Book Recommendation: Troubled


Rob Henderson’s Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class will probably stir you to reflect upon your own upbringing. Were you surrounded by love and composure, or was your childhood marked by chaos?

A stable, loving family primes a child to focus on success rather than mere survival. That much is obvious, but some people defy the odds.

Some are born into loving, healthy families, yet they somehow manage to struggle. Give them a shiny new Porsche on the road of life and they will produce a flaming wreck at the side of a dead-end street.

Others are born into unrest and mistreatment, yet they thrive. Give them a rusted-out Pinto and they’ll drive it to the stars.

Rob’s memoir is a shining example of the latter. Troubled covers his journey through the dreadful California foster care system, his service in the U.S. Air Force, and his success at Yale and Cambridge. However, the book never reads as a monument to its author. It’s an account of events and people, few of whom are easily categorized as heroes or villains.

Rob’s journey is captivating. That’s one aspect of the book. Here’s the other: his bumpy road led him to the notion of luxury beliefs, a term synonymous with his name. He describes luxury beliefs as:

“…ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class at very little cost, while often inflicting costs on lower classes.”

When Rob left the working-class world of the Air Force and joined the upper-class world of Yale University, he found himself in an unfamiliar social circle with peculiar sensibilities. His outsider status gave him a penetrating view of their social conventions. He was like a traveler who experiences heightened perception of unfamiliar food in a foreign land.

In particular, he noticed that some of his classmates’ spoken sentiments didn’t match their behaviors. For example, he recounted an exchange with a classmate who told him, “Monogamy is kind of outdated.”

“I asked her what her background is and if she planned to marry. She said she came from an affluent family, was raised by both of her parents, and that, yes, she personally intended to have a monogamous marriage—but quickly added that marriage shouldn’t have to be for everyone. She was raised in a stable two-parent family, just like the vast majority of our classmates. And she planned on getting married herself. But she insisted that traditional families are old-fashioned and that society should evolve beyond them.”

Certainly his classmate knows children benefit from stable families, and monogamy is an efficient path to stability. It’s people like Rob, born into instability, who are least likely to find their way to places like Yale.

Why, then, would his classmate claim society should “evolve” beyond a convention that directly benefitted her? Why wouldn’t she want to share the wealth with people outside her circle, and why wouldn’t she be vocal about it? Rob’s answer:

“The chief purpose of luxury beliefs is to indicate the believer’s social class and education. When an affluent person expresses support of defunding the police, drug legalization, open borders, looting, permissive sexual norms, or uses terms like white privilege, they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, ‘I am a member of the upper class.’”

Luxury beliefs also preserve the upper class’s status by exacting costs on lower classes. Rob might not explain things in precisely those terms, but that’s how I read it, and that’s what I see in the world.

For instance, defunding police departments is a popular stance among the people Rob calls the luxury belief class. People who live in safe enclaves and exclusive zip codes have the privilege of dismantling urban law enforcement because, as Rob points out, crime disproportionately affects poor people who live there.

“…to not stop criminals is to victimize the poor. Yet the movement to abolish the police is disproportionately championed by affluent people. A key inhibition against crime is the belief that our legal system is legitimate. Which means that those who promote the idea that we live in an unjust society also help to cultivate crime.… The poor reap what the luxury belief class sow.”

Rob was not hostile about the tastes and values of his affluent classmates, but nor was he particularly kind about the matter. That made me wonder: having satisfied the academic requirements of their world, would they count him among their own? Would he want to be counted among them? I asked him; here’s what he told me:

“They wouldn’t count me among them. This is just the reality of social class. Imagine a downwardly mobile PhD who gets a job as a cabbie. Would he be accepted among working class taxi drivers as being one of them? Not really. Just as Tom Buchanan wouldn’t accept Jay Gatsby as a fellow blue blood, modern day elites won’t truly accept parvenu members. You are the class you were born into. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to improve yourself.”

The dispassionate tone of that personal communication echoes throughout his book. While he is critical of certain upper-crust beliefs and behaviors, at no point does Rob invite the reader to detest the people who hold those beliefs.

I’m not sure the cultural elite will return the favor. An early review of the book by Kirkus (hardly a playground for the struggling classes) suggested Troubled might be the prelude to a career in politics. That interpretation reduces Rob’s careful, first-hand commentary to an opportunistic stunt. What a clever, cultured insult.

Or perhaps it’s just cynical and defensive… the type of conclusion an affluent intellectual might draw after seeing his or her own ambitious nature laid bare, and feeling the need to project that nature back onto the author.

Any psychologist worth his salt understands this: behind every observable double-standard lies an unconfessed single-standard. Luxury beliefs is a rock-solid estimate of the singular principle underlying the double-standards held by the most affluent and influential members of society.

If there’s a weakness in Rob’s approach, it’s that some of those affluent people are kindhearted true-believers who will be untouched by the logic of his argument, though I suppose that’s an inevitable obstacle rather than a shortcoming in his observations.

Consider his classmate—the woman who argued against monogamy despite its benefit to children regardless of class. Maybe she’s a sweet person repulsed by suffering no matter how distant it may be from her world. Maybe she truly believes she’s part of the solution, and Rob’s forthright indictment of her beliefs will repel her. No decent person wants to believe they’re part of the problem.

On the other hand, maybe Rob didn’t write the book for her.

His luxury-beliefs hypothesis aside, Rob’s memoir is an inside tour through the demoralizing foster care system and his particular path to a bright future. It’s also a touching account of the people who did their level best to help him along the way.

It leaves the reader on a hopeful note: origins are not destiny. Even if Rob’s book doesn’t leave you with a new perspective on class and society, Troubled will compel you to take inventory of your own past, present, and future.

Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class will release on February 20th. You can pre-order it today.