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A short review of the book, What Happened to You?

By Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey; Blog written by Fiona McInally, Board Member

WHAT IS TRAUMA? How do we experience it? How does it impact us? How does it affect our mind, our body and our behavior? These are just some of the questions that Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey dive into, in their refreshingly accessible book released in April 2021 entitled “What Happened to you?

Dr. Bruce Perry openly acknowledges the challenges in studying and supporting those suffering from traumatic stress when mental health professionals and others don’t always align on a common definition. He describes the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s working definition of aspects of trauma that will create traumatic stress as the three “E’s”: the traumatic EVENT; the EXPERIENCE of the traumatic event by the individual, and the EFFECT of the traumatic event.

Dr. Perry uses the recent COVID 19 pandemic to distinguish how for some people this experience has been traumatic, but for others it has been deeply stressful but not traumatic. And for others it has been a resilience-building experience. Why is this?

As a neuroscientist, Dr. Perry offers that we need to look how certain events change the brain by how they activate the stress-response systems. With this our understanding expands to “quieter, less obvious experiences” such as trauma that arises from humiliation or shaming or other emotional abuse by parents or the marginalization of a minority child in a majority community. That is because these can with repetition sensitize the stress response systems and result in long-term post traumatic effects in the brain and the rest of the body. So to determine the specific effects on your health, Dr. Perry argues that we need to dig in deep to the following questions:

  • What happened to you?

  • When in your developmental stage did the traumatic events occur?

  • What is your history of previous trauma?

  • What is your family’s trauma?

  • Then just as importantly what if any buffering capacity of healthy relationships, family and community do you have?

The authors discuss the Adverse Childhood Experience study (and resulting scores) as a beginning guide, but not enough to understand the whole history of “what happened to you”. One key element that Dr. Perry stresses is the timing of the trauma. How old was the person when the trauma occurred? He provides startling evidence that trauma is most damaging for a child that experiences trauma prenatally or postnatally in the first few months of life (before the child is verbal). Children who don’t have trauma in the early months, but then experience years of chaos, threat, instability and trauma do much better than those children who experience trauma in the early months but then experience years of attentive and supportive care. As an adoptive mom this was sobering news.

Dr. Perry and Oprah share lots of examples of children suffering from trauma whose challenging and antisocial behavior drives the typical question of “what’s wrong with you?" and a desire to diagnose with a syndrome. Dr. Perry suggests that in all of these cases the diagnosis should be “What do you expect?” The authors challenge us all to reframe the question and ask instead “what happened to you? This leads to an understanding of what the individual needs to heal.

This book is deeply hopeful and constructive in sharing how brains can heal; how children and adults can heal trauma and experience post-traumatic growth. The authors discuss at length how with regular connection and regulation moment to moment, neural networks can heal. The authors describe the importance of rhythms of movement and nature and all types of somatic work, including therapeutic work with animals to help with regulation. They also acknowledge the deeply restorative effects of empathy, connection and relationships. As Dr. Perry says “relationships are the currency of change”.

This is why we are so passionate at The Wild Hope about the power of working with horses to help survivors of complex trauma. And we are equally passionate about supporting community by creating a safe space to heal and foster belonging and connection. We know that with time this work can heal deep seated trauma – trauma that began as a child or that was passed from one generation to the next. That is the Wild Hope that we invite you to share with everyone.


Fiona McInally is a self described “Justice-Seeking Jesus Feminist”, who is passionate about the vision and goals of The Wild Hope. Her day jobs include being an attorney working in technology and, along with her husband of 23 years, embracing openness in their adoptive family. Fiona has been involved in advocacy, education and community service to tackle the issue of Human Trafficking in Central Texas since 2011.


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