Book Snap #126

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

Authors: Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and Oprah Winfrey

Date Read: February 17, 2023

Two snaps!

Sometimes, just reframing the question can make all the difference.

Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey collaborate in this conversational narrative that explores trauma through another lens by taking the often asked question– what’s wrong with you?– and flipping it to: what happened to you? This is not a question of semantics, but rather a thoughtful examination of the repercussions of trauma on how people perceive others and how they subsequently behave to protect themselves.

All experience is sequentially processed in our brains: moving from a primitive and reactive brainstem, which is organized to have us feel before we get to the cortex where we think. How we are loved and cared for in our early years is predictive of how we will behave in the face of trauma triggering situations later in life– nurturing parents regulate their baby back into balance, while a baby who is neglected, abused, or fearful will be in a constant state of flight or fright– the early trauma maps a response. Hence the question: what happened to you?– that we may better understand responses that seem aberrant or dysfunctional.

Predictably, and unfortunately, the behaviors that are adaptive for children living in violent, trauma-permeated environments becomes maladaptive in other environments (especially school). “The hyper-vigilance of the Alert state is mistaken for ADHD, the resistance and defiance of Alarm and Fear get labeled as oppositional defiant disorder; flight behavior gets them suspended from school; fight behavior gets them charged with assault. The pervasive misunderstanding of trauma-related behavior has a profound effect on our educational, mental health and juvenile justice systems” (p.92).

Beyond trauma-senstitive pedagogy and psychologocal treatment, most readers will connect personally with the chapter in which Perry and Winfrey explain that our stress-responses are depleted from constantly monitoring the sensory noise of the modern world, that our relationships are recklessly impoverished, that we have significantly less empathy for others, and, despite the marketing that suggests otherwise– we remain painfully disconnected. Disconnection is a disease. We need to look up from our phones, engage in thoughtful discussions and debates over dinner with our friends– we need to connect. We can be discouraged and overwhelmed with the many problems in our society– but Perry and Winfrey offer hope for a trauma-sensitive world where kind, capable, creative people can make it safer and more human– one where there is resilience, healing and the connection we so desperately need.

Oprah Winfrey spent close to twenty-five years interviewing guests and experts about stress, trauma, adversity and resilience– often also sharing her own stories of abuse and neglect. In 2007, she founded the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in South Africa, leaning heavily of the expertise of Dr. Perry to foster a trauma-sensitive and developmentally aware education setting for her pupils. Dr. Perry is a child psychologist and neuroscientist, the principal of the Neurosequential Network, senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago. Together, they offer the anecdotes of their combined guests, students, and patients with such generous empathy and understanding that all readers reconsider asking what’s wrong with you, and begin to ask: what happened to you? Changing the question will make you a more benevolent person. Highly recommend!