Jessica Willis Fisher’s ‘Unspeakable’ breaks silence on father abuse

For 25 years, Toby Willis ruled like a dictator over his family of 12 musical children. No one dared disobey the patriarch – seen on TLC’s The Willis Family – even though he also molested at least four of his young daughters. Other children were beaten, some resulting in bruises and blood.

Today, Willis, 52, is inmate #581910 at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Tiptonville, where he is serving a 40-year sentence for child rape. His eldest daughter, singer-songwriter Jessica Willis Fisher, bravely reported him to authorities in 2016.

Her new memoir, Unspeakable (Thomas Nelson), tells both of her harrowing childhood in a fundamentalist Christian family and the nightmare that ensued when she tried to escape the family six years ago. The Willis clan first rose to fame in 2014 when they appeared on Season 9 of America’s Got Talent and later starred on the short-lived TLC show in 2015 and 2016.

Jessica Willis Fisher
Willis Fisher chronicles her abusive childhood in her new memoir, Unspeakable.

Willis Fisher says she has some good memories of growing up with her siblings, including frequent touring in Ireland – but the bad far outweighed the good.

“I literally did shows, sang and performed, but I also performed backstage every day and pretended to be happy,” she told the Post during a recent trip to New York with her husband, to photographer Sean Fisher. “I was beaten and beaten for not smiling.”

Toby Willis
Toby Willis, 52, is currently serving a 40-year sentence at Tennessee State Penitentiary in Tiptonville.

Even at 23, despite being the lead singer, violinist and main songwriter of the family band, Jessica was not allowed to have a cell phone or go on dates unaccompanied. Like many of her siblings, her clothing and hairstyle had to be approved by her father – who kept a stash of AR-15s in the house. When she began rebelling and claimed to be leaving home in her early 20s, her father called her “demonic.” Her mother and some of her siblings urged her not to go and accused her of disrupting family dynamics, despite being aware of Toby Willis’ long history of abuse.

Toby’s own childhood was marked by tragedy. His parents, Pastor Scott and his wife Janet, were the sole survivors of a 1994 Wisconsin van fire accident that killed six of their nine children. The family later won a $100 million settlement.

The Willis in 2014 when they appeared on Season 9 of America's Got Talent.
The Willis clan first came into the public eye in 2014 when they appeared on Season 9 of America’s Got Talent.
Eric Liebowitz/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

A champion high school wrestler, Toby met his future wife, Brenda, when they were both teenagers. They married around 1990 and quickly began to expand their family; Jessica, the eldest daughter, was born in the Chicago area in 1992. The family grew—there were 12 children in total, all of whom had names beginning with “J”—and in 2001 they moved to a home near Nashville, Tennessee that was once owned by country music star Randy Travis. They homeschooled their children and forced them into rigorous extracurricular activities such as wrestling, swing dancing, playing instruments, and singing.

After decades of silence, Willis Fisher, now 30, first wrote about her childhood in a shocking 2018 blog post that began in part: “As far as I can remember, I was sexually abused by my father. I found out in some of the earliest memories that I was about three years old.

‘I was . . . Singing and performing, but I also performed backstage every day.

Jessica Willis Fisher on the hidden agony of her father’s abuse

When Jessica was nine years old, her mother approached her and asked her if her father was acting inappropriately. Jessica nodded, a little uncertain. But her father denied everything and then became increasingly secretive and “dangerous” in his abuse, writes Willis Fisher. “I would say it’s amazing how it hasn’t been talked about,” she says of the years at the Willis home and on tour when she and her sisters were abused. “Much later we got to the point where there were talks about the problem, Dad’s problem. But not one of those times did I call myself this or that papa.”

It didn’t come out until August 2015, when Willis Fisher, in agony and deep depression, wrote a 14-page letter to her mother detailing the often “graphic” abuse she suffered at the hands of her father.

Jessica Willis Fisher
“For as long as I can remember, I was sexually abused by my father,” Willis Fisher wrote in a 2018 blog post. “I found out in some of the earliest memories that I was about three years old.”
Sean Fisher for the NY Post

Despite the shocking revelation, nothing really changed in the family, where Toby enjoyed cult leader status.

“My mother begged me to conform during[the arguments with her father]and showed that her sympathy was only present when my father was not there demanding her support,” writes Willis Fisher. “If I pulled her one way and Dad another, Dad’s strings always won.”

Brenda Willis, now 53, lives outside of Nashville with her younger children. Six of the Willis children, including Jessica, have married since their father’s incarceration in 2016. Jessica said her mother divorced Toby, although she kept a photo of him on her Facebook profile for months after his arrest before finally deleting it.

The Willis family on TLC
The Willis family, who played Grand Ole Opry, projected a happy outlook on their TLC reality show before Jessica Willis Fisher (center) reported her father to the police in 2016.
TLC

“I know my mother loves me,” says Willis Fisher. “But yes, she let me down.”

Brenda Willis declined to comment and abruptly hung up when The Post called her. But she has staunchly supported Jessica on her Facebook page, linked to her memoir and said she’s proud of her.

With the encouragement of her now-husband Sean, son of Pete Fisher, who ran the Grand Ole Opry for 30 years before retiring in 2017, Willis Fisher finally worked up the courage to leave her family home on April 7, 2016, few Hours after her father hit her with a belt and asked her to apologize to him after an argument.

Jessica Willis Fisher
Willis Fisher lives in Nashville with her husband and is on friendly terms with her siblings and mother.
Sean Fisher for the NY Post

She writes about being physically prevented from leaving by her family; Her little sister was sobbing and clutching her legs. But on April 7, something inside her snapped. She was determined to leave her home forever.

“Staying doesn’t help anyone,” Willis Fisher writes about her finding. “I can’t save her here. I thought I might die if I didn’t go.”

She later considered contacting her father in prison and possibly visiting him, but when she found out he had the option to decline the request, she said she didn’t want to give him that choice.

Jessica Willis Fisher
The memoir is “testimony,” says Willis Fisher, who also recently released a supplemental album called Brand New Day.
Sean Fisher for the NY Post

“The truth is, I don’t know what was on my father’s mind,” she says. “Did he really think we’d go on like this forever? Our family was like a cult and there are cults that last for generations. Was that what he hoped for? I do not know. It’s chilling to remember some of the dreams he had for us and his grandchildren.”

Despite everything, she remains loyal to her mother and siblings and emphasizes that the book is her personal experience – she cannot speak for her entire family. “Unspeakable” isn’t overly graphic in its portrayal of the abuse Jessica endured, but it doesn’t shy away from some horrific details and comes with a trigger warning. Willis Fisher also released the well-reviewed album Brand New Day in April. She wrote nine of the ten songs and says it serves as a supplement to her memoir, which she calls her “testimony.”

Unspeakable: Surviving My Childhood and Finding My Voice by Jessica Willis Fisher
Unspeakable memoir cover by Jessica Willis Fisher

“I originally wrote this book for my own healing,” says Fisher.

“Whether someone else saw it or not, that was the first and most important thing. Because I’ve been trying to make other people happy for almost 25 years. I tried to protect her, whether it was performing in the band or showing this show that everything was fine, but inside I was suffering. So the priorities had to be reordered immediately and I had to start taking care of myself.”

Fisher Willis now lives in Nashville with her husband and is friends with her siblings and mother. She performed at the Grand Ole Opry last year, where she performed with The Willis Clan as a teenager, and performs regularly at other venues.

“I don’t want to be defined like my father did,” she says. “People have asked me, ‘Do you want to be defined by that?’ — But since I don’t define myself by it, it’s not my problem if others do it.”

https://nypost.com/2022/12/11/jessica-willis-fishers-unspeakable-breaks-silence-on-fathers-abuse/ Jessica Willis Fisher’s ‘Unspeakable’ breaks silence on father abuse

Emma Bowman

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