In a new book, singer-songwriter Jessica Willis Fisher reveals what viewers of TLC’s wholesome “The Willis Family” reality show didn’t see: a household run by a strict and abusive father. Her memoir, “Unspeakable: Surviving My Childhood and Finding My Voice,” offers a shocking look inside the large family of musical performers.
Fisher also recently released her first solo album, “Brand New Day,” which includes the autobiographical, survivor-themed song “My History.” By recounting her experiences—and launching a charitable fund for abuse prevention and recovery—she hopes to spotlight the issue and help others in the process.
Jessica Willis Fisher Tells of Traumatic Childhood
Jessica Willis Fisher, now 30, is the eldest of 12 children born to Toby and Brenda Willis. The kids, who all have “J” first names, were homeschooled, banned from watching most TV shows, and taught that girls and women were to be subject to fathers and husbands.
Toby Willis also directed his children to perform, first as dancers and then as a family band. Fisher says her father’s extreme beliefs “metastasized” as their fame grew. Willis started leading church services from home, stockpiled guns, and warned about a possible siege, similar to Ruby Ridge in 1992. “I couldn’t even conceive of a world in which Dad wasn’t the one in control,” writes Fisher.
Her dad’s next step was getting his family on TV, first on a country music channel and then on a “Today” show music contest. That was followed by the 2015 TLC debut of “The Willis Family,” described as “The Partridge Family” meets “19 Kids and Counting.” Viewers followed the family’s touring adventures and strict religious lifestyle.
What they didn’t see, writes Fisher, is years of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse by her father—against her, some siblings, and her mother. In “Unspeakable,” which she calls her “witness statement,” she recounts early-childhood memories of molestation. For example, her father was “leaning over me, touching a part of my body I don’t have a name for” and saying, “Daddies like it when mommies do this.”
Fisher recalls feeling as if she should tell her mother what was happening. “But I am only 3 or maybe 4 and I don’t have the necessary words,” she writes. “In many ways, I will stay frozen in the power of this moment for the next 20 years.”
In April 2016, Fisher was able to escape from the family; soon afterward, Willis was under police investigation. A family friend had called an abuse-tip hotline, authorities interviewed Fisher, and by September, Willis was arrested on child-rape charges. He eventually pled guilty to four criminal counts and in 2017 was sentenced in Tennessee to a 40-year prison term.