I Was So Focused On Trying To Defend Myself: Gospel Singer James Fortune On Being Accountable For His Abusive Past
The last time we wrote about gospel singer James Fortune on this site, it was to speak about the instances of him assaulting his now ex-wife Cheryl Fortune. At the time of the incident, Fortune was concerned about the negative attention his abuse would bring to his family. These days, he sees it all differently. He’s accountable, in therapy and advising men and women across the country about the harmful effects domestic violence has on families around the world.
In our interview, Fortune spoke about his healing, how church culture has warped submission, and what he would say to women considering going back to a man who has been abusive in the past.
MN: MadameNoire is a Black women’s lifestyle site, so we’ve written about your domestic violence cases in the news. I believe there was a child abuse case and there was an incident with your wife. So, I just wanted to know where do you think that type of behavior, the violence or reacting with violence came from? Was it something you witnessed growing up?
James Fortune: Just as far as the child abuse, it was child neglect in that situation. I took responsibility for not watching my child the way I should have, which is how the accident happened. I went through the probation and took some parenting classes and was reunited with my step son.
Now, with the domestic violence, I learned through therapy, not only individual therapy but group therapy with other men who encountered domestic violence in their relationships, it’s more of a power and control thing for me. It’s one partner trying to control the other. And physical violence—of the 16 types of abuse I studied, physical abuse is actually the last one. Because when the emotional abuse, the verbal abuse, psychological abuse doesn’t work any longer, when that begins to wear off over time, now I have to control you by putting my hands on you. For me, I learned that domestic violence is not a mistake, it’s a decision. A lot of women need to understand that. A lot of times they feel like he just made a mistake, he really loves me but he wasn’t thinking right. Or maybe it’s something I did that caused him to do this. But when you have that power and control dynamic in your relationship, it’s not about what any person does, it’s more about the person trying to control you in some form or another. So I had to do the hard work. I had to not make excuses. I had to not look at my partner but totally look at James and ask where did this start, how did this become a part of my life? It wasn’t anything I experienced as a child. It wasn’t anything I saw growing up as a child. But I became someone who did this. And I took responsibility and it was the hardest thing for me. My therapist said, ‘James, have you forgiven yourself?’ And I said, ‘I’m not really concerned about forgiving myself. I’m more concerned about my wife at the time, getting forgiveness from her.’ She [my therapist] was explaining to me, you can’t control other people forgiving you. You’ve got to forgive yourself. Because when you hate yourself, when you’re mad at yourself, when you have resentment towards yourself, that’s what makes the cycle continue. Hurt people hurt other people in different forms. So you have to forgive yourself to be able to move past it. And I think that was the hardest thing for me. It did effect not only my ex-wife but my children, my family and everybody who really loved James Fortune as a person or as an artist.
MN: I did want to ask you—and I don’t know how much you want to go into this because it is very personal —but what effect did the violence have on your family?
James Fortune: The violence, my kids weren’t witness to that. But they were witness to some of the verbal abuse, some of the manipulation. If you ask 200 women in a study, the psychological, verbal and mental abuse was worse than the physical abuse they suffered. Getting over it and the trauma that comes with that—because if you can change a person’s perspective of who they are, you can actually change who they are. That’s detrimental and traumatizing for many people but for my kids, the divorce, the media, the news, they’re 13, 14, and 16 so they were in school. Their classmates were coming up to them in school so it was a lot they had to go through, not just with their dad in the home and their mom dealing with that she was dealing with, but what they were dealing with as well. It was something that everybody knew about.
MN: You spoke about your therapist telling you to forgive yourself so after you have a violent incident how would you feel afterward?
James: It’s a cycle of abuse. So after abuse happens, then there’s regret, there’s remorse, there’s apology and then the women usually forgives. Then there’s a honeymoon period. And now, I speak to men and women now about domestic violence. If you won’t get the real help, it may be a year or two where nothing really happens but it’s going to come back around. Because if a person is not able to see themselves, and that this is a problem and this is how I need to get help, to get out of this power and control cycle. I was going through that cycle. Physical violence wasn’t a part of our relationship. [But most of the men I spoke about in the group] said ‘I never thought I would put my hands on a woman.’ One guy that was 71-years-old said, ‘I never thought I would pull my wife out of the room by her hair. But because I was abusive in other ways, it was only a matter of time before the physical violence happened.’
MN: Can you talk about your intervention program? What was the process for that? How did that go?
James: For me—and that’s why I didn’t do many interviews at first because I was so focused on trying to defend. Because there’s four things that stop us from being accountable. It’s denying, it’s minimizing, it’s justifying…so for me, that’s where I was. I was like, ‘That’s not what happened. That’s not how it happened. I didn’t do that.’ And at the end of the day, that wasn’t helping me get better. So initially, it was the courts that required me to go to this 18-week Batterers Intervention Program. That was such a blessing. Of course, I’m sure most men feel like, ‘I don’t really need that.’ Because we don’t really know what it is. We don’t really know what abuse is. But the more I went, I fell in love with it. I enjoyed it so much because it was so much I was learning about myself that was helping me heal because I was in such a low place. I was separated from everything I loved. I wasn’t allowed to have contact with my ex-wife or my children for months at a time. For me, it was helping me heal and love James again. I spend so much time loving other people, encouraging and praying for other people that I had kind of lost myself. I felt so much pressure and stress always trying to be the man, always trying to be strong even though I was feeling weak on the inside. As men and as people period, we know how to suppress and bottle up and not really talk about. I’m still in therapy to this day. Not even for domestic violence but for my own personal thing, just making sure my mental health is on point and that I’m thinking and that my perspective is the right way.
So, I was given five-years probation. And I’m not here to make excuses but there were no broken bones, there was no bar stool. I’m completely off probation now but I’m an advocate. I wrote a book about it (Destiny Derailed), I’m speaking about it because I’ve seen the damage it does not only to the couples but the children as well.
MN: What let you know that you were ready to make a change? You said there was a period of denial and the intervention was court-mandated so when would you say something clicked?
James: It was when I discovered what abuse really was. A lot of times we’ll say, ‘Oh, I just lost my temper. I got it. I’m not going to do it again. I’m sorry.’ But when I really learned what abuse was, I learned that my issue was bigger than I thought it was. It wasn’t just about October 2014. It was about years leading up to that. In church a lot of times, we talk about how the woman is to be submissive according to scripture. But we mistake submission to mean obey, especially as leaders in church. So we’re like, ‘You’re supposed to obey me and if you don’t obey me, then I need to control you in some type of way to get you to obey.’ So one of the forms of abuse is economic abuse, where the man controls the money in order to control the woman. So when I started learning all that, I was like ‘Wow’ Even times I didn’t think I was abusive, I was really psychologically or emotionally or manipulating the relationship to control her to make sure she acted in a way that I agreed with. So there’s about 80 percent of relationships that deal with this in some way or another and they don’t even realize it’s an issue until it’s too late. And that’s why I’ve been speaking so much about it so you can catch it. It may start with him controlling your hair. And as a man I realized that I can’t control other people, I can only control myself. We talked about communication, we talked about facades and how we build up these walls to really hide who we are inside. All of that coming out helped me discover who I was. It helped me become a much, much better person.
MN: You mentioned submission in the church and how our concept of submission is warped so can you speak about how church culture justifies women being made to feel inferior? And what is the message now for you?
James: I feel like it’s a partnership. The Bible in Ephesians says we are partners. We make decisions together. Now, can the man be the leader in the relationship? Yes, the man can be the leader but it still doesn’t mean that the woman has to obey him. As a leader, it means that I’m leading my family by my actions. I’m leading my family by the way I live my life, through prayer, how I handle my finances. At the end of the day, my pastor told me this, ‘You shouldn’t have to make a woman submit. You should love her into submission.’ To where when you love a woman the right way, you’re the leader you’re supposed to be as the man of God, a woman doesn’t mind following that type of man. You don’t have to force or tell her you have to do what I say. That’s not what submission is, according to scripture. But it has sometimes been negatively portrayed.
MN: We talk about submission all the time. It’s taken on such an ugly tone to the point where women don’t even want to hear it because it takes away your autonomy. We were talking about scripture because it says husbands are to love their wives but nobody would tell a woman loving is only the man’s job. It’s a partnership. So we were even talking about men submitting to their wives. What do you think about that?
James: Oh I love it. Me being married and my wife brings so much to the table in an area that I’ve never been accustomed to because she’s corporate, two master’s degrees, CFO, she’s doing her thing. So, when it comes to finances, she’s actually the leader of the family. She helps me. [Marriage] gives us a helpmate. How can someone help me, if I think I know it all? How can a woman help me if I feel like I got all the answers? There’s no way that she can be a helpmate if I feel like you’re inferior to me, I lord over you. That takes away a woman’s power, her ability to think for herself, the ability to really bring what she can bring to the marriage.
MN: People will say things like, ‘Once an abuser, always an abuser.’ What do you say about that? And if a woman decides to stay with a man who has been abusive, how does she know that he’s really changed for the better and that it’s a permanent change?
James: Well, I’ve learned and I’ve been taught that you have to always know that that’s inside of you and it could happen again. And that was a very hard statement for me to make in therapy. But my therapist, she said, ‘the person who says they’ll never do it again is the person who said they’ll never do it in the first place.’ So you have to be aware and that’s why you have to know your red flags. It’s the same with alcoholics. That’s why it’s a recovering alcoholic. If you’ve ever done it, you can very well do it again. So for me, what I would say to a woman is—if you’ve ever been abused in anyway, if the person won’t’ go get the therapy, the help they need—I work with the National Organization for Domestic Violence and they tell us ‘Never tell a woman to leave a relationship.’ Because most homicides occur when the woman tries to leave. Because ultimately, what we’re talking about is control. If the woman’s leaving, obviously you feel like you’ve lost all control so now you feel like, ‘She’s got to go.’ Thanks be to God I never got to that place. But they said that what you should do is tell a woman ‘I believe you.’ Because many times women who come or want to talk to you about what they’re going through, they don’t feel like they’re going to be believed. So you have to put a safety plan together.
I’ve prayed so hard about this because I feel like I’ll never escape this. I feel like I’ve been given a death sentence, a life sentence I should say. Someone will always bring that up. So I can’t tell a woman this is what will show you he’ll never do it again. Because what I would say is what she wouldn’t want to hear is that he may do it again.
MN: Speaking about someone always bringing this up, did you struggle releasing music? How was it getting back into the community?
James: It was very, very hard at first. I will say it’s gotten so much better. I realize somewhat of a shift through my accountability. Once I started taking responsibility for it, I just saw it took some of the power away from the negativity of it. And I think that’s what’s helped women the most. Because a lot of women have said, ‘You know James, my abuser never owned up to it. He always said it was my fault. So to see you stand up in front of people and put yourself out there like that, is helping me heal. I realized that it wasn’t my fault.’ It’s gotten so much better. My last album was the first one after the scandal and it did very well, it debuted number one. I’ve been blessed. It’s a continual journey of overcoming that rejection that I do have to deal with when a deal’s on the table and they come back, ‘Oh we Googled this and saw this so we’re not going to be able to work with you.’ It’s something I’m working through with God’s grace, prayer and just the love around me.
MN: I really feel for people in leadership in church because you’re meant to be a source of encouragement for so many people but it can be easier to neglect yourself because you’re serving spiritually. So how are you taking better care of yourself now and being mindful of when you need to step away or step back?
James: That’s such a great question because a lot of time we’re so caught up in the grind and the hustle and getting it that we don’t take care of ourself. I just had a session yesterday with my therapist. Just talking through a lot of stuff. Men talk about women talking a lot but y’all are letting it out. Men we hold stuff in because we always have to appear like we have it together. so We hold it all in and that becomes toxic, so that’s how we become hooked up with drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography because we hold it all in. So me and my wife have very, very open communication. I learn how to communicate now, without blaming, using blaming words. For me, it’s making sure that prayer is the number one thing in my life, it’s not something I add on but it’s the main thing, not just going out ministering but being ministered to. Not just going to church when I have to sing or perform but also when I need to be fed.
MN: You mentioned therapy a lot. And historically the Black church has perpetuated this idea that if you’re a true believer you should be able to tap into God’s power and basically heal yourself. I think it’s getting a lot better but what would you say to Black church communities, the Black community in general and especially Black men who aren’t fully embracing the idea of therapy?
James: My statement is I believe you can have Jesus and a therapist. I don’t believe that just because you are a Christian that that means prayer is enough. I believe is what happens in the church is we know how to put on the mask of ‘I’m so saved, I’m so holy, I’m not dealing with anything.’ Then we go home and we’re hooked on all kind of stuff because we’re not really dealing with it. So I’ve been sharing, you don’t have to be crazy to need counseling. There are some things you need to talk out to help you understand who you are. Because a lot of times we don’t know who we are. You can be saved. I got Jesus but I also have a therapist as well.
MN: So is there anything you want to share about the album?
James Fortune: The album comes out August 23. It’s called Dream Again. The single is entitled “I Am.” i’m excited for people to get this album and help people be able to dream again, go after those dreams, that vision. Write that stuff down and go after it.