Is Rob Henderson ‘Troubled’ or Blessed?

In most people’s eyes, Rob Henderson is living the dream: He is a well-known writer who is completing his doctorate in psychology at Cambridge and, being relatively young (he is in his early 30s), he can do anything he likes. He could run for public office. He could be a speaker, discussing the findings of positive psychology and encouraging people to adopt better habits. Or, he could become a therapist, helping people work through problems like the ones he himself has experienced. Indeed, it is likely he will do all these things, continuing his unlikely rise to prominence.

However, as his recent memoir Troubled makes apparent, underneath this hopeful, inspirational veneer is a profound criticism of today’s culture. Those expecting Henderson to express gratitude for his hardship might be surprised to find Henderson’s prevailing melancholy and disenchantment as he tells his story. As he says towards the end of his memoir, “External accomplishments are trivial compared with a warm and loving family … For happiness, it’s better to be poor and loved than rich and unloved.”

One thing Henderson does feel grateful for, however, is the chance to be of some help to those in a similar situation to what his once was and to speak to the problem of growing up in broken homes. On these terms, Troubled is a successful narrative that is moving, enlightening, and quite readable. Henderson is clear and honest about his mistakes and the trauma he has endured as well as his diagnosis and prognosis for such situations. While his descriptions of his problems can feel a little cold and detached at times, his willingness to recount his own life story does serve to make his arguments more relevant and understandable. There is much that is wrong with the world, and Henderson is brave enough to use his own life as an example of this painful truth.

Although his story ends within the esteemed halls of Yale and Cambridge, most of Henderson’s life took place on America’s West coast, starting in Southern California. As a baby, Henderson never knew his father and experienced neglect at the hands of his drug-addicted mother. At the age of three, he was put into foster care after his mother was arrested for criminal neglect and deported to South Korea. Understandably, Henderson still has little interest in reconnecting with her or finding his biological father: “Why try to find someone who did not want you in their life?”

Henderson’s experience in foster care was about as miserable as one might expect, though he explains that the source of his pain wasn’t primarily any kind of physical abuse (there’s some of this, mainly from other foster kids in the home), but the constant fear of being moved: “If I had to reduce what I felt during these early childhood years to a single word, the only one I can think of is: dread. Dread of being caught stealing, dread of punishment, dread of suddenly being moved somewhere else, dread of one of my foster siblings being taken away.” Even with his last foster parent who exploits him for menial work, Henderson is still sad to leave her.

This instability tragically continues even after Henderson is adopted by a couple who lives in a poor, crime-ridden rural town in Northern California called Red Bluff. They eventually divorce a few years after Henderson moves in with them. To spite his former wife for leaving him, Henderson’s adoptive father cut off all contact Henderson, causing the boy immense grief. A short time later, Henderson’s adoptive mother came out as a lesbian and a partner comes to live with them.

While there are moments of peace—Henderson comes to like his mother’s partner and gets over the loss of a father figure—there is also chaos during these formative years, which span the age of eight to 17. Henderson falls into bad crowds and gets involved with smoking, drinking, doing drugs, fighting, and pulling dangerous stunts. His grades also fluctuate during this time, though teachers recognize his enormous potential.

Being a voracious reader ends up saving Henderson from the fate of his similarly-situated peers who end up as perpetual loafers, get arrested and put in jail, or die in some avoidable accident. As he explains, “As far as I knew, I was the only one among my friends who regularly read books on my own.” In addition to helping him keep up in advanced classes, reading gave him more perspective and agency, allowing him to chart his own course in life. More importantly, the actual books he read, often “memoirs by people who had lived tough lives,” helped to motivate him in dark times.

After taking note of what lay ahead of him if he stayed in Red Bluff, Henderson enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. It was here that he realized the liberating power of a structured environment: “I believed that the external comportment I had cultivated would allow me to control my internal demons and productively channel my restless energy.” In many ways, this belief proved prescient, as he learned new skills, moved up the chain of command, taking on more responsibilities and earning more money.

After a few years of service, however, he develops a serious drinking problem and plunges into alcoholism. As he notes, the pain of his childhood could not be papered over with discipline. Once the problem finally incapacitates him, he enters rehab and receives counseling. It’s a wakeup call that finally helps him find a way to confront the trauma of his past.

It’s important to note that at no point in recounting his trials does Henderson make any mention of anything resembling a spiritual life. It is worth asking whether that may have helped him process his inner turmoil, find deeper meaning in his struggles, and resist the escape of addiction. Even as an older adult looking back on his life, Henderson uses psychology to make sense of things, speaking in therapeutic terms and neatly categorizing supposed pathologies based on studies. From the Christian point of view, it’s evident that he needs Jesus, but Henderson mainly concludes that he simply needed stability, balance, and a proper outlet for his emotions.

After he finished his time in the military, Henderson was accepted to Yale. During this time, he also wrote a popular essay for the New York Times, which earned him recognition and began his writing career.

It was also during this time that he realized the inner workings of American elite culture, which he speaks of at some length. He notes the hypocrisy of rich children from stable homes, attempting to speak on behalf of the marginalized and even claiming to be marginalized themselves. He picks up on the pretentious references they make to distinguish themselves from the unwashed masses not attending an Ivy League school. He explains a few insightful theories to account for some of this behavior. For instance, he speaks of “trickle-down meritocracy” in which elites will bring in high-performing members of marginalized communities in the hopes that their elitism trickles down through these lucky people back to their respective communities. He also brings up “luxury beliefs,” in which elites will adopt progressive positions that they will signal to the world (e.g., marriage is an outdated concept), but that they will not actually practice in their own lives.

This part of the book is easily the most interesting—which is probably why most excerpts come from this chapter—but it’s also frustratingly short. This brings me to my main criticism of Troubled, which is that so much of the book is devoted to what amount to mundane events from his childhood and early adulthood. From a reader’s perspective, this can sometimes feel repetitive and tedious. Even though this is Henderson’s memoir, it should be obvious that what makes his life worth writing about is his unique position as a former foster kid who is now celebrated by the world’s most prestigious institutions that cater to the world’s most powerful people. His perspective and reflections are what the reader wants to read, not just the details of his upbringing—at least not so many of them. Indeed, this was the approach of other bright millennials writing memoirs in their 30s, like Michael Brendan Doherty, Sohrab Ahmari, and J.D. Vance.

That said, the book’s many merits overcome this shortcoming, and Henderson takes care to give his vignettes drama and humor. We can only hope this book acts as the first of many more since he is a talented writer and perceptive commentator. Not only can he be an important voice for those who grew up under similar circumstances, he may also speak for those who are trying to preserve the traditions and structures that make for a happy, productive life. It’s not enough to dwell on the things that trouble a person and his community. Henderson should now turn his focus to what makes him, and his circle, blessed.

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