Jessica Willis Fisher – Digging out from unspeakable abuse

As some of you know, my wife and I attended an independent fundamental Baptist (IFB) church in the 1980s. There were blessings and also many problems. I subsequently walked away from the Lord for 23 years because I was so soured on IFB authoritarianism. A couple of new books with material related to the IFB movement recently caught my eye. There’s also a 2013 book about the topic that I’ve been meaning to discuss. So today, and for the next two Sundays, I will be reviewing the three books.

⚠️ Caution: The book reviewed below deals with the difficult topic of child sexual abuse.

Unspeakable: Surviving My Childhood and Finding My Voice
By Jessica Willis Fisher
Thomas Nelson, 2022, 352 pp.

4 Stars

The Willis Family burst onto the national scene in May 2015 with their TLC reality television show. The Willises replaced the Duggars, whose TLC show was cancelled after it was revealed eldest son, Josh Duggar, had molested four of his sisters when he was younger.

Like the Duggars, the Willises were a large (eight girls, four boys) fundamentalist Christian family. Unlike the Duggars, the Nashville-based Willises had a very polished entertainment act, which included playing musical instruments, singing, and dancing on stage. The large brood practiced under the scrutinizing eye of their father, Toby, and performed at venues all across the country.

Coming from an independent fundamental Baptist background myself, I watched both the Duggars and the Willises with great interest. The strict family discipline, legalism, and regimentation were characteristics I was familiar with and happy I left behind. But it was especially amazing to watch the Willises. The older children were very talented, and it was obvious the family routine didn’t include much leisure time.

In September 2016, I read the news that Toby Willis had been arrested on charges of child rape. I was saddened, but not altogether surprised because his dour, Svengali-like dominance over his family was apparent even on screen. Toby was subsequently sentenced to forty years in prison after pleading guilty to four counts of child rape. His wife divorced him and the family was in turmoil, but eventually released their 2018 album, “Speak My Mind,” along with the requisite whirlwind of talk show appearances.* However, eldest daughter, Jessica Willis, did not rejoin her siblings as part of the group. She was not able to process the years of abuse that quickly or easily. She forged ahead on her own, eventually marrying, recording her solo album, “Brand New Day,” released in September 2022, and writing this memoir that was published in November 2022.

This is a painful book to read. Jessica recounts, sometimes in explicit detail, multiple episodes of being sexually abused by Toby. The abuse began at age 3 and continued until 2008 when she was 16. When police investigators later asked Jessia the total number of times she had been sexually abused by her father, she estimated it to have been around one-hundred times. But Jessica wasn’t the only victim. Her father also preyed on her younger sisters. Toby’s wife became aware of some of the abuse over the years and “intervened” (to a minor degree), but was physically and emotionally victimized by her husband as well. In addition to the sexual abuse of the girls, all of the children suffered physical and emotional trauma from their temperamental and psychologically sick father.

Toby had pontificated over his family’s home-church Sunday worship service and the Willises were eventually joined by a few other area families.** Toby’s home-church teachings were based upon the tenets he learned at an IFB church as a younger man in Chicago. It was all about legalism, regulations, and end-times prophecy, with a little (c)hristianity mixed in. Toby repeatedly warned his children the family compound would someday be invaded by federal agents à la Ruby Ridge. There was no genuine love of Christ being taught in the Willis home. It would certainly be unfair to paint the entire IFB movement with a broad brush because of Toby Willis, however, IFB-ism is fertile ground for crackpot conspiracy theology and megalomaniacal patriarchal (and pastoral) abuse (see Steven Anderson).

Jessica recounts that she prayed the sinner’s prayer when she was a young girl, but admits she is now uncertain about her spiritual condition. She states that she’s sorting through her beliefs about God in light of her experiences.*** She writes that she’s disappointed in passages of the Bible that she thinks present an unloving and arbitrarily spiteful God. One of the several passages she cites as being especially hurtful is Genesis 19:30-38 where Lot’s daughters had incest with their inebriated father. It would appear Jessica doesn’t have a solid understanding of the Bible. God’s Word certainly does not condone the actions of Lot’s daughters. Perhaps Toby did?

I cannot comprehend the pain and betrayal Jessica endured and continues to deal with. It’s difficult to get frustrated with her lack of spiritual knowledge. In her case, the Bible was used as a bludgeon. I pray that at some point Jessica comes to the loving Father God through faith in Jesus Christ the Savior, His loving Son.

*The Willis Clan disbanded as a performing musical act at the end of 2018.
**One of the home-church neighbor participants was the first one to notify police of suspected abuse.
***It’s bizarre that supposedly (c)hristian publisher, Thomas Nelson, would present a memoir from someone who is self-admittedly unsure about her spiritual beliefs.

Toby Willis on September 9, 2016, the day he was arrested.

22 thoughts on “Jessica Willis Fisher – Digging out from unspeakable abuse

  1. Wow! How horrific. I am praying that Toby will come to true redemption. I am praying that Jessica is healed from the trauma and renews her faith. I am praying for the whole family.

    My only observation is that we see almost the exact same thing in most denominations. The depravity of certain evil men is inexcusable. They have destroyed families. The wrath of God abides on them.

    Blessings for sharing this.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, Michael. I appreciate your good comments. Yes, abuse of children wasn’t/isn’t confined to the IFB (or the RCC), but within the IFB are tendencies towards patriarchal and pastoral megalomania.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. What awful things for a family to go through. How confusing to be taught false theology and try to work your way through the web. I could see Jessica perhaps read herself in a passage and never see herself doing something, why would God allow it? But it points to Romans 8:28 or something similar to Joseph. God uses people meant for evil for good. The story of Ruth I think shows a story of redemption and Ruth came from Lot’s bloodline. Ultimately resulting in the bloodline of the Messiah.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I grew up in a family much like this. My dad was our church’s pastor. A small, non-denominational, super strict, fundamentalist church. When I was 12, my minister father came so close to murdering my mother, that I thought she was dead. He was arrested for this, then put in a psychiatric hospital. Later, after he got out of the hospital, he attempted to sexually molest me, but I fought him off. I was 13 by then. Some years later, I learned that my dad, the former strict fundamentalist preacher, sexually abused my younger sister countless times. Oh, and my mother… she got depressed and tried to gas us all to death, a few months after my dad tried to kill her. Meanwhile, my parents divorced and my dad married the head nurse of the psychiatric ward. A few years later, he divorced her and married someone who was only about 4 years older than me.

    And the beatings, called ‘spankings’, that I endured all my growing up years… Yeah. I had the childhood from hell. Which is why I lost my childhood faith for many years. This is also why I have been diagnosed with PTSD.

    But today, I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ with all of my heart. And I thank Him and praise Him for my survival. I am trying to write a memoir about my life, entitled Survivor. But writing it isn’t easy!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for sharing, Linda Lee, and I’m sorry you had to grow up in that toxic environment. I rejoice with you that you’re trusting in Jesus Christ. For many who were abused as children in fundamentalist churches and families, the abuse is an impediment to faith. I can imagine it’s difficult to return to those experiences in writing a memoir. I imagine though that such a memoir would be helpful to someone who is keeping the hurt inside.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes, as painful as it might be, I imagine digging it up and shining a light on it is much healthier in the long run than keeping it buried deep inside.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Tom thank you for this review; the way he looks with the prison mugshot is straight evil. Man I just prayed for Jessica Willis and her family, the things they endured…so so sad. I can never understand how people hurt and abuse kids

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jimmy. This was definitely a very difficult read. Heartbreaking. It’s disgusting that Toby presented himself as a particularly
      devout Christian. Hard to imagine those children sitting under his home-church preaching every Sunday. I know we can’t go by appearance, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more evil-looking countenance than Toby’s mug shot.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. RE: seminaries and weirdos
        I imagine there are so many unseen spiritual battles going on in this regard, with demon spirits influencing their choices to enter seminary, etc.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this book review… this is absolutely horrific and doesn’t make pleasant reading. It reminds me of a certain situation which came to light in much later years in a church we used to attend. They were American “missionaries.” My parents came to that service with us one Sunday morning and my mother (who always was very intuitive) met the person and his children only once and told me she felt strongly that there was “something bad going on there.” It turned out she was right and I heard later that his daughters took him to court in USA. when they returned. He was jailed and I think his wife divorced him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. Yes, this was a very difficult book to read. Your anecdote reminds me of the IFB church we attended four decades ago where there were several “creepy” people/situations that were confirmed many years later when survivors came forward with reports of abuse.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was a very difficult read. Thanks for the heads up, but yes, I’ve been familiar with Steven Anderson and the New IFB for quite awhile. The old IFB had/has enough bad characteristics, but Anderson takes it to zealous and unapologetic religious hatred. He was a near-graduate of Hyles-Anderson College, which used to be one of the main seminaries of the old IFB, along with Bob Jones U.

      Liked by 1 person

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