When Jessica Willis Fisher was in her early 20s, her life was different than most people her age. Instead of mind-expanding her in college or partying with friends, Fisher was the unwitting star of a reality show that cast her family in a deceptively wholesome light.
“The Willis Family,” which premiered on TLC in 2015, featured the telegenic family of 14: parents Brenda and Toby, plus 12 children who played in a band and had names beginning with the letter “J.” Much like “The Partridge Family” meets “19 Kids and Counting,” the show followed the Willises as they toured the country and lived by strict religious beliefs: children were homeschooled, birth control it was prohibited and casual dating was out of the question.
A perky blonde violinist and talented singer-songwriter, Fisher was the eldest daughter of the family and the unofficial leader of the group, known as the Willis Clan, which rose to fame through a song from “The Sound of Music.” contest on “Today” and a successful run on “America’s Got Talent.”
In short, they were a perfect fit for TLC, which became a cable powerhouse with popular shows about large, conservative Christian families, like the Duggars of “19 Kids and Counting” and the Gosselins of “Jon & Kate Plus 8.” For a brief moment, “The Willis Family” seemed on the verge of being the network’s next big hit, garnering more than a million viewers a week in its first season.
The facade came crashing down overnight in September 2016, when family patriarch Toby Willis was arrested on child rape charges. He ultimately pleaded guilty to four counts and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. In a statement at the time, TLC said it was shocked by the news and had made the decision to cancel the show before Willis’ arrest.
As Fisher, 30, details in a harrowing new memoir, “Unspeakable: Surviving My Childhood and Finding My Voice,” she was one of her father’s victims, sexually abused beginning when she was 3 or 4 years old. , and did not do it. however, I have the words to describe what was happening to her, and she continued for over a decade.
The book paints a picture of a violent and narcissistic patriarch who ruled his family as a doomsday cult leader and saw his talented children as a path to fame and fortune. But it’s also a story of resilience, chronicling Fisher’s efforts to escape his family at the height of his reality TV fame, bring his father to justice, and overcome his traumatic childhood. .
“I needed to tell my story,” Fisher said, sitting in a quiet Times Square hotel ballroom on a recent afternoon, a few blocks from Radio City Music Hall, where the Willis Clan wowed the “AGT” nearly a decade ago. judges with their folk versions of hits by Huey Lewis and others. “It has been a healing process to get things back. When your image, your voice, all your talents, you as a person are tied to a story, you want to tear it down and replace it with the truest, most real story.”
That story begins in Chicago, where Fisher grew up in a household defined by rigid fundamentalism. “I was taught that a woman’s lot in life is first to be subject to her father and then, after marriage, to her husband,” she writes.
The tragedy cast a long shadow over the family: In 1994, six of Toby Willis’s younger siblings were killed in a horrific truck accident. His parents eventually received a $100 million settlement and gave him a portion of the money, which he used to move his growing family to an idyllic 100-acre property near Nashville.
In one of Fisher’s earliest memories, her father touched what she describes in “Unspeakable” as “a part of my body for which I have no name.” The behavior intensified as her parents continued to have children, one after the other, adding to the already chaotic environment at home. In an incident she remembers in crystal clear detail, Willis dragged her out of bed, took her to the bathroom and assaulted her on the tiled counter while her mother and her siblings slept in the hallway.
As a defense mechanism, Fisher imagined a silent, invisible version of herself with a black box to store her feelings. That way, she writes, “she could keep smiling, being special and making dad happy.”
There were periods when Toby Willis, fearing detection, controlled the abuse, only to start again, a pattern that continued until Fisher was 16 years old. In “Unspeakable,” Fisher describes the verbal and physical abuse Willis inflicted on his wife and children. , and remembers the agony of knowing that he was not the only victim of sexual abuse in the home. (Though Willis’s minor victims were not identified during his legal proceedings, several of his daughters have since come forward as survivors.)
Fisher escaped by reading—Little Women and The Lord of the Rings were her favorites—and later by writing and playing music. After a failed attempt to start a professional wrestling league, Willis pushed his sons into acting. First there was competitive dancing, then a family band that released several albums of Irish and bluegrass music, and finally, they became regulars at the Grand Ole Opry.
As his fame steadily grew, Willis’s beliefs “became the most extreme and unhealthy thing,” Fisher said. He rejected traditional church for a home fellowship where women were discouraged from speaking out, hoarded a large supply of AR-15s, and often cited the 1992 Rudy Ridge siege as an example of the extreme measures the family might need. take to defend yourself.
The laws of gravity were different in his family, Fisher said. “I couldn’t even conceive of a world where dad wasn’t in control.”
To achieve his grandiose dreams, Willis became determined to put his family members on television, despite the fact that they were largely prohibited from seeing it. “When I asked why we did TV, Dad said it was God’s will for our family,” Fisher writes. First came “The Willis Clan,” a short-lived reality show on Great American Country, a cable network; after he finished the show came the “Today” game show and a stint on “America’s Got Talent,” which in turn caught the attention of TLC.
“The Willis family” followed the brood as they traveled to concerts and visited local attractions wherever they happened to be. It was strange to act out the goofy sitcom-style storylines the producers came up with for each episode, like burning a cake, given the reality, Fisher said: “All of that was literally made up for the cameras. Meanwhile, life and death things are happening.”
Shows like “The Willis Family” tap into “nostalgia for the way we never were,” Fisher continued. “Many people have been taught that there is an ideal: to have a large family that lives according to conservative beliefs. When you see someone living that, it’s like a shining beacon that everyone can aspire to. And a lot of people aspired to what we were saying we were The truth is, we weren’t.”
In fact, as cameras rolled season 2, the family was falling apart. Motivated by a painful discovery about her father’s behavior, Fisher he began planning his escape, though it would eventually take nearly a year for him to break free from the family. She had also fallen in love with the man who would become her husband, Sean Fisher, but her parents forced her to break off the relationship. A production assistant on “The Willis Family” secretly sent letters to Sean on her behalf and even helped her get some precious belongings out of her house.
Fisher finally left in April 2016, not knowing how she would make a living at age 24 without a high school diploma or conventional employment history. “The last thing Dad said to me that day was, ‘When you screw up your life and come crawling back, we’ll forgive you,’” he said.
Months later, a family friend reported his suspicions about Willis to a sexual assault hotline, prompting an immediate investigation. Fisher sat down for a lengthy interview with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, detailing the abuse that occurred “night after night, for years.” Her story proved pivotal, as it allowed authorities to issue a warrant for his arrest on a charge of child rape. Willis fled the state but was apprehended in Kentucky within days.
In a 2018 blog post, Fisher came out publicly as a survivor for the first time, prompting a flood of people raised in other large and controlling families, but until the post of “Unspeakable” last month, she hadn’t shared the details. . of her story to a wider audience. Instead, she has focused on therapy and recording her first solo album, “Brand New Day,” released on her 30th birthday in April and inspired by her musical hero Emmylou Harris. and Alison Krauss.
Despite deep misgivings about the institution, Fisher has been married to her husband, Sean, for five years. She has also maintained a positive relationship with most of her family, including her mother, who supported the book. “I’m doing everything I can to tell my story,” she said, adding that she is “very aware that they have their own different stories within that complicated system.” Less secure are her religious beliefs: having discarded her childhood teachings, Ella Fisher says that she is still trying to find a church where she feels safe.
She continues to read voraciously, lately delving into the memoirs of women whose experiences echo her own, including Daniella Mestyanek Young’s “Uncultured: A Memoir,” about growing up in the Children of God cult, and “I’m Glad.” My Mom Died,” about Jennette McCurdy’s experiences as a child actress with an abusive mother.
Fisher has thought a lot about the ethics of reality TV, particularly shows that feature children who have little say in how they are portrayed. Willis’s conviction is part of a troubling pattern at TLC: Several people with ties to the network have been accused of child sexual abuse, most notably Josh Duggar, who was convicted on child pornography charges and sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.
“It’s really disturbing to see what we sometimes raise,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves, what is the level of responsibility that we all have? Am I doing something to support what I see happening here, whether it’s clicking on the TV? My dad was making money with us. There were children involved who had no choice. And I don’t think that’s right.”
There are moments when Fisher contemplates the hypotheses: What if he hadn’t come out? What if his father fled the country with his brothers or used the weapons he stored? Would this have led to “a Jonestown situation,” as she put it?
Fisher believes that privilege played a role in her story, that people were more understanding because “we presented this ideal image of young, white, smiling faces,” she said.
Most of all though, she feels lucky to have beaten the odds.
“That would not have been a word I was allowed to use growing up, because there is no such thing as luck; it was all God’s will,” she said. “But it still feels like the best word.”