Willis Clan Daughter, Who Survived Dad's Sexual Abuse, on Family's 'Emotional Journey' & Return to Music
During their darkest times, in the shadow of dad Toby Willis' arrest for sexual abuse, members of The Willis Clan turned to music to help them cope
Now, after a two-year hiatus from the public eye, the six eldest members of the Nashville-based singing group are back with a new album, Speak My Mind, released on Sept. 28, which they say is helping them heal from the scandal that rocked their family.
“This album has been a very emotional journey for us,” 23-year-old Jennifer Willis-McDowell, one of the 12 Willis children, tells PEOPLE.
In 2016, Toby Willis, the 48-year-old patriarch of the squeaky-clean Christian family — who first captured the nation’s attention on America’s Got Talent and then went on to star in their own TLC reality show, The Willis Family — was investigated for sexually abusing some of his children. (The TLC series stopped airing months before Toby’s arrest.)
He pleaded guilty to four counts of child rape in 2017 and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Though all 12 siblings have previously performed together, six of them worked on this new album.
“A lot of these songs were written more as therapy, kind of sorting through our past and what we were going through,” says Willis-McDowell, who came forward as one of her father’s victims.
But they started playing the songs to each other and to friends and family, who liked what they heard.
“Once we saw how much the songs and writing and sharing them with each other was helping us, we said, ‘Let’s share our story because this might help somebody else,’ ” Willis-McDowell says.
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The title track from the new album, which sister Jessica penned, was the perfect name for the album. “It really captured that internal struggle of ‘this is not right and I want to speak out, but I don’t know if I can,’ ” Willis-McDowell says.
Her sister, she says, wrote the song when she was enduring abuse from her father.
“Anyone who has gone through any kind of abuse — regardless of whether it’s sexual abuse or not — or has dealt with that internal struggle of, ‘What can I do, am I strong enough, do I have the courage to do what I need to do?’ ” says Willis-McDowell. “There’s so much fear that’s involved with that.”
Given all they have been through, Willis-McDowell and her siblings “are doing really great,” she says.
As for their mother, Brenda Willis, “It’s not easy for her,” Willis-McDowell says. “There is a lot for her to sort through. But in general, she’s doing really well.”
Willis-McDowell and her siblings have not spoken to their father.
“Some of us, particularly the named victims, aren’t allowed to,” she explains. “Each person, as far as the future goes, is going to have to make that decision by themselves: whether he is going to be a part of their lives or not.”
Whatever happens, the past is past.
“That part is behind us,” Willis-McDowell says. “The song ‘I Choose Life’ on the album is a perfect example of that: Like, ‘Yup something bad happened in my past, but I can choose what my life is going to be going forward. I can choose a life that’s full of joy, peace and happiness.’ ”
“You don’t have to be defined by your past or as a victim,” she says. “You can be defined as a survivor.”
Speak My Mind is available now.