What Happened to You? Book Summary - What Happened to You? Book explained in key points
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What Happened to You? summary

Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey

Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing

4.4 (576 ratings)
27 mins
Table of Contents

    What Happened to You?
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    Our brains are shaped by our unique childhood experiences.

    Oprah Winfrey’s clearest childhood memory is of a feeling – a feeling of intense loneliness. Even as a young child, she knew she was unwanted. Her mother was very young, a teenager. She didn’t have the money or the emotional resources to care for her daughter. So Oprah spent her childhood in the care of different family members, bouncing among households. These relatives only made matters worse. They not only neglected Oprah; they often beat her severely. 

    All these experiences formed Oprah’s view of the world. They shaped her expectations of the people around her. They shaped how she saw herself. And they literally affected the formation of her brain. 

    The key message here is: Our brains are shaped by our unique childhood experiences.

    The rational part of a child’s brain – the cortex – takes years to develop. About three years, to be exact. People sometimes think this means that young children don’t absorb much – that abuse or trauma experienced by, say, a two-year-old doesn’t count. The opposite is true. In fact, the younger a child is, the more damaging trauma is for their brain. A baby’s brain develops at an astounding rate: 20,000 new neurons per second. And every experience is logged in a personal “codebook” in the brain. Later, traumatic experiences may manifest as complex memories that can’t be understood rationally. 

    Take the example of Samuel. As a child, he was physically abused by his father. The abuse only stopped after he was removed from his father’s care by Child Protective Services. After a turbulent few years cycling through foster homes, Sam moved into a group home. There, he got the support he needed and was progressing well. But then he got a new teacher and, suddenly, he started acting out at school, becoming aggressive and withdrawn. Dr. Perry was mystified by this behavior until he witnessed a visit from Sam’s father. The man was wearing a strong cologne – Old Spice. In a flash, Perry realized that Sam’s teacher also wore Old Spice. Sam’s behavior suddenly made sense. The aroma awakened terrifying sensory memories, causing him to act out as if he were under attack. In the end, the solution to Sam’s problem was simple. His teacher changed his cologne, and Sam’s behavior changed, too.

    When we’re trying to understand trauma, there is one essential question to ask: What happened to you? And, especially, what happened to you when you were very young? That’s a question that’s been central to Oprah’s life as she’s worked to heal her childhood trauma. Deciphering your own personal codebook will help you to understand seemingly inexplicable reactions and survival mechanisms that evolved to help keep you safe. 

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    What is What Happened to You? about?

    What Happened to You? (2021) is an in-depth exploration of trauma and how it affects the brain. Long before we can make rational sense of traumatic experiences, they become etched into our neural circuits. They influence how we respond to stress, form relationships, and make meaning. Unfortunately, trauma is often misunderstood. By understanding trauma as both a brain issue and a societal issue, we can start to support trauma survivors with the tools they need to heal. 

    Who should read What Happened to You??

    • Survivors of trauma 
    • Teachers, caregivers, and medical practitioners
    • Psychology buffs interested in trauma’s effects on the brain

    About the Author

    Dr. Bruce D. Perry is a neuroscientist and child psychiatrist. He’s also the principal of the Neurosequential Network and senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy. His previous best-selling books include The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Born For Love.

    Oprah Winfrey is the renowned host and supervising producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show. As an activist and philanthropist, she’s worked tirelessly to bring attention to experiences of trauma and sexual abuse, and advocate for survivors. 

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