What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Our earliest experiences shape our lives far down the road, and What Happened to You? provides powerful scientific and emotional insights into the behavioral patterns so many of us struggle to understand.
“Through this lens, we can build a renewed sense of personal self-worth and ultimately recalibrate our responses to circumstances, situations, and relationships. It is, in other words, the key to reshaping our very lives.”—Oprah Winfrey
This book is going to change the way you see your life.
Have you ever wondered “Why did I do that?” or “Why can’t I just control my behavior?” Others may judge our reactions and think, “What’s wrong with that person?” When questioning our emotions, it’s easy to place the blame on ourselves; holding ourselves and those around us to an impossible standard. It’s time we started asking a different question.
Through deeply personal conversations, Oprah Winfrey and renowned brain and trauma expert Dr. Bruce Perry offer a groundbreaking and profound shift from asking “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”
Here, Winfrey shares stories from her own past, understanding through experience the vulnerability that comes from facing trauma and adversity at a young age. In conversation throughout the book, she and Dr. Perry focus on understanding people, behavior, and ourselves. It’s a subtle but profound shift in our approach to trauma, and it’s one that allows us to understand our pasts in order to clear a path to our future—opening the door to resilience and healing in a proven, powerful way.
ISBN 978-1-250-22318-0 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-250-22321-0 (ebook)
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 a path forward.
“Stop your crying,” she would warn. “You better hush your mouth.”
My face settled into stoic. My heart stopped racing. Biting hard into my lower lip so no words would escape me.
“I do this because I love you,” she’d repeat her defense in my ear. As a young girl, I was “whupped” regularly. At the time, it was accepted practice for caregivers to use corporal punishment to discipline a child. My grandmother, Hattie Mae, embraced it. But even at three years old, I knew that what I was experiencing was wrong.
One of the worst beatings I recall happened on a Sunday morning. Going to church played a major role in our lives. Just before we were to leave for service, I was sent to the well behind our house to pump water; the farmhouse where I lived with my grandparents did not have indoor plumbing. From the window, my grandmother caught a glimpse of me twirling my fingers in the water and became enraged. Though I was only daydreaming, innocently, as any child might, she was angry because this was our drinking water and I had put my fingers in it. She then asked me if I had been playing in the water and I said “no.” She bent me over and whipped me so violently, my flesh welted. Afterward, I managed to put on my white Sunday-best dress; blood began to seep through and stain the crisp fabric a deep crimson. Livid at the sight, she chastised me for getting blood on my dress, then sent me to Sunday school. In the rural South, this is how black children were raised. There wasn’t anyone I knew who wasn’t whupped.
I was beaten for the slightest reason. Spilled water, a broken glass, the inability to keep quiet or still. I heard a black comedian once say, “The longest walk is to get your own switch.” I not only had to walk to get the switch, but if there wasn’t one available, I had to go find one—a thin,
young branch worked best, but if it was too thin I would have to braid two or three together to make it stronger. She often forced me to help her braid the switch. Sometimes the whuppings would get saved up for Saturday night when I was naked and freshly bathed.
Afterward, when I could barely stand, she would tell me to “wipe that pout” off my face and start smiling. Bury it as though it never happened.
Eventually, I developed a keen sense of when trouble was brewing. I recognized the shift in my grandmother’s voice or the “look” that meant I
had displeased her. She was not a mean person. I believe she cared for me and wanted me to be a “good girl.” And I understood that “hushing my
mouth” or silence was the only way to ensure a quick end to punishment and pain. For the next forty years, that pattern of conditioned compliance— the result of deeply rooted trauma—would define every relationship, interaction, and decision in my life.
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.
As an adult, I am grateful to enjoy long-term, consistent, loving relationships with many people. Yet the early beatings, emotional fractures,
and splintered connections that I experienced with the central figures in my early life no doubt helped develop my solitary independence. In the
powerful words of the poem “Invictus,” I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
Millions of people were treated just as I was as children and grew up believing their lives were of no value.
My conversations with Dr. Bruce Perry and the thousands of people who were brave enough to share their stories with me on The Oprah Winfrey Show have taught me that the effects of my treatment by those who were supposed to care for me weren’t strictly emotional. There was also a biological response. Through my work with Dr. Perry, my eyes have been opened to the fact that although I experienced abuse and trauma as a child, my brain found ways to adapt.
This is where hope lives for all of us—in the unique adaptability of our miraculous brains. As Dr. Perry explains in this book, understanding how
the brain reacts to stress or early trauma helps clarify how what has happened to us in the past shapes who we are, how we behave, and why we
do the things we do.
Through this lens, we can build a renewed sense of personal self-worth and ultimately recalibrate our responses to circumstances, situations, and
relationships. It is, in other words, the key to reshaping our very lives.
Table of CONTENTS
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHORS
CHAPTER 1: MAKING SENSE OF THE WORLD
CHAPTER 2: SEEKING BALANCE
CHAPTER 3: HOW WE WERE LOVED
CHAPTER 4: THE SPECTRUM OF TRAUMA
CHAPTER 5: CONNECTING THE DOTS
CHAPTER 6: FROM COPING TO HEALING
CHAPTER 7: POST-TRAUMATIC WISDOM
CHAPTER 8: OUR BRAINS, OUR BIASES, OUR SYSTEMS
CHAPTER 9: RELATIONAL HUNGER IN THE MODERN WORLD
CHAPTER 10: WHAT WE NEED NOW
CREDITS AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
ALSO BY BRUCE D. PERRY AND OPRAH WINFREY
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
About the Authors:
Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., a child psychiatrist, and neuroscientist, is the principal of the Neurosequential Network, senior fellow of the ChildTrauma
Academy and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago. He is the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born for Love, about the essential nature of empathy.
Chris Craymer Through the power of media, Oprah Winfrey has created an unparalleled connection with people around the world. As host and supervising producer of the top-rated, award-winning The Oprah Winfrey Show, she entertained, enlightened, and uplifted millions of viewers for twenty-five years. Her accomplishments as a global media leader and philanthropist have established her as one of the most respected and admired public figures today.
Reviews of the customers about the ebook:
- Ernie Somers:
I loved the conversational style. This book gave me greater compassion for the kid I was and all that I was trying to manage and endure in the environment I came from. It also helped me experience some moments with caregivers differently. Even as a child, I knew that their reactions and behaviors came from things that happened to them before I was born. But it still hurt and affected me. Partly feeling like they should still have been responding to me differently because I was an affectionate, curious, playful, joyful, and compassionate child. But now I see no human child would have gotten out of that environment unscathed.
It also helped me see that just because I know their trauma affected their behaviors, doesn’t mean something is wrong with me for how deeply their neglect and abusive behaviors of me affected me. Thank you for acknowledging how things like fear, or racism, or these things, get passed down and affect the victims of it. And for acknowledging that NO children do not just get over it. The younger they are (including infants) the greater the impact. And that staying with an abusive partner in the childhood years “for the kids” is not actually what’s best for the kids.
Also, I loved the blue font. And found it comforting. And found it delineated the conversations nicely.
- Schizanthus Nerd:
As you move through the experiences of your past, know that no matter what happened, your being here, vibrant and alive, makes you worthy.
You alone are enough.
Sometimes a book will come into your life at exactly the right time. Traumas, both from childhood and more recent times, have been making themselves known to me with an urgency I haven’t experienced before, at a time that seems more inconvenient than pretty much any other time in my life. Although I’d love to push it all to the side, with a ‘Not now! Can’t you see I’m busy reading?’, there’s also a knowing that there’s never going to be a good time and that maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason it’s all coming up for me now.
So, here I am, trying to figure out what healing will look like for me and having conversations with people who are seeing my resilience from the outside in vastly different ways than I’m perceiving it from the inside. Then this book, which covers the trifecta of what my brain has decided is my priority right now (trauma, resilience, and healing), makes its way into my world.
The shift from asking ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’ is something I’ve yearned to hear for most of my life. Western society is so fixed on labels, which I know have their place and can be useful, but all too often pasting a diagnosis (or multiple diagnoses) on someone marginalizes them more than it helps them. If we don’t get to the core of why a person behaves the way they do then we’re really missing the point, and the opportunity to best support them.
All of us want to know that what we do, what we say, and who we are, matters.
Dr. Perry’s work in understanding how the brain’s development is impacted by early trauma helps explain why we behave the way we do, for example, why some people lash out in anger and others withdraw into themselves.
There’s science in this book but it was explained in a way that made sense to me, someone who hasn’t formally studied science since high school. Even if you don’t understand a concept the first time it’s mentioned it’s okay as it will be referred to in later conversations. If words like ‘brainstem’, ‘diencephalon’, ‘limbic’, and ‘cortex’ make you want to disengage, I’d encourage you to hold on because how the science relates to someone’s life will be explained. This, in turn, will make it easier to apply what’s being said to your own life. You’ll read about people Dr. Perry has worked with, people Oprah has interviewed, and about Oprah’s own experiences.
Knowledge truly is powerful and simply having an understanding of why a smell or sound (‘evocative cues’) can cause people with PTSD to have flashbacks, making them feel as though they’re right back in that moment, feels like half the battle. If you’re not caught up in judging yourself for your brain responding the way that it does, then it frees up so much energy that you can use to regulate yourself.
I learned about how our view of the world becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, why self-harm makes so much sense to the people who do it (even though it baffles the people who don’t), the importance of rhythm in regulation, how vital connections with other people are to healing and why I need to learn more about neuroplasticity.
I gained a much better understanding of flock, freeze, flight, and fight. Dissociation, which I thought I knew all about from personal experience, makes much more sense to me now, as does why I find reading so helpful in my everyday life.
I love facts and there were some that really put what I was reading into context for me.
During the first nine months, fetal brain development is explosive, at times reaching a rate of 20,000 new neurons ‘born’ per second. In comparison, an adult may, on a good day, create 700.
This book isn’t about blaming anyone for your trauma and it’s not giving you an excuse for bad behavior. It does explain why you react the way you do and can help silence the voice inside you that tells you there’s something wrong with you because of it – your reaction is reasonable given your history but there is also hope; you can heal.
I would recommend this book to so many people. Before I’d even begun reading I’d recommended it to my GP and would not hesitate in recommending it to anyone who works in a profession that brings them into contact with young children and their families or trauma survivors.
To this day, the role that trauma and developmental adversity play in mental and physical health remains underappreciated.
I would recommend it to trauma survivors, although with a few caveats: that they stay safe while reading (some of the content is bound to be triggering), read at their own pace, and make good use of their support system as needed. Loved ones of trauma survivors will find explanations for why their friend or family member behaves the way that they do and ways they can help.
Add this to the list of books that should be required reading. I saved all of the resources they provided and am looking forward to visiting the book’s website. To be fair, however, I’m over Oprah and her “my school in South Africa” – seriously it could’ve been a drinking game.
In this ebook, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce D. Perry analyze the effects of trauma on the developing brain and discuss both the emotional and biological changes and adaptations that this trauma creates. Dr. Perry has a background in neuroscience and psychiatry and uses this interdisciplinary knowledge to explain how trauma, especially trauma experienced in childhood, can profoundly affect our lives.
The book alternates between sections written by Oprah, as she recalls events from her life, and Dr. Perry, as he uses examples and stories from his practice to explain concepts about the brain’s response to trauma. Oprah’s sections are written in blue, while Dr. Perry’s are written in black, to easily distinguish the two. There are sections at the beginning of each chapter where either Oprah or Dr. Perry will recount events that happened in their lives and discuss the effects of trauma. Most of the rest of the chapter is then written in more of a conversational tone; as Perry and Oprah go back and forth in a way that feels more like a discussion on Oprah’s show.
In the first chapter of the book, there is a diagram that I found very helpful that depicts the ‘Hierarchical Organization of the Human Brain’. This diagram is referenced many times throughout the book and is a key to understanding the effects of trauma. Dr. Perry explains that traumatic experiences are first registered in the lowest levels of this hierarchical structure, so that certain situations that are similar in some way to a traumatic situation of the past, still trigger the same physiological responses even before our cortex can analyze these situations.
Oprah and Dr. Perry do a great job of using examples of patients or guests that experienced trauma and explaining the underlying biological responses that have shaped their behaviors later in life. In the chapter on self-regulation and balance, Dr. Perry explains the processes involved in the body’s core regulatory networks and the body’s response to stress activation. Dr. Perry discusses drug addiction and how people use artificial means to attempt to restore some sense of balance. There is another chapter that discusses love, and the effects of growing up in an environment where you do not feel cared for. Later chapters focus on identifying trauma, and the eventual healing process.
This book can be helpful for a wide range of people. Obviously, if you have experienced trauma, especially early in life, this book can help explain what adaptations your brain went through and how this affects your perspectives on situations later in life. Perhaps equally important though, is the ability to prevent trauma-related issues in future generations by using these insights to guide your parenting behaviors and decisions. For me, reading about the long-lasting effects of certain childhood experiences has made me even more vigilant as a parent; and more focused on the less-obvious ways that my children might be absorbing information.
I enjoyed reading this book, and it contains so much information that I will likely go back and reread later, as I try to make sure to create the healthiest environment for my children.
All proceeds are being donated to the Boys and. Girls Club Mississippi. Class act.
In the strangest sense, this is a courageous book to Publish; we just lived through five years of dehumanizing lies about the other side as “snowflakes” to justify the growing violence in our culture. This book tells the truth as we know it today; the science in this book is profoundly important. Dr. Perry and Oprah illustrate it with stories using everyday language to convey facts about how our health is built or ruined by the way we care for one another. This book will no doubt challenge the way most of us were taught to live. The big takeaway is we are not broken, we’re extraordinarily constructed and able as Dr. Perry said “to transform our pain into power”. America needs this book right now, I am grateful for the gift of this important work.
- Sonal Apte:
This should absolutely be required reading for everyone. Why? Because it explains how we don’t really know anyone until we know what happened to them. And from that perspective, it gives educators, parents, and really everybody who interacts with humans a new perspective on why we as humans act the way we do.
It’s easily the best non-clinical book on trauma I’ve ever read. Definite must-read.
What if we asked, “what happened to you?” Instead of “what’s wrong with you?”? What if we heal the generational trauma instead of passing it on to the next generation?
This book fabulous! It gave me lots to think about and reminded me to have more grace for myself and others, we are all fighting deep wounds.
Man, I really loved this book. It was an incredibly fascinating tour through the way the MIND processes trauma. There was a quote, “we prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty”, that stuck with me when he said it. He also points out that in trauma, we are not “resilient”. We don’t bounce back unchanged. We are forever changed. And we have to work hard to readjust and change the lens which has been altered during the traumatic event. We’re malleable. Not resilient. I appreciated that. Abuse of any sort changes you. Period. You NEVER see things the same way you did prior. It’s learning to change that lens again afterward that is the process of healing.
I loved this book a lot. It was a really great listen as I’m on my own journey and I highly recommend it.
- Lindsay Nixon:
The profound shift in the way you think and process things instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?” Understand why and how we respond to the world now and clearing our path and clearing away for our best future!
I liked the mind-expanding idea that as educators (or in other roles) we sometimes ask the wrong questions related to behaviors. Although it’s daunting for us to consider how impactful the first months of life are for healthy development, ultimately we are lifted by the authors’ optimistic message that healing – both individually and collectively – is possible.
- April Capil:
This book was a heart-opening read and put so many memories and relationships in perspective for me. It ties in with everything I’ve learned from Alfred Adler’s work, from books like “The Body Keeps The Score,” and it just made me want to hug every child close and tell them they are loved, and they matter, and they don’t have to be defined by the shame or pain from past traumas. I hope that Bruce Perry’s work and his approach to therapeutic counseling can be implemented by schools, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies, so we can have a better understanding of how people are hurt by trauma, and how we can help them heal and recover in healthier ways. This is such an important book, it should be required reading for teachers, police officers, and medical professionals. I’m so thankful Oprah brought Dr. Perry’s work to the level of notoriety it deserves. I’ve already started “Born For Love,” his other book about the cultivation of empathy. <3
I could not even wait for my first copy of the book to arrive after attending one of the virtual book tours with Oprah and Dr. Perry. I picked up a second copy locally and dove into the book. I adore the conversational format and the detailed examples that I am sure readers will identify with. The first particular point made in the book regarding children feeling the vibrations in the house shook me to my core. This wording will allow clients to easily understand that younger does not equal less affected. It is the opposite. 💣 Truth bomb for most of the world. Thank you, Oprah and Dr. Bruce Perry for molding this tough topic into what feels like an easy-to-read chat with good friends.
- Megan Rose:
This book by Oprah was absolutely mesmerizing. It is a thought-provoking book about how our past defines who we are and why we are the way we are. I found so many aspects of this book essential to understanding ourselves as well as others. We truly don’t know anyone until we can know what happened to them. I am so happy Oprah was in conversation with Bruce Perry and I cannot recommend this book more.