In 2016, The Willis Clan star Toby Willis was arrested for child-rape. It was immediately suspected that the deeply religious father of 12 homeschooled children had raped his own child.
Jessica Willis, his oldest child, is speaking out about her father, who is thankfully serving a lengthy sentence in prison for the horrors that he perpetrated upon his family.
Jessica, now 26 and married, is opening up for the first time about her father’s sexual and physical abuse.
In a heartbreaking post to her website, Jessica Willis details her father’s abuse.
“As far back as I can remember, I was sexually abused by my father.”
She’s not exaggerating, either.
“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.”
This is not uncommon at all in abuse victims. Many survivors also find it difficult to speak because they instinctively fear retaliation.
“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.”
Like countless children who endure abuse, she felt that what was happening was wrong, but did not fully question it.
That changed when she was 9 and her mother asked her some questions about how her father acted, to which she responded by nodding her head.
After that, she heard her mother raise her voice to her father for the first time.
“I didn’t understand that my father simply denied any wrongdoing and became more secretive and dangerous from then on.”
Pro-tip: if you suspect that your spouse is molesting or otherwise abusing your child, go to the police, not to your spouse.
Things did not get better for Jessica from that point on.
Over time, her father tightened his grip on his growing family.
“Suffice it to say my father controlled the family in every single area of life.”
Even when they became reality stars, they were no safer than before.
“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.”
Like countless children who grow up under those circumstances, she could not conceive that her life could be different or better.
“There was very little room inside the bubble of my world to imagine that there was any alternative.”
Like countless abuse survivors, reflecting upon her childhood fills her with disgust.
“Looking back now, it’s almost impossible to face the fact of what my life once used to be.”
When you are living through trauma like this, your mind conjures up coping mechanisms that “help” you to adapt to the unspeakable.
“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.”
Over time, he seemed to lose some interest in sexually abusing her.
“The most graphic sexual abuse faded off for me when I was around seventeen years old but many inappropriate actions and attentions continued.”
She came to the grim realization that she was not his only victim.
“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.'”
She was almost 23 before something happened that caused the coping mechanisms that she had developed begin to break down.
“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.”
Sometimes, it takes one event to shatter the denial.
“The coldest, blackest pit opened up in my stomach because no words needed to be said for me to know something had happened.”
Some survivors are haunted by needless guilt and the feeling that they failed to protect their younger siblings from suffering as they suffered. It is never their fault.
“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.”
Part of what makes PTSD so difficult is the P — for post. Everything that you’ve been denying just to survive comes back to you. Even if you aren’t yet safe.
“Things were not over. They had never been over. Sexual abuse was still happening.”
Eventually, she wrote 14 pages of details of what her father had done to her. She showed it to her mother, who was outraged.
“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.”
Sadly, many children who are abused find that the only people who know are also victims.
“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.”
Her father fits the profile of a potential family-annihilator very specifically. When they fear losing control, they can turn turn a house of horrors into a house of hostages.
“My father sought to stamp out my rebellion and became increasingly violent towards me even in front of the family.”
It was this abuse, from assaulting her in front of the family on a tour bus to beating her with a belt, that made her realize that his threats of violence if she tried to leave were no longer effective.
Just before her 24th birthday, she finally made her escape.
“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.”
And yes, she helped.
“When they contacted me, I went in and ended up speaking with them the whole rest of that day.”
She had an entire lifetime’s worth of unspeakable trauma to share. And that was just about what had happened to her.
“I was able to give them a long and confident testimony which was eventually used to create the arrest warrant.”
Her father was, of course, arrested.
Given the limits of the US legal system, he was sentenced to 40 years, and he will be required to serve all of that time.
Jessica is now married to the man who first helped her to come to terms with what had happened to her.
She ends her post with a message of affirmation and hope.
“If you too are a survivor, you are not alone.”