Robert Henderson joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss his book Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today, and he’s been on before, is Rob Henderson. His weekly Substack newsletter on human nature, social class, and a lot more now reaches nearly 50,000 subscribers. He’s written a number of times for City Journal on our artificial intelligence most recently, but also on cancel culture, Western prosperity, and other topics. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Psychology Today, and other prominent outlets. Today, though, we’re going to be discussing his brand new book, Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class, which is out February 20th. It’s a compelling read, so we’re very glad to have Rob on to talk about it. So thanks very much for joining us.

Rob Henderson: Thank you, Brian. Yeah, it’s great to be here and yeah, it’s good to be back on the podcast.

Brian Anderson: Troubled, as I say, it’s a compelling read. It’s really a personal memoir. It begins as a story of abandonment, and you narrate how your father left your mother when you were a child, an infant, and you were then taken from your mother who succumbed to a drug addiction, I think when you were only three. You spent the next four years moving between foster homes in Los Angeles, a number of them, often carrying along your belongings such as they were in a plastic garbage bag. It’s a very striking and upsetting story. Eventually, you gained a permanent family when a rural California couple adopted you—or seemingly permanent family, but then you were plunged into uncertainty again when their marriage dissolved and your adoptive father cut ties with you. So, so many of the parental figures in your life neglected you in some way. How, in your view, did this shape your view of the world and of yourself?

Rob Henderson: Yeah. Well, my early childhood was, I was immersed in the foster care system in Los Angeles, and so the book is about the instability and the turmoil, what it’s like to be a child living in those circumstances and the uncertainty and all of the accompanying emotions around that. One of the points I hope that comes across in the book is that when kids are in that situation, there’s just a lot of anxiety, concern, dread of not knowing where I would be next, not knowing which family I would be with, how long I would be in any particular home or any particular school. And in addition, there’s also the accompanying uncertainty with sometimes I would form a bond with one of my foster siblings, but then they would have to go to another home or their biological relative, a mother or an aunt or someone would re-enter the picture and suddenly I would lose a foster sibling that I had grown close with. And so every single relationship was temporary and fleeting, and as a small child, it’s difficult to understand the reasons behind that. It just feels like enduring relentless chaos.

Brian Anderson: Chaos. Yeah.

Rob Henderson: And then later, the book is also about kind of what’s been happening with working class families across the country. I was adopted, settled into this blue collar, dusty town in Northern California called Red Bluff. This was in the late ‘90s, and I essentially got to witness firsthand as an eight-year-old boy onward being adopted into this family. It was a working class family. My adoptive mother and her husband who at the time was my adoptive father, neither one of them went to college. He was a truck driver, she was an assistant social worker, very much that sort of working-class background. They had a young biological daughter who became my adoptive sister. We remain close today, but I was just seeing between their marriage dissolving and the childhoods, the upbringings of all of my friends in Red Bluff, the guys I went to school with, graduated high school with almost, yeah, all of us were raised in situations other than having two birth parents present.

So friends raised by single moms. One friend raised by a single dad who I lived with my senior year of high school, actually. I moved out when I was 16 and lived with them. And then another friend raised by a grandmother because his mom was on drugs, his dad was in prison, and that’s an increasingly common picture in these neighborhoods and regions across the country.

And so for me, I mean, I think it did sort of lead me to be curious. It led me to be a little bit more maybe observant and introspective and thoughtful in some ways, but I still attempt to get the point across in the book that when you’re immersed in that environment, especially as a young child or a young adolescent, these thoughts are sort of fleeting. I wasn’t a particularly profound intellectual or something when I was a kid. I was just sort of putting these thoughts together. And then later, once I left that environment and obtained a more formal education and was able to sort of step back and evaluate everything that had happened, I realized that my story was emblematic of sort of broader patterns that are unfolding across the country.

Brian Anderson: Well, one thing that does come out in your book is that as a child, an adolescent, you were an avid reader, and this sets you apart in some ways from the friends you just mentioned who were also coming in many cases from fragmented, difficult upbringings. You were particularly drawn, you write, to biographies of people who had overcome hard circumstances. So I wonder where did this interest in reading come from, and how did it play a role in your emotional and intellectual development?

Rob Henderson: Well, I had to teach myself how to read. No one read to me in the foster homes. I was changing schools every few months, and I was just very unfocused and was not in a position to be a good student when I began school. And at one point, my academic performance was so abysmal that the state of California basically mandated me to take an IQ test. They thought I might’ve had a learning disability, and I found it strange in hindsight. At the time I didn’t understand it, but in hindsight I thought it’s just very absurd. I thought that you’re having this kid move around homes all the time, changing schools all the time, not learning from the same teachers, not in a stable environment, and academic performance is not going well. And the first thought is, oh, he must have a learning disability. I mean, it’s put a label on it and then move along and he gets to whatever, like medicalize the issue rather than actually focus on what could really be occurring here.

And so I taught myself how to read eventually when I was in, I think the final foster home I lived in, I was seven and I taught myself to read. I was seven years old, but I was starting with preschool and kindergarten-level books, and once I got the hang of it and started to appreciate what I was actually reading and putting the concepts to the words and everything I found it was just a way to escape the environment of spending some time in someone else’s world or someone else’s mindset. Yeah. Once I moved on to sort of memoirs and biographies and autobiographies, to learn about other people’s lives and realize that the world I was living in, it’s not the only life that exists or the only way to live. I wrote a little bit in the book too about watching television shows and seeing how so many of the television characters were obsessed with going to college, and that sort of planted the idea in my mind that college was this important thing to do because no one else around me was interested in that.

But yeah, to my knowledge, I was the only one of my friends who had this interest. There was probably some innate curiosity to some extent. Some people have asked me, have my friends read my book or the manuscript, and some of them have read the parts about themselves. Everyone’s interested in themselves, but none of them are going to read the whole, that’s just not who they are. These guys aren’t readers. They’re not going to sit down and read a book cover to cover. Whereas, for whatever reason, maybe curiosity, maybe because I just needed some sort of mental escape, I developed that practice, that habit, and it’s stuck with me to this day.

Brian Anderson: Sure. Were any particular biographical figures especially important to you?

Rob Henderson: I mean, I mentioned a few in the book that I really enjoyed. I mean, a lot of them were pretty grim or bleak. I read the book Raging Bull, which later became that the Scorsese movie with Robert De Niro, but it started as a book written, I think in the 1970s by this former middleweight boxer, Jake LaMotta, and came from this rough Italian immigrant background and just getting into fights, and there was a lot of abuse in his early life. Other memoir, yeah, I read Bruce Lee’s biography, Muhammad Ali, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Yeah, I mean, there’s kind of a common thread there of sort of young, male memoirists or subjects of biographies that overcame some kind of difficulty or struggle or were able to rise above their circumstances. And yeah, I mean, I don’t know if this was like, I was consciously drawn to it because I saw myself in them, but I think, yeah, by the time I reached high school, I did start to connect those dots and start to think about how yeah, if these guys could do it, then maybe I could too.

Brian Anderson: You mentioned you weren’t the best of students. I think you also acknowledged that your behavior was at times reckless. So maybe say a little bit about that and then the next step that really made a huge difference in your life, which was enlisting in the Air Force at 17. So what led you to think about a military path at that point, and what did that do for you?

Rob Henderson: Well, yeah, I mean, I was a reckless kid. By the time I was nine after the separation, the divorce of my adoptive parents, and there was a lot more sort of drama and just a lot of turmoil that I cover in the book. But by that point, at age nine—I started drinking beer when I was five. I started drinking tequila when I was nine. I was smoking weed and doing drugs and all of this. It was just sort of swirling around me in this town, and my friends were involved in a lot of this stuff too. So we would vandalize buildings or later, once we were old enough to get our license, just a lot of drinking and driving and fistfights and just ways to, thrill seeking, ways to sort of forget about our predicament and the kind of trajectory that we were on.

And yeah, I decided to enlist. I grew up without a father, but there were two older sort of male figures in my life that suggested the military as a possibility. Well, there were actually three, but two my senior year of high school that I think made a difference and led to my decision. One was my friend’s father who I had mentioned before that I lived with them my senior year of high school. He had been in the Air Force, and then my high school history teacher was also in the Air Force. He showed me a picture of him on his computer. There was an old picture of him in his uniform, and I thought that looked pretty cool. So it was just a coincidence that both of them happened to be sort of older adult male figures in my life. Both of them had been in the Air Force, and so I thought, oh, okay, well, I’ll just join that branch because what they did, and there was just a lot of, by 17, I was a little bit more reflective in thinking about where my life was going.

I had two jobs in high school, one as a bus boy and a dishwasher at a restaurant, and then as a bag boy at a grocery store, and I was making minimum wage, and it was fine as far as jobs went for a 17-year-old kid, but some of my co-workers were in their mid to late 20s. These guys, they were doing the same job as me, and at the time, I kind of thought they were cool because they would buy beer for me and my friends or maybe get us some weed or some other stuff. But I did think it was odd that why would a 28-year-old guy want to hang out with a bunch of high schoolers and is that who I wanted to be when I was 28? And the answer was no.

And I thought, well, what are my options before me? My grades were abysmal. I had a 2.2 GPA, graduated near the bottom of my class, was not going to college. I wouldn’t have even known how to begin the application process. Just, it wasn’t on my radar or something that people around me were doing, but the military was an option. And so yeah, I enlisted. I had to have my adoptive mom sign what amounted to basically a permission slip for me to go because I was underage. So I was the youngest guy in my military unit in basic training. And yeah, that organizational structure supplied something that I was lacking when I was a kid. Just the discipline, the focus, the consistent goals, the predictability of having people around me who were motivated, who were driven, who yeah, wanted to succeed and wanted the best for themselves and for the people around them. And that was kind of a new situation for me to be in.

And so once I was there, I was able to focus and excel and do well, and I’d been weighed down so much by all of the setbacks and the predicaments of my early life that by the time, once I was able to escape from that and get away from that environment, yeah, I did pretty well and was selected for early promotion. I was doing well on the, to do the exams to get promoted and for qualification for various tasks on the job and so forth. So yeah, it ended up going pretty well.

I mean, there were some setbacks and hiccups along the way, but the military was probably the ideal environment for someone like me. And I juxtapose it to some extent with, so in the book, I had a couple of friends who went to prison and I dwell at length on the story of one of them. In the book, I call him Tyler, and he went to prison and how both of us found ourselves in this extremely rigid environment, and we had this sort of love-hate relationship with it, where after he got out, after he served his first sentence, he was telling me how it was boring and he hated it, and it was just mind-numbing and dull to be behind bars and be in that situation. But some part of him actually longed for that structure and that predictability and just sort of knowing the organization and the hierarchy and everything involved with it.

And I felt the same way actually about my military experience that especially when I first entered, I really didn’t enjoy it very much. Just to be 17 and have every aspect of your life tightly controlled and regulated in that way. But the longer I was in and the more I grew to appreciate that actually this has probably been a good experience for me, but it was voluntary. That was the difference. Right. His situation was involuntary, whereas mine was voluntary. And yeah, in many ways the sort of underlying point of that part of the book is that a lot of young men crave structure. They need some discipline, they need goals to strive for. And when you have teenage boys who have grown up without almost any oversight, a lot of neglect, a lot of kind of abandonment, yeah, they will act out and behave recklessly. And the best thing would be for some of that behavior to be sort of contained and channeled in a productive way.

Brian Anderson: Well, following your military service in the Air Force, you then decided to go to college. You actually earned a place at Yale, and as you note in the book, your concerns about being intellectually limited or coming from a limited background compared with others at the school faded as you encountered some of these other students’ notions about lifestyle, about victimhood. Many of their ideas in fact undermined upward mobility for people from the working class.

Rob Henderson: Yeah.

Brian Anderson: So I wonder, how did your experience at Yale and your interactions with these students help you develop a concept that you’ve become noted for, the idea of luxury beliefs, and maybe just, I think we talked about that on the last time you were on the show, but what are a few examples of luxury beliefs and how can they really become a problem for those who were perhaps coming from a difficult background?

Rob Henderson: Yeah, I coined this term luxury beliefs in 2019 when I was in grad school doing my PhD, but the idea behind it had been kind of lingering in the back of my mind, and I’d been sort of informally developing it and later, more formally developing it, but it started in 2015 when I arrived on campus at Yale. So I left the Air Force in August of 2015 and started classes in September, and then in October, famously what became known as the Halloween costume controversy erupted on campus, and all of these students were calling for these two professors to be fired. This has been well documented in the media and the charge against these professors were just so overblown and outrageous. All they did was defend freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the students and some of the faculty and some of the other people, some of the more formal official positions, administrators and so on, they agreed that these professors were defending, I don’t know, bigotry or racism or something, and I didn’t understand it, but this was so bewildering as an experience to me and the language that these students were using.

I was seeing the sons and daughters of millionaires at one of the wealthiest universities on Earth claim that they were in danger or that they were in pain or being traumatized, using this very kind of medicalized language, despite the fact that none of them have probably ever experienced any form of serious material hardship in their life. So I just found it very unserious and I don’t know, just embarrassing almost. And so as I began to speak with these students and learn more about their beliefs, and to be fair, this isn’t all, not all students at elite institutions think this way, but it is kind of the fashionable dogma on many of these campuses and many graduates of these institutions. These luxury beliefs, ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class when inflicting costs on the lower class as well. I would hear from students that monogamy was outdated or that it was a patriarchal institution and that we should evolve beyond it.

It’s time to abandon marriage as an institution and as an ideal. And then I would ask students about their own upbringing and find that almost every single one of them were raised by both of their birth parents. And then I’d ask them what they planned to do in their own lives as they got older, what were their plans for family formation? And they would tell me, “Oh, for me, I’ll probably get married. I’ll probably have kids, and that’ll be sort of the path I’ll take, but it shouldn’t have to be for everyone. I do think that there are questions about this, and we should be rethinking and reimagining the institution of marriage.”

So they’re telling me that they themselves benefited from this age-old institution of marriage. It’s not a coincidence that almost every single student at a place like Yale is raised in an intact family, and then they themselves plan to carry this benefit forward for their own children to be raised in what is statistically the ideal environment for kids to thrive and to flourish and to do well in their lives. But then their official public stance is that, oh, people shouldn’t do this, or they should rethink it, or we should get beyond it, get past it.

More recently, the defund the police movement is another luxury belief. People who themselves live in safe neighborhoods or gated communities or can afford to hire private security. So clearly in their actions, they believe that there should be some form of law enforcement and protection, but then their official public position is that, oh, people shouldn’t have this available to them and that if lawbreakers want to break the law, that there shouldn’t be any recourse for those who can’t afford to live in a gated community or hire private security. And so there was just this repeated duplicity and this contradiction in people’s actions versus their beliefs. I saw this on campus with students who claimed that investment banks were emblems of capitalist oppression. And then I would see those same students at recruitment sessions for Goldman Sachs, and it’s like, okay, well, it’s just at a certain point, I start to wonder how much of this is authentic, how much of it is malicious or strategic?

And I think it’s a bit of both. I think a lot of people, perhaps they do have good intentions, but I also try to make the point in those chapters of the book where I’m describing my experiences at Yale, that if you are a current or future member of this segment of society, the ruling class, the upper class, just outsized economic and social influence, if you have those advantages, you also carry responsibilities, which is to think through the beliefs that you espouse that could potentially be implemented into policy or be promoted in the culture. And don’t just repeat things because they sound good or make you look like a virtuous person, but also seriously consider what would be the material effects on people who are less fortunate than yourself.

And so there are a lot of moving parts to the luxury beliefs idea. I draw on frameworks from sort of classic work in sociology and more recent work in empirical social psychology. And there are different sort of frameworks bolstering this concept, but that’s the gist of it, is these beliefs that make people appear to be virtuous, or maybe they think in their own minds they’re doing the right thing, but when they actually are applied in people’s lives who aren’t in a fortunate position, that this can cause harm. That’s a sort of core concept of the luxury beliefs idea, is that the believer is often sheltered from the consequences of his or her belief.

Brian Anderson: Right. In that context, you also write in the book that we’re too quick to equate education with wellbeing, and in your own case, that you would trade your academic achievements, and they’re considerable now because you’ve received a Ph.D. in psychology from University of Cambridge as well as the Yale degree, that you would exchange those for a stable and loving upbringing if you could rewind your life. So I wonder why do you say that? And more of a policy or cultural question, what can we do to cultivate durable and caring families?

Rob Henderson: Right. Yeah. I do make that point in the preface of the book and towards the end as well. I took this childhood instability scale that’s widely used in a lot of developmental psychology research, and I scored in the top 1 percent of most unstable families in the U.S. or unstable upbringings, unstable childhoods. And as far as my academic pedigree goes, it’s also probably in the top 1 percent as far as something like 1 percent of the population has a Ph.D. and has a degree from one of these kinds of institutions. But yeah, when I received my degree from Yale, I note towards the end of the book that when I received this degree and I considered the achievements that I had earned and that I’d worked so hard for, but then I considered just how much chaos and disrepair I had experienced up until that point that I’m trying to make the most of it.

I’m trying to take the experiences I had and the platform that I have and the credentials and whatever expertise that people confer to me to shine a light on those experiences for so many other kids. I mean, that’s sort of the best way I can think to pay it forward. But in hindsight, yeah, I would rather not have experienced all of this. Someone had suggested to me, “Well, all of those experiences probably helped shape your character or built character, made you a more interesting person.” But I would probably give up a little bit of character in exchange for having had maybe a little bit more of a stable or conventional upbringing.

And so I think yeah, for most kids, right, like I mean, if you find any kid in a foster home or in a unstable single parent environment or something, and they’re not feeling great about their lives, but if you tell them, “Hey, I have this crystal ball and it says you’re going to go to a fancy college and you’re going to get a pretty high paying job and you’re going to be a successful person,” I think most of those kids, they would just say like, “Well, that’s great, but I wish I was able to spend more time with my mom, or I wish I knew who my dad was,” or I don’t think kids are thinking in that way, that we spend a lot of time sort of looking at metrics on paper of how many kids are going to college and how many kids are experiencing material upward mobility, but we’re not actually thinking about sort of the disparity in life satisfaction or happiness or subjective wellbeing for kids in different contexts.

No one really seems to pay much attention to how kids actually feel in these situations and we’re looking more at what happens after they turn 18 than what’s going on in their lives before they turn 18. And I hope that with my book, especially because the first half of it or so is spent on my upbringing before the military, before Yale, before all of that. So the first half just concentrates on what I was actually feeling and what I was going through during those early years and my friends as well, and that we should be also thinking about what’s going on in these kids’ personal lives, their interior lives.

And then for the policy question, yeah, I mean, I think first that we can just be honest about this. I mean, I do hope to some extent that this book will sort of force a conversation on family instability and what’s happening with kids across the country and to just be honest about it. And then also to call out the kind of duplicity and elite hypocrisy that we see coming from people who go to elite institutions and who get to exert a disproportionate effect on the discourse in the conversation and how so much of it is focused on education and economics and inequality and poverty, and sure, a lot of those things are important, but also just promoting good values and trying to promote families that will be beneficial for children.

I didn’t tell this. I mean, I tell a bit of this story in the book, but I mean I could’ve added a bit more of this, but within my adoptive family, my grandparents were very poor, but they were married for 60 plus years and had four happy kids. Those kids grew up and all four of those kids got married and then they got divorced. Then their kids are my cousins, my generation, they have kids, but none of them are married, and some of them have kids with different partners and kids they don’t speak to or see. And then those kids born in the 2000s, early 2000s, I mean now they’re growing up in even more chaotic environments where just no one’s married, no one really knows whose parents, whose fathers.

I mean, it’s just a lot of disrepair in families across the country. And I think we could do more to just focus on how do we model good behavior for parents, for families, for kids. And you can’t just give people money and then expect that to naturally repair sort of decades of cultural messaging about every family is equal and there’s no judging, and however people want to raise kids is fine. And that’s the message that we hear. I mean, those are coming from people who themselves are often married and are attempting to live good values.

There’s this line that I use, I actually don’t know who originally said it, but the luxury belief class, as I like to call them, they walk the ‘50s and talk the ‘60s. And I think we could, if they’re going to walk the ‘50s, they could also talk a bit of the ‘50s as well and actually say that marriage is a good thing, and to get a bit more of that sort of elite cultural messaging to spread and to be promoted a bit more so that if you, I mean, this is consistent research. I mean, the findings are consistent that elite opinion does hold disproportionate sway in sort of the opinions and attitudes of the country overall. It does sort of trickle down and trickle throughout and influence the way people think about things. So I think folks like Melissa Kearney, author of The Two-Parent Privilege, could help and to yeah, just be honest about what’s good for people.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Rob. The book again is tremendous, really important. I think it’ll get a lot of attention. It’s called Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class. It’s going to be released on February 20th. You can also find Rob Henderson’s work on the City Journal website for the pieces he’s done for us. That’s at We’ll link to his author page in the description. You can also find him on X @robkhenderson, and you can also find City Journal on X @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. Again, Rob Henderson, great to talk with you. Thanks for coming on. And I encourage everybody to go out and pick up this important book.

Rob Henderson: Thank you, Brian.

Photo: Shiv Mer/iStock

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