On April 27 of 2021 Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey released a collaborative book titled What Happened To You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Below is an excerpt from the introduction to the book, which begins as a discussion between Oprah and Dr. Perry. It is a rather long excerpt from Dr. Perry but I think it gives you a good introduction to what the book is all about.
“One morning in 1989, I was sitting in my lab—the Laboratory of Developmental Neurosciences at the University of Chicago—looking at the results of a recent experiment, when my lab assistant poked his head into my office.“Oprah’s calling you.”
“Yeah, right. Take a message.” I’d been up all night writing; the results of the experiment looked messed up. I wasn’t in the mood for a practical joke.
He smirked.“No. Really. It’s somebody from Harpo.”
There was no possible reason for Oprah to call me. I was a young academic child psychiatrist studying the impact of stress and trauma on development. Only a handful of people knew about my work; most of my psychiatry peers didn’t think much about the neurosciences or childhood trauma. The role of trauma as a major factor in physical and mental health was unexplored. I thought one of my friends was simply pranking me. But I took the call.
“Ms. Winfrey is convening a meeting of national leaders in the area of child abuse in Washington in two weeks. We would like you to attend.”
After more explanation, it became clear that the meeting would be attended by many well-known and well-established people and organizations. My work—studying the impact of trauma on the developing brain—would be lost among more politically accepted, dominant perspectives. I politely declined.
Several weeks later, I received another call.“Oprah is inviting you to a daylong retreat at her farm in Indiana. There will be two other people, you, and Oprah. We want to brainstorm solutions to the issue of child abuse.” This time, with a chance to meaningfully contribute, I accepted.
The dominant voice that day was Andrew Vachss, an author and attorney specializing in representing children. His pioneering work highlighted the need to track known child abusers; at that point they could move from state to state, and there was no way to keep tabs on where they were or if they were complying with restrictions to avoid children. Our 1989 meeting in Indiana led to the 1991 drafting of the National Child Protection Act to establish a national database of convicted child abusers. On December 20, 1993, after two years of advocacy that included testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the“Oprah Bill” was signed into law.
That day in 1989 led to many more conversations. Some took place on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss specific children’s stories and campaigns on the importance of early childhood and brain development. Most of our conversations, however, were in the context of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG), which Oprah founded in South Africa in 2007. This remarkable institution was created to select, support, educate, and enrich“disadvantaged” girls with high potential. The explicit intention was to create a cadre of future leaders. Many of these girls had demonstrated resilience and high academic achievement despite a range of adversities including poverty, traumatic loss, and community or intra-family violence. Early on, the school began to act on many of the concepts we discuss in this book; today, OWLAG is becoming a model of a trauma-sensitive, developmentally aware educational setting.
In 2018, I sat down with Oprah for a 60 Minutes story about“trauma-informed care.” Though only two minutes of our conversation ended up in the final segment, millions of people were watching and listening, and the excitement created in the community of professionals working in trauma was remarkable. But there is so much more to say.
The enthusiasm for our conversation was in part a reflection of Oprah’s own enthusiasm for the importance of this topic. On CBS This Morning, Oprah told Gayle King that she would dance on table-tops to get people to pay attention to the impact of trauma on the developing brains of children. In a CBS News supplement to the 60 Minutes show, Oprah called it the most important story of her life.
Oprah has been talking about abuse, neglect, and healing for her entire career. Her dedication to educating people about trauma-related topics has been a hallmark of her shows. Millions of people have watched Oprah listen to, connect with, console, and learn from people with experience or expertise in trauma of all kinds. She has explored the impacts of traumatic loss, maltreatment, sexual abuse, racism, misogyny, domestic violence, community violence, gender and sexual identity issues, false imprisonment, and so much more, and through this has helped us explore health, healing, post-traumatic growth, and resilience.
For twenty-five years, The Oprah Winfrey Show took a deep and thoughtful look at developmental adversity, challenge, distress, stress, trauma, and resilience. She explored dissociative identity disorder in 1989; the importance of early-childhood experiences on brain development in 1997; the rights of adopted children in 2005; the impact of severe neglect in 2009; and much more. In many ways, her show paved the way for a larger, systemic awareness of these issues. Her final season included an episode featuring two hundred men disclosing their histories of sexual abuse. She has been and will continue to be a champion and guide for people impacted by adversity and trauma.
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.
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.
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.”
The Centers Work
Many of the children we work with at Family Christian Counseling Center have experienced severe trauma and the foundation of how we work with these children is Dr. Perry’s Neuro-sequential Model of Therapeutics. If you would like to read more about how the Center uses this model please click on the link.