What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing
“Stop your crying,” she would warn. “You better hush your mouth.”
My face settled into stoic. My heart stopped racing. Biting hard into my lower lip so no words would escape me.
“I do this because I love you,” she’d repeat her defense in my ear.
As a young girl, I was “whupped” regularly. At the time, it was accepted practice for caregivers to use corporal punishment to discipline a child. My grandmother, Hattie Mae, embraced it. But even at three years old, I knew that what I was experiencing was wrong.
One of the worst beatings I recall happened on a Sunday morning. Going to church played a major role in our lives. Just before we were to leave for service, I was sent to the well behind our house to pump water; the farmhouse where I lived with my grandparents did not have indoor plumbing. From the window, my grandmother caught a glimpse of me twirling my fingers in the water and became enraged. Though I was only daydreaming, innocently, as any child might, she was angry because this was our drinking water and I had put my fingers in it. She then asked me if I had been playing in the water and I said “no.” She bent me over and whipped me so violently, my flesh welted. Afterward, I managed to put on my white Sunday-best dress; blood began to seep through and stain the crisp fabric a deep crimson. Livid at the sight, she chastised me for getting blood on my dress, then sent me to Sunday school. In the rural South, this is how black children were raised. There wasn’t anyone I knew who wasn’t whupped.
I was beaten for the slightest reasons. Spilled water, a broken glass, the inability to keep quiet or still. I heard a black comedian once say, “The longest walk is to get your own switch.” I not only had to walk to get the switch, but, if there wasn’t one available, I had to go find one—a thin, young branch worked best, but if it was too thin I would have to braid two or three together to make it stronger. She often forced me to help her braid the switch. Sometimes the whuppings would get saved up for Saturday night when I was naked and freshly bathed.
Afterwards, when I could barely stand, she would tell me to “wipe that pout” off my face and start smiling. Bury it as though it never happened.
Eventually I developed a keen sense of when trouble was brewing. I recognized the shift in my grandmother’s voice or the “look” that meant I had displeased her. She was not a mean person. I believe she cared for me and wanted me to be a “good girl.” And I understood that “hushing my mouth” or silence was the only way to ensure a quick end to punishment and pain. For the next forty years, that pattern of conditioned compliance—the result of deeply rooted trauma—would define every relationship, interaction, and decision in my life.
The long-term impact of being whupped—then forced to hush and even smile about it—turned me into a world-class people pleaser for most of my life. It would not have taken me half a lifetime to learn to set boundaries and say “no” with confidence had I been nurtured differently.
As an adult, I am grateful to enjoy long-term, consistent, loving relationships with many people. Yet the early beatings, emotional fractures, and splintered connections that I experienced with the central figures in my early life no doubt helped develop my solitary independence. In the powerful words of the poem “Invictus,” I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
Millions of people were treated just as I was as children and grew up believing their lives were of no value.
My conversations with Dr. Bruce Perry and the thousands of people who were brave enough to share their stories with me on The Oprah Winfrey Show have taught me that the effects of my treatment by those who were supposed to care for me weren’t strictly emotional. There was also a biological response. Through my work with Dr. Perry, my eyes have been opened to the fact that although I experienced abuse and trauma as a child, my brain found ways to adapt.
This is where hope lives for all of us—in the unique adaptability of our miraculous brains. As Dr. Perry explains in this book, understanding how the brain reacts to stress or early trauma helps clarify how what has happened to us in the past shapes who we are, how we behave, and why we do the things we do.
Through this lens we can build a renewed sense of personal self-worth and ultimately recalibrate our responses to circumstances, situations, and relationships. It is, in other words, the key to reshaping our very lives.
— Oprah Winfrey
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 tabletops 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, including Tyler Perry, 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.
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 title What Happened to You? signifies a shift in perspective that honors the power of the past to shape our current functioning. The phrase originated in the pioneering work group of Dr. Sandra Bloom, developer of the Sanctuary Model. In Dr. Bloom’s words:
We [the treatment team for Sanctuary] were in a team meeting sometime around 1991 on our inpatient unit, trying to describe the change that had happened to us in recognizing and responding to the issue of trauma, especially what has become known now as childhood adversity—as a causal issue for the problems of most of the people we were treating—and Joe Foderaro, LCSW, always good at pithy observations, said, “It’s that we have changed our fundamental question from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’”
Oprah and I are convinced that 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. Our hope in sharing these stories and scientific concepts is that every reader will, in their own way, gain insights to help us all live better, more fulfilling lives.
—Dr. Bruce Perry
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