‘What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing’ by Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey is nothing like any self-help book I’ve read. And if I define self-help as guidance for self-improvement, I wouldn’t even put ‘What Happened to You?’ under that genre because it’s more an exploration than a guide book – about how trauma affects us.
The authors made me an active listener in their dialogue about trauma and healing, sharing their experience alongside explanations from brain science and human behavior. Their conversation gave me quite a few ‘Aha’ moments to think about and some habits I can develop in order to heal from some trauma that I still carry. Let me show you.
- Author – Bruce D. Perry, Oprah Winfrey
- Genre/Sub-genre – Nonfiction, psychology, self-help, mental health, personal development, health, science, parenting, adult
- Content warnings – Addiction, alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, foster care, gun violence, mental health, murder, neglect, physical abuse, physical health, poverty, racism, self harm, sexual assault, slavery, suicidal ideation, traumatic loss, kidnapping, collective trauma, generational trauma
- Type – Standalone
- No. of pages – 304
- Goodreads rating – 4.45
‘What Happened to You?’ Overview
This book is written as a conversation between two professionals, each with remarkable achievements in their respective fields.
Dr. Perry, a psychiatrist with focus on neuroscience, and Oprah Winfrey, the media personality, talk about how traumatic experiences in the formative years can have long-lasting, often unexpected impact. They emphasize that instead of asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’, framing that question as ‘What happened to you?’ is a better way of acknowledging the past trauma someone has gone through, shaping them to become who they are now.
They show us how childhood trauma manifests in the adult self, walking us through what a traumatized brain needs in order to heal with examples from case studies and lived experiences from both Dr. Perry and Oprah.
‘What Happened to You?’ Book Review
Dr. Perry and Oprah have been friends and colleagues for more than 30 years over their shared interest in childhood trauma and its manifestations. Both have done a lot of work in their respective fields to provide a space for traumatized children and adults to grow resilient, heal, and thrive, so they bring expertise as well as personal experiences to the table discussing trauma, resilience, and healing.
The book opens with a heartbreaking narrative from Oprah’s childhood about corporal punishment and its lasting impact:
“The long-term impact of being whupped—then forced to hush and even smile about it—turned me into a world-class people pleaser for most of my life. It would not have taken me half a lifetime to learn to set boundaries and say “no” with confidence had I been nurtured differently.” – Oprah, Introduction
With that, I realized how empowering it was to have Oprah carry out this conversation about trauma, resilience, and healing because she’s overcome her own struggles and is willing to talk about them openly, with empathetic understanding.
The first thing I learned from Oprah and Dr. Perry’s conversation is how lightly we take the term ‘trauma.’ I’m guilty of this myself, throwing the word around in everyday conversation, saying something along the lines of “I went through [minor inconvenience], that was so traumatic.” While it’s true that small things like words, gestures, or non-verbal cues can cause trauma, it’s hardly the case with, say, getting caught in a downpour, getting your coffee order messed up, or having to wear facemasks to work.
Dr. Perry acknowledges the lack of a definite meaning for ‘trauma’ and how that has posed a roadblock for its study, giving us a loose definition to work with:
“How can we study the impact of trauma if we can’t come up with a more standard definition?… a trauma has three key aspects—the event, the experience, and the effects. The complexities of these three interrelated components are what should be considered in clinical work and studied in research.” – Dr. Perry, Chapter 4
He tells us that trauma is relative, and two people can experience the same event in two different ways, causing trauma in one person and building resilience in the other. It made me think of how college was a demoralizing experience for me while most of my classmates did well – some undergrads even made it look fun.
That said, I don’t want to erase the struggles that all of them no doubt had, nor do I want to claim I was traumatized by college, but what I mean to say is when experience itself is subjective and dependent on so many personal and social factors, we can hardly assume the effect of a traumatizing event is similar for everyone involved.
The next lesson I learned about childhood trauma is that it can manifest in many forms. That friend who flinches when they hear a glass shattering, that colleague who gets outraged at a minor inconvenience, or that friend with perfectionist tendencies could all be behaving that way because of the experiences they had when they were kids.
“Most people who are in the process of excavating the reasons they do what they do are met at some point with resistance. “You’re blaming the past.” “Your past is not an excuse.” This is true. Your past is not an excuse. But it is an explanation—offering insight into the questions so many of us ask ourselves: Why do I behave the way I behave? Why do I feel the way I do? For me, there is no doubt that our strengths, vulnerabilities, and unique responses are an expression of what happened to us.” – Oprah, Chapter 8
This is why, as Dr. Perry and Oprah emphasize, it’s important to ask “what happened to you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?” because at the end of the day, how we behave is directly based on what happened to us as a child. The habits our brain picked up back then to protect us can be damaging to us years later, so that’s why we need to process our trauma, ‘regulate’ ourselves to better respond to external cues – and that brings us to my favorite part of this book.
“Rhythm is essential to a healthy body and a healthy mind…For some of us, it is walking. For others, it’s doing needlework or riding a bike. Everyone has their go-to options when they feel out of sync, anxious, or frustrated. The common element is rhythm. Rhythm is regulating.” – Dr. Perry, Chapter 2
This reminded me how the sound of the sea waves breaking on the beach, a slow walk down a tree-lined boulevard, or soothing instrumental music can calm me down. That rhythm of the sea, walking, and music, I realized, is my brain’s way of self-regulating, helping me come down from an emotionally-heightened state to a balanced state of mind where I can think with reason instead of emotion.
Dr. Perry and Oprah also discuss how another factor that can help us regulate ourselves and overcome trauma is community – or rather ‘connectedness.’
“…the best predictor of your current mental health is your current “relational health,” or connectedness. This connectedness is fueled by two things: the basic capabilities you’ve developed to form and maintain relationships, and the relational “opportunities” you have in your family, neighborhood, school, and so forth.” – Dr. Perry, Chapter 9
So basically, when you’re better connected to people who care about you and people you care about, the chances are high that you can handle stressors easily and overcome trauma – all because you have support.
Reading this reminded me of a quote I love from the novel Leaving Time: “In Tswana, there is a saying: Go o ra motho, ga go lelwe. Where there is support, there is no grief.” The first time I came across this quote was after I had lost someone I loved, and it resonated so much with me because I knew, without doubt, that I would have let the grief consume me if it weren’t for the support of my friends and family. And now, Dr. Perry’s words affirmed what I learned the hard way, that community and connectedness are lifelines to anyone at any given point in their lifetime.
‘What Happened to You?’ struck a few chords in me and I finished reading the book with some understanding of how trauma can affect all of us, and how a little empathy and support can go a long way.
While reading, I did get a little lost with the graphs and charts that Dr. Perry and Oprah added to the book (I’m mostly a words person, as you can see), but it wouldn’t have been too hard if I got the physical copy instead of the Kindle version so I could refer to the graphics whenever they came up in conversation.
Don’t let my aversion to charts stop you from reading this book though. It’s an intelligent and insightful read that will have you reading slowly and pausing every now and then to think a little bit, and I’m pretty sure you’ll come across some ‘Aha’ moments of your own, just like I did. Now that I’ve (hopefully) convinced you to read this book, I’m off to walk to the beach like Dr. Perry and Oprah suggested and sit a little while listening to the waves, ideally with my best friend.
Who Should Read ‘What Happened to You?’
Anyone who’s been given a demeaning label from those around you, prompting you to ask yourself “what’s wrong with me?” should read this book at least once. It helps you understand where that label came from, asking ‘what happened to you’ instead of focusing on the guilt-inducing ‘what’s wrong with me.’
Even if you just simply want to understand yourself as a parent, a partner, or a child, this book is immensely insightful and impactful.
Books Similar to ‘What Happened to You?’
‘The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma’ is a popular book in the same vein as ‘What Happened to You?’ exploring trauma, its impact, and the powerful ability of human relationships to both hurt and heal.
If you’d like to read a deeply personal account of overcoming trauma and reclaiming one’s self, ‘What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma’ is a moving memoir to dive in.
This thought-provoking conversation between two professionals sheds light on trauma and how to overcome it, citing real life examples and personal anecdotes.
Though sometimes tough to read because of the sensitive subject, ‘What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing’ teaches you how childhood trauma can have an unprecedented impact on growing up as well as on adulthood. All is not bleak however, because the effects of trauma can be minimized and you can grow resilient – provided you have the right support system.
Yes. ‘What Happened to You’ is about trauma and how you can grow resilient and heal from it, giving fresh perspectives on what counts as trauma and how it can impact us. It’s definitely worth a read.
‘What Happened to You’ is a self-help book but instead of a step-by-step guidance that’s common in the genre, this book offers insights and information for us to guide ourselves.
My key takeaway from this book is how we should reframe our thinking when it comes to tackling trauma in ourselves as well as other people. The right question to ask is “what happened to you?” instead “what’s wrong with you?” because the former acknowledges someone’s trauma instead of the latter which criticizes the behavior that stemmed from the trauma.
‘What Happened to You?’ is 304 pages long.