Stories of surviving harrowing and challenging childhoods have been staples of the publishing industry for many years. You have to wonder if there is a point at which reader fatigue sets in from these tales.
Fortunately, this point hasn’t been reached with Jessica Willis Fisher’s story of growing up as part of the Willis Clan, the family singing and reality TV group. While the story played out on prime-time TV in the USA, it didn’t really have an impact in the UK in the same way. In fact, I’m not sure if it was shown here. This isn’t a book you will read for fun, and the “trigger warning” given at the start is worth taking notice of. This is not for the easily upset.
Having said that one of the things that sets ‘Unspeakable’ apart from other similar memoirs is that Fisher’s voice is clearly the one in control here. It hasn’t been sanitised for supermarket sales, and having listened to interviews with her, the voice of the book is hers alone. In the Epilogue she says that if there was a button she could push to give her a blank slate publicly, she would push it. That lends a truthfulness to the statement that writing it was worth a year of therapy. One of the most illuminating parts of the book is the way the Willis Clan were courted by “America’s Got Talent.” The degree to which her father, Toby Willis, thought he could play the TV companies throws some extra light on his personality. He was so used to being in control he couldn’t see when he was being controlled. This was particularly true of Jessica’s attachment to her future husband Sean. Clearly a good seller for the TV show, Toby Willis limited Sean’s appearance to one brief teaser, at which Willis “flipped out.”
The turning point of the book comes when Fisher describes the point at which the intimidation and violence that had accompanied her father’s efforts to extract the best performance from her started to show diminishing results, and her growing relationship with Sean. The tone of the book divides neatly in two at this point with her father’s arrest, trial and imprisonment for child rape contrasting with the story of Fisher’s move away from the family unit to an independent life. The story closes with her first solo performance at the Grand Ole Opry.
In the interests of research, I watched an episode of the Willis Family TV show, and after reading this book, and knowing how the story played out, it makes a difficult watch. If you feel you must then it is on a couple of streaming platforms but read this book first for context and clarity. You have to hope Fisher has achieved closure with the writing of this book. The way it is structured does leave the feeling that a film might be in mind at some point. There have been so many stories of manipulative, abusive patriarchs in musical families, Wilsons, Jacksons, among them, but this one has the ring of truth and a positive ending that has led her to a better place. For a book that actually includes little about music, it is clear that it’s the foundation of her life. As she said at that first solo Opry show. “Music has been one of the things that’s helped me survive,” she says. “For me, music is about getting to know myself better. It’s really, really important to me.” At the end of the book she quotes the words to her song ‘My History‘ in full and they make a good coda to this difficult but rewarding book.