Whatever Happened To The Cast Of The Willis Family?

Parents Toby and Brenda Willis turned their family of twelve children (whose names all start with J) into the Willis Clan band. They came into fame on "America's Got Talent" Season 9, during which they made it to the quarterfinals. They touched the hearts of America with their wholesome "von Trapp Family" energy. The charming family's public appeal garnered them their own TLC reality show, "The Willis Family," which ran for two seasons. It highlighted the family's Christian values and their Willis Clan music.

Yet, what audiences didn't know was that beneath the shiny visage of perfection presented to the world, a nightmare life of abuse was the Willis family's true reality. Abuse by their father Toby Willis had started well before fame knocked at the family's door. Because all twelve siblings were homeschooled and very sheltered, their reality remained a secret — until fame changed that.

Jessica Willis explained to the Daily Mail that Toby's fear of losing control of the family increased with their success, making him more "tightly wound and strict." The farther they ventured past the fence of their previously tiny world, the more their eyes opened to the fact that things weren't normal. "Our family system was disturbingly sick. For a long time now I had felt like I was going through life with a massive bomb strapped to my chest that I knew would one day detonate," Jessica said. That bomb was thankfully diffused after Toby's arrest. According to the Daily Mail, the Willis children "gained their freedom the moment their father lost his."

Patriarch Toby Willis received a 40-year prison sentence

In 2017, Toby Willis was charged with four counts of child rape and sentenced to 40 years in prison without the possibility of early release. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations discovered a history of abuse with four girls between ages nine to 12: three of his own daughters and a relative. The case also brought to light emotional and physical abuse that all the children suffered. Jeremiah Willis shared with Megyn Kelly that the abuse "felt normal to us at the time, but it wasn't right."

Toby's control was so absolute that each sexual abuse victim thought they were alone and kept quiet. The other family members didn't know about it. Jasmine Willis explained, "What held me back from talking all those years was the unknown. I didn't know what was going to happen. Everything that I had as a kid could have been taken away instantly ... all my siblings. I had no idea if I was going to [still] have that if I spoke" (via Daily Mail).

Jessica Willis said when she told mom Brenda, they confronted Toby and "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. I continued to look for a way out on my own but it can seem impossible to jump off a runaway train." Bravely, days before her 24th birthday, Jessica finally escaped with the help of her then-secret boyfriend, now husband. Four months later, a friend she told reported Toby to authorities, freeing the whole family.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

The Willis Clan released an album after their father's arrest

The trimmed-down Willis Clan collaborated on a new album, "Speak My Mind," in 2018, using the album as a way to release the pain and fear of speaking their truth in the past. The family turned to writing music for "therapeutic reasons," Jeremiah Willis told the Chicago Tribune. "And after enough of those songs have been written by various members of the band we realized, This is good for us. I wonder if it can help other people?"

Jennifer Willis emphasized, "This album is being released at a time when people are being more open and telling their stories. This is not an issue that can be talked about enough." They hope their songs inspire others to speak up that are going through similar trauma. 

Toxic secrets controlled the family, and coming through that Jackson Willis learned, "Sitting on top of those secrets? You can do it for your whole life, but it's going to eat away at your relationships and it's not a healthy way to live for yourself or for the people around you" (via Daily Mail). 

Jasmine Willis added, "We're not ever going to finish healing and recovery but we do want to show that there can be light on the other side. So even though you feel like you're alone and you're in the dark you know if you open the door it's bright outside. It's a beautiful day you just have to walk out and see it."

The Willis Clan band splits up

After Toby Willis' arrest in 2016, wife Brenda Willis issued a statement: "We are cancelling all appearances for the foreseeable future to focus on the children and their well-being. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause." The Willis Clan had featured all twelve siblings in their performances.

Two years of healing later, the siblings wanted to help others with their message of survival and hope. The family courageously decided to rebuild the band, restructuring it down to six members: Jeremiah Willis, Jennifer Willis McDowell, Jeanette Willis Piatt, Jackson Willis, Jedidiah Willis, and Jasmine Willis. 

Jackson Willis said, "The whole world has just been turned upside down but we still have each other. And that's the big thing that I've pulled from this, that though my father was no longer in the picture the rest of my family was still there. We went through a lot of hard things but we all went through that moment together and the bond between the family members was forged by fire" (via Daily Mail). 

The youngest of the siblings have returned to being regular kids again. "The kids are doing really well, they're not part of the band anymore. A six-year-old doesn't need a full-time job. They're at home going through the healing process as well, and focusing on being kids," Jennifer Willis told Megyn Kelly. Jeanette has since left the group to focus on her own growing family, and it seems like the entire Willis Clan will be focusing on their solo careers moving forward.

Jessica Willis Fisher wrote a memoir

A tumultuous year passed leading to the trial of Toby Willis after his arrest. But at the time of trial, victim and daughter Jessica Willis Fisher couldn't find the words to take the stand. And she's since regretted not being ready to speak about the horrific things that happened to her then. So she's standing now, and given all the hidden pain a voice by writing her memoir, "Unspeakable." It started as a form of therapy, but now she calls the book her "witness statement."

"I was given the chance to say something, and I didn't," she told People in an interview. "I didn't know what to say yet. It still felt unspeakable and impossible. ... This book does not say everything that happened to me, but it's what I am ready to say at this time. I was just trying to make sense of what happened to me, but laying it out was really challenging."

Both the memoir and her solo album "Brand New Day" tell her life story; the different mediums allowed Jessica to fully release her pain. "Whenever something came to me, a memory, an emotion, a lesson learned, it either went into a song, or into a paragraph. The album and the book go together; they are different sides of the same coin," she wrote on her website. The release date for "Unspeakable" is November 2022.

Jessica Willis Fisher left the band and released a solo album

Writing helped Jessica Willis Fisher mend. In addition to writing her memoir, she penned eight out of the 10 tracks on her solo album "Brand New Day," which was released in 2022. Each song tells the story of a distinct part of her life path. She sings and plays the fiddle in the country album to lyrics that focus on hope, strength, renewal, overcoming, and love. "I've truly lived every word on this album," she told Forbes. "A lot of times, I am both the singer and the person being sung to — or at least a past version of myself who needed to hear these songs," she continued.

Jessica stayed out of the spotlight following the daring escape that led to her father's arrest, setting aside music to focus on healing. "I didn't write or do much of anything in the musical sphere after I walked away from my family band and got out of that situation. The family band, and the music, was never the bad part. I got to the point where I went straight into trauma therapy, took a break from everything I'd known, and it was the best thing I could have done for myself."

She was able to transform her healing into art. "It was a way to kind of mark the closure I was feeling and the progress I was making, and then it was like a whole new world."

Many of the Willis kids have found true love

The Willis kids have had a rough go at life, but there is a silver lining through the dark clouds: love. Many of the now-grown siblings have found romantic love and started their own families. Jessica Willis has discovered happiness with husband Sean Fisher (the boyfriend who helped her escape from abusive father). In an interview with People she said, "It's a wonderful, happy, ridiculously romantic relationship that I find myself in." 

Jeremiah Willis and wife Lexi Willis have two children: son Maddox Gerard Willis born in 2020, and daughter Genesis Skye Willis born in 2021. They often share their beautiful family photos on social media.

Jennifer Willis married Sean McDowell, who made a surprise proposal with family and friends at the restaurant where he first told her he loved her. Jennifer shared the story on her YouTube channel, along with stunning photos of their wedding. They recently welcomed daughter Kára McDowell to the family.

Jeanette Willis married Cory Piatt, and they soon became a family of four with daughter Alice Mariah Piatt, and latest addition Grace Elena Piatt. 

Jedi Willis is also newly married. The Willis Clan Instagram shared a romantic photo of the pair on their wedding day. The Willis kids survived such pain, but instead of closing their hearts, they have moved forward with love.

Jeremiah Willis records music with his wife

Taking a page from June Carter and Johnny Cash's book, Jeremiah Willis and wife Lexi Willis have been recording songs together and sharing them on social media. In one video, they sing a cover of "I'll Still Love You" as Jeremiah plays guitar.

Jeremiah has also been hinting at new professional music projects separate from the Willis Clan, posting a picture of a recording studio on Instagram with a caption reading, "Anyone want to guess what I was doing this morning?" Fans expressed excitement and curiosity in the comments.

Most recently, he was a musical guest at "Franklin in June," a live music event, where he performed some new songs. He teased fans again on his post about it, saying, "be on the lookout out for some announcements coming soon." Since then, there has been radio silence, leaving fans waiting with bated breath. With the birth of his second child, it's likely he's had his hands full. Hopefully, we'll get an update soon!

Jeanette Willis quit the band

Jeanette Willis Piatt, also known as Jet, carried on with the smaller Willis Clan band until 2018, shortly after her father Toby Willis' official sentencing. When the family's devastating secrets came out, the siblings said they took a step away from everything, including social media, and just needed to heal. "When all this information finally came to the surface, it changed our life in an instant. Abuse affects a lot of areas of life, so it can take a while to process through that and that's a journey that we're only starting," Jeanette shared with Megyn Kelly

After her retirement from showbiz, she kept her love of music. Jet's passion for the Irish whistle helped propel her toward teaching. Discovering the joy of it, she created a successful instructional Irish whistle course with private lessons. You can witness her talent via her social media posts, in which she plays Irish jigs and Celtic folk songs on the unique instrument.

In late 2019, Jeanette married husband Cory Piatt, and the pair started their own family, soon welcoming daughters Alice Mariah Piatt and Grace Elena Piatt. According to her website, Jet has put a hold on teaching because she wants to devote more time to her growing family. "I choose to view myself as a survivor and go forward to live a beautiful life after all of this," Jeanette said (via Daily Mail).

Jessica Willis Fisher started the Brand New Day Fund for the prevention of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence

Jessica Willis Fisher has been very busy during these last few years, not only with her artistic endeavors, but also with her charity, "The Brand New Day Fund." Through it, she's taken her dedication to help victims of abuse even further. The money will be used towards a variety of organizations that support the prevention of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence by facilitating cooperation between advocates, lawmakers, law enforcement, and victims.

Sexual abuse and domestic violence aren't unique to the Willis family, and Jessica wants people to be aware of that. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) statistics show that "one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult." 

"It wasn't just my family that this happens in over and over again," Jessica shared with People. "That is a horrible thing to hear but it's also encouraging too. It was a really big moment for me to start to see my story in the context of a much larger, greater issue that has gone on for generations before me." The cycle of violence requires many pieces to break, and a fund like this can help link them together.

Jennifer Willis McDowell became a YouTuber

Jennifer Willis has moved forward after healing from the abuse of her father. She's worn a few different hats since his arrest: musician, YouTube influencer, wife, and mother. And she is still a member of the updated "Willis Clan," taking on many of the lead vocals after eldest sister Jessica left the group.

After their father's arrest, the members of the band read the lyrics to the title track of new group's album, "Speak My Mind," with a new understanding. Jessica, who left the band, had written the lyrics, but the rest of the members felt very connected to it. "The song really is that just internal struggle of if I speak my mind, one, can I do it? Do I have the strength to? And if I do what will the outcome be?" Jennifer explained. "And I just resonated so well with it and I knew that it really just could work so well with the project" (via Chicago Tribune). 

Jennifer is now married and goes by the last name McDowell. She shared in a vlog post that she met husband Sean McDowell through their grandparents. On their wedding day, she was happy to have her grandfather walk her down the aisle. The couple recently stepped into the next phase of their lives with the birth of daughter Kára McDowell.