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.
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.