Viewers of the TLC reality series The Willis Family were shocked when news broke in September of 2016 that family patriarch Toby Willis had been arrested and charged with four counts of rape involving a young girl. Nine months after Toby pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison, the Willis family’s oldest child, Jessica Willis Fisher, is sharing her story of lifelong sexual abuse at the hands of her father.
“As far back as I can remember, I was sexually abused by my father,” Jessica reveals in a gut-wrenching confessional on her website. “I figure I was around three years old in some of the earliest memories,” she adds.
Jessica says she first became aware that there was something terribly wrong about her relationship with her father when she was 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.
Although there was an awareness in the Willis family about Toby’s actions, Jessica says family members were paralyzed by an inability to talk about it openly. “We struggled to pin down the monster in the shadows that we couldn’t seem to pull into the light,” she says of their silent struggle. “I feel like I truly knew that certain other members of my family were being sexually abused and I felt they knew this about me too. Conversations were had, tears were cried and we questioned how to ‘deal’ with the ‘situation’. But I now realize that since we all were different ages with completely different viewpoints, separate experiences and limited vocabularies, even when we tried to speak to each other, each person thought they were talking about something different.”
Jessica says that her dad Toby began to scale back “the most graphic sexual abuse” when she was around 17 years old, but she adds that “many inappropriate actions and attentions continued.”
Over the next five or six years, Jessica tried to bury the memories of the worst experiences, but just before her 23rd birthday there was an incident that set her on a path that led away from her family and The Willis Clan band. She says the family was on tour and filming for their show in Minnesota at the time. She entered her hotel room and found her mother and sisters crying on the bed. “The coldest, blackest pit opened up in my stomach because no words needed to be said for me to know something had happened.” Jessica stood up to her father that night and told him that she could no longer ignore what was going on and planned to leave as soon as she could figure out how.
Months passed without Jessica being able to figure out how to leave — or how to muster the strength to leave. That all changed in April the following year:
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.
Jessica left later that day, crashing with a friend who offered her a place to stay.
It was not long after Jessica left that the investigation began that would eventually result in Toby Willis’ arrest and conviction:
Around 4 months after I left, another friend stepped forward to save the rest of my family. He reported my father for suspicion of sexual abuse and the official investigation started. The case was given to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. When they contacted me, I went in and ended up speaking with them the whole rest of that day. I was able to give them a long and confident testimony which was eventually used to create the arrest warrant. I was warned not to speak to my family at this time and if they reached out, I should let the TBI do their job. There was great concern on how to keep everyone alive and safe while trying to apprehend my father. It was no exaggeration to fear a violent confrontation, standoff, kidnapping or worse. It was a harrowing few weeks but my father was finally arrested.
Jessica says that the investigation into her father revealed a lot of things that the family wasn’t even aware of, and that her siblings and mother are continuing on their own respective healing journeys. She says that her sisters and mother have “their own powerful stories” and she looks forward to helping to tell them.
“I learned about trauma, abuse, recovery, dysfunctional family systems and finally found the vocabulary to accurately describe what had happened to me,” Jessica says of getting therapy after leaving. “At first my mouth would not move no matter how hard I tried to speak and my body would shake and shut down. But these words had power and their exact meaning told the truth I had experienced. There is something profound in finally being able to speak for yourself, to tell your story and know you are right. It was as if speaking my story began to make my truth accessible in the real world.”
Jessica concludes with some very motivational positivity about her journey over the last couple years as she expressed her gratitude to those who have helped her and her encouragement to others who are going through similar ordeals:
As both my 26th birthday and the anniversary of my leaving draws near, I find it amazing to reflect on the past two years. I have learned that even when I do find the courage to speak my mind, not everyone will understand or be there for me. But that’s not why I am doing this. For me not to speak up and acknowledge what has happened would be like hiding in the bus all over again. It would be to hide my own painful past and pretend that I wasn’t a part of the act because I am afraid of what might happen or whether my story will be misunderstood. Writing and sharing this piece is an important step for me in owning my story, loving myself and others, and moving forward to live the life that I truly want to live.
If you too are a survivor, you are not alone.
– Jessica Fisher
I simply cannot applaud Jessica enough for sharing her story like she has. You simply have to read the entire thing to fully appreciate why she and her family (and many other abuse victims) remained silent for so long and why she is speaking out now. It is wonderfully written and will be a great help to anyone who has suffered/is suffering abuse or knows someone who has lived/is living through it.