At the beginning of 2016 I was 23 years old. I was known as the blonde lead singer, fiddle player and principle songwriter of The Willis Clan and the eldest sister of 12 kids. We performed on tour frequently and we were finishing up filming the second season of a reality TV show about our family. A fourth official album was in the works and there was always something exciting and challenging coming up on the calendar.
The turn of that year was also the darkest period of my life. The truth of what I was living every day was nothing like what people saw on the outside. And that jarring discrepancy hadn’t come out of nowhere. There was a wound that had always been a part of my world and it had never been addressed. Now it was going to kill me if I didn’t find a way to get free of its power.
My story is complicated. It’s deeply private, personal and way too long to share in full —just as the story of anyone’s life would be. However, after much recent deliberation and soul searching, I have come to realize that I feel a responsibility to the truth itself and my conscience demands a public denouncement of the previous life I helped hide for so long. Speculation and confusion has muddied the waters of late and I’ve found that the longer I go without speaking up, the longer I feel trapped in the continued power of my past.
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.
Suffice it to say my father controlled the family in every single area of life. Underneath the outward foundations of family, religion and homeschooling with an emphasis in the arts, there was a constant current of manipulation, domination, fear and favor. There was very little room inside the bubble of my world to imagine that there was any alternative. Looking back now, it’s almost impossible to face the fact of what my life once used to be. Many things were normal for me that should have never been met with anything other than outrage. The abuse developed and ebbed at various intervals over the years and into puberty. The most graphic sexual abuse faded off for me when I was around seventeen years old but many inappropriate actions and attentions continued.
From time to time the ever growing but still nebulous awareness grew to include more members of the family. Over the years periodic confrontations happened between my parents and eventually involved various siblings as we struggled to pin down the monster in the shadows that we couldn’t seem to pull into the light. 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.
Once I was no longer being graphically abused, the worst of it became like a purposely forgotten nightmare and I tried to thrive in a way I hadn’t been able to before. Though I was confused by the many rigorous and philosophical beliefs that were channeled into me by my father, I was getting older and dreaming of a life where I had a future of my own with the possibility of freedom, independence and love. It bears saying that my firsthand exposure to these things was extremely limited but I was not completely broken inside as to think that they didn’t exist at all.
My childhood explorations in music and writing provided me a personal tool for self-expression that I now partially credit with saving my life. The innocent, hurt, curious, hopeful child hidden within me gravitated to the magic of storytelling’s emotional truth and wisdom. Through my love of these things I was able to preserve a connection to the deep parts of me that I didn’t understand or accept or couldn’t explain to the world. It helped me connect with others with authenticity when words failed.
Over the next few years, my daily life transformed dramatically as my family became more and more public. My father shaped us from child students to child performers and at some vaguely discernible point we became a touring dance troupe and then band. He always promoted his philosophy, showcasing the family as the living proof of the validity of his methods and beliefs. I remember at one point being a model member of this strange and highly performance oriented group, complete with a belief on nearly every subject, and constantly ready to make a range of demonstrations on cue.
With time, I came to sense the increasing divide between where my life was heading and where I realized I wanted to go. Bigger platforms and higher octane schedules led to pressures that can stress even the healthiest of systems. Our family system was disturbingly sick. For a long time now I had felt like I was going through life with a massive bomb strapped to my chest that I knew would one day detonate. In 2011, I wrote a song called Speak My Mind wherein I wondered if I ever did get the courage to speak out and break free, would other people understand me or love me or be there for me? I was desperate for help but also felt that anyone who came close enough to help me would get hurt. Could I knowingly do that to someone? I was getting glimpses of different lifestyles, examples of other beliefs and other lives but I knew I was not going to get from where I was to where I wanted to be without major changes.
My husband, Sean, came into my life at the beginning of 2015. He was not the first person to teach me what love can be like but he truly changed my life forever. Neither of us were ever alone in our journey; there is a special and beautiful thread of people who shaped us throughout our lives before we knew each other and there is a community that was there with us through the hardest parts of our fight.
There were many rules in my family for communication, friendships and relationships but it universally came down to my father’s favor and if that was lost, any person, family or group would be cut off by whatever means necessary. My husband and I had that general favor for the first few months and he was welcomed in to experience the full performance of The Willis Clan in up-close action. Sean came over to spend time with the family countless times and visited our home church meetings. He brought me flowers on Valentine’s Day and in March we went on one date with chaperones. However, it wasn’t long before our growing connection became a threat to my father’s control and the favor evaporated.
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.)
From that day on, our public life continued on without missing a beat – If anything, it intensified. All threats or ultimatums made to my father were brushed aside and the runaway train that was The Willis Clan gained speed. I kept up the outward show but within the family, things began to fall apart for me. I continued my relationship with Sean without my parent’s consent and it eventually went completely underground. As things got weirder, he struggled to make sense of the situation. He shared books and resources with me not realizing just how valuable I found the information at that time. I came to view what my father had done with increasing horror. I was less and less cooperative with him and had to face the mounting consequences.
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. I saw my family a few times after I left and I felt such guilt towards leaving my mom and siblings and also struggled with an overwhelming responsibility to the band that I’d left in such a lurch. I helped them with a few projects but it was incredibly strange and I felt like I didn’t exist as soon as we were off stage or off camera. The contrast of being outside of my family’s bubble and then being back in the thick of it was overwhelming. Even though I had left, I felt immense pressure not to mess with what my family continued to portray to the public. I could not yet find the power to break that hold.
I tried to block my family from my mind as I dove into the safety net that emerged around me. I knew now that I could not break said hold without keeping away from the whole system. Friends and eventually various support groups helped me in seeing a therapist with extensive trauma training. People who I’d never met showed up for me in a way I’d never experienced before. I learned about trauma, abuse, recovery, dysfunctional family systems and finally found the vocabulary to accurately describe what had happened to me. 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.
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.
I truly think that the full extent of the abuse will never be known; I know even with this partial account of my personal experience alone, it is complex. I also believe that no matter the method of telling, no one else will ever fully understand what it is like to live through something like that unless you too have been there in your own way. The investigation unearthed so many more things that my family as a whole was unaware of and there are still sometimes no words to describe what happened in it’s fullest magnitude. Healing is a lifelong process. I remain personally dedicated to always leaning further into my recovery and pursuing my own education so I will never be without the tools that would prevent me from being held prisoner in such a situation again. As my mom and siblings move forward with their lives, I am so grateful for the chance we have had to heal and continue to grow closer – most recently through the process of me preparing and sharing this account. My mom and siblings each have their own powerful stories and they are all beautiful survivors. I have felt such support from them in the telling of this story and I look forward to supporting them in theirs.
I have a beautiful life for which I am incredibly grateful. I married my amazing husband last year. He too has his own truly inspiring story throughout this crazy tale and I’m so thankful that he constantly invited me towards a better life since the moment I met him. I have had so much help and support from so many other people and organizations. Most recently, I spent the beginning of February attending an amazing program at a place called Onsite which, as it turns out, was the place my husband was working when I first met him.
I am not currently a part of The Willis Clan band but I will aways 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.
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