I Shouldn’t Feel Angry—Exploring the Violence that Shapes Our Family Stories & How to Heal with Lisa Jo Baker

Episode Notes

How do you navigate anger in your family?

What do you do when a parent who was supposed to  love you and keep you safe actually caused you harm?

Families evoke such complicated emotions. You might feel angry and then guilty about that anger. You might feel a mixture of love and resentment. Today, we tackle family anger and generational trauma. My guest, Lisa-Jo Baker was a teenager when her mother died, leaving her alone her father and his fierce temper. When she found herself exhibiting that same temper with her own son, she knew it was time to dig deeper.

Her new memoir, It Wasn't Roaring, It Was Weeping, is a beautifully-written, incredibly powerful story of the legacy of anger, violence, and generational trauma—and how one family healed. You do not want to miss this conversation.

Here’s what we cover:

1. When a parent is both hero & villain

2. The moment Lisa-Jo realized her father’s anger had become hers

3. How she began to investigate her past

4. A powerful metaphor for the scars of our families

5. The risk of discussing your pain with your parents

6. Self-righteous anger vs. wise anger

7. What Lisa-Jo confronted about racism as a South African and an American

8. Biblical wisdom for healing

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Additional Resources:

Related Episodes:

Episode 97: I Shouldn't Feel This Anxious—Insights on Trauma & Healing with Monique Koven

Episode 98: I Shouldn’t Feel Alone in My Grief—Why Your Grief Matters & the #1 Most Important Support For Those Who Are Grieving

Episode 99: I Shouldn’t Feel Like My Spirit is Broken—Exploring a Broken Spirit & the Dark Night of the Soul with Christopher Cook

Episode 100: I Shouldn’t Feel Betrayed By Someone I Trust—How to Grieve, Breathe, & Receive in the Wake of Broken Trust with Steve Carter

Music by Andy Luiten

Sound editing by Kelly Kramarik

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Alison Cook: Hey everyone. Welcome back to this week's episode of The Best of You Podcast. One of my favorite times of the week is sitting down with you and having real conversations about hard things in our lives, where we don't shy away from naming what's hard, but we also are always looking to brave a better path ahead.

Toward that end, I was thrilled with how many of you joined me live for the bonus Masterclass, “I Shouldn't Feel Anxious”. It was overwhelming to me, the power in that live Masterclass. It's a great class. I'm so proud of it. We are walking head-on into anxiety, which is a feeling so many of us feel on a regular basis. 

It doesn't have to be a scary feeling. It doesn't have to be an unsettling feeling. It can be a feeling that becomes a cue that helps you frame and brave a better path through. If you've been waiting, if you've been interested in this new book I've been talking about for the last six weeks, I Shouldn’t Feel This Way, now is the time to order it. 

You have until Tuesday, May 7th to pre-order I Shouldn’t Feel This Way and get access to this latest masterclass, “I Shouldn't Feel Anxious”. It's a one hour video. We'll send you the link. In addition to that, you will get the guided journal, which is a really cool tool I worked really hard to design. You'll get my favorite tool from the book called “the looking tool”, and you will also get access to last month's masterclass, “I shouldn't feel stuck in my head”. 

So all of those bonus items are free for you when you pre-order a copy of I Shouldn’t Feel This Way anywhere books are sold. Go to Ishouldntfeelthisway.com to claim those bonus items. You've got, let's see, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, five days left to pre-order. IIt'll be in your hands May 7th, and you'll have those bonus items today.

As I've said before, I absolutely love creating this content for you. I'm a teacher at heart, and it has been my joy to get this content into your hands. I cannot wait for you to have I Shouldn’t Feel This Way. I cannot wait to hear what you think about it. 

Today's episode is the last episode of the “I shouldn't feel this way” series, where I've been interviewing guests about hard topics that they've faced. Today's episode is about a topic that I hear about so often from you. It's about the feeling of anger toward our own parents. 

What do you do when the very person who was supposed to honor you and love you and keep you safe actually caused you harm? It's such a complicated set of emotions that we feel about our own parents. You might feel angry at a parent and then guilty about that anger. You might feel a mixture of love and closeness with the parent, even as you're aware that there are things they did that caused you pain.

The relationship you have to your mom, to your dad, are some of the most important and formative relationships that we have, and they bring up a lot of complicated emotions for us. I devote a large portion of my book, The Best of You, to unpacking some of the ways our parents can cause harm to us. Now there's a spectrum of toxicity, as I lay out in that book; a lot of us are parents ourselves, and we're so aware that we are not getting everything right.

There's a spectrum of toxicity. None of us is completely healthy, and none of our parents were completely healthy, and that's okay. On the other side of that spectrum, most people are not entirely toxic. It's so important to be able to tease out those complicated emotions of love and of anger and of hurt and of gratitude that we feel about our parents. My guest today, Lisa-Jo Baker, has written an absolutely beautiful memoir about her relationship with her dad.

This book is so beautifully written. It's so poignant. It's so nuanced as she teases out the complicated mixture of emotions, the complicated relationship of really good things and really painful traumas that she experienced as a result of her relationship with her father.

The book is called, It Wasn't Roaring, It Was Weeping: Interpreting the Language of Our Fathers Without Repeating Their Stories. It's out on May 7th, and I cannot recommend it more to you. Lisa-Jo does not shy away from naming really hard things in this book about her father, about some of the generational trauma that resulted in some real pain in her family. 

That as a young mom herself, as she relays so honestly in today's episode, she realized, oh my gosh, I have to figure this out. I have to heal myself so that I don't carry on these patterns to my own children. I know that so many of you listening are asking that question. How do I heal so that I don't pass down some of these heartaches, some of these wounds to my own children? 

I love that Lisa-Jo so bravely told her own story as a way to help all of us enter into our own. Lisa-Jo Baker is the bestselling author of Never Unfriended, Surprised by Motherhood, and The Middle Matters. She has a law degree from the University of Notre Dame and has lived and worked on three continents in the human rights field. She's a sought after national speaker and the author of the brand new memoir, It Wasn't Roaring, It Was Weeping. She and her family live outside Washington DC. 

I've gotten to know Lisa-Jo, not only as a writer, but as a human behind the scenes, and she is one of the most real and authentic and wise and deeply brimming over with goodness humans that I have had the pleasure to meet in the Christian publishing industry. I'm so thrilled to bring you today this conversation with my friend, Lisa-Jo Baker.


Alison: Lisa-Jo, I am so thrilled to have this conversation with you about this magnificent book that you have written. I think one of the questions I get asked the most by folks who listen to this podcast who follow my work, who read my books, is along the lines of, “I'm doing my own healing work. How do I not pass it on to my own kids?” 

These things that I've inherited from my own parents are from the ways that I'm parented. So we're going to get into that. I'm not going to start there, but I want to frame our conversation for those listening. There's so much going on here that I want to talk about, but we're talking about when we have complicated feelings about our parents. What do we do with those complicated feelings? Which is so much of what your story is about. And then also, what do we do when we are the parents, and we start to realize, oh man, now I've got to parent my own kids. 

This is the legacy I was given, whether we're conscious of that or not. Some of us become conscious of that as we start to do the work of excavating our own childhood. You start off the book right away talking about your dad as both the hero and the villain of your story. Tell me a little bit about that, Lisa-Jo. When did you first know that both-and experientially/consciously? When did you first kind of name that reality that there's this hero and villain thing going on with your own father?

Lisa-Jo: Definitely not as a child or a teenager or even in my 20s, because he's your dad. So anybody who has a parent who's complicated, and I guess what parent isn't, now that I am one to teenagers, I don't know that I would have been able to verbalize the problem. I actually think I would have described my father for most of my life as my biggest fan. My biggest champion. 

He was so for me. I grew up in South Africa. He made a path to launch me to go to college in America. It was very exciting. He was my biggest believer and champion in what I wanted to do, and I wanted to go to law school and do human rights. He believed it and not only did he believe it, he made it possible for me to do it.

So that was one narrative I lived in for a long time. At the same time, at the back of my mind was a box that I shoved all these other thoughts and feelings to do with my father into. It was a box I didn't look in very often. I pretended it wasn't there, but every now and again, that box would explode in my mind and I would have to reconcile it with what was happening again with a parent who was weirdly, the most stable, trustworthy force in my life and the most destabilizing force in my life.

I lived in that weird tension, and I think the way I navigated it is, I wouldn't have described it this way at the time, but I ran away from home in the most respectable way you can. I went to college, but I went to college in another country. So I put an ocean between my father and I, and in doing so, I was able to live comfortably with the box in the back of my mind that I rarely had to open.

Alison Cook: I think it's so helpful that you're naming this for us because I think that box is how we survive. You needed that narrative of your dad as the hero; we need our parents to be our heroes and, even the best of parents, there's complexity there. But so often this is the reality, where there's this box and in your case, it was significant.

I remember as I was reading an early copy of your book and I was like, this is abuse. There's abuse here. There's trauma here. You said to me those words are very new for you. Is that right, Lisa-Jo?

Lisa-Jo: They're very new in my vocabulary. I would never have described it that way. I actually remember talking to a therapist, maybe four or five years ago, and she described my childhood that way. I said to her, no, my dad's a passionate guy. Everybody has parents who have awkward moments or family explosions.

She stopped me and said, no, that isn't a normal baseline. That isn't a normal way for parents to manage their anger. We have a word for that. We call it abuse. You have experienced trauma. It was so shocking for me. It was like trying to learn a new language. In the book, I talk a lot about language and it was a language that I had never verbalized. 

I will say the first time in my journey when somebody else questioned my childhood narrative was when I met the guy who would become my husband, this really hot Michigander with cowboy green eyes. We were sitting up late one night talking, the way you do, sharing your stories. When I told mine to him, when I was done, he looked at me and he said, “I guess what I don't understand is how you didn't get into drugs or drinking”.

I laughed. I was so surprised. I said to him, what are you talking about? What are you talking about? Like, why would I do that? He said, “dude, because your story is messed up. Like, how did you not get into hard drugs?” I never really reckoned with that. I thought it was a funny thing he said and moved on.

But that combined with what that therapist said to me was the beginning of me saying, I think I need to go back and look at this box again.

Alison Cook: Yeah. There's so much here that I want to unpack a couple of things. One, the remarkable ability of our psyche to compartmentalize like that. There's something beautiful about that when you think about trauma. For those listening, we talk about how a part of you needs to have this narrative about your childhood. It helped you survive. But then someone else comes in and says, “That's not normal”. 

You tell a story in the book about an instance where your dad's really pretty verbally abusive with you. You show us versus preaching a sermon to us. You show us the nuances of your dad's complexity, the majestic-ness of him and some pretty vicious abusive language that is so painful for a young child.

One of the things I say all the time is we want to name behaviors, not people. I can imagine for you, once people are coming in, poking a little bit at your narrative, there's protective components of your dad. No, I love this man. Don't call my dad this thing, which can keep you from doing the healing work you need to do to reconcile.

This man I love also did these things that we are going to label accurately as toxic. It doesn't mean he is a toxic person per se, in this case. Tell me a little bit about that, how you untangled that for yourself.

Lisa-Jo: The truth is, in all stories, there are characters that are both. They have the potential to be the hero and the villain. It's because in human nature, there are no caricatures; in the real world, we are both-and. So he was both this very destructive force in my life and this amazingly powerful force in my life for good.

I didn't start to tease it out though, and here's what's interesting. There has to be impetus. There has to be a force in our story that makes us want to look at the places we don't want to look. Interestingly enough, it wasn't enough to do it for myself. It wasn't enough to do it when I got married.

The impetus for me is when I had children and found myself screaming, like in a frenzy, like a psychopath at my middle son. It was such an out of control rage that I actually had the thought in my mind–oh my gosh, you are your dad. You are doing what dad did to you, Alison, and I write this in the book, I chose to continue to keep screaming in that moment.

That for me, that was the moment when I knew–there's something here I have to figure out.

Alison Cook: When you told that part of your story, I thought, oh my gosh, this is it. Because we become the thing that hurt us if we don't do our own work, and it brings humility. Oh, I'm the one in this case, and also I have a choice now. So tell me a little bit about that. That was your moment, and then something in that unlocked something in you. Was it conscious that, oh, I need to go now take this box out and look at it? Or was it, I'm assuming it was way more meandering than that.

Lisa-Jo: Yeah, I wish things were that direct and straight and simple. I think mostly it was this horror of what I had done. I couldn't believe I did this to a kid I love that I was this furious with. The connection back to my father is, I felt a righteous degree of rage toward this child. He's a challenging kid. He had pushed all my buttons and I realized, oh, I'm justifying in my mind this outrageous behavior that I'm displaying exactly how my dad used to me.

My dad is like a fire and brimstone preacher who believed he had righteousness on his side when he was so angry with us. At that moment I realized, whoa. This isn't a story I want to be in. I'm already deep in it. How do I get out of it? It was the beginning of what I would describe as like a five or six year process of pulling on that knot, that thread. 

And, we're in the middle of our lives, there's carpool and laundry and school drop off. You don't have time to step outside of your life for that. So for me, it was fits and starts of trying to understand what was going on and how I needed to rewrite the story, but I didn't have any framework. I had nobody who could model for me what that looked like.

Here's an interesting thing that happened for years. I had been invited by mops, they are now called MomCo, to speak at their annual conference. I would come and talk on temper. I was aware that I had a temper I needed to control. I remember my very first workshop, I was so nervous because they put me in this giant ballroom with a jumbotron.

I thought, this is going to be mortifying when 10 people show up in the front row of this anger workshop. Instead, it was so massively packed that the fire marshal had to come to try to ask people to leave. So that was my clue that, oh I'm not the only one. That went on for three or four years until in 2019, they asked me if I would come and give a talk from the main stage, like a keynote on anger as a parent.

I thought at the time, man, I don't know how much more there is to say about this. And Alison, I was standing in my bathroom, brushing my teeth, and this thought dropped into my mind: You should talk about what it's like to be the child of an angry parent. I took my toothbrush out of my mouth, looked into the mirror, and was like, I will never talk about this.

Never ever talk about that. Because what I knew is if I wanted to talk about that, I would actually have to do business with my dad. Like, I would have to talk to him. He and I would have to unpack stuff and I thought it was going to vomit. I was like, no, nope. We don't talk about that. I would never even have identified myself as the child of an angry parent.

So that was the beginning. I blame God for that. To me, as much as you can sense God speaking to you is what I sensed, but it was the beginning of him trying to help me get free.

Alison Cook: Take out the box and look at it, which means you'd have to deal with your own anger with your dad, whom you adored and loved. That's one of the hardest things for us to do, is give ourselves permission to feel betrayed and disappointed by the people we love the most. It's wired in our little childlike DNA to adore these big people.

I want to say, Lisa-Jo, at the end of the book, and I told you this, I ended up loving your dad. I think we talk a lot on this podcast about emotional immaturity. There's a wonderful book by Lindsay Gibson, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. I think it's touching a nerve in our generation because our parents didn't have access to understanding about emotions that you have.

You and I have barely gotten this much of, and our kids have a way lot more of. So there's this huge deficit. I want to name that there is empathy for a generation of parents that had all these wild emotions. You get into the book, when you unpack that box, you begin to see all the things that shaped your dad, the pain and the trauma he went through that shaped his rage.

I want to get into that, but I want to say upfront, even when we have empathy for our parents and we get it, we still have to do the work of honoring the complicated mix of feelings that we have about them. We can do that in healthier ways, in ways that don't necessarily rip up the relationship.

Sometimes we do have to allow the old relationship to die, to see if a new one can be born. That's why, again, this book that you've written is so powerful because it's such a delicate thing to talk about, Lisa-Jo. You begin to open up this box slowly and you find some pretty tough things that you bravely bring into your story. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like for you?

Lisa-Jo: So the context is, I'm from South Africa. Born and bred. We're not a missionary family or pastor's kids. We're South African the way you're American. It’s where we grew up. But I grew up under the apartheid era. I was born in 1974 and apartheid was becoming codified into law in South Africa. The unique twist on the story though, is that at the time, my father had graduated medical school and he was serving as a missionary doctor in Zululand. 

So I was this white kid born in Zululand at the height of apartheid. So you've got a lot of pressure in this cauldron already. My dad was a man of faith, a believer. Yet, he had been formed by the story that came before him. I remember when I started teasing out the idea of writing this book, my dad said to me, he was worried that I was going to put him in a box.

He was worried that the book would put him in a box. I was able to say to him, actually, dad, writing the book, writing over years of conversations, we unpacked a lot of his childhood and I learned things about him I had no idea about. I didn't know how he had been formed. Honestly, when I look back at my parenting now, I actually feel like it could have been a lot worse. It could have been much more violent, like his own childhood had been. 

So it was a weird dance to begin to have conversations with one another. But the impetus was this invitation to come and speak. So if there wasn't something that had happened, between the invitation to speak and what had happened with my own son, that I think sometimes what the Lord needs is an entry point in, because otherwise, why are we motivated to take the step?

In being invited, I looked down and suddenly realized, oh, there's this part of me that is wounded. I didn't realize it. I've been living and there's the steady stream of bleeding happening out my side that I haven't really paid attention to before. The thing about Christ is, he doesn't want to make it worse.

He wants to make it better. He gently drew my attention to this part of my life that I had been ignoring for several decades. It felt like this winsome invitation to step into it. I will say for anyone listening, the grace is that those things don't happen overnight. I was like “no” for a long time. Then I was like, I'll do this little tiny talk. Then I was like, I'm never writing a book on it. 

I don't know if I told you this, Alison, but I was under a book contract, and for a year and a half, I wrote a completely different book. I was writing this non-fiction self-help book about social media and how to live a healthy life in a social media world. But at the same time, on the side, I was working on a fiction book about a father and a daughter. 

I realized, I think my brain is trying to write about my dad, but I won't let myself. I remember I was talking to a really good friend one day as I was driving home about this book I had been writing, this other book. I was saying to her, oh, writing is so hard. I hate this book. She said to me, oh yeah, writing is so hard because at the end, you get this book you love. To which I responded, no, I don't feel that way. This book is dumb and boring and I don't know why anyone would want to read it. She said, I think that's a problem.

I talked to my agent and described this fiction book I was writing on the side. She said, I think you're writing the wrong book. I think you're supposed to be writing about South Africa and your dad. The brain is strange–how it isn't ready to look directly at the thing that needs to be fixed. But I came like a crab sideways into this every step of the way.

Alison Cook: That's amazing, Lisa-Jo, it's amazing to me as a student of the psyche. I think about those parts, the part of you sneakily came in that really wanted to tell the story, but other parts of you were afraid, understandably. Yeah. You told me that the process of really opening up that box, it was indeed really hard and really painful.

I think that is sometimes the truth about healing. It can, when you go to that part of you, that's bleeding out the side, it can feel a little bit worse before it feels better and you need to be ready for that, You need to be prepared for that. I'm curious, as you began to write into some of those most painful parts, did you second guess yourself along the way? I would imagine it wasn't all roses and butterflies. I would imagine it takes a lot of courage. 

Lisa-Jo: Yes. Every single step of the way. I will say that I didn't know how my dad would feel about this book. I didn't know if he would give me permission. I didn't know if he would enter into it with me. It's important for the reader to know we've had years, my father and I, to try to navigate our relationship.

Having distance has helped. He's such a huge and powerful force in my life that sometimes, what's been really helpful for us are the conversations we have over Voxer or WhatsApp or text message because there's delay. There's opportunity for reflection and for feelings to calm down before you respond.

We've had years. He's changed a lot. A lot of his life has changed in incredibly powerful and healthy ways. He is already in a healthier place. So I would like to clarify for people who have a parent who isn't in that place, it's a more complicated story. In the book, I do talk about how forgiveness is possible, whether the other person participates or not.

I really believe that. But in my case, I did have this unique experience of my dad, and it was like we were doing a two step back and forth over the years, having snatches of conversation that would be really painful, and then backing off and taking time and then talking again in little bits and pieces.

And my mom, I'll say this, my mom was a professional translator in South Africa. We have 12 national languages, and she used to talk a lot about the difference between translation and interpretation. How translation is a one-to-one matching of words, but interpretation is actually reading cultural context, the person you're talking to, their story.

It's trying to give a more nuanced definition. In writing the book, that was the experience I had with my dad. I realized I need to interpret him and not try to translate him one-for-one. Being willing to enter into that place of tension together to hear him and see, am I understanding? But him then being willing to hear and interpret and understand me was the weird two-step we did over years.

Alison Cook: Yeah. I love that. I love that. I want to say for the listener, you show the story of your life, it's a memoir. This is a memoir. It's beautifully written, the way that you show the messiness of that, the complexity of that two step. There are moments you describe in the book of sitting in a car in silence, and you show us the awkwardness of that dance, of staying in a relationship with someone where there's a lot of complexity. 

And then every once in a while, there's a breakthrough. I think it's really powerful because we can break these things down into “five steps to forgiveness” or “five steps to healing”, that can be helpful to have that scaffolding, but the reality is when you go into life, it's snapshots and moments over time, that kind of assemble this larger picture of, oh my gosh, we're in a better place. We're in a better place. We understand each other more. And you show us that.

Lisa-Jo: I hope so. I hope the book reads like a movie. I hope it's something you want to binge. I come from a family of movie-makers and story-writers. I wrote it like a fiction book. It's exciting. It sweeps from South Africa's Outback. So I hope the book feels bingeable because I tried to write it and put you into the story with me as we are experiencing this unique dynamic of me as a child who grew up in this unique South Africa and then moved to America. 

There's a moment I share in the book that's one of my favorites, that I think is this perfect picture of what our parents do to us. So my father is a gifted doctor. He's done surgery. He studied under Dr. Christian Barnard, who did the first open heart transplant in the world. It happened in South Africa. But when I was a teenage girl, like a preteen, 12, I was at a birthday party and we were playing a game of tag and I slipped and fell and cut my leg really badly, right on my shin.

My dad is the one who stitched it up. But when he stitched it up, he hadn't properly first excised enough of the dead skin. So when he stitched it, he stitched together dead skin, so the stitches didn't hold properly, and as the leg healed, the stitches slowly slipped out of each other's grasp and left this shiny shimmery patch of skin that's different from the rest of my leg.

It's a lake that is on my leg because of my father. For me, it is a metaphor for our relationship, because in order to have a healthy healed relationship, you must excise the dead skin, the pain and the trauma. If you don't, there will always be a scar that will reflect back to you the things you haven't healed yet.

Often growing up, I would look at my leg and as a girl, you're annoyed you have this. So I have this literal scar on my body because of my father's failure to do the work of a doctor that he knows. So when he sees the scar, he still comments on it. Ah, I didn't do that right. And so that's one of the pictures that the book offers the reader.

I'm not a teacher. I always say I'm a storyteller. There are stories like this, about what it looks like to be formed by our parents in ways that leave actual marks on our lives and bodies.

Alison Cook: Yeah, it's a beautiful image. It really is. I love what you said, Lisa-Jo, that regardless, in your case, your dad made a choice to also grow, to also express regret, to grow, to apologize for things late in life. There's been growth, there's so much in that metaphor, but even in light of that, there still are those scars. We don't completely make them go away.

Lisa-Jo: He had the best intentions. He wasn't trying to leave a scar. That's why it's such a powerful metaphor. He loved me. He was trying to love me. In our conversations over the years, he has said to me, your mom and I loved you guys the way you love your kids. We weren't trying to scar you. We were trying to love you. 

I think it's been helpful to read him through that lens because there've been times when I've read him in my mind as the bad guy. He is the bad villain of the story. It's been difficult to try to arrive at a central place where he isn't the villain or the hero. He's a human. He's a human father. 

So he's 76. I'm going to be 50 this year. Guys, it's not too late is what I'm saying. I look at my own kids who are getting ready to leave the house, and I panic about it and think, oh my gosh, how have I messed them up? I tell myself, if it's not too late for dad and I, and we are literally still rewriting stories from my childhood every time he is willing to sit with me and bear witness to something painful and recognize his role in it. 

A scar is healed, but I will say, for years he wasn't willing. And what's terrifying is to bring those tender stories to our parents, afraid that they will deny them or say it was your fault or say it didn't happen or that they don't remember. That is a very painful risk. It took me a long time to be ready to even risk those conversations,

Alison Cook: I love how you put that and sometimes they gaslight, they do all the things, and then you have those precious pearls. In your case, he did rise to meet you there, but I love what you're saying because the truth is, to circle back to what I was saying at the beginning about how do we incorporate some of what we've learned about the complexity of our own parents into our parenting, I caught a glimpse of it as you were talking. 

We have to learn how to let our kids see us as both the hero and the villain. We don't want to be our kids' heroes. We don't want to be our kids' villains. I'm curious, as you parented your own kids, it's so different than how we were parented in many ways, but it's really showing up as, oh my gosh, I completely blew it. That's actually the key to being that healthy parent in a way is owning it when you are the villain in the story for your kids.

Lisa-Jo: Right. As you say, naming it has been really powerful. So because temper is something I've struggled with and no one will push your buttons quite like a toddler, as my kids got older, I learned to recognize when I was starting to feel angry and then to actually name it out loud to my kids. I felt when I named it to them, it was like a flashing warning sign to me and to them.

I would be able to say, guys, mom is starting to freak out. I would say very calmly, this is a lot. I feel overwhelmed right now. I would literally do what you say–I would name how I was feeling. I named how I needed to take a break or step away or why. It was such an interesting thing.

I started to recognize my temper as when your gas light flashes and it tells you, you need to be refueling. Those feelings of anger, I didn't used to see them as righteous, like, time to really let those kids know!! Now I see them as, oh dear, warning sign. Mom is about to lose her mind.

Then there are options for me: step away, tell your kid how you feel, sit in another room. Even when they were little, they could manage for a while without me. So naming my actual feelings has been really powerful. I think it's helped them be able to recognize their feelings at the same time, to say, you can feel those feelings, but your feelings are not allowed to be the boss of you.

That is not permissible in our house. So we get to be the boss of our own feelings. You can feel them. You can be mad, you can be sad, but we don't let our feelings hold other people hostage. Your feelings don't get to be terrorists in this house.

Alison Cook: That's so good. That's so good, Lisa-Jo. The other big character in the book, besides anger and all these big emotions, is racism. It’s a prevalent theme throughout the book. It is in many ways the underlying villain in some ways of the story. There are moments in the book that show the reality of what it's like to grapple with aspects as white women of our own participatory, whether directly or indirectly, through our being part of a dominant culture in really horrible things and how we wrestle with that.

You go there with us. You tell us the stories. There's one where you arrive in America, in DC, you and I were there, we discovered at the very same time, really, which was so crazy to read in the book. But it was your introduction to racism in America. So there was that spin on it. Then you have to circle back and wrestle with your own relationship to it as a South African. Tell me a little bit about what that was like for you to wrestle with as you wrote the book.

Lisa-Jo: The book is called, It Wasn't Roaring, It Was Weeping, and it's actually a lyric taken from a very famous anti-apartheid political protest song. So when you talk about racism, if you're South African and you hear the title, immediately South Africans will start singing the song to me. They're so familiar with it. 

So it's been re-recorded by Josh Groban and many others. Of course it has lots of nuances. It applies to my story with my dad and South Africa, but that is the context. I was a white child born in apartheid under institutional racism. Then I moved to America in a context I wasn't familiar with.

A large part of the book is connecting those two stories, because what happens is we tend to tell ourselves, apartheid's over now. We have a new president and a new constitution and a new flag and a new national anthem. Yay us! We're better. It was an interesting experience for me in 1994 to have lived through South Africa's first free election and voted in it.

I lived through South Africa's racial reckoning. And then as a student and now adult in America, to have lived through America's racial story and reckoning over the last four years, that's still ongoing. It's been a very unique position to occupy in both countries. I think the tendency we have is to say, racism is something that you do and you have to not do.

So I either do it or I don't do it. Obviously, I don't want to think of myself as a racist, so I don't do it. We're good. Part of what I wanted to share in telling the story is whether or not you think of yourself as participating in any kind of racism, you are related to it simply by being human. Like you're in God's family, you are descended.

If you trace your family lines back, I promise you, you are going to find stories. I was shocked to discover that there are some really hard stories I share, that I learned for the very first time when talking to my dad. He said to me, I've never told anyone the story before, and then shared a story. I call it “the monster that I talk about in the middle of the night”. I remember saying to my husband, as soon as I heard my dad tell that story, I knew in my spirit, it had to be in the book. 

I asked my husband, man, is this crazy? Is it going to be a disaster if I share the story? He said this to me, it's one thing to study about racism to read about it, to march, to watch the news, to follow the social media commentary, to opt in or out, depending on what side of it you are on. It is a very different thing to read a story and enter into it with somebody you trust and view the effects of racism from the inside.

As white people, we don't often have access to that. But if I can invite the reader to stand in a story and then maybe ask themselves, huh, maybe it's not as simple as choosing not to be racist, but recognizing that we are for better or worse, all related as the human family.

Our family trees hold stories that have consequences for people of color. We have to face them. We have to be willing to tell the stories. So that's what the book tries to do. It's not here to lecture you. It's here to tell you, look at your own story and then maybe look differently at the people of color in your life because your story is connected to theirs. Whether you want it to be or not, you have got monsters in your family tree too.

Alison Cook: It's so nuanced but you're teasing out that line between victim and perpetrator and I want to say that carefully, because if you are an oppressed or marginalized group, you have been the victim of racism and that is a very different thing. If you've been abused as a child, that is a very different thing. So there's that category that's real and full stop. You are the victim in this situation. 

Then there's this other category that's so hard to talk about, where in your story, for example, my dad was verbally abusive with me and then I find myself screaming at my child–how do I make sense of that? Same with racism, here I am. I'm somebody who was anti-apartheid. I come to him, and then I find out, oh my gosh, people in my own family did these things. I have to face it in myself.

Lisa-Jo: I think the metaphor I use in the book actually is this idea of, there was an equation I was trying to solve my whole life. I somehow wanted injustice to equal justice. Like, how do you balance this equation? How do you cancel out the injustice to get to justice? In my life, those things were intertwined.

My father was part of the injustice I experienced in my life. Then South Africa had this ongoing injustice narrative. I wanted to be a human rights lawyer. I came to America to study law. I went to law school. I wanted to figure out how to cancel out injustice. It's what drove me. It drove my dad. 

Yet here we are on the other side of the equation, also part of the injustice story. That was the tension, recognizing I used to think there's us and them, like good guys and bad guys, that I want to be on the good guy's side of the equation. Then it was very unsettling to discover–of course, we live on both sides because we are humans who have sin natures and have to constantly be willing to do the very difficult work of looking at ourselves, our own motivations, our own stories.

And it's very uncomfortable to be challenged to do that. Yet that is what it requires if we actually want justice. Shalom talks about wholeness; it's not peace, it means a right relationship with others, with ourselves, with God. To do that, we have to be willing to do a kind of heart surgery on ourselves, where we ask ourselves, are we doing that? 

So you can have my dad who moves to Zululand, who serves as a missionary doctor there, who raises his daughter speaking Zulu. At the same time, he owns a farm where people live as indentured servants and don't even have access to running water or toilets and it never occurs to him to update that. Both of those things at the same time. You are on both sides of the equation.

Alison Cook: I have to say again, the stories that you told in the book were so much more compelling to me to do the work of wrestling than all the education that I've received. I noticed as I was grappling with some of those stories, all the complicated emotions that came up. One of the things I felt was, you know, I want to present myself as the good guy–

Lisa-Jo: We all do!

Alison Cook: Yeah, I've actually been, whether indirectly or directly, I benefit in ways I may know or don't know, it doesn't matter. That's the work. We know that, through all the education, many of us who paid attention and are trying to do this work, but there's nothing like wrestling with it inside your own soul. That's what your book did for me. I want to say for the listener, you will be wrestling. I said this when I interviewed JS Park, who I know you worked with on his book. I said the same thing to him. 

I said, reader, beware, you will be asked to wrestle with some of your own uncomfortable emotions. But it is my belief that is where the work actually gets done. That's where you actually get into that transformational piece.

Lisa-Jo: Yeah, my hope, especially because my story starts in South Africa, so for an American reader, it feels maybe like an easier entry point. Because it's easier to look at somebody else's country and say, whoa, you guys are messed up over there. We so were, and we still are struggling. But what's interesting about South Africa, I had a good friend who read an early copy of the book.

I live now in Maryland here on the East coast, outside of DC and Baltimore. The first half of the book takes place in South Africa. But my friend said to me when I moved to the States and I started unpacking what I discovered about the history of the Chesapeake and the slave trade here in Maryland, she said, as she was reading, she said out loud, wait, what?

No. I love Maryland. What? I love Maryland. I described the trees. We live on this beautiful road where the trees change colors in the Chesapeake Bay. It's so beautiful. Also, I worked in Africa and visited Ghana and spent time at the slave fort, the former slave fort there that was the depot for millions of Africans who were sold into slavery here.

Guess where they arrived? The boats arrived here in the Chesapeake, right where I currently live. It was this moment of recognizing the intertwining of our country's stories, how we forget that our countries are so intertwined. So it is impossible to say, not me! I'm not a bad guy.

You're right. You're complicated, but your story, your history, absolutely, is part of the story of what happened coming out of Africa. No matter if you live in your Maryland home and the only thing you've ever thought about the Chesapeake is the school trips my kids take to taste oysters for the first time, it was like this shocking moment.

I say in the book, listen, I'm a tired mom. I don't want to be parsing through history in this way. it would be so much easier to be like, huh, interesting, and keep driving. But there's a story I tell in the book that you're familiar with, where I was challenged by a great black human rights lawyer in South Africa.

We were literally driving through a black South African township and he rolled down his window and told me, look out the window, look. Look what has happened to my people. That's a metaphor all through the book. Are you willing to roll down your window and look? Can you look at the stories?

Alison Cook: It's so powerful because when we look, we can't fix all the problems in the world that's, but we can look and we can name. We can choose not to gaslight it or minimize it or spiritually bypass it. We can name it for what it is. There's something so powerful about that. When we do that, it's such a paradox. 

The book is beautiful, Lisa-Jo. As we close, I wanted to ask you, we've touched on two different themes here, but for the listener who is wrestling with really complicated feelings about their own parent, about their own childhood, what wisdom would you want to impart to them as a result of your own deep dive into your own past?

Lisa-Jo: I'm not sure I have wisdom, but I maybe have some courage to say, the great and amazing thing about God is that I have learned, as someone who loves stories, and my brothers make movies for a living in South Africa, my whole family still lives there. What I have discovered about God, is that he too loves stories. He's the great storyteller. 

In my experience, there are no threads, no plot twists in our story that he drops and doesn't circle back to. So if you have a place in your story that's painful, a thread that you don't even want to touch, in my experience, simply being willing to look in the direction of that thread is enough for God to be willing to enter into, the beginning of the repair. 

You don't have to know how to repair it. It's actually not on you, but if you are willing to bring it to him, a story that has really stuck with me recently that I've looked at in a new way is the Bible story we've often heard. It's one of those weird ones of the woman who had the issue of blood. She's bleeding, and all she does is come to Jesus and touch him. That's it. She doesn't expound on it. She doesn't say how terrible it is, or how painful or how humiliating. It's this part of her she doesn't want anyone to know about.

It's so embarrassing. I've thought a lot about our painful stories that way. This part of you that you're aware of that you don't want anyone else to know about. It feels like you're bleeding all the time, and you don't know how to fix it. There's something about taking it to Jesus and saying, here it is. Just touch him and tell him, here it is.

And then see what he does. Because in my experience, over the last five years of this book and the decade before that, he has been very gentle and very slow.

Alison Cook: Yes.

Lisa-Jo: He has gone back to that bleeding area, that thread that I thought would never get stitched back into the story. He has actually cut away the dead skin and he has slowly stitched it in a way where it isn't painful to touch anymore and it's not bleeding. So my encouragement is to be willing to look in the direction of the thing you've been ignoring.

Alison Cook: That is beautiful, Lisa-Jo, I love that. I love this book, this beautiful offering. I know it cost you a lot to write it. I'm grateful that people have a chance to get their hands on it and that you've been willing to share. That's what I meant by brave when I circled back and I said, I think it's brave, as someone who helps people go into those really hard places. Not everybody chooses to do that. 

I think it's so brave and it is what brings true transformation. One last question. I ask all my guests, what is bringing out the best of you right now?

Lisa-Jo: Maybe it feels cheesy to say, but it's the fact that we are savoring these last few months of my oldest before he leaves to go to college. There's something about knowing that I don't want to be tied down by the weightiness of lasts, but instead lean into the savoring of it with him. 

I'm trying to savor the story we're in where there's still five of us. It is bringing out the best, I would say, of all of us. I think we're all very aware that we're eating the last moments of this feast of being a family of five, and it has really brought out something pretty special I didn't even know to expect.

Alison Cook: That's beautiful. I love that. Thank you so much for your time and your effort to bring your own story into the world and to incubate so many stories of others as well. It's beautiful. I'm so grateful to have had this chance to get to know you through this book.

Lisa-Jo: I feel honored. It's not often you get a therapist that you get to process a book like this with, back and forth, as a friend. So thank you for giving us the gift of naming and a framework that helps make sense of some of our really complicated stories.

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