A Book to Heal the Past | Sunday Observer

A Book to Heal the Past

18 July, 2021

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

Authors - Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry

Publisher - Macmillan

Our earliest experiences shape our lives far down the road. If you look back on your past, you can understand this fact practically. Definitely, some of our traumatic experiences in childhood badly affect us throughout life. However, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce D. Perry have written a very valuable and timely book on our early experiences and opened a window to overcome bad behaviour due to childhood traumas.

It mainly provides powerful scientific and emotional insights into the behavioural patterns so many of us struggle to understand, and “Through this lens we can build a renewed sense of personal self-worth and ultimately recalibrate our responses to circumstances, situations, and relationships,” Oprah Winfrey says in the introduction of the book.

The authors

As we know Oprah Winfrey is the host and supervising producer of the history-making ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’, editorial director of ‘O, The Oprah Magazine,’ and the CEO of ‘OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’. She has created an unparalleled connection with people around the world, and has entertained, enlightened, and uplifted millions of viewers for more than 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.

The other author of the book, Dr. Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The Child Trauma Academy and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health, College of Science, Health and Engineering, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria Australia.

Over the past thirty years, he has been an active teacher, clinician and researcher in children’s mental health and the neurosciences holding a variety of academic positions. 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: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered’.


The book was written from deeply personal conversations of the two authors. Through them, they discuss the impact of trauma and adversity and how healing must begin with a shift to asking, “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?”

Winfrey shares stories from her own past, understanding through experience the vulnerability that comes from facing trauma and adversity at a young age while Dr. Perry presents his own experiences in scientific researches: he explains that the medical model for handling trauma, depression, and anxiety relies heavily on psychopharmacology, cognitive behavioral therapies, and that it “greatly undervalues the power of connectedness and rhythm.” Joining forces, she and he marry the power of storytelling with science to better understand and overcome the effects of our past.

In conversation throughout the book, the two focus on understanding people, behaviour, and ourselves. It’s a subtle but profound shift in the approach to trauma, and it’s one that allows us to understand our past in order to clear a path to our future - opening the door to resilience and healing in a proven, powerful way.


The book starts with an interesting introduction which unfolds as a dialogue between Oprah and Dr. Perry. Oprah recalls her own childhood traumatic experience with her grandmother. She says, “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,” she says.

Dr. Perry, in his introduction, explains the format of the book, “Oprah and I have been talking about trauma, the brain, resilience, and healing for more than thirty years, and this book is, in many ways, the culmination of those talks. It uses conversation and human stories to illuminate the science that underlies it all.

“There are far too many aspects of development, the brain, and trauma to cover in one book, especially a book written through stories. The language and concepts used in this book translate the work of thousands of scientists, clinicians, and researchers in fields ranging from genetics to epidemiology to anthropology. It is a book for anyone and everyone.”

“Oprah and I are convinced that asking the fundamental question “What happened to you?” can help each of us know a little more about how experiences — both good and bad — shape us. Our hope in sharing these stories and scientific concepts is that every reader will, in their own way, gain insights to help us all live better, more fulfilling lives,” he said.


The significance of this book is that it provides insights into our own traumas which we suffer from childhood experiences. It is informative, inspirational and deeply-moving. Through Bruce Perry’s clinical experiences he describes his theories of how we function as human beings, and how trauma can have such a devastating impact on us.

He elaborates the many ways we can facilitate the healing of trauma. He puts forward some of the healing ways in traditional societies too. And it is noteworthy that the use of storytelling — Bruce’s clinical experiences and Oprah’s personal experiences — is very powerful.

The authors together describe the problems that society faces in the light of the impact that trauma has had on so many people. They question the way that systems operate in the areas of mental health, social care, education and criminal justice.

Though a book on trauma is not interesting to read, this book does not disappoint the reader. Oprah Winfrey’s deepest talent has been to open herself up to people who have been ignored or misunderstood by society. She offers real insight into the human condition. The book focuses particularly on how a traumatic upbringing affects development.

A writer’s view

Reviewing the book Janice Greenwood, a renowned American writer said, “Having read more in-depth books on trauma such as ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ and having spent years listening to Josh Korda’s Buddhist lectures on attachment theory and trauma (which you can find in their entirety), I found “What Happened to You” to be an accessible introduction to trauma theory, but for the most part, at least as far as trauma theory is concerned, the book doesn’t offer anything you can’t learn elsewhere.

“The most fascinating aspects of the book were the moments when Winfrey and Dr. Perry step aside from therapeutic frameworks, and talk frankly about how simple things, such as community, culture, and meaning can have immense healing power,” she said.

“Some of the most moving parts of “What Happened to You” are when Oprah opens up about her own traumatic upbringing, and about the ways her relationship with her mother has challenged her and shaped her growth throughout her life,” Greenwood said.

Ultimately the book opens up a new door to see our present traumas which we suffer due to various reasons. ‘What happened to you?’ is a book for anyone and everyone.