It was just so unlike me, my life
In the opening scene of HBO’s 2021 Tina Turner documentary, Tina, the Queen of Rock settles in for her interview with a reluctance observable throughout the film, one that characterizes, seemingly, her very participation in the film itself. If viewers know much about Turner beyond the headlines (immensely talented crossover artist who was also violently abused by her ex-husband and producer/manager Ike Turner), they’re likely asking themselves even before watching her reluctance: “Why is she doing this movie?” As if a response to the viewer’s unasked—and perhaps even unformulated—question, she begins, “It was just so unlike me, my life.”
I suspect that, like me, most therapists saw Turner’s awkward settling in to tell her story as much like the beginning of therapy itself as patients arrive at therapy. Similarly, any first-year psychoanalytic trainee would likely instantly recognize Turner’s observation on her life as a clear example of what Freud called a “split,” a dis-integration of something real from our whole lived and consciously experienced reality.
Our task is to name and accept “that it happened to me”
A more acute example of a split might be approaching a scene of a car accident minutes after the cars smashed together. In this instance, we might yell, “That didn’t happen!” while knowing that it, in fact, happened. We pause a moment to integrate the horror.
Like a car accident, before we can get into questions of what to do about it or even, why it happened, we must come to first understand the fact that it happened. “That it happened” is in service of a bigger, more central project. Our task in living a whole life is to own, name, and accept that it happened to me. Which is to say (and this can be quite uncomfortable) that this having happened has been helpful in forming me. It is, in part, who I am.
We are always all of who we are
Turner had a public identity as both a brilliant artist and a survivor of profound abuse and loss. When asked directly (as we see in the documentary), she expresses frustration with this too. The New York Times suggests that Turner was a “resilient trailblazer,” perhaps even celebrating the very split we’re talking about here. By emphasizing her endurance rather than her suffering, the attention is drawn to the part of the split that survived while downplaying the abuse she needed to survive. In truth, Turner was abused. Her son committed suicide. That isn’t all of who she was, but it’s also not not who she was.
If we have the chance and bravery (and I’d never call Turner anything but brave), along with the right help and sense of material safety, we can come to understand that all of us—all of what happened to us in our lives—is like us. In a sense, we are always all of who we are; we can’t separate from parts of ourselves. The language of psychotherapy, particularly psychoanalysis, offers another way. Experiences become integrated. We synthesize them: the good, the bad, the tragic, the beautiful.
How do we synthesize what happened to us?
Most of the time synthesizing what happened to us occurs automatically as part of the complex, creative process of moving through the world. In practice, we’re always integrating all the time, whether we’re conscious of it or not. It usually doesn’t need attention. This is useful to keep in mind when we’re struggling. I’m often reminded of the verse: “This too shall pass.” Passing doesn’t mean being left behind or forgotten; it means passing through reluctance to accept our struggle to make peace with that which is too much.