The book What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, written by Bruce D. Perry M.D., Ph.D. and Oprah Winfrey, is one of the best I have read in a good while.
I read the book in two sittings back in May 2021—it would have been one sitting, but I had to go out for dinner in the evening. The book was informative, inspirational and deeply-moving. I have to confess that by the time I finished the last page, tears were streaming down my face. This was not just because of what I had read, but also because my reading reminded me of my own personal traumas (not in childhood, but later in life) and the impact they had on me.
In this book, Bruce has put together so well what he has learnt throughout his career (a great deal from the young people he has worked alongside), and has described his theories of how we function as human beings, and how trauma can have such a devastating impact on us. He describes the many ways we can facilitate the healing of trauma. The use of storytelling—Bruce’s clinical experiences and Oprah’s personal experiences—is very powerful and, as I have said, deeply-moving.
Bruce and Oprah describe the problems that society faces in light of the impact that trauma has had on so many people. They question the way that systems operate in the areas of mental health, social care, education and criminal justice. At times, I felt pessimistic about society’s ability to deal with the challenges we face, but overall the book left me feeling optimistic. The authors have laid down many solutions and Bruce’s final words are special (see my next blog post).
Here is the back cover description of the book:
‘Through deeply personal conversations, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry explore how what happens to us in early childhood influences the people we become. They challenge us to shift from focusing on “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why are you behaving that way?” to asking “What happened to you?”
Many of us experience adversity that has a lasting impact on our physical and emotional health. What happens to us in childhood is a powerful predictor of our risk for health problems down the road and offers scientific insights into the patterns of behaviors so many struggle to understand.
Here, Winfrey shares stories from her own harrowing past and her understanding of the vulnerability that comes from facing trauma at a young age. Joining forces with Dr. Perry, one of the world’s leading experts on childhood trauma, Winfrey marries the power of story-telling with science and clinical experience to better understand and overcome the effects of trauma.
The two focus not only on a new understanding of people’s behaviour but also on trauma’s effects on our own lives. It’s a subtle but profound shift in our approach to trauma that allows each of us to understand our past so that we may clear a path to our future—opening the door to resilience and healing in a proven, powerful way.’
And hear are the words that Bruce and Oprah wrote for ‘A Note from the Authors’:
‘This book is for anyone with a mother, father, partner, or child who may have experienced trauma. And, if you’ve ever had labels like “people-pleaser”, “self-sabotager”, “disruptive”, “argumentative”, “checked out”, “can’t hold a job”, or “bad at relationships” used to describe you or your loved ones, this book is for you. Or if you simply want to better understand yourself and others, this book is for you, too.
We know this reading experience will make you think and make you feel—and at times the feelings may be hard and painful. For some, the intense and sometimes disturbing content will be a challenge. For others, the concepts about the brain may be unfamiliar and initially difficult to understand. We ask for your patience and trust, with us and with yourselves.
When you find the reading too challenging, stop. Put the book down for an hour or a week. It will still be there when you feel able to return to it. And when you are ready to continue exploring why “what happened to you” shapes how you think, feel, and act, welcome. You just may discover the path forward.’
I leave you with some of Bruce Perry’s words about trauma:
‘I can’t help thinking the same is true for a society, not just an individual. How can our society move toward a more humane, socially just, creative, and productive future without confronting our collective historical trauma? Both trauma experienced and trauma inflicted. If we truly want to understand ourselves, we need to understand our history—our true history. Because the emotional residue of our past follows us.’ What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, by Bruce D. Perry M.D., Ph.D. and Oprah Winfrey.