What Happened To You - book review


Dr Bruce Perry & Oprah Winfrey

By Human Library Creator- Michaella Voss

The month that’s been has bought with it more dreaded rain for our region and what feels like the start of a cold winter ahead. Although, not good for our already dampened spirits after the worst summer in history, the start of winter is encouraging of indoor hobbies. Nothing is more suited to a cold, rainy day than a cup of tea and a book in my opinion!

I managed to re-read the entire What Happened To You over the space of a weekend, literally not being able to put the book down. I have read this book once before, feeling inspired to pick up a copy after listening to a Brené Brown podcast, where Oprah was invited to share her book. At the time I was just completing my masters. As much as I enjoyed the read, I couldn’t quite relate the book as much to social work practice specifically and more generally working with traumatised people. I had not realised the contents use and power in working with anyone who has experienced trauma in their life. Re-reading the book has really encouraged me to examine the way I interact with anyone across my professional and personal life. I hope that the read encourages you to reflect in a similar way.

As the title suggests, What Happened to You is a book recording the dialogue between Dr Perry and Oprah Winfrey who discuss trauma as a concept. The first few chapters of the book explain the impact of traumatic experiences on the brain over the formative years.

I absolutely love the explanation of how traumatic events in the past still shape your thoughts, feelings, and behaviour in the present. The book recalls how the painful experiences in childhood, hurt us, make us feel unvalued, unloved and at times unsafe. These experiences work to help us make sense of the world around us.

Often, people fail to recognise the way in which these beliefs contribute to behaviour. In shifting this understanding, we come to realise that behaviours at 20, 30 or even 50 years old, are at times a direct result of experiences we have had in the first 1000 days of our lives.

This explanation of the true impact of trauma, influences what we should instead be looking at, not what is “wrong” with someone, but “what happened to them”, the entire premise and perhaps major takeaway of the book.

In asking what has happened to a person, a secondary positive consequence is that the shame and blame is removed from an individual. The principles of strengths-based practice are scattered from the start to end of this book.

Post traumatic stress is a term we are all familiar with, but what about ‘post traumatic wisdom’ a term Dr Perry refers to throughout the book. Are we working with ourselves and others in a way that truly celebrates and promotes this?  Individuals who experience trauma are not deficient or broken, but in fact resilient and powerful. In envisioning trauma in such a way, we are not trying to take away from the pain the trauma would have caused, but more so advocate for the fact that the brain is malleable and flexible. Once people can move through the pain of an experience, there is wisdom to be found and a powerful story to be told.

I resonate with the messaging around how important ‘connection’ is to healing trauma. Connection is a basic human need. We are social beings, who need people wrapped around us. This book provides a basic three-step model in working with people who have experienced trauma. It is best to, at first, achieve regulation of the nervous system, next strengthen relationships, and lastly move into a space of reflection and cognition. If someone is not regulated, they are unable to connect with others. If someone does not have a strong community wrapped around them, they are unable to process effectively and move into that higher level thinking space. I think we expect too much of others in this way. When we are working in a trauma informed lens, we should be working under this three-step model and respecting the basic human needs of a person.

The emphasis on relationships is not a foreign concept in Te Ao Māori, which the book pays homage too. How incredible that our countries indigenous knowledge is so proudly shared on the international stage. The book respects whanaungatanga as a fundamental value for Māori. I personally have been taught to understand whanaungatanga as building relationships with others.  Historically for Māori, different generations lived all together in family groups and isolation of an individual was a foreign concept. The ill and frail were not outcast, but brought closer, the community accepting them and protecting them. Colonisation in Aotearoa, I feel, is to blame entirely for the fragmentation of community (although this is a rant for another day).

Working in a way that is trauma informed and focused on connection, is nothing new for many indigenous cultures, this is but an ancient concept. We can look to our ancestors and ancestral ways to teach us more about community, and how to develop this more fully in our world today.

The concept of the healing power of community is exactly what we as a collective are trying to achieve through Bellbird. We know, fundamentally, that in supporting the social sector, we need, as a society, to improve the way we flock together. In establishing our Human Library, we want people to connect over shared experiences in the social sector and share knowledge with one another. If we are rich in relational wealth, we are able as practitioners to offer a more powerful enriching service to the individuals and communities we serve. We will have better contacts within the sector to call on and network with when we need some assistance and for ourselves. This is powerful. Once we have established the community around us, we should only be working more to strengthen the entire community, the network around our clients and strengthening the inclusivity of the community for vulnerable people.


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