They were America’s answer to the von Trapps; twelve telegenic siblings bound together by faith, family and music.
With their down-home blend of country and Irish music, the Nashville-based Willis family joked that they were more like the O’Trapps than their Austrian counterparts and, in 2014, charmed millions to make it to the quarter finals of America’s Got Talent.
They even had their own TLC reality TV show.
But it all imploded when, on September 9, 2016, the children’s father was arrested and charged with four counts of child rape. The victims were his own daughters.
Toby Willis, 47, appeared in court and pleaded guilty in July last year.
He received 25-year sentences on two of the rape charges and 40-year sentences on the others, sentences to run concurrently.
He will spend the next 40 years in prison with no hope of early release.
Now, in an exclusive interview with DailyMailTV, the siblings, aged 7 to 25, have spoken out for the first time since their world was so publicly shattered.
In a searing but uplifting interview, six of the older children have recalled the night everything was ‘turned upside down’ and how they have sought to rebuild.
The Willis family gained national attention for their singing after going on America’s Got Talent in 2014. However, it all came crashing down when their father Toby Willis (circled) was arrested in September 2016 on four child rape charges. The victims were his daughters. Pictured: Toby, his estranged wife Brenda and their 12 kids, aged 7 to 25
Toby was sentenced to 40 years in prison in July 2017. Now the Willis family is attempting to move forward by starting to make music again
In a searing but uplifting interview six of the older children (l-r: Jackson, Jedididah, Jeremiah, Jasmine, Jeanette and Jennifer) have recalled the night everything was ‘turned upside down’ and how they have sought to rebuild
They have revealed the true ‘chaos’, confusion and fear behind the façade and described a home in which each held ‘a black box’ of emotions in their hearts.
They have shared their struggle to forgive the man who betrayed them so brutally. And they have told of the role that faith and music continues to play in their determination not to let his acts define them as they prepare to return to the public stage with the release their new single, ‘Speak My Mind’ ahead of a May tour.
Eldest daughter, Jessica, 25, wrote the new song, though it is 23-year-old Jennifer who takes lead vocals.
Jennifer explained: ‘When I heard the song I was like, ‘That is exactly what I’ve been trying to say. That’s exactly what I’ve been going through.’
‘We were kind of portrayed as this perfect family and the funny thing is that was never something we ever claimed to be or that we ever felt.
‘I can understand that there’s this polished, finished product that’s put on TV. But for us it was never like, ”Oh we had this perfect life that fell apart and now we’re trying to recover.”
‘I feel like the last year we’ve really just been able to blossom..just saying, ”This is the real me. This is all of who I am.”‘
Because, according to the Willis siblings, the truth is that they gained their freedom the moment their father lost his.
It was somebody outside the family who tipped off authorities that Willis had a sexual encounter with an underage child more than a decade ago.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations uncovered a history of sustained abuse and brought charges relating to four of the girls who had been ‘removed by Willis from bed and raped.’
The family was in the tiny town of Greenville, Kentucky, about to step onto the stage of Felix Martin Jr Hall when TBI agents swooped, cuffed Willis and took him into custody as a fugitive from justice.
Jennifer, 23, (pictured with fiddle) said: ‘We were kind of portrayed as this perfect family and the funny thing is that was never something we ever claimed to be or that we ever felt’
Jennifer (fifth from left) added: ‘I feel like the last year we’ve really just been able to blossom..just saying, ”This is the real me. This is all of who I am.”‘ Because, according to the Willis siblings, the truth is that they gained their freedom the moment their father lost his
In fact Toby Willis’ (pictured) control was so complete that each daughter thought she was the only one being abused. In a bitter irony, they now admit, they didn’t speak up for fear of destroying the family
Jennifer said: ‘I just remember being numb, like physically, emotionally, mentally. Like, there is no way I can go out and perform right now.
‘We’re right there in the wings of the stage [when] all of this comes to our attention and it’s like we had to make a decision right then and there.
‘Are we literally taking three steps and standing in front of an audience of several hundred people? Or are we running?
‘And we decided no we’re going to stand and we’re going to sing.’
It was telling that the family should turn to performance in the face of trauma. And where once that performance perpetuated the lie of an idyllic family who prayed together and played together, now the brothers and sisters are using their music to express what has long been hidden.
The result, they said, has been an outpouring that forms the basis of a new album, which is effectively ‘an emotional diary.’
Each has played a part in writing the material as each has found their voice after a lifetime of submitting to the father who once ruled every aspect of their lives. He even picked out the clothes his daughters wore.
In fact Willis’ control was so complete that each daughter thought she was the only one being abused. In a bitter irony, they now admit, they didn’t speak up for fear of destroying the family.
Jasmine, 16, said: ‘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.
‘I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know if I was gonna have my mom and my siblings there for me on the other side. I didn’t know if there could be another side. I had no idea and that was a huge thing that I had to deal with and I was battling with that.’
It must break brothers’ Jeremiah, 24, Jackson, 19 and Jedidiah, 18, hearts to hear how their sisters suffered in silence while they were oblivious to their plights. According to Jackson, ‘It’s hard to fathom their pain.’
The Nashville-based Willis family joked that they were more like the O’Trapps than their Austrian counterparts and, in 2014, charmed millions to make it to the quarter finals of America’s Got Talent. Pictured: The singing and dancing family on the talent show
For Jeanette (left, with Jennifer center and Jasmine right) the prospect of any relationship with her father is ‘not an option right now.’ But she added, ‘Who knows what’s going to happen in the future’
Certainly they have all struggled to reconcile the truth with their own memories and experience of family life.
Jedidiah, 18, admitted: ‘There’s a lot of questions that went through my mind [when it came to light] and a lot of emotions I had to process and a lot of things that I’m still trying to find answers to.’
Jackson, 19, said: ‘The way we lived our lives, just growing up, our family dynamic and things that went on in the house…though they were normal for us they were not healthy. A lot of it was chaos and a big mess.’
When the truth exploded, Jackson said, he started realizing, ‘I never had a firm grasp on things that I thought I did: personal interactions with family members, stories that needed to be told, emotions that were not being expressed, all that stuff going on behind the scenes but driving what was observed.
‘It was kind of chaos in the sense where people [were] hard to understand. Now I can sympathize in a way I could never have done before because I just didn’t know the truth.
‘I think we all held a black box in our hearts of memories, regrets, fears and we hid them pretty deep. And when all this came to the surface, it brought all that stuff back to the light that you never thought was going to come back to the light.’
According to all of the siblings, though they are living through a maelstrom of hurt and betrayal, the ‘relief’ of the truth coming out has been tremendous.
And they hope that by speaking up they might inspire others going through similar trauma.
Jackson said: ‘I think that’s one of the main reasons why we are hoping to encourage people to address things because there are people to help and there are answers to your questions and there are things to do.
‘And 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.’
Jasmine, 16, 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.’
None of the children harbor any resentment towards their mother, Brenda, 49, who married Willis, her childhood sweetheart after the pair met as high school students growing up in Chicago. She devoted her life to her marriage and her children whom she homeschools.
None of the children harbor any resentment towards their mother, Brenda, 49, who married Willis (pictured together), her high school sweetheart as they grew up in Chicago. She devoted her life to her marriage and her children whom she homeschools
It must break brothers’ Jeremiah, 24 (pictured), Jackson, 19 and Jedidiah, 18, hearts to hear how their sisters suffered in silence while they were oblivious to their plights. According to Jackson, ‘It’s hard to fathom their pain’
The revelations of that past year and all that went on before could have torn some families apart. But the Willis clan (pictured together) is clear that they will emerge from this scandal stronger, if fundamentally altered
Now, her children say, she is ‘in the same boat’ as all of them. All state quite categorically that their relationships with her have only strengthened over the past year.
Jeremiah said, ‘What happened in the past is in the past. What’s happening moving forward is actually beautiful.’
It may seem a stretch to describe any of this as ‘beautiful’ as the family strain to draw something positive out of their darkest hour.
Faith has a lot to do with it – faith and forgiveness.
None have had any contact with their father since his arrest and he cannot legally make contact with them.
Asked if there is anything they would say to him, Jeremiah answered for the group with a swift and unequivocal, ‘No.’
‘Actions speak louder than words,’ he said in reference to the fact that they are carrying on just fine without him.
It will be 40 years before Toby Willis is free and for Jennifer ‘the door is definitely closed on him ever being a father figure.’ But she conceded that, ‘as far as re-establishing any kind of connection with him, that’s something that each person’s going to have to figure out on their own. None of us are at the point yet of being able to give a [definitive] answer.’
Remarkably each of the siblings seems to have room in their hearts for something approaching forgiveness.
For Jeremiah, it’s a choice he says he makes every day. He said: ‘Every time I wake up in the morning it’s a conscious choice and sometimes I don’t make it and sometimes I get it right. It’s a process I will do for the rest of my life.’
Jennifer said she too lives in what they call, ‘a state of forgiveness’ and that for her it was a ‘one and done’ kind of thing. It is a decision she made for her own sake, not her father’s.
She explained: ‘I get to life my life and I get to be joyful and I get to be happy. Now there’s a whole other side of someone seeking forgiveness and redemption and asking for that and that’s something my dad is going to have to deal with on his own.
It will be 40 years before Toby Willis (pictured with Brenda) is free and for daughter Jennifer ‘the door is definitely closed on him ever being a father figure.’ But she conceded that, ‘as far as re-establishing any kind of connection with him, that’s something that each person’s going to have to figure out’
According to Jeanette (second from right): ‘You can view yourself as a victim or you can view yourself as a survivor. I choose to view myself as a survivor and go forward to live a beautiful life after all of this’
‘But I don’t have to live in a place of hatred until he asks forgiveness. I can choose to be happy. He doesn’t know how I feel and he does not control that.’
For Jeanette, the prospect of any relationship with her father is ‘not an option right now.’ But she added, ‘Who knows what’s going to happen in the future.’
Jedidiah too refused to damn his father completely. He said: ‘I’m going to keep that door locked for a long time. [But] I would want somebody to help me if I made a mistake.
‘And so that might not be me but maybe there are other people helping him, counselors or something.’
According to Jackson, ‘No one is ever completely lost. I firmly believe that no one’s ever too far gone to ever [not] hope for a relationship.
‘For me, as far as my feelings and stance towards my father is, the door is not closed. And it will never be closed.’
The revelations of that past year and all that went on before could have torn some families apart. But the Willis clan is clear that they will emerge from this scandal stronger, if fundamentally altered.
In the wake of the scandal older sister Jessica, 25, has chosen to take a step back from the group though there has been no ‘ex-communication’ and she may still appear with them occasionally.
Meanwhile Jeanette got married last month and Jennifer is engaged to be married in the spring.
According to Jeanette, ‘You can view yourself as a victim or you can view yourself as a survivor. I choose to view myself as a survivor and go forward to live a beautiful life after all of this.’
Jackson added: ‘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.’