Book Review: “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” by Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey

Nobody picks up a book about trauma because they are feeling well. Ever since I learned that Oprah Winfrey had a new book out, I went back and forth about whether I’d read it, much less review it. Oprah is, well, Oprah, and I didn’t want to be disappointed. But when I found myself depressed last week, and unable to break out of the funk, I picked up a copy of “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” by Bruce D. Perry, M.D. and Oprah Winfrey.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Oprah Winfrey’s deepest talent has been to open herself up to people who have been ignored or misunderstood by society, to ask the right question at just the right time, and in doing so, to elicit a response from her subjects that offers real insight into the human condition. Oprah can put a stranger before a crowd, even an unsympathetic one, and reveal his or her essential humanity. This is a special and rare talent. In Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” Oprah puts the trauma therapist on the spot, and guides the conversation in unexpected, and often refreshing, directions.

Brain doctors can sometimes be difficult to follow on their best days, but with Oprah as guide, readers of “What Happened to You?” will find an accessible explanation about what trauma does to the brain. The book focuses particularly on how a traumatic upbringing affects development.

Having read more in-depth books on trauma like “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 here), 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, like community, culture, and meaning can have immense healing power.

For example, Dr. Perry notes that in traditional cultures, there were four pillars of traditional healing. The four pillars involved: (1) connection to a community and to the natural world, (2) rhythmic dance, drumming, and singing, (3) adherence to a set of beliefs or values that brought meaning, and (4) the use of natural hallucinogens and healing plants to bring about healing.

As I kept reading, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad as Dr. Perry and Winfrey kept returning to the idea that full and true healing cannot take place in the absence of a community or in the absence of connection. I live in Hawai’i, and I had only just begun to put down roots, when COVID-19 lockdowns began, but I’ve always struggled with feeling a sense of belonging. I’ve always been awkward, an outsider. I’ve always had close friends, but never really saw myself as part of a bigger crowd or community.

Indigenous people in Hawai’i prior to contact lived lives rich with the four pillars of traditional healing Dr. Perry describes in “What Happened to You.” Polynesian close-knit farming communities were good stewards of the natural world. This is reflected in the rich farming communities that sustained themselves on the islands for generations. It is also reflected in the vibrant natural and mythological framework passed down in the hula and oli, the chants and dances of the people who expressed their connection to nature and its gods through poetry, dance, and chant. The pantheon of gods reflected a deep sense of wonder, awe, and belief in the interconnectedness of all beings. And healing herbs and plants were used in the la’au lapa’au, a holistic form of plant medicine that treated not only the sick body, but also the whole person in relationship to his or her community. In the la’au lapa’au, healing could not take place without relational healing, without fixing the ruptures between people, as well as the ruptures within, as June Gutmanis describes vividly in her stunning book “The Secrets and Practice of Hawaiian Herbal Medicine.”

Modern Hawai’i’s modern relational poverty is a stark contrast to the ancient Polynesian traditions that people first brought to these islands. Where there were interconnected farming communities that traded ideas and food from the land to the sea, there are now neighborhoods rift apart by homelessness, addiction, abuse, violence, and colonialism. Where there were rhythmic dances based upon ancient chant and deep spiritual traditions, you’ll find a commercialized westernized hula that perhaps only resembles the ancient form in spirit. The true nature of the gods are veiled, though Pele’s name is widely spoken of, especially during eruptions. And the ancient healing power of the community, of the plants, of water, often arrives in veiled metaphor. In Hawai’i, the old wisdom arrives intermittently, like the mountains hiding and reappearing in the mist of Manoa.

Lacking any community center to speak of (especially given the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic had wrought on communal spaces), having gotten into fights with my closest friends and family members for reasons that are at once predictable and also baffling to me (you can only be too busy for so long), as unsure about my beliefs as ever, and having no real access to hallucinogens nor shamans, I realized I’d have to settle for the accessible items on Dr. Perry’s list: nature and rhythm. I didn’t live far from the sea, and while I wasn’t about to try to start a drum circle of one in Waikiki, I knew that the rhythm of my feet during a long walk could be as healing as dancing, the pace of my gait as metrical as a poem.

When depression settles into my bones, it often settles in slowly, and subtlety. I can go for days without noticing it. But in the past few days, I’ve found myself sleeping in the middle of the day, unable to motivate myself to complete the simplest of tasks, and feeling more and more lost in the haze of my own increasingly narrow inner world. Depression brings the walls in close. I found myself circling the same despondent thoughts like a vulture.

I leashed up my dog, and got to walking.

I wish I could report that the change in my system was instantaneous, but unlike a pill, the effects of rhythmic movement are cumulative and slow. For the first half of the walk my thoughts were no better than Yeats’s sad falcon turning and turning in a widening gyre. I circled the same old arguments over and over. Screw humanity.

It wasn’t until I reached the sea, that a deeper feeling of peace settled inside me. And as I continued my walk, I found my thoughts slowly widening to take in Ka’ena Point. The winter sun had stopped setting over the sea weeks ago, and the sun had now settled in behind the mountains, lighting the clouds above them aflame, mirroring the newly lit flames of the Royal Hawaiian, which had only recently come to life in the past few weeks, thanks to a loosening of pandemic restrictions. Summer would soon be here. And while Waikiki has two seasons: a wet one and a dry one, summer brings its own unique qualities.

Diamond Head from Kewalos. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Diamond Head from Kewalos. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Two boys played the ukulele on a park bench, and one playfully sang falsetto. The surf was down, but the report promised a rising swell by the weekend, and the calm water offered a respite for the lifeguards, welcoming the stand-up paddleboarders, wading children, and snorkeling retirees. Young people lounged on hammocks. People read books on the beach. My heart opened. My mind widened. I didn’t feel so isolated. My dog sniffed the palm trees, and guided me to the Barefoot Beach Café where the musicians were playing their Aloha Friday set.

Dr. Perry in “What Happened to You” 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.”

In times of great distress I have been a patient of cognitive behavioral therapies and I have found them helpful, but I have to agree that no amount of “reality testing” of my own thoughts in a notebook can replace a good conversation with a friend, or the rhythmic peace of a surf session when the waves are good, or the variety of natural experiences that this island of O’ahu in its infinite wisdom offers.

Reading also offers a kind of community, though distant.

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. She writes about visiting her mother in hospice, being frozen, unable to find the right words. And that’s where Oprah, the master of interview and conversation, opens up a hospice brochure to learn what the right words might be for her to say.

Ultimately Oprah finds her way forward, but the way forward is beautifully unexpected and moved me to tears.

Writers don’t always have the right words. In fact, I write because I don’t always say what I mean to say in the rapid fire moment of a real-life conversation. I’ll never be able to hold a conversation like Oprah, with her real-time wit. But Oprah’s radical vulnerability gives me hope that maybe someday I might become a good letter writer. Because that’s what “What Happened to You” feels like at its best. It feels like reading the curated letters of two smart people, trying to grow, to learn more, and to help others.

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About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.