Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class, by Rob Henderson (Gallery Books, 336 pp., $26.09)
In Rob Henderson’s first recounted memory in his new memoir, Troubled, he is three years old, screaming in terror and clinging to his mother as two policemen wrestle handcuffs onto her wrists. He had no idea why this was happening, of course; the scuffle likely had something to do with his mother’s incorrigible drug addiction. A Korean-born college dropout, she relied on prostitution to support her habit. When she and Rob weren’t living in a car, she would tie him to a chair in the apartment to attend to her customers. Her other two boys, Rob’s brothers, had different fathers; Rob would never know them or learn what became of them. He has no pictures, no letters, no trinkets—not a scrap to give substance to the phantom family he knows only through a few official documents and unverifiable rumors.
Hard-knocks orphan sagas are common in world literature, but Henderson’s story is extraordinary—and not because of cruelty, loss, truancy, and addiction, though there is plenty of that. It’s not extraordinary because of an uplifting story of triumph over adversity, though Troubled is a particularly impressive example of that, too; now in his early thirties, Henderson has an undergraduate degree from Yale and a Ph.D. in psychology at Cambridge. No, Troubled is extraordinary because of its author’s ability to mine both the grief of his childhood and the challenges of his rise into an elite world.
After Henderson was taken from his mother, the only constant in his young life was Gerri, a social worker who every few weeks would appear at one of the seven foster homes through which he cycled. She often would show up without warning to take him to a new home, hauling a garbage bag to pack his few possessions.
One of the first of those new homes was supervised by a foster mother either unable or unwilling to tend to the seven foster kids given to her by the state of California. The household was a Darwinian jungle of barely socialized children, the effects of which Henderson realized as a young adult, when people noticed his crude table manners—relics of having to wolf down meals before an older kid could steal the food off his plate. For months, Henderson would get no lunch, because his foster mother failed to fill out the required forms; it never occurred to him to complain, since he didn’t know to whom he could complain. His next home was even worse. There, he had no one, save a pitiless foster mother who, seeking to teach him a lesson, watched idly as he almost drowned. Henderson had attended six different elementary schools by the third grade. It’s little surprise that, as a child, he refused to answer the questions of psychologists who might otherwise have noticed his untapped cognitive gifts.
Solace seemed to arrive in the form of a young,Seventh Day Adventist couple and their young daughter from Red Bluff, a down-and-out town outside Sacramento. At first, the kindly couple seemed like characters in a fairy tale. They told him to call them Mom and Dad; his new sister happily shared both her toys and piggy bank; they threw him a birthday celebration—the first in his life—complete with cake and a shiny new bike.
Alas, the idyll was short-lived; within a year, Henderson’s adoptive parents had filed for divorce after his adoptive mother’s lesbian affair. His adoptive father, who had played ball with him and was the first male to engage him in long conversations, cut Rob off, seeking revenge against his wife. A bit of stability came from Shelley, his adoptive mother’s new partner, one of the few people committed to giving Henderson a predictable family life. She made him nightly dinners, assigned him household chores, oversaw his homework, and initiated weekend family games of Monopoly. But that respite, too, was shattered when Shelley suffered a serious injury, putting the family in financial jeopardy and straining her relationship with the woman Henderson continued to call Mom. When Mom and Shelley broke up, both of them moved away, while Henderson’s sister moved in with the icy stranger he pitifully still called “Dad.” The fragile Henderson family was no more.
At first, Henderson’s adolescence didn’t look promising. He and his friends entertained themselves with variously risky and illegal behavior: choking games, stealing, drunk driving, drugs, and arson. He spent “half his waking hours trying to find booze or weed,” a habit reflected in his grades. His only glimmer of promise was his love for books, which he scavenged from local thrift stores; he read Black Boy, This Boy’s Life, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, finding it “soothing to read about others who had experienced hardship and found ways to rise above it.”
His life took a turn for the better when, lacking alternatives, he enlisted in the Air Force. Conventional wisdom has it that boys like Rob learn self-discipline and responsibility from military life, but Henderson has a different take. The military didn’t “transform” him, he argued—it merely stopped him from becoming a self-destructive basket case. Most kids with his background are not so lucky.
Before he left for a military assignment in Germany, he met up with a childhood friend, just released from prison. “Life was simpler there,” the friend muses about his existence behind bars. “Sometimes I wish I could go back.” By the time he wrote his book, two of Henderson’s best high school friends were in jail. He knew how easily he could have been there with them.
He avoided that fate in part with the help of a veterans’ program, and his increasing self-awareness. Later, he was accepted at Yale University. For all elite universities’ problems—Henderson spotted them quickly—Yale was rocket fuel for his under-exercised brain. Henderson sounded like the kind of student that professors pray for but rarely see: mature, mindful, and hungry for knowledge. He didn’t just “do the reading;” he tested the ideas he encountered against own experiences and observations.
Henderson’s restless mind had been particularly stimulated by a 1983 book called Class: A Guide Through America’s Status System by the iconoclastic historian-critic Paul Fussell. Class opens Henderson’s eyes to the distance between forlorn places like Red Bluff and the towns of his Yale classmates’ upper middle-class upbringings. He noticed more than the obvious markers of privilege, like the students in $900 Canadian Goose jackets who strode around campus; he discovered the more subtle ways people like him were kept from moving up. Voguish words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender,” for instance, signaled that the speaker was a member of the educated class. Fussell had remarked that upper-class people often name their pets after literary or historical figures to flaunt their education. Sure enough, one of the first Yalies Henderson met had a pet cat named “Learned Claw,” a play on the name of jurist Learned Hand.
Henderson became fascinated by “class divides and social hierarchies,” adding Pierre Bourdeau, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen to his reading list. His primary source, however, was Yale itself. In Red Bluff, hardly anyone went to college or even aspired to go; at Yale, he watched The Sopranos and was struck by Carmella’s dedication to getting daughter Meadow into Columbia. College, he realized, was the most powerful class signifier of all.
Troubled’s penultimate chapter, which might be subtitled “What I Learned at Yale,” is a tour de force that in a more rational world would be required reading for all incoming college students at elite schools. In it, Henderson developed his now widely cited concept of “luxury beliefs.” Yale students, appearing aware of their own advantages and compassionate to the downtrodden, would proudly repeat ideas that the boy from Red Bluff knew would harm the marginalized. Many of the parents of his childhood friends were drug addicts, yet his college peers cheered on drug liberalization, for example. And why not? It seemed enlightened and cost people like them nothing.
For Henderson, the most painful luxury beliefs were those that undermined families and the childhood stability he had so desperately craved. “Monogamy is kind of outdated,” a Yale graduate announced. She admitted that she had grown up with both parents and hoped someday to marry—monogamously, of course. In such people’s minds, to acknowledge the benefits of two-parent families and the stability that they are more likely to confer is to be insensitive to less fortunate families with different family structures. This attitude gets things backward, Henderson writes: “It’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision—like young children.” Luxury believers pay no price for ignoring the harms they endorse. In fact, it’s the opposite—they gain social currency at places like Yale. “The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows,” Henderson said.
One of the cringiest moments in a chapter full of them comes after a professor challenged an administrative letter, telling students to be careful that their Halloween costumes don’t offend anyone. This prompts a strong student counterreaction. A student from tony Greenwich, Connecticut, who went to boarding school at Exeter, “explained” to the orphan from Nowheresville, California that he was “too privileged to understand the pain these professors had caused.”
I like to think students like her will read Troubled, and that the scales will fall from their eyes. But as Henderson knows, luxury beliefs are a powerful drug.
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