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10 April 2024

Rob Henderson: “I guess there is survivor’s guilt”

The writer and thinker on reliving his traumatic childhood, campus cancel culture, and the rise of “luxury beliefs”.

By Sophie McBain

When the American writer Rob Henderson was a baby, his mother would tie him to a chair so that she could get high uninterrupted. He was taken into foster care in Los Angeles at the age of three. His mother, who was South Korean, was deported and he lost all contact. He has never known his father. Henderson spent years being shuttled between foster homes, where he was frequently neglected and abused, until he was adopted at the age of seven. His adoptive family lived in Red Bluff, a low-income, high-crime small town in California, and for a while he experienced the familial warmth and stability that he’d always been denied. Then his parents’ marriage ended, his father cut him off and his life began to fall apart again. He believes he might have gone off the rails completely had he not signed up to the military. After thriving in the Air Force, he won a scholarship to Yale and from there moved to Cambridge, where he recently completed his PhD, and where I met him one afternoon in mid-March in a church café.

Henderson, who is 34, had a formal, military bearing, wore a crisp blue suit and had his hair neatly parted. His first book, Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family and Social Class, published in February, is both a harrowing account of his early years and an insider-outsider critique of the political culture he first encountered at Yale. As an undergraduate, Henderson realised that while almost all his peers in Red Bluff came from broken homes, almost all his Yale classmates had parents who were still together. These children of the elite had ideas about privilege and victimhood that he found baffling. At a party, an Asian American student who learned that Henderson didn’t also have a “classic”, super-strict Asian mum, concluded: “Ah! So, you didn’t have a traumatic childhood.” Henderson didn’t correct her.

Henderson is an interesting and provocative thinker, whose writing has caught the eye of prominent conservatives. His book was blurbed by the pro-Trump senator and Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance, and the psychologist and right-wing commentator Jordan Peterson. And he is a fellow at the University of Austin, the “free speech” university founded by figures including Niall Ferguson, Pano Kanelos and Bari Weiss, for students who “dare to think”. When he moved to Cambridge in 2018 he was disillusioned with elite US universities – where he perceived rampant cancel culture and a rising intolerance for ideas that challenge progressive orthodoxy. He imagined that Cambridge would be full of “stern Oxbridge dons” too absorbed by research to bother with culture wars. Then, soon after he arrived, the university rescinded a visiting fellowship offer to Peterson after student complaints. Henderson abandoned plans to pursue an academic career, focusing instead on his writing, a Substack newsletter that has more than 50,000 subscribers, and Troubled.

“When I agreed to write the book, I wasn’t fully aware of what it would be like. If I’d known, I might not have agreed to do it,” Henderson said. When he read over his former social worker’s notes and reports by forensic psychologists, he was surprised at how fresh his emotions still were. He began taking naps every day, an out-of-character habit that he attributes to “emotional exhaustion”. He spoke to his family, and to childhood friends in Red Bluff, with whom he has stayed in touch despite their divergent life paths. He never brings up his career or his education with them, unless they mention it. “I guess there’s survivor’s guilt,” he said

I asked what policies would make the biggest difference to communities such as Red Bluff. “Mentorship programmes and role models,” he replied, noting how fatherly figures – a friend’s dad, a history teacher – had played a pivotal role in his life. And also, “strengthening marriage”. In the US in 2005, Henderson points out, 85 per cent of affluent families remained intact, while among working-class families only 30 per cent of parents stayed married. Do wealthy families stay together because they are under fewer strains? “Finances are a contributing factor. I’m not opposed to government assistance and financial support for struggling people. I spent large parts of my early life poor, and I can say that having money is better than not having it. But that’s only one piece of the puzzle.”

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He thinks we underestimate the role of social norms. In the 1960s, he said, marriage rates among working-class and upper-class families were equally high, even though poorer families had less financial assistance than now. He believes that unless a relationship is abusive or toxic, people should try to stay together for the sake of their children. Henderson told me two of his readers, both men in their thirties with small children, had told him they’d been considering divorce. There was nothing seriously wrong, but the romance had fizzled. Then, after reading his work on how family separation affects children, they reconsidered. “I was shocked by this – I’m just a guy with a Substack! But if socially and culturally more of those messages were available, more people would… prioritise their kids, their families, rather than themselves.”

Henderson is best known for his work on “luxury beliefs”, which he defines as opinions that “confer status on the affluent while inflicting costs on the lower classes”. Examples include the ideas that marriage is outdated and the police should be defunded, and tech entrepreneurs building apps they wouldn’t let their children use. Are there any right-wing luxury beliefs, I asked. “Trickle-down economics,” he replied. Are abortion bans a luxury belief? “Intuitively, it makes sense that low-income women will be more likely to get abortions than wealthy women for reasons of financial support and so on. But I could easily imagine alternative cases like…” he thought for a moment, exhaled, and said, “We’ll go there”, before talking about men who pressure their girlfriends into abortions and how bans might disincentivise risky sex.

Henderson believes most people who hold luxury beliefs aren’t malicious (maybe 10 to 20 per cent, he said, which feels like a lot): they adopt such opinions because “they just want to be thought well of by others, they want to advance professionally and socially”. I told him that I thought some luxury beliefs could be characterised as old-fashioned corporate greed – maybe today’s tech bros are like yesterday’s tobacco salesmen – while in other cases a “luxury belief” might hinge on a factual disagreement over how a policy will work. Don’t defund the police activists, for example, sincerely believe their policies will benefit low-income communities? Henderson responded with a lot of crime and police statistics; while he didn’t clarify whether he doubted activists’ sincerity, it was apparent that he at least doubted their intelligence. What is hard to argue with is Henderson’s view that much of the intellectual elite – “the chattering classes” as he calls them, with obvious derision – have almost no experience of the working-class communities they claim to speak for.

Troubled was listed as a USA Today bestseller, but it has not made the New York Times’ list, though Henderson believes it has sold enough copies to warrant it. (The compilation of the New York Times bestseller list is an opaque process: a spokesman for the newspaper has previously conceded “raw sales are only one factor”, but denied that editorial judgements are involved.) Henderson is also annoyed he has not been invited to give talks in bookshops, which he attributes to a range of factors: snobbery, his politics and the endorsements of Peterson and Vance. He also believes his upbringing continues to work against him. “If my dad was an editor at the New York Times, or at a big-five publishing house, or just a well-known public figure, my strong suspicion is that at least some of these bookstores would have invited me.”

[See also: John Healey: “Britain has a lot to learn from Ukraine’s resilience”]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward