Members of The Willis Clan have returned to making music as a form of therapy after their father was sentenced to 40 years in prison for sexually abusing some of his children. Jennifer Willis-McDowell, one of Toby Willis' 12 children, said making their new music was an "emotional journey" for them.
The six eldest Willis children recorded Speak My Mind, which comes out on Sept. 28. Willis-McDowell, 23, told PEOPLE that recording the new album after two years out of the public eye was a cathartic experience.
"A lot of these songs were written more as therapy, kind of sorting through our past and what we were going through," Willis-McDowell, who said she was one of her father's victims, told the magazine. After performing the songs for their friends and family, they decided it was important to share them with the world.
"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,’" she explained.
Willis-McDowell also wrote the album's title track, which she said "captured the internal struggle of 'this is not right and I want to speak out, but I don't know if I can.'"
"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?’ ” Willis-McDowell explained to PEOPLE. “There’s so much fear that’s involved with that.”
The Willis Clan became national stars after appearing on America's Got Talent and starring in their own TLC reality show called The Willis Family. In 2016, the squeaky-clean image Toby Willis presented to the world was shattered when he was investigated and arrested for sexual abuse. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to four counts of child rape. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Back in April, Toby Willis' eldest daughter, Jessica Willis Fisher, 25, also came forward as one of her father's victims in an emotional statement on her website. She said she was first sexually abused by her father as a toddler and was a victim of "graphic sexual abuse" until she was 17. When she turned 24, Willis Fisher "escaped" her father and friend later reported Toby Willis to authorities, leading the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to open an investigation.
"As both my 26th birthday and the anniversary of my leaving draws near, I find it amazing to reflect on the past two years. I have learned that even when I do find the courage to speak my mind, not everyone will understand or be there for me," Willis Fisher wrote on her website. "But that’s not why I am doing this. For me not to speak up and acknowledge what has happened would be like hiding in the bus all over again. It would be to hide my own painful past and pretend that I wasn’t a part of the act because I am afraid of what might happen or whether my story will be misunderstood. Writing and sharing this piece is an important step for me in owning my story, loving myself and others, and moving forward to live the life that I truly want to live."
Willis-McDowell said the rest of the family is also working to put their past behind them.
“You don’t have to be defined by your past or as a victim,” she told PEOPLE. “You can be defined as a survivor.”
Photo credit: Instagram/The Willis Clan