached romance; in the context of abuse, however, some see the chorus as a reminder that love does not excuse violence.
“I see that song as a song of celebration for domestic violence victims to say: You know what? What does love have to do with it?” Robinson said. “Forget the love. I’ve got to rise up above this and move on.”
When women are in abusive relationships, they often do not know how to end them. Fearful of retaliation, financial ruin or the impact on children, they can be at a loss for how to leave.
Turner showed many a way out.
Sandy Thellus, 39, a domestic violence survivor who lives in Florida, was 10 years old in 1993 when she saw “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” She was inspired by Turner’s courage, even though she could not at the time relate to her experience.
“I knew of Tina’s story before I was even a victim,” she said. “She was the quintessential role model. She is African American, she came from humble beginnings.”
Thellus, who is Black, was in the 10th grade when she met a fellow student in Miami who would become her husband. She said that the first time he hit her was in 2004, when she was 21, after the birth of their daughter and in front of house guests.
He told her, “Next time if you just listen to me, this could all be avoided,” she said. She told herself: “If I just do as he said, everything would be fine.”
It was never enough.
Over the years, he continued his controlling and violent behavior, Thellus said.
In 2021, her husband hit her with an uppercut, she said. Their daughter, who was pregnant, was hurt when she intervened by putting herself in the middle of the fight. When Thellus saw her clutch her waist, she was afraid she might never see the birth of her grandchild.
It was a breaking point. Even though they were 40 years apart, Thellus said Turner’s story made her realize: “I wasn’t a passenger anymore. I found that I did have a voice. I feel like, ‘If I stay silent, he wins.’”
The same sentiment rang true for Ruth Glenn, the president of public affairs for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Glenn read Turner’s memoir before she left her abusive husband and had Turner’s story “in the back of my mind throughout my journey.”
The book did not immediately inspire her to leave: Glenn was shocked to read about the abuse Turner had suffered, but “there was almost this feeling of, maybe mine isn’t so bad,” she said. “I just remember sort of thinking, my husband’s like Ike but he’s not as physically abusive.”
Over time, Glenn’s husband grew increasingly violent and attempted to kill her. He later died by suicide. A decade later, Glenn returned again to Turner’s book. She said she was finally able to recognize herself in Turner’s story and know “that someone like her could not only endure it but get through it.”
For Robinson, watching the movie used to make her cry in the first years after the divorce.
But she recently felt a mix of grief and hope while rewatching it. “Watching that again I was both, I was sad, thinking about the past and all that I had been through,” she said. “And then there’s tears of joy too — like, I got out of that,” she added.
“I am a survivor.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.