What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing

  • Authors: Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., and Oprah Winfrey
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books (2021) ISBN: 978-1-5290684-7-4
  • Reviewed by: Nicci Glanville

Although there was a fair amount of media hype around the launch of this book in the United States in 2021, many South African teachers were still reeling from the effects of Covid-19. So, although the book may have sparked local interest at the time, it is unlikely that many were reading for pleasure.

Renewed curiosity, however, was ignited by the recent conference What Happened to You? Understanding the Impact of Trauma on Learning, Teaching, and Psychological Functioning held by the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) earlier this year, and featuring members of its Board of Directors, educators, alumni and Oprah Winfrey herself.

In the words of the authors: “This book is for anyone with a mother, father, partner, or child who may have experienced trauma. And, if you 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.”

The book is written as a conversation between the authors and conjures memories of interviews on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Dr. Bruce Perry is a renowned neuroscientist and child psychiatrist and has developed the neurosequential model of therapeutics. An added bonus if you decide to listen to the audiobook, is that it is read by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry themselves. The audiobook is available on Audible and published by Macmillan Audio Productions.

It includes poignant personal anecdotes from Oprah’s life, or people she has interviewed throughout her career, interwoven with Dr. Perry’s examples related to clients and high-profile cases he has consulted on. These include his work with a war veteran who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, and the children released from the Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. Although by no means a textbook, this book presents both neuroscience and wisdom in a relatable, engaging, and practical way.

Diagrams and illustrations help to explain unfamiliar concepts. Case studies and vignettes bring the theory to life. The psychology of “cutting,” the basis of implicit bias, and epigenetics are explained with illuminating clarity.

What Happened to You? is written as a dialogue

The themes include: what constitutes trauma and stress and their effect on the developing brain; the apparent mismatch of academic functioning with chronological age and emotional maturity; the healing power of good relational health; and the importance of connections in a community.

Unlike many books that only highlight problems and their negative impacts, this one describes Dr. Perry’s practical approaches to promoting resilience, healing, and restoration. Oprah speaks of “weathering together” through the tough times with the support of her church community.

Dr. Perry explains how a particular response or behaviour may be beneficial and adaptive in one context, but maladaptive when it persists once the original threat is no longer present. “Post-traumatic Wisdom” is the title of one of the chapters that caught my attention. It is thought-provoking to reflect on what maladaptive responses or behaviours we may cling to as a family or a community that no longer serves us.

So many of the ideas and stories cast a new and fascinating light on past encounters and experiences. They provided me with tools to interpret my and others’ responses better. Previously stored-away anomalies finally made sense.

This book has changed the lens through which I view my world. It is well worth reading or listening to, discussing in book clubs and professional development groups, or sharing with family members and friends.

After all, as Oprah puts it, “What happened to you can be your power.”