Jessica Willis Fisher Turns Trauma Into Hope with ‘Unspeakable’ and ‘Brand New Day’

Jessica Willis Fisher doesn’t avoid fear. In fact, she embraces it. 

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This level of courage is the result of the hard work Willis Fisher did to confront and heal from the trauma of her past. She chronicles this in her new book, Unspeakable: Surviving My Childhood and Finding My Voice, where she puts a voice to the years of childhood sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her father, Toby Willis.

“It’s not an easy read by any means,” Willis Fisher shares with American Songwriter in a Zoom interview from her Nashville home. “We’re talking about the things that I couldn’t say for 24 years, taking the unspeakable things and speaking them. Surviving my childhood, and part of the process of reclaiming the story, my voice is used as in truth, as in what I’ve gone through.”

A significant step in her journey to healing was undergoing years of intense trauma therapy, including the Onsite Foundation’s experiential therapy retreat in Tennessee that Willis Fisher describes in the book as “a year of therapy in one week.” It was through this therapeutic work that she was able to start healing from her painful past and find her voice, which she’s now using to its fullest extent through the written word.

“My experience was that it took time to acquire the vocabulary, the strength, the courage, and the safe, real community before tackling the greater challenge of public record,” she explains. “The book initially was born from the work that I needed to do personally, whether it was ever put out in the world for others to see or not. I think that it would have been unhealthy and a wrong choice for me to go about it in any other order.”

As the eldest of 12 children raised in a Christian household in Chicago, Willis Fisher and her siblings were homeschooled by mother Brenda Willis. In 2001, they moved to Nashville when Willis Fisher was nine and formed a family band, The Willis Clan, and became regular performers on the Grand Ole Opry with their gaelic-meets-country sound and Irish dancing. It’s also where she met future husband Sean Fisher, son of former general manager of the Grand Ole Opry, Pete Fisher. Growing up, Willis Fisher always had dreams of being an author, thinking that one day she might write a fantasy series like The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. Instead, she was meant to write her own harrowing story.

“This would never have been what I would have been aspiring to write,” she expresses, calling Unspeakable a “true crime investigation” of her childhood. “I was experiencing things that if I really thought about [it], I was like, ‘I could never tell that story,’ which is ironic because that is actually now the story that I realized I do have to tell.”

Across 353 pages, Willis Fisher doesn’t sugarcoat the truth, going into vivid detail about the disturbing abuse she experienced as early as four-years-old. She makes the reader feel as though they’re sitting beside her in the private investigator’s office as she recounts the years of trauma (the appointment coincidentally taking place on her parents’ wedding anniversary) and takes us inside the courtroom with her as she hears her father’s sentencing. But she was intentional about letting her younger self speak without overshadowing her experience with the wisdom she has now as a 30-year-old.

“It was super interesting to go back and listen to 14-year-old Jessica talk about her life and to see how she was representing herself on the page,” she reflects. “I didn’t want the book to go back to talking about six-year-old Jessica with immediately all of the knowledge and understanding that 30-year-old Jessica has now. Initially, I was just putting down memories that were coming to my mind and using it as a tool to get it out there and that being very healing.” 

In 2014, The Willis Clan rose to national fame with their audition on season nine of America’s Got Talent with “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music. The performance went viral, taking the family to the quarter finals. Their success on the show led to another reality show, The Willis Family, which captured their home life and ran for two seasons on TLC from 2015-2016. The show was cancelled after Toby was arrested on one count of child rape.

In 2017, Toby was sentenced to 40 years in prison for four counts of child rape. Following their father’s sentencing, the family released the single “Speak My Mind,” which was penned by Willis Fisher years earlier. Staying separate from her family band’s reboot, she knew she had to walk her own path to find true healing.

She continues to find her voice through her 2022 album, Brand New Day, a powerful exercise in reclaiming her voice and building an identity outside of the public persona she was known for as part of The Willis Family. The album’s title is symbolic of this new chapter of her life, the title track speaking to tapping into courage to rise above circumstances and looking toward a future that’s in her hands.

“They all go together because they’re all showing a different way that I see renewal and starting over,” she says of the album’s 10 songs that also gave a voice to her inner child. “That was a really beautiful experience making music. It did put the reins back into my hands and show me that my best musical days don’t have to be something of the past. That took a while to get there and I think really brought a lot of beauty back into my life.”

“Fire Song” finds Willis Fisher in the harrowing position of having to confront the truth that life as she knows it is about to drastically change – but for the better. “We can’t really change unless we let everything else burn to the ground and start over. That’s sometimes how renewal looks,” she describes of the fiddle-led track.

There wouldn’t be an album without “My History,” which finds Fisher speaking her truth for the first time. Her voice is gentle, yet steady on empowering lyrics like “all my story now belongs to me / I will try to build a better life for me / No one else will know what I could see / I am my survivor / And you will be my history.” The “you” she is referring to is her father, using the power of her voice to acknowledge her past while taking full ownership of her future. She’s also speaking up for others who have been in her position, as she proclaims, power to thе people throwing off the chains / Lovе was all we wanted / And only truth remains.

“I lived every word of it,” the author states of “My History.” “It’s also in a universal sense, all of the trauma that I went through, and any trauma that anybody goes through. We feel like something is going to define us forever and then we finally start to cross over into a space of saying, ‘this is not going to define me forever. I’m actually going to define what the story is and who I am and whether I have a voice in it or not. I’m actually going to put ‘you’ whether that’s a specific person, a specific experience that you had in your place and say, ‘You’re just something that I went through. You’re part of my history and I’m in charge of that.’ So there still is a lot of closure and strength and determination that comes from living that out day to day.” 

With her persevering spirit, Willis Fisher is counting to move forward in her journey – with hope serving as her guiding force. “I have this thing where if I feel the literal flutter of fear, there’s, ‘Oh my god no,’ and there’s another part [that’s] like, ‘Yeah, you felt it. That means now you’ve got to go do the thing that’s terrifying you right now,’” she observes, stating that she wants to “embrace the different chapters of life that I’m in.”

“There’s a sense that I have had to become the person that I needed growing up … I do think that telling our stories is a big part of how we make change happen,” she vows. “It’s hard to kill my hope at this point.” 

Unspeakable and Brand New Day are available now. Willis Fisher has also launched the Brand New Day Fund to support organizations that work to prevent childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, in addition to using music as a form of therapy. 

Photo courtesy of Monarch Publicity

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