This book is the best memoir you will read this year

Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family and Social Class    
by Rob Henderson | Forum, 2024 | 304pp

Even as far away as Sydney, the tent cities on the campuses of elite American universities are front-page news. People watched in amazement as demonstrators occupying buildings at Columbia demanded bottled water and meals as a basic humanitarian aid.

This is a book about the other America, the America where almost no one goes to college, where they care more about scoring a square meal than international politics or checking their white privilege.

Rob Henderson is a miraculous survivor of the chaotic breakdown of the family in the United States. After earning a PhD in psychology at the University of Cambridge in the UK, he has become a well-known pundit. In this compelling, sometimes horrifying, often tear-jerking memoir, he explains how he endured a childhood of chaos and poverty and how he escaped, thanks to one of America’s wokest universities.

Rob’s full name is Robert Kim Henderson. Each of these names, he says, represents an adult who abandoned him. Robert was his Hispanic biological father, who walked away soon after his birth. Kim was his Korean drug addict mother, who was deported when he was three. Henderson was the surname of his adopted father, who rejected him after a year.

His social worker once told Rob that his mother had two other sons -- he has never met them. At the age of three he entered the Los Angeles County foster care system. Over his first few years he lived with seven foster families – some so briefly that he cannot remember them. He was enrolled in six elementary schools before entering third grade. It was a life of dread – dread of being caught at some mischief, dread of moving to a new family, dread of losing familiar faces.

When he was about nine, he was adopted by the Henderson family. They lived in Red Bluff, a hard-scrabble town near Sacramento. They seemed like an ideal family but after a year, husband and wife split up acrimoniously. Rob went with Mom, who had found a new partner, this time a woman named Shelly. “Adults come and they go, I thought. They aren’t reliable. Not even Mom and Dad.”

Living as the son of a lesbian couple might not seem ideal, but they were warm-hearted women who gave him the affection he needed. But when he was 14 or so they broke up as well.

Rob was highly intelligent and a voracious reader. But in Red Bluff, one of the poorest and most dangerous towns in California, he was caught up in aimless risk-taking, vandalism, drugs, and alcohol. His friends ended up dropping out of school or going to jail. Only one of them lived with his biological mother and father. He recalls giving a middle-aged man a savage beating in a fit of road rage as an older teenager.

At the end of high school, he made a choice and it was a good one. He joined the Air Force. The military gave his life a structure and purpose that he had never experienced before. He thrived and was promoted quickly.

But the trauma of his childhood caught up with him. He became an alcoholic. In rehab, he learned that his life was a mess: “Growing up switching families all the time and seeing all the divorces and separations and remarriages had furnished a few lessons about relationships: never get too attached to anyone, be prepared to walk away at a moment’s notice, and everyone is replaceable.”

But rehab did work and he applied to college as a veteran. He was accepted at Yale. And this is the most valuable part of Rob’s story.


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Yale! Of all the woke Ivy League colleges, the wokest. To it he brought a razor-sharp mind, intense curiosity, and an entirely different background. His classmates, mostly a few years younger, were smart but insecure, wealthy but afraid to acknowledge it, upper class but unaware of their privilege.

Rob had entered a parallel universe. He was there when Yale students protested about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. He was bewildered by the students’ invocation of words like “danger”, “pain”, “harm” and “trauma”. He knew what those words meant and the clueless Yalies didn’t.

He observed a gigantic charade of unconscious double standards at Yale. Elite students complaining of being disadvantaged. Lamenting their powerlessness and preparing for a life of privilege. Combining self-righteousness with myopic selfishness.

Reflecting on these bizarre phenomena led him to the central insight of Troubled: “I developed the concept of ‘luxury beliefs,’ which are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class at very little cost, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes.”

He noticed that students at Yale endorsed outlandish moral theories for others -- but not for themselves. “Don’t get high on your own supply, I guess,” he writes. “Many affluent people now promote lifestyles that are harmful to the less fortunate. Meanwhile, they are not only insulated from the fallout; they often profit from it.”

In an era when conspicuous consumption of wealth is despised, the new status symbol has become conspicuously perverse ideas. “Thorstein Veblen’s famous ‘leisure class’ has evolved into the ‘luxury belief class.’”

“Proposing policies that will cost you as a member of the upper class less than they would cost me serves the same function. Advocating for sexual promiscuity, drug experimentation, or abolishing the police are good ways of advertising your membership of the elite because, thanks to your wealth and social connections, they will cost you less than me.”

But Rob was one of the millions who had suffered as a result of elite “luxury beliefs”. “The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows,” he writes.

He had grown up in a world of failed families and it had almost destroyed him. And while his classmates prattled on about polyamory, he knew that belittling the vital importance of the traditional family was an elite form of unthinking cruelty. “I’ve come to understand that a warm and loving family is worth infinitely more than the money or accomplishments I hoped might compensate for them.”

This is a brilliant and insightful book which explains why America’s elite universities have become machines for churning out socially destructive policies. 

What do you think of the notion of “luxury beliefs”? Tell us in the comment box below.  

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator

Image credit: Yale University after a snowfall / Bigstock 


Showing 4 reactions

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  • mrscracker
    One of my children attended an Ivy League University for graduate work & had a similar culture shock. They’d actually saved up college money by dumpster diving produce behind grocery stores & turning it into fancy jams & preserves to sell. They learned as a child that most produce stores dispose of is perfectly edible even if partly dinged or wilted.
  • James Dougall
    “Many affluent people now promote lifestyles that are harmful to the less fortunate. ….” Western libertarianism inflicts family breakdown and harmful addictions on society’s socio-economic fringes: First Nations, indigenous, migrants, etc.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-05-13 09:30:23 +1000
    “Luxury beliefs” sounds suspiciously like “white folks problems”, a phrase I am fond of using.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2024-05-13 08:27:04 +1000