From a Broken Home to a Broken Institution

REVIEW: ‘Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class’ by Rob Henderson

February 25, 2024

When someone emerges from a challenging childhood to become a successful adult and writes a memoir about the experience, one of two narratives usually emerges: The first, and most lucrative in today’s market, is what might be called the "wallowing" narrative. Such books settle personal and familial scores; recount excessive drug use, promiscuity, and other poor life choices; and leave readers with a voyeurism hangover.

The second approach tells a tale of plucky courage and upward mobility, with the memoirist expressing gratitude for having been one of the "lucky ones," who rose from chaos into order and is now eager to impart practical life lessons to others. This is the "inspirational bootstraps" narrative.

In Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class, Rob Henderson does neither. Instead, he makes a crucial contribution not only to the modern art of memoir-writing, but to ongoing debates about class, merit, and success in the United States.

Henderson could easily have taken the wallowing path: One of his earliest memories, at the age of three, is of clinging to his drug-addicted mother as police officers handcuff and cart her away to jail. He had been abused by her and never saw her again; he never knew his father. Placed into the California foster care system, he is moved from home to home, neglected physically and emotionally by his various caregivers, until finally being adopted by a family of Seventh Day Adventists in Red Bluff, California.

This family—Mom, Dad, and little sister, Hannah—offered young Rob his first taste of stability and, perhaps most important, a father figure. But it did not last—the parents split after about a year. As Henderson recalls it, he was the least shocked among them that this happened: "None of my other families lasted. In the past, I’d always considered other kids who had ‘real’ parents to be unusual. I saw them on TV, but those images did not reflect my life."

After his father moves out, Mom embarks on a relationship with a woman, Shelly, who, despite her gambling addiction and troubled relationship with her own children from her previous marriage, becomes an important person in Henderson’s life and, at least for a time, a stable parenting figure. Eventually, after Shelly is shot and endures a difficult recovery, and the couple’s financial situation becomes more precarious, they, too, leave, moving to San Jose while Rob finishes high school in Red Bluff, where he lives in a friend’s house (Hannah moves in with her father; Rob’s mother and Shelly later split up).

This new living situation, coinciding with adolescence, proves a dangerous environment for a boy who had known little but instability for most of his life. His friend’s father, although present in the home, is "an extremely laissez-faire parent" in Henderson’s telling, and his descriptions of the reckless, violent, and destructive behavior he and his friends engaged in during this time is harrowing.

Henderson describes these years with cool detachment, which, we find out later, was how the author himself learned to cope with the circumstances of his young life. "If I had to reduce what I felt during those early childhood years to a single word," he writes, "the only one I can think of is: dread. Dread of being caught stealing, dread of punishment, dread of suddenly being moved somewhere else." By the time Henderson is a teenager, he begins to recognize other feelings. "For as long as I could remember, I felt a constant undercurrent of throbbing rage, along with anxiety and shame (which I sometimes mistook for rage) for being abandoned, for being unwanted. But I was incapable of understanding it or communicating it." Henderson describes high school friends who end up in jail or hospitalized after a brutal fight, and one who thoughtlessly kicks a dog over a cliff. This random violence and destruction was not unusual in the world in which he grew up—it was common.

Even after finding some stability with his adoptive family and, later, with Mom and Shelly, equilibrium was difficult to achieve for Henderson, as most of the people he knew also lived lives of chaos. "One of my other good friends, John, and his brother Tom lived with their dad, who had been divorced five times," Henderson writes. Other fathers and brothers and stepfathers were absent, in prison, or inconstant in their attention to their children, and mothers cycled through different partners, boyfriends, and husbands, having several children by different men.

Henderson was not without inner resources, however. Reading opened a new world to him, and beginning in elementary school, he devoured books: "This was a milestone in my life. From then on reading became a source of comfort for me … reading was an escape—from my memories, from my foster families, from my feelings." As he got older, he read biographies of people such as Bruce Lee, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and Muhammad Ali. Along the way, a few teachers and other stable adults in Henderson’s life recognized his intelligence and encouraged him to think beyond the pathologies of Red Bluff.

Henderson joined the Air Force right out of high school after he "realized the path I was on had nothing but a tragic ending" and believing that "the military was my only lifeline." This is a hinge moment in his personal history: He thrives within the order imposed by military life and is recognized for his hard work and intelligence. "The military helped to unlock my potential," he writes, "because it provided a structured environment, a sharp contrast with the drama and disorder of my youth. I was surrounded by supportive people who wanted me to succeed. In this new environment, I gradually came to realize that my childhood was anomalous, and I didn’t have to let it define the rest of my life."

He begins to understand what was missing from his life, but present in the lives of others, particularly peers who had stable family homes: "I learned that so much of success depends not on what people do, but what they don’t do. It’s about avoiding rash and reckless actions that will land us in trouble." Stable families are crucial.

Yet Henderson’s positive experience in the military did not entirely extinguish the fallout of his chaotic childhood. "Being in a bad environment doesn’t eliminate all the good parts of you," he observes, "and being in a good environment doesn’t eliminate all the bad parts of you." The demons lingered, and self-medicating with alcohol didn’t help. He writes movingly of this tortuous process, and the challenge of telling his mom and sister about it. Eventually he lands in rehab and finds a therapist who helps him excavate his feelings and dismantle the unhealthy protective mechanisms he’d built up to survive. Afterwards, he is admitted as an undergraduate to Yale University and, later, to Cambridge for graduate school—a happy ending to a tumultuous early life.

Two radical ideas are buried in Henderson’s book. Both upend the assumptions of people across the political spectrum and make this book more far-reaching than your typical childhood trauma memoir.

The first is that education is not a prime escape from challenging circumstances—families matter more. "As someone with more education than I ever expected I’d receive, maybe I’m more qualified to say we give education more importance than we should," Henderson writes. "I’ve come to understand that a warm and loving family is worth infinitely more than the money or credentials I hoped might compensate for them." He says he would swap his educational achievements in a heartbeat for the opportunity for a stable childhood. "A solid, two-parent home is critical for a child’s future," he notes. "There is simply no shortcut."

Henderson takes issue with the idea that education is the best path out of instability and economic hardship because it puts the cart before the horse, if you will. "Unstable environments and unreliable caregivers aren’t bad for children because they reduce their future odds of getting into college or making a living," he argues. "They are bad because the children enduring them experience pain—pain that etches itself into their bodies and brains and propels them to do things in the pursuit of relief that often inflict even more harm." He adds, "Credentials and money are not antidotes to the lingering effects of childhood maltreatment" and "elites are simply too quick to equate education with well-being."

The second radical idea, gleaned from his time at Yale, is that the people who control a great deal of our cultural and political conversations are a rarified elite with little understanding of how most people live their lives. They suffer from what Henderson calls "luxury beliefs," that is, "ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class at little cost, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes."

A few examples of such beliefs include declaring marriage and monogamy passé while marrying and maintaining stable families themselves; demanding the defunding of police while living in safe neighborhoods; and calling for the legalization of drugs while ignorant of the dangerous downstream effects of such a policy. As Henderson notes, in a dramatic understatement, "Many affluent people now promote lifestyles that are harmful to the less fortunate."

Henderson argues that such beliefs have flourished in part because status can no longer be signaled entirely by things. It must be signaled through ideas, which themselves are a proxy for an elite education. "The affluent have decoupled social status from goods and reattached it to beliefs," he writes, and top universities are "crucial for induction into the luxury belief class." It is only the rich who can afford to spend four years learning the special status signaling of words such as "cisgender" or "heteronormative."

And the people on Ivy League campuses are wealthier and more well-protected from the harm of those ideas than in previous eras. Henderson writes, "At Yale, more students come from the top 1 percent of income than from the bottom 60 percent." A telling moment occurred when his mom and sister came to New Haven for his graduation, only to realize they couldn’t afford to eat at any of the restaurants around campus, which had inflated prices and issued "set menus" for graduation weekend, knowing that most wealthy Yale parents wouldn’t blink at paying $120-per-person for a meal.

And yet, as Henderson discovered, "conspicuously lamenting systemic disadvantage seemed to serve as both a signal and reinforcer of membership in this rarified group of future elites." Many also assiduously downplay their wealth. "More than one student quietly confessed to me that they pretended to be poorer than they really were, because they didn’t want the stigma of being thought rich," Henderson writes. Instead, they raise their status "by talking about their privilege," an ironic posture given that, as Henderson correctly notes, "when policies are implemented to combat white privilege, it won’t be Yale graduates who are harmed. Poor white people will bear the brunt."

In another clarifying moment, Henderson recalls his confusion over the uproar on Yale’s campus about students possibly wearing offensive Halloween costumes—and professors who argued that students’ sensitivities were too extreme. "A student from Greenwich, Connecticut, who had attended Phillips Exeter Academy (an expensive private boarding school), explained that I was too privileged to understand the pain these professors had caused," Henderson writes. He diplomatically calls these "inept ideas," but later lowers the boom: "Many students seemed to be exploiting whatever commonalities they had with historically mistreated groups in order to serve their own personal, social, and professional interests."

As an outsider, Henderson sees things that his classmates cannot (Henderson endeared himself to this reviewer forever when, after being told by his Yale classmates that he must watch The West Wing, he reports, "As I worked my way through the first season, I had an uncomfortable realization: The West Wing is not very good"). Some of the hypocrisies Henderson catalogs would be the stuff of parody, if they weren’t in fact real: The parade of students who told Henderson "investment banks were emblematic of capitalist oppression," only for him to discover "they’d attended recruitment sessions for Goldman Sachs." The students who mocked a Korean refugee who attended Columbia University and who had raised concerns about the anti-free speech environment on her campus, only to be told repeatedly to "go back to Pyongyang" on a social media site for Ivy League students.

As Henderson astutely notes, "Ordinarily, the people who visited this webpage would have considered the statement that a refugee should have stayed where she came from to be reprehensible (and it is). But in this instance it was lauded because Park’s comments undermined these people’s view of themselves as morally righteous." So, too, another startling thing that Henderson mentions only in passing—the fact that "a Yale dean emailed me asking whether I would be ‘gentle’ in my discussion of the university" when they found out he was writing a book about his experiences.

Toward the end, Henderson acknowledges that he wrote the book not to disparage his education, for which he is grateful, but with the hope that it might help children like him realize they are not alone. There is no reason to doubt Henderson’s sincerity on this score, and his story has frank and useful advice for just such a reader. But one could argue that there is another group that would benefit as much if not more from reading it: the elite. This group is in dire need of the common-sense observations that Henderson makes throughout his book, most notably, that "in order to avoid misery we have to admit that certain actions and choices are actually in and of themselves undesirable—single parenthood, obesity, substance abuse, crime, and so on—and not simply in need of normalization."

Henderson doesn’t fault institutions such as Yale for their role in perpetuating luxury beliefs, and I would have liked to hear his analysis of how institutions themselves sustain these hypocrisies by rewarding them in their students. Gentle or not, chapters 10 and 11, which cover Henderson’s time at Yale, should, as several reviewers have noted, be required reading for entering students at Ivy Plus colleges. It is a surgical evisceration, performed in an even-handed way, of the class pretensions of the country’s most wealthy and educated people. And it is devastating. "Many of the people who wield the most influence in society have isolated themselves and their children from the world I grew up in, while paying lip service to the challenges of inequality." He’s right. By puncturing the pretensions of those luxury beliefs—while telling an engrossing and heartbreaking tale of childhood—Henderson demands that we stop ignoring the effects such beliefs have had on individuals and on society.

Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class
by Rob Henderson
Gallery Books, 336 pp., $28.99

Christine Rosen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute