The Problem of the Perfect Family Image

Jessica Fisher is the oldest of twelve homeschooled children in the Willis Clan, a family music group that toured the country and even landed a TLC series. Yet, as Jessica shared recently in a deeply personal retelling of her childhood and young adult life, there was heartache and tragedy hidden behind the facade of the perfect family image.

As Jessica explained in her online post:

At the beginning of 2016 I was 23 years old. I was known as the blonde lead singer, fiddle player and principle songwriter of The Willis Clan and the eldest sister of 12 kids. We performed on tour frequently and we were finishing up filming the second season of a reality TV show about our family. A fourth official album was in the works and there was always something exciting and challenging coming up on the calendar.

The turn of that year was also the darkest period of my life. The truth of what I was living every day was nothing like what people saw on the outside.

In September 2016, Jessica’s father, Toby Willis, was arrested on four counts of child rape. He pled guilty in July, 2017, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. These were not isolated acts, and the problems in the Willis family were not limited to sexual abuse (as any survivor mights suspect). As Jessica writes:

Suffice it to say my father controlled the family in every single area of life. Underneath the outward foundations of family, religion and homeschooling with an emphasis in the arts, there was a constant current of manipulation, domination, fear and favor. There was very little room inside the bubble of my world to imagine that there was any alternative.

Later, she adds:

Our family system was disturbingly sick.

Despite all this, the Willis Clan broadcast the perfect family image to their fans.

I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the perfect family image.

I grew up in a large homeschool family that was like the Willis Clan in many ways. To be sure, we never had a singing group, and there was no sexual abuse in my family, but we had the perfect family image thing nailed down solid. Large numbers of smiling stair-stepped children, carefully dressed and groomed, homeschooled. Yet from the inside, I could see the points where that image was tailored, points where it didn’t align with reality.

The perfect family image served to obscure and hide cracks and tensions lurking underneath the surface. Ever since my own experience—watching the contrast between the image my family projected to those on the outside and the far messier reality we experienced and lived on the inside—I have been skeptical of the perfect family image. I have been cognizant of the way image can serve to hide or obscure problems—and of the extent to which that image can be cultivated in an intentional way.

Today, I am uncomfortable when people gush about my own two children, or how put-together we seem. I don’t want to do the perfect family image thing. We’re human. Yes, we’re family and we love each other madly, but we’re still human.

The Willis Clan is not the only family in the news lately whose story points to the problem of the carefully curated perfect family image. I feel this problem when I look at pictures of the Hart children, whose mothers murdered them several weeks ago by seemingly intentionally driving the family van off of a cliff into the ocean while fleeing yet another child protective services investigation. Three of the children are still missing but presumed dead, washed out to sea.

In picture after picture taken and shared by Jennifer and Sarah Hart over the years, the family looked picture perfect. Put together. Idyllic.

The perfect family image is just that—an image. Not to be confused with reality. Even at its best, reality is inevitably far messier than image.

Not every family is hiding the sorts of problems the Willis Clan and Hart family were hiding, but you can’t know, based on a projected image, what is really going on behind the surface in any family. That everyone smiles in public does not mean a family has no struggles in private. Families are made up of humans, after all, and a family that is focused on image is left ill equipped to deal with challenges or tensions when they do come up (as they are bound to in any family).

As Jessica Fisher explained in her post:

I truly think that the full extent of the abuse will never be known; I know even with this partial account of my personal experience alone, it is complex. I also believe that no matter the method of telling, no one else will ever fully understand what it is like to live through something like that unless you too have been there in your own way. The investigation unearthed so many more things that my family as a whole was unaware of and there are still sometimes no words to describe what happened in it’s fullest magnitude.

The perfect family image is just that—an image. An image rarely (if ever) tells the full story. Not every family is hiding something of the magnitude of the Willis Clan or the Hart family, of course, and not every family goes out of its way to craft an image on that level. Still the problems created by image can be avoided if we deal in individuals, not pictures or collectives, and if we listen to people, not curated narratives.

No family—or person—is perfect. We are all simply human.

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