Jessica Willis-Fisher is opening up about abuse she said she endured at the hands of her father, Toby Willis, who is currently serving four prison terms for child rape.
The woman is the oldest daughter of a 14-member seemingly Christian family, where the siblings performed music as “The Willis Clan.” The children became famous after appearing on America’s Got Talent, where they wowed the judges with their folk/country take on The Sound of Music. The clan later landed their own show on TLC, though it was canceled after just two seasons
While the names of those abused by Toby Willis were never published because they were not only victims but minors, Willis-Fisher described not only her own abuse at the hands of her own father, but also said she “knew” in 2016 that sexual abuse was still happening in the family. She described her “family system” as “disturbingly sick,” and let other survivors know that they are not alone.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Her Father Is Serving 4 Concurrent Sentences in Prison After Pleading Guilty to Child Rape
48-year-old Toby Willis, a father-of-12 and former TLC reality star was sentenced on July 12, 2017, to 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to four counts of child rape in Tennessee. He had previously pleaded not-guilty to the charges.
Because the convicted child rapist’s victim was underage, their name was withheld to protect their identity. However, The Tennessean reported Toby Willis was charged after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation discovered that 13 years prior, he had raped a girl who was between the ages of nine and 12 at the time.
According to court documents obtained by FOX411, the victim was a member of the Willis family.
Toby Willis received two sentences of 25 years and two sentences of 40 years for the four counts of child rape. The sentences are to be served concurrently, which means that he’ll serve a total of 40 years in prison.
2. In an Emotional Blog Post, She Described Horrifying Abuse by Her Own Father That She Believes Began at the Age of 3
Willis-Fisher said she believed her father began sexually abusing her at “around three-years-old,” adding that the horrifying acts began “as far back as I can remember.” Willis-Fisher wrote on her blog, in part:
As far back as I can remember, I was sexually abused by my father. I figure I was around three years old in some of the earliest memories. Initially, I had no way to know that anything was wrong. When I did eventually come to realize the fact, I had no way to accurately express what was happening to me. There followed immense shame, distrust and hurt throughout my childhood – even in the happy times. Thus ran the two parallel storylines that became my life.
An initial awareness of questionable behavior began when I was around nine years old. Something (I’m still not sure what) caused my mother to become suspicious of my father’s interactions. I didn’t realize there was zero evidence of anything specific and all I did was nod uncertainly when a few general questions were asked by my mother. I heard my mother raise her voice to my father for the first time in my life and I thought the adults would figure it out. I didn’t understand that my father simply denied any wrongdoing and became more secretive and dangerous from then on
It was suspected that Toby Willis’ victim could have been 25-year-old Willis-Fisher, because she would have been 12 at the time the crimes took place.
Willis-Fisher described further terrifying abuse and seclusion in her blog, including how her father had forbid her to see her boyfriend, who had figured out something was amiss. The woman said she escaped after Toby Willis beat her with a belt following an argument with a sibling:
The middle of August arrived and found our family neck deep in filming a live concert DVD. Things were strained and rehearsals included huge blowups and power struggles between my father and I or sometimes another sibling. That weekend, Sean sent me a message saying he thought he had “figured out what had happened in my past”. I confirmed. I remember him asking me if I was safe. I looked around and, though I didn’t voice it, I realized I was not. No one had ever told their truth. No one had ever truly stood up to my father. I personally had never shared the details of what he had done to me. Doing so would put me in danger but it had to be done. I sat down and wrote a fourteen page document about the worst abuse. It poured out of me in terrible detail and it was the first time I felt the power of its story. I showed the letter to my mother who was rightly outraged. My father refused to read it and accused me of lying. I had taken my first step towards speaking out, but I had shared my story with another victim trapped in the same prison as me. My father lashed out at both of us with whatever threats necessary to maintain his control and began consistently threatening my mom with the lives of the entire family. I continued to look for a way out on my own but it can seem impossible to jump off a runaway train.
When we arrived home from tour that autumn, I was somehow able to go out with Sean one more time. When I arrived home that night, my family had been made aware of my secret and inappropriate communication with him and Sean was excommunicated. My father threatened his life. I was forced by my father to “break up with him” multiple times over the following months. All manner of technology or communication was taken away from me and even secret letters were found out. It was imperative to keep me closed off from all help as I was now fighting to get out. My life amounted to a type of house arrest. I sank into the first depression of my life and lost close to fifteen pounds. We continued to perform, to film and for the first time I saw the reality of my life. The abuse was in my mind every day. How could I have stayed this long? My father sought to stamp out my rebellion and became increasingly violent towards me even in front of the family. I felt myself losing my grip on sanity. I was accused of being the only problem in the family, ruining everything. It was said I was possessed by a demon. The way things were escalating, I began to fear for my life. In January, my father assaulted me on the tour bus in front of the entire family. He blamed my disobedience and defied everyone though my mother and siblings tried to interfere. A police car pulled up behind us and when the officer entered, I hid in my bunk to hide the blood and the forming bruises. Everyone put on their show faces. In that moment, I knew I was betraying myself. I was the one keeping me prisoner. (Again, all of this is extremely abbreviated. I have focused on my own personal narrative and tried to distill events down to the most impactful points.)
I woke up one morning during the first week of April, not knowing it was the day I was going to finally leave. The TV show had just finished filming, we were in TN at a new rental house and we had a few weeks before our next gig. Halfway through the morning, my brother Jair and I had a disagreement and he went to our father. Dad came down and confronted me. When I didn’t apologize, he took off his belt and beat me like when I was younger. He said it was his god-given responsibility to punish me. It was in that moment I knew. The threats and violence stopped working. No matter how it happened, I would leave by tonight.
The rest of the day was like a blur. I had tried to leave multiple times before and was always physically prevented. But something was different this time. I was almost in a coma, not saying much, one half of me completely paralyzed in fear and the other half slowly proceeding — almost calmly, holding each little inch of ground I gained. One after another there were various threats of further violence and legal repercussions from dad. My mother and siblings made religious and emotional appeals. Everyone was terrified of what would happen if I really left. But these things had lost their power over me. I was so far retreated into myself that I somehow found the trembling strength to keep insisting. I was allowed to use a phone to call a friend and without being given an explanation, she told me I was welcome to come and stay for as long as I needed. I had no plan but the immediate steps eventually took shape. Two of my siblings offered to drive me. Sean had gotten me an emergency phone that I had been too afraid to use. I now dug it out from between my mattress and boxspring and sent a message saying I was coming out. In every moment of that car ride, I felt I was about to wretch my guts out. I had never felt so physically sick with fear and a grimacing determination.
I woke up the next morning in a strange new world. My 24th birthday was only a few days away. It had taken way too long and at times I thought I would die but I had finally escaped. I had left everything but a few clothes and personal items. It was astounding to me that life continued on like nothing had happened; the earth continued to turn. One day at a time, I tried to begin again…
3. In 2016, Willis-Fisher Said She ‘Knew Sexual Abuse Was Still Happening’ After Finding Her Mother & Some of Her Sisters Crying in a Room, & Told Her Father She Would ‘Not Ignore it This Time’
Willis-Fisher explained in her blog that in April of 2016, she had come upon her mother and some of her sisters in a hotel room and just “knew sexual abuse was still happening” at the hands of her father. She wrote:
April’s schedule brought a band tour and I hit the road with my family on our tour bus. It was the day before my 23rd birthday and we were in Minnesota performing and filming our tv show. I came into my hotel room that night to find my mother and some of my sisters sitting on the bed crying with that look on their face I had seen so many times before.
The coldest, blackest pit opened up in my stomach because no words needed to be said for me to know something had happened. How was I here again? I could not stay in denial about my past because it obviously wasn’t staying in the past even though at times I had tried so hard to forgive and forget. Things were not over. They had never been over. Sexual abuse was still happening. And I knew it. Deep in my gut. Life seemed thin and fragile and about to shatter in that moment. The delicate balance of ignorance and fear and hope was about to break wide open.
I was the adult now. Something had to change. That night I told my father I would “not ignore it this time”. I told him I would leave as soon as I could find out how to do so. Other family members echoed similar declarations.(Again, this is another situation that my mom, my siblings and I have been able to talk about more recently and peel back the layers of confusion and conflict to understand that we all had different viewpoints and interpretations of events during that night.)
“I was shocked and devastated by the revelation of events leading to Toby Willis’ arrest,” Brenda Willis said in a September 2016 statement. “As these are very trying times for the Willis family, I kindly ask all to respect our family’s privacy. As a mother of twelve, my first priority remains with my children and helping them through this traumatic event. We are cancelling all appearances for the foreseeable future to focus on the children and their well-being. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. We have, and will continue, to fully cooperate with law enforcement officials and ask that you direct all inquires regarding Toby Willis’ case to the District Attorney’s office who have our complete support.”
4. The Family Rose to Fame After Appearing on America’s Got Talent, Before Starring in Their Own Reality Show
In 2014, Willis-Fisher and her siblings gained fame after wowing the judges of America’s Got Talent.
The family, including parents Toby and Brenda Willis, garnered the attention of TLC, who gave them their own reality show, The Willis Family.
5. She Is No Longer a Part of ‘The Willis Clan,’ & Is Being Praised for Speaking Out as a Survivor
Last year, Willis-Fisher went on to marry the love of her life, Sean Fisher, and explained that while she is not a part of The Willis Clan, she will always call them family. As a survivor, she would like to let others know they are not alone. She stated:
I am not currently a part of The Willis Clan band but I will always be a part of the Willis family. There is much to learn for myself about the truth of healthy relationships, faith, family, home, success, fulfillment and so much more. I appreciate the grace that is given by those closest to me. I assert my right to protect the privacy of my personal life while still feeling free to explore and passionately pursue my dreams and goals. I am excited by the possibilities of the future and the beauty of the now.
If you are someone whose honesty and vulnerability invited me further into true connection, you have helped save my life. I can still struggle with the wish that I could have stood up sooner, been stronger, saved myself and my family in the way that was desperately needed for so long. But I have learned that I did the best I could at the times when it felt like there was no choice. I didn’t know until I finally knew, I couldn’t stand until I finally stood. There is no shame in finally being strong. I am a survivor.
If you too are a survivor, you are not alone.
If you are in need of support, The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673.
The Willis Clan showed their support for the brave family member through an Instagram photo captioned: “Today, we celebrate the birthday of Jessica, our beautiful eldest sister of 26 years now! Today, we also commend and support her brave vulnerability with the world. TODAY IS THE DAY, WE CELEBRATE HER TRUTH BEING TOLD.”
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