Light from darkness

Rob Henderson’s pitch-perfect concept of “luxury beliefs”

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Rob Henderson is a rare young example of a dying breed: Cambridge scholar, public intellectual and unsentimental writer. These qualities radiate from his new memoir, Troubled, which recounts his “miraculous trajectory” through family dysfunction, foster care, the United States Air Force and into high academia.

Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class
Rob Henderson
(Forum, £16.99)

Henderson’s story begins in his personal etymology — each of his names is taken from a family member that abandoned him for one reason or another — or, indeed none at all: Robert (his biological father, walked out), Kim (his biological mother, lost to addiction), Henderson (his adoptive father, severed ties). Unsurprisingly, his treatment at the hands of these feckless or vindictive individuals left him “troubled” and landed him in Californian social care.

Bleak as his start in life was, however, Henderson has mercifully not penned a misery-memoir. On the contrary, Troubled is a serious piece of scholarship told through a redemptive but unsentimental autobiographical arc.

It is striking that the main villain of the piece is bourgeoisie bromidics rather than any particular person in Henderson’s early life. At the outset, for example, he skewers the New York Times’s overblown assertion that college is an unqualified good for the poor by pointing out that while poor graduates earn $335,000 more than non-graduates, rich graduates earn $901,000 more, thereby entrenching elite privilege.

A key theme throughout is the tendency of Western elites — liberal and conservative alike — to reframe social and emotional needs, such as family stability and routine, in economic and educational terms: get an expensive degree to get a profession to get richer, and so on. But, as Henderson’s story attests, such “luxury beliefs” (a term he has coined) may confer status on those professing them but they work against the basic interests of those growing up in unstable, insecure environments blighted by addiction and abuse.

Since most well-off, well-educated readers of Troubled will have no real sense of what it means to experience true deprivation, the opening chapters are exceptionally successful at conveying just how unsparing and corrosive it is. Henderson makes clear that such experiences are never good for character-building — one succeeds in life despite instability and abuse, never thanks to it — and that he would trade away all his considerable achievements to have been spared it.

From the episodes he recounts one can see why: his first memory is his mother’s arrest on drug charges, the rapid cycling through anonymous foster carers, constant hunger and underage drinking, violence and subpar schools, divorce and threesomes in the family home, the grim cycle goes on. What really stands out in these chapters, however, are the points of light: teaching himself to read as a source of comfort, learning to box at the local gym, receiving basic human kindness from one of his adoptive mom’s partners. Henderson’s childhood, in short, is a quintessentially American tale.

The opening chapters convey just how unsparing and corrosive true deprivation is

The small town of Red Bluff in northern California is where Henderson eventually finds a measure of stability and spends his teenage years. It is depicted sympathetically, if not nostalgically, as a traditional blue-collar community afflicted by poverty, substance abuse, high murder rates and family breakdown. These factors, but particularly the last, led the author to enlist with the usaf upon finishing school and find, at last, an effective surrogate parent.

The highly ordered existence of a serviceman effectively “fast forwarded” him through his most impulsive young adult years and taught him that success and fulfilment depend on vocation, commitment and “avoiding rash and reckless actions” that lead to self-destruction. The contrast with Red Bluff, which never quite lets him go, is striking and hammered home each time he returns on leave.

Having achieved a degree of distance from his hometown, bearing witness to its destructive patterns of behaviour on these visits there leads him to an airport copy of Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works and, in due course, to Yale.

Any graduate or academic from a prestigious university will recognise Henderson’s Yale of the 2010s: the beige in-jokes such as naming a cat “Learned Claw”, the grasping ambition of the students, the dim-witted and overbearing administration, the ubiquity of radical chic, the conspicuous elderliness of the best professors.

For all that, Henderson is gracious enough to acknowledge the redemptive value of his excellent education in spite of this environment (and the near-identical one during his PhD at Cambridge) which furnished him with ample material to flesh out his pitch-perfect concept of “luxury beliefs”.

Readers have Yale and the liberal elite to thank for that much, and him for triumphing over both adversity and diversity.

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