Book Review: What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey


In recent years, trauma has become a hot topic; a term used by Gen-Z or millennials in casual conversations, and probably while making jokes about certain unpleasant and sometimes mundane incidents. The term itself has become too common to hold significance or to be taken seriously. This sudden popularity can be simply attributed to mental health awareness, thanks to social media attention, the surfacing of a new culture celebrating the notion of knowing oneself, and the accessibility of self-help and psychology books. Despite all that, is trauma just another trend? Or, is it something that we should be looking at? Is it a casual term that is of little to no value? Or, does it have a life-changing impact on one’s life? What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey, is an in-depth exploration of trauma and how it affects the brain.

At first glance, you cannot help but notice Oprah Winfrey’s name as one of the authors. Oprah who is a television producer, actress, author, and media proprietor, brings a fresh perspective into this exploration journey with Dr. Bruce D. Perry; a neuroscientist and child psychiatrist. He is also the principal of the Neurosequential Network and senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy. His previous best-selling books include The Boy who was raised as a Dog and Born for Love. Throughout her career, Oprah has brought attention to experiences of trauma and sexual abuse. In What Happened to You? not only does Oprah share snippets of her childhood ordeals and lifelong traumas, but she also stirs an interestingly engaging conversation with Dr. Perry about how traumatic upbringing affects development.

Dr. Perry says: “Trauma permeates all aspects of life: it echoes through the generations, across families, communities, institutions, cultures, and societies, and it does so in very complex ways”. Oprah shares her experience with abuse from a very young age, as inflicted upon her by close family members. Readers follow Oprah’s insecurities and vulnerabilities that affected her self-regard and self-image later on and significantly impacted her relationships in her 20s.

What Happened to You? defies the old notion that children are resilient enough to recover easily from whatever struggles or stress they are subjected to at a young age. We get to learn that traumatic experiences become engraved into children’s neural circuits, thus affecting their stress response, relationships, unhealthy lifelong habits, and other societal issues. For trauma relief, Dr. Perry notes that in traditional cultures, there are four pillars of healing; connection to a community and the natural world, rhythmic dance, drumming, and singing, adherence to a set of beliefs or values that bring meaning, and the use of natural hallucinogens and healing plants to bring about healing.

By the end of the book, readers would gain an empathetic perspective toward their parents and grandparents who most probably have been through traumas themselves, while not having an opportunity to work on their healing journeys. Moreover, it becomes evident that deciphering your codebook will help you understand seemingly inexplicable reactions and survival mechanisms that evolved to help keep you safe as a result of a traumatic experience.


Cover image source: Flatiron Books/Youtube

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