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  • Healing.
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“Oprah says…”

You may eagerly await what comes next, or you may immediately tune out. Even if you fall in the latter group, this time I urge you to pay attention.

Oprah has co-authored, with neuroscientist and child psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry, a book currently on the New York Times bestseller list, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.

I have read literally dozens of books on trauma, and this is the one I’ll be referring new readers to. At her best – and this is among her best – Oprah makes complicated ideas accessible to the general public. What Happened to You?, as the title says, is written as a conversation between Oprah and Dr. Perry, which permits Oprah to ask clarifying questions or offer up personal experiences to illustrate concepts under discussion. These stories are some of the most effective parts of the book, not least because Oprah’s life has such a high profile that her stories seem much more vivid and relatable than typical trauma stories, such as the ones Perry tells. Although those are good, too!

The dialogue structure of the book is surprisingly effective. Whether it was actually created through in-person conversation or not, it feels like it was. The tone is informal and very interactive. Sometimes Perry even corrects Oprah when she suggests something he does not agree with, explaining to Oprah and the reader why something doesn’t work the way she thought it did. Oprah’s sections are printed in blue, making it perfectly clear who is “talking” when. 

The book explains the basics of what trauma does to people. There is discussion of brain structure, it development, and how your brain functions on (or post-) trauma. Unlike some trauma books, this one looks at both what people typically call trauma – one-shot, overwhelming events – and developmental trauma. The latter is what happens when babies and young children don’t get the nurturing and support they need to thrive. This section in particular is written at a level of simplicity and clarity that is perfect for general readers. It weaves together how these experiences “re-wire” the brain (possibly for life) and can even shape an individual’s worldview. They also talk about how trauma affects emotional regulation skills (or lack thereof), and the role those skills play in someone’s overall functioning. There is a good explanation of ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences – and their effect on physical as well as mental health. They also discuss implicit bias and racism’s relationship to trauma.

Connection is a key theme of the book. Like many others, Perry and Oprah believe that while people often cause trauma for others, they are also the key to healing it. Here the authors are unstinting in their criticism of our current social structures, which don’t provide enough available adults for children’s optimal development. They do have very specific advice for how people can assist those who are suffering from past traumas:

“…[I]t’s best if you can simply be present. If you do use words, it’s best to restate what they’re saying; this is called reflective listening. You can’t talk someone out of feeling angry, sad, or frustrated, but you can be a sponge and absorb their emotional intensity. If you stay {emotionally] regulated, ultimately they will ‘catch’ your calm. It also helps to use some form of rhythmic regulating activity to keep yourself regulated while you’re doing this – like taking a walk, kicking a ball back and forth, shooting some baskets, coloring side-by-side; there are dozens of rhythmic ways to help us regulate.”

I was disappointed with the sections on healing; they didn’t have enough meat for me.  But there was this stellar summation:

“Trauma leaves you shipwrecked. You are left to rebuild your inner world. Part of the rebuilding, the healing process, is revisiting the shattered hull of your old worldview; you sift through the wreckage looking for what remains, seeking your broken pieces. Dreams, intrusive images of the trauma, and reenactment play are your mind struggling to make sense of your new reality. As you revisit the shipwreck, piece by piece, you find a fragment and move it to your new, safer place in the now-altered landscape. You build a new worldview. That takes time. And many visits to the wreckage. And this process involves both unconscious and conscious repetitive ‘reenactment’ behaviors, or writing, drawing, sculpting, or playing. Again and again, you revisit the site of the earthquake, look through the wreckage, take something, and move it to a safe haven. That’s part of the healing process.”

Finally, I can’t end this review without commenting on the book as a physical object. It feels different: more solid, more lovingly designed (chapter title pages are sandwiched between unique blue abstract art and soft baby-blue divider pages — which match the blue of Oprah’s sections, of course!). When open, the book stays flat. It is simply a delight to hold and read, tactically conveying a “you are a worthy person” message. Check it out.