Jessica Willis Fisher’s First Meeting With Her Now-Husband Got Overshadowed by Lady A [Exclusive]
Jessica Willis Fisher doesn't remember all the details of the first time she met her husband, Sean Fisher, but there is one thing she knows for certain: They would likely have never crossed paths if it wasn't for their shared love of music.
Fisher opens up about the details of her early meetings with Sean in an excerpt of her forthcoming memoir, Unspeakable: Surviving My Childhood and Finding My Voice. As the title suggests, the book largely deals with the singer's early life as a member of the family band the Willis Clan -- a 14-member family band that rose to fame on America's Got Talent, and was even the subject of a TLC reality show called The Willis Family in 2015 and 2016.
Underneath the surface, though, Fisher was dealing with the harrowing trauma of familial abuse and manipulation. In 2016, the patriarch of the family, Toby Willis, was arrested and charged with one count of rape of a child.
Her book chronicles the devastating childhood trauma she suffered, processing the experiences of abuse, manipulation and codependency she incurred as a young girl. But her memoir also contains happy and healing memories, including the experience of getting to know her husband.
It was 2014, and Sean Fisher was the son of Pete Fisher, the manager of the Grand Ole Opry. Fittingly, the Opry was also the scene of the couple's first meeting place, which happened to fall on the country institution's 89th birthday. Fisher shares the story — or at least, what she remembers of it, in an excerpt of Chapter 16 of her book:
Apparently, I first met Sean Fisher side stage at the Grand Ole Opry on October 10, 2014. The night was full of loud celebratory energy, and it was hard to see in the dark. The red velvet theater curtains were pulled wide, and clusters of people stood in the wings craning their necks to glimpse the famous acts rotating through the spotlight. It was a particularly momentous night to be there: it was the Opry’s eighty-ninth birthday.
Pete Fisher was the general manager of the Opry at the time and could usually be found just out of the audience’s line of sight on stage right, greeting the artists coming on and off. Mr. Pete, as we came to call him, was incredibly warm and engaging with everyone, the sort of person who looks you in the eye and genuinely asks after you––whether or not you are famous. Nearly invisible glasses perched on his face, which flushed pink under the lights. Over the recent months I felt he’d made a point to get to know me as an individual, beyond me being the oldest sister of a dozen faces. He had invited me to come stand beside him so he could introduce me to passing people of note. Tonight, a large wooden multitiered cake decorated with musical notes and stars loomed behind us, awaiting the show’s festive finale.
The Willis Clan performed two numbers and ended with the little kids emerging for a dance. The crowd genuinely roared. We pinched ourselves as we got to watch the rest of the performers rock the house.
At some point, I was introduced to Mr. Pete’s son. I know I had to have smiled and shaken his outstretched hand, but in truth, I don’t remember. I was used to meeting prominent people in the industry, famous songwriters I should get to know or an artist on the top of the charts of whom I knew nothing. I have a vague impression that I must have looked at this handsome, well-dressed man and thought, Phew, at least I don’t feel dumb for not knowing who this is. Then I promptly forgot meeting him at all.
Looking back on that evening, Fisher tells Taste of Country over email that she experienced another first meeting that night that must have overshadowed meeting Sean. "I'd met Lady A that same night backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in late 2014 and for some reason that was the part of the night that stuck in my memory," she relates. "Thank goodness Sean and I got to meet again not too much later in the new year!"
It was January before the two would meet again, when Fisher's father, Toby Willis, invited Pete and his family over for dinner. It was supposed to be, essentially, a chance for the two men to talk business, and Fisher dressed casually in a "plain black T-shirt, jeans and a dash of makeup." But when Sean showed up at her doorstep that night, she finally noticed him for the first time, and they wound up talking throughout the evening. As she learned more about his professional work in a therapy center, she realized that those kinds of programs were designed to help people through traumatic experiences like the ones she sustained during childhood.
As Mr. Pete and Dad began talking, Sean and I chatted to the side. He spoke of the outdoors and adventure trips, describing his unique job at something called an experiential therapy retreat. He managed the hospitality elements, coordinating details such as delivering handwritten notes and placing roses on the pillows of the guests working through the frequently taxing and emotional programs. Passion radiated from his face as he outlined the reasons someone might seek such intense therapy. He admitted that employees were required to participate in a program to help them better understand the experience of the guests, and I wondered if the light I saw was the spark of transformation, a byproduct of his own recent growth and change.
I was leaning in, trying to decode my attraction to him when it occurred to me: Those programs were made to help people like me. I shoved the thought away, not wanting to consciously admit the connection.
I laughed lightly, “So, it’s your job to be romantic?” Before he left, Sean found a way to casually make clear he was not in a relationship, and I made sure to mention my email address. I didn’t want to say I had no phone at age twenty-two, and certainly didn’t mention the one-email-per-week rule. My iPad was set up for instant messaging through my email address, and Sean and I soon began conversing with frequency.
In retrospect, Fisher points out the ways in which their courtship was ordinary early on -- and the ways in which it bore the hallmark of a controlling, abusive father.
"I think something that people might not expect from my story is just how extreme things got in the end, inside my family system. It’s sometimes still shocking for me to remember that I was in my early twenties, without a phone or a car, not being paid for my work, not allowed to communicate with the outside world or the people I was interested in without my father’s oversight," she explains.
As her relationship with Sean grew, the support he provided and the self-awareness she learned by talking to him became a key component of her process of extricating herself from her family.
"I met my husband while still caught up inside that environment and we had a really rocky road that followed," Fisher continues. "Over time, the type of life he was inviting me towards stood in such contrast to the escalating emotional and violent abuse I was suffering. I realized I wanted to be with someone that wanted me to be safe and healthy. I hoped that could be Sean, but even if not, I needed to learn how to become that person for myself."
Fisher's book comes out on Tuesday (Nov. 1).