It Wasn't Roaring, It Was Weeping

Interpreting the Language of Our Fathers Without Repeating Their Stories

About the Book

An honest and lyrical coming-of-age memoir of growing up in South Africa at the height of apartheid, and an invitation to recognize and refuse to repeat the sins of our fathers—from the bestselling author of Never Unfriended

“Heartfelt, emotionally charged reflections . . . [a] bracing memoir.”—Kirkus Review

“Important. Riveting. Unforgettable . . . a profoundly captivating story that can profoundly change your own story.”—Ann Voskamp, New York Times bestselling author of WayMaker

Born White in the heart of Zululand during the racial apartheid, Lisa-Jo Baker longed to write a new future for her children—a longing that set her on a journey to understand where she fit into a story of violence and faith, history and race. Before marriage and motherhood, she came to the United States to study to become a human rights advocate. When she naïvely walked right into America’s own turbulent racial landscape, Baker experienced the kind of painful awakening that is both individual and universal, personal and social. Yet years would go by before she traced this American trauma back to her own South African past.

Baker was a teenager when her mother died of cancer, leaving her with her father. Though they shared a language of faith and justice, she often feared him, unaware that his fierce temper had deep roots in a family’s and a nation’s pain. Decades later, old wounds reopened when she found herself spiraling into a terrifying version of her father, screaming herself hoarse at her son. Only then did Baker realize that to go forward—to refuse to repeat the sins of our fathers—we must first go back.

With a story that stretches from South Africa’s outback to Washington, D.C., It Wasn’t Roaring, It Was Weeping is a courageous look at inherited hurts and prejudices, and a hope-filled example for all who feel lost in life or worried that they’re too off course to make the necessary corrections. Baker’s story shows that it’s never too late to be free.
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Praise for It Wasn't Roaring, It Was Weeping

“Using her father’s life as a point of departure, the South Africa–born author [Lisa-Jo Baker] offers heartfelt, emotionally charged reflections on their apartheid-riven homeland. . . . Throughout, Baker seeks to understand the many sins of both her homeland and her adopted land, and she makes a tender effort to forgive her father. . . . A painful, lyrical, and bracing memoir.”—Kirkus Review

“Important. Riveting. Unforgettable. . . . A profoundly captivating story that can profoundly change your own story.”—Ann Voskamp, New York Times bestselling author of One Thousand Gifts and WayMaker

“Achingly personal yet transcendently and triumphantly human, It Wasn’t Roaring, It Was Weeping is unputdownable.”—Karen Swallow Prior, PhD, author of The Evangelical Imagination

“Lisa-Jo Baker’s story exemplifies how unpacking the pain from your past can catapult you into leaving a purpose-filled legacy. This is a vulnerable and courageous must-read.”—Jada Edwards, Bible teacher, speaker, author

“For everyone with imperfect pasts, this book is especially for us, written by one of us.”—Sean Dietrich, “Sean of the South,” syndicated columnist and author of Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

“I couldn’t put this book down. I was fascinated reading Baker’s story of her complex family and cultural heritage and deeply moved by her vulnerability.”—Jenny Marrs, co-host of HGTV’s Fixer to Fabulous and author of House + Love = Home

“This brave work reveals the profound healing that emerges when we dare to confront the most challenging parts of our stories with an open mind and a willing heart.”—Alison Cook, PhD, author of Boundaries for Your Soul

“Through the prose of a fabulously gifted writer, we are given access to her years growing up trying to make sense of South Africa during apartheid as well as the failings of a father she greatly respects.”—Katherine James, award-winning novelist, author of A Prayer for Orion

“For everyone yearning for home through challenging memories, this book will feel like a road map.”—Quantrilla Ard, “The PhD Mamma,” writer, speaker, and grief coach
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It Wasn't Roaring, It Was Weeping

Chapter 1

Family Thorn Tree

I remember the exact moment when I knew I’d become my father.

The memory isn’t a visual one. It’s a visceral one. I don’t remember the moment like you remember a story. I remember the moment like you feel an emotion. Like seeing an old photo that falls out of a book and you can’t remember what happened the day the photo was taken. You don’t remember what time it was or what season or what any of you were eating, drinking, or talking about. You recognize your dining room table and your middle son and the blurry faces of your two other children, but you can’t describe what came before or what came after the photograph.

All there is is the snapshot. Suspended in time. It stands alone.

But the emotion roars in my memory.

It was an out-of-body experience.

The only other times I have felt that kind of adrenaline-pumping, sweaty, jaw-clenching aching of bunched muscles laying siege to the body that shakes with the tremors of its own internal earthquake pushing up, up, up, from the lower intestines through the straining tendons in the neck, forearms, and fists and out the vocal cords, vibrating with the falsetto of rage, was when it was directed at me. When it was my father’s body, his tendons, his voice.

But this wasn’t my father now, here. It was my own body clenched with the oncoming tsunami of rage. I felt the explosion like a kind of beautiful blackout. Like suddenly all the patience and exhausted reasonableness that I’d been holding on to, that had been slipping like a fraying wire through my hands, finally snapped, and as the metal sliced through my palms and I unclenched my fingers and gave up the battle to hold on to my reason and my polite voice, all I felt was relief.

The tension in my shoulders, the fear in my belly, the despair in my heart after hours of hostage-negotiation-level parenting were erased by a single blissful feeling. A pure, unadulterated orgy of anger swept all other parenting feelings and failings aside like they were nothing, like they were tiny twigs drowned beneath Niagara Falls.

And I bore down in my anger, like the day I delivered him into the world, and placed my forehead level with my middle son’s head and let my eyes burn into his ten-year-old reflection of me. And I opened my mouth and let the freight train come screaming out.

I don’t remember what I said. I only know that I screamed so loud and so long that for days afterward my voice was hoarse and my throat ached like an overused muscle. I punctuated my screams, my sarcasm, my venom with my hands slamming down on the table. The beautiful, broad beams of a pine table that I’d stained rich, dark chocolate shook under my hands. Scream, slap the table, roar, slam the planks, gasp down air, scream again. I pounded my point home.

Like I said, it was an out-of-body experience.

I watched him watching me. His mother. This wasn’t our first rodeo. He knew what was coming. I watched him brace. I watched him holding in all his fear, his confusion, his despair in his tight-pinched mouth and burning cheeks, willing himself not to let his own wail out. I watched myself terrorize my son. I watched his spirit cower behind his eyes, behind the tears he was too embarrassed to let fall, watching me and waiting for it to be over. Trying to become as small and still as possible so as not to step on another landmine. I watched and I recognized the signs of my own terrified childhood. And still I kept screaming. I chose to keep screaming.

And as I hovered outside myself, watching the lava pour out of my mouth, one single thought shot ice-cold through my inferno: I am my father.


I have often thought my father would have made an excellent Napoleon or Admiral Nelson. He is a man wired for conflict, for battle, who isn’t suited to the domestic niceties of small talk or political correctness. I could have seen him driving an ox wagon and staking his claim on the fertile farmland and freedom that the Voortrekkers, literally translated “front pullers” in Afrikaans—South Africa’s version of pioneers—came in search of. I could have seen him commanding a ship, mapping out new trade routes, leading mighty men into battle. He is a man wired for action, as hard on himself as those around him.

And my imagination is tamer than the truth. My father’s side of the family tree has wild branches that grew right out of an H. Rider Haggard novel. He has an ancestor who was an admiral in the British Royal Navy, served during the Napoleonic Wars, and was later a member of Parliament and a leading figure in British horse racing. He was the second son of the 1st Earl of Stradbroke. He joined the navy at thirteen. His older brother joined the army at sixteen and earned the Military General Service Medal, reached the rank of captain, and was injured during Wellington’s campaign and so missed out on Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo by just two days. Battles are in my bloodlines. And my veins.

This family tree grows wild, knobby, and knotty, between the first and second floors of my father’s house in South Africa. A forest of births and marriages and deaths, names and layers of history that my dad researched and tended on his wall, marking the sepia photos with tiny Letraset numbers to match the faces to the names. Like living bark pressed between the glass photo panes. Entering the house was to walk under their shadow. Their frozen faces watched our comings and goings, the past silently bearing witness to the battles still raging in the present.

When I was a child, I thought like a child. I thought those people on the wall had very little to do with the nine hours we used to drive every summer holiday from our home in Pretoria, capital city of South Africa, to the middle-of-nowhere, one-traffic-light town of Middelburg, a small hamlet stranded in the Karoo, the vast interior of the country—a region the size of New Mexico with scrubby desert as far as the eye can see. The Khoikhoi people were the first to walk its dirt and call it Karoo, meaning “hard, dry; a land without water.” The Karoo is our outback, and Middelburg literally translated means “Middle Town” because of its location—a wilderness pit stop halfway between the twin metropolises of Pretoria and Cape Town. It also marked the location on the map of my childhood of every memory that grew out of my father’s family tree. Because thirty minutes outside of Middelburg was the sheep farm where my father grew up, named after his British ancestor, the Earl of Stradbroke, and his warring sons.

To my child’s eye, the name was as nondescript as any other street sign, the green reflective background and the white letters simply spelling out the turnoff for our farm. It was a name I accepted at face value, never making the connection to the photos on our wall back home. Stradbroke was simply the odd name of a farm on a sign on the long strip of highway outside a town in the middle of nowhere. It was the marker that told us we’d reached the end of a journey that felt endless to a child. At the sign, my brothers and I would sit up, roll down the windows, and breathe in the dry dirt road that turned off the highway and ran like a vein into the South African escarpment, offering adrenaline, adventure, and playing at farming. I didn’t realize it was a living thing, that name. I still thought like a child.

How could I know at ten that the scream echoing around my dining room table in Hanover, Maryland, at forty-four would have its origin on that farm, grown from that family thorn tree? But we are none of us lone rangers; every dandelion seed, no matter how far it was huffed and puffed from its origin story, carries the chloroplast DNA of its ancestors. Scientists can trace how plant populations move by studying their seed dispersal. What grew in Maryland blew across the Atlantic from the Karoo and before that must have swirled and seethed across the seas on board an admiral’s vessel that, once upon a time, set sail from England and docked at the Cape of Good Hope.

About the Author

Lisa-Jo Baker
Lisa-Jo Baker is the bestselling author of Never Unfriended, Surprised by Motherhood, and The Middle Matters. With a BA in English/prelaw from Gordon College and a JD from the University of Notre Dame Law School, Baker has lived and worked on three continents in the human rights field. Her writings have resonated with thousands and have been featured on HuffPost, BibleGateway, Fox News, Today online, Christianity Today, and more. A sought-after national speaker, she is the cohost of the Out of the Ordinary podcast. Originally from South Africa, Baker now lives with her family just outside Washington, D.C. More by Lisa-Jo Baker
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