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Book Review of "What Happened To You? Conversations on Trauma, and Resilience, and Healing"

By Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and Oprah Winfrey

Published Melcher Media, Inc. 2021, 301 pages

“We have changed our fundamental question from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

What Happened to You? p. 17, quoting Joe Foderano, L.C.S.W.

While What Happened to You? offers insight and help, it is not a “self-help book.” Make no mistake, this is a science book. It describes in detail the most current understanding of the impact of trauma on the developing brains of children and the lifelong mental and physical health risks of childhood trauma. Dr. Perry is both a child psychiatrist and neuroscientist, with clinical and research experience in both fields. This information is critically needed by many, but the risk of a neuroscience book is that readers won’t enjoy the book enough get to the end. That is not a problem here.

Dr. Perry and Ms. Winfrey have created a fascinating, page turner by offering the entire book in the form of a warm and smart conversation between the two long-time, child welfare colleagues. Oprah Winfrey skillfully asks the “ordinary person” questions, often exactly when the question arises in the reader’s own head. Dr. Perry offers the answers, broken into small pieces, often explained by the scientific studies that first revealed the answers. Each concept is illustrated with examples from guests on the Oprah Winfrey Show or from Ms. Winfrey’s own early life abuse. The reader is drawn along eagerly as understanding gradually builds to one, “Ah-Ha moment” after another. The audio version of the book is read by both authors together, and feels more like an entertaining, long format podcast, than a book.

Some of the impacts of childhood trauma are very serious and scary, and the scale of trauma in the world can feel overwhelming. The authors don’t include sensational or unnecessary detail about traumatic events, and they dedicate the entire second half of the book to hopeful, practical, and even low cost strategies for healing trauma.

We all see children in the news, in our work and in our families who suffer tragic and difficult experiences. We want to know how the children are impacted and how we can help. Many of us want to be better parents, foster parents, caregivers, and teachers. Most of us have suffered at least some childhood trauma and most of us want to understand and help ourselves. And we all wonder how to best allocate the limited public and private funds to help children and families. All those answers are here, a “Do this, not that” for parents, foster parents, teachers, lawyers, judges, and child welfare policy makers.

But the answers are not “dumbed down” for a general audience. In fact, after reading What Happened to You? foster and adoptive parents, may find that they are better informed than the mental health professionals who serve their families. Lawyers, judges, and social workers may become so “trauma informed” that they find themselves giving copies of this book to professionals supporting the families that they work with. I’ve shared several copies of What Happened to You? myself. Read it. You will change for the better.

Written by Dawn Coppock, an adoption attorney, writer and speaker on child welfare law and policy.


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