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14 February 2024

The making of an American conservative

Rob Henderson’s memoir Troubled paints a bleak picture of poverty in the US. Are liberal “luxury beliefs” to blame?

By Pippa Bailey

In January Rob Henderson posted a newsletter to his Substack: “Book Stores Refuse to Host an Event for My Book”. No major bookshop in New York City or San Francisco would host an event for his new memoir, Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family and Social Class, he explained – perhaps because of his support for Jordan Peterson, or because the content of the book was too polarising. “I am an unwelcome author,” he wrote. For the first 250 pages of Troubled, I struggled to imagine why that would be the case.

Rob Henderson was born in 1990 in Los Angeles to a drug-addicted mother who, he later learned from social worker reports, would “tie me to a chair with a bathrobe belt so that she could get high in another room without being interrupted”. When he was a baby, they lived in her car. Henderson’s earliest memory is of hiding in his mother’s lap from two police officers. After being arrested, she was deported to her birthplace, Seoul, South Korea. Henderson, who never knew his father, entered the Los Angeles County foster system aged three.

He lived in seven different foster homes, run with varying degrees of cruelty, in just over five years. “Each time I moved, each time another adult let me down, and each time I let myself down, it was like tossing a Mentos into a Coke, sealing it, and believing everything would be fine.” Henderson was adopted, but his adoptive parents later divorced, and his father refused to see him. The rest of his adolescence followed a similar pattern of temporary stability and disintegration.

Troubled is full of stories about underage drinking, fighting, vandalism, and the easy availability of cigarettes, weed, meth and prescription drugs. “It seemed like half our waking hours were spent trying to find booze or weed or God knows what else.” But there are also glimmers of the man who would go on to study at Yale and Cambridge. Having failed to learn to read at a succession of elementary schools, Henderson taught himself, and from then on found books “an escape from my memories, from my foster families, from my feelings”.

On finishing high school, Henderson joined the Air Force, which gave him the structure he had lacked. But while his professional life was progressing, “my inner life was deteriorating”. In a more stable environment, the emotional damage Henderson had long suppressed began to make itself known, and he drank to disengage. He ended up in intensive care and then rehab.

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Henderson recounts all this in matter-of-fact prose, which, far from stripping his tumultuous tale of emotional impact, makes it more shocking. The central thesis of the first part of Troubled is that a stable childhood is more valuable than family income and education for positive outcomes. His position is backed by research. A 2012 paper in the journal Developmental Psychology found that children raised in low-income families were no more likely than those in wealthier families to engage in risky behaviours or commit crimes as adults, but children raised in unstable environments are “significantly more likely to engage in harmful or destructive behaviours later in life” than those raised in stable homes.

It may be unfashionable to describe education, long held up as the engine of social mobility, as a “red herring”, and unpopular – even discriminatory – to claim that one family set-up is superior to another. But Henderson’s is a vital social message, and he seems more qualified than most to deliver it. It certainly does not seem so controversial as to render him an “unwelcome author”. Then, Troubled turns to Yale.

The 20th-century French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said that a “triadic structure” of schooling, language and taste was required to be accepted by the upper class. Henderson’s lack of mastery of all three – what Bourdieu called “ease” – marked him out as different from his peers. He was amazed to find real Pop-Tarts on offer in the military dining hall (at home, he’d only ever eaten unbranded versions), while his fellow servicemen were unfazed. At Yale, his classmates looked at him as though he were an “alien” when he hadn’t heard of a news event; he never learned to keep up with current affairs.

Henderson has said his conservatism was shaped by his childhood disadvantage – drawing comparisons with the US senator and Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance, whose tough-love account of his triumph over the backward Appalachian values of his upbringing made him a conservative icon. (Vance also enlisted in the military and later attended Yale, and has praised Troubled.) In the Ivy League, Henderson’s developing politics put him at odds with his fellow students. He was baffled by the language of campus discourse – words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender” – and by protests against a professor, Erika Christakis, who suggested the university administration had been wrong to send an email advising students to be culturally sensitive in their choice of Halloween costumes.

“It was odd,” he writes, “to see relatively advantaged people occupying elite institutions while seeing themselves as somehow beleaguered.” He skewers what he sees as the hypocrisy of his peers, who, for instance, promote polyamory but are personally committed to monogamy, comparing it to the Big Tech bros who limit their own children’s access to technology.

The final chapters of Troubled build upon an article Henderson wrote in the New York Post in 2019 about what he calls “luxury beliefs”. Now that luxury commodities (“trendy clothes and other products”) are more easily available to the masses – a claim that passes unevidenced – the wealthy elite instead confer status upon themselves by espousing certain beliefs: monogamy is outdated; drugs should be legalised; defund the police. (Henderson doesn’t need to use the words “liberal”, “woke” and “virtue-signalling” for the political context to be clear.) Such views, Henderson argues, are easy for the upper classes to hold because they are not harmed by them. He has found a receptive audience for this idea on the right: Suella Braverman criticised the “luxury-beliefs brigade” in her Tory conference speech last autumn.

Some of these causal links are logical: defunding the police, for example, would be likely to adversely affect the poor, who are most often the victims of crime and who, polling shows, are against the proposal. Others require deeper thought. Decriminalising drugs would not harm the rich, Henderson writes, for whom they are a “recreational pastime”, but “for the poor they are often a gateway to further pain”. But what of the thousands of families already divided by their criminalisation, with parents incarcerated on drug charges?

The “luxury belief” most relevant to Henderson’s experience is that “children are equally likely to thrive in all family structures”. He posits that the sexual freedom of the 1960s led to family breakdown among the poor, while the affluent who had championed liberalisation continued in conventional family units. But although changing attitudes towards sex may be a factor in family breakdown, what of entrenched inequality, housing crises, a changing jobs market, generational cycles? And should parents stay in bad marriages even if that means their children witnessing verbal and physical abuse?

The problem is not necessarily that Henderson’s theory is wrong, but that not enough space is given to substantiating it, or placing it in the context of postwar America’s complex social shifts. Troubled is a book of two halves – and should, perhaps, have been two books.

Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class
Rob Henderson
Swift Press, 290pp, £16.99

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[See also: Is another American revolution inevitable?]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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