Among the first signs that Troubled is not a typical memoir of foster care and adoption is the author’s announcement on page 4 that he has never tried to locate his birth parents. “Why try to find someone who did not want you in their life?” writes Rob Henderson. It’s a good question, especially because it is almost an article of faith now that kids who are adopted can never lead a fulfilling life unless they understand the mystery of their biological origins. For Henderson—whose father abandoned him before he was born and whose mother was a drug addict who tied him to a chair so she could get high in peace before she was deported back to her home country of South Korea after being arrested—the urge never materialized.

Not just that. He writes that he was lucky in this regard: “I did not have to experience the revolving door of toxic biological parents continually entering and exiting my life the way so many of my foster siblings did.” This sentiment is practically sacrilege in the world of child welfare, where the assumption is that children are always better off with their biological parents and that those parents should be given as much time as they want to rehabilitate and as many chances at reunification as they need.

The first part of Henderson’s story is not unique. Entering the foster-care system at age three, he lived in nine different foster homes before the age of eight and was enrolled in six different elementary schools before third grade. The families he stayed with were neglectful and sometimes abusive. At least one just used him to do chores. The other kids he was living with exposed him to drinking and drugs. Early on, he was inconsolable every time he moved to a new home. But by the end, he simply shut down emotionally. At the age of nine, he found himself living with his first permanent family—a mother, a father, and a younger sister.

“I’d never had a father figure in my life before, so having a dad was a new experience,” Henderson recalls. “We’d shoot hoops at a local park and wrestle around. He told me stories about his experience in the Army when he had been stationed in Korea in the late 70s.” The five years of Henderson’s life in a stable family he recalls as the time when he flourished, including doing well in school. But when his mother left his father and his father decided that, to get back at her, he would have nothing to do with his son, things deteriorated. Rob’s mother decided that she was a lesbian; Rob and his sister had a reasonably stable time living with his mother and her girlfriend. One friend of his even told him he was “lucky” because his mom was “not going to bring random guys around.”

It’s true that mothers’ boyfriends pose a unique risk to kids (children living in homes with single mothers and non-relative males are 10 times more likely to suffer abuse), but this new arrangement was not stable either. Accidents, financial missteps, and general discord seemed to characterize the next few years of Henderson’s home life. And the chaos at home led to chaos outside the home. His friends were increasingly getting into trouble, including with alcohol and drugs. After an incident in which Henderson’s crew left a crockpot full of fireworks in another friend’s room, Henderson notes, “Somehow we had all created a situation where the coolest person was the one who had most recently done the most dangerous thing.”

Along the way, Henderson had some teachers and coaches tell him that he would be able to make something of himself. His mother tried to find him male role models. He had some things going for him. He worked hard—at boxing and fitness, at menial jobs. He enjoyed reading, but after his family broke apart, he had little interest in succeeding academically. By the time he graduated high school, Henderson knew he was not on a good path.

So he chose the military. As he notes: “Studies have found that a man’s likelihood of committing a crime peaks at age 19 and then gradually declines through his twenties…. If a young man learns absolutely nothing during a military enlistment, that’s still four to six years he spent simply staying out of trouble and letting his brain develop; the same guy is rarely as reckless and impulsive as he was at 18. The reason my life didn’t go off the rails is because I was just self-aware enough to decide to have my choices stripped from me.” These kind of observations, written plainly, reflect Henderson’s deep curiosity about the world and a profound self-awareness.

In the military, Henderson was very successful. But not for the reasons some would think: “Many people say that to do something difficult and worthwhile, they need to be ‘motivated.’ Or that the reason they are not sticking to their goals is because they ‘lack motivation.’ But the military taught me that people don’t need motivation; they need self-discipline. Motivation is just a feeling. Self-discipline is: ‘I’m going to do this regardless of how I feel.’” Anyone who has ever tried a diet or an exercise regimen knows this to be true.

Henderson’s ability to stifle his feelings about his past was successful—until it wasn’t. His drinking grew worse in the Air Force, and a stint in rehab led him to enter therapy and spend some time understanding the trauma he experienced as a child. He began to understand what it means for a child to not grow up in a stable family, to be moved time and again, to not be able to depend on adults to meet his physical and emotional needs.

His counselor lent him some books in which he “learned about attachment theory and ‘monotropy,’ a fancy way of saying that young children have an innate desire to form a special bond with a parent, usually the mother.” He adds: “I read about ‘critical periods’ in childhood and how kids who don’t form close bonds with a caregiver before the age of three are far more likely to have social and emotional problems later in life.”

Ultimately, Henderson decided to pursue a college education. Through a program for veterans, he was eventually admitted to Yale. His vastly different background, the fact that he was several years older than his classmates, and his own innate powers of observation led to some surprising discoveries about American elites. Henderson’s path is not dissimilar to J.D. Vance’s, and Troubled reads at times like Hillbilly Elegy or Tara Westover’s Educated.

But Henderson’s realizations about what distinguishes his upbringing from those of his classmates—he was shocked to find that the vast majority of his Yale classmates grew up in stable, two-parent homes, while almost none of his friends from home did—are startling. He observes that these same kids (and their parents and professors) love to downplay the importance of marriage and even monogamy. Henderson gained some renown for coining the term “luxury beliefs”—ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class at very little cost, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes. Such ideas include “monogamy is outdated” or success comes from luck (not hard work). Then there are the simple cases of social hypocrisy for the purposes of gaining income, as in the cases of the tech moguls who restrict their own children’s use of technology while depending on the way others less conscious of the damage being done are allowing their kids to live their lives on their phones: “Many affluent people I know promote lifestyles that are harmful to the less fortunate. Meanwhile they are not only insulated from the fallout; they often profit from it.”

He is particularly clear-eyed about the problems that come from the legalization and more widespread availability of drugs. First, the amount of drug and alcohol abuse at Yale led him to rethink his belief (shared widely) that “poverty was the primary reason for substance abuse.”

But he also recognized as another luxury belief the idea that drugs are mostly harmless—the elites could largely be protected from the effects of their indulgences: “Reflecting on my experiences with alcohol, if all drugs had been legal and easily accessible when I was fifteen, you wouldn’t be reading this book. My birth mom was able to get drugs, and it had a detrimental effect on both of our lives. That’s something people don’t think about: drugs don’t just affect the user, they affect helpless children, too. All my foster siblings’ parents were addicts or had a mental health condition, often triggered by drug use.”

Ultimately, this remarkable book aims to remind readers about the things that are most important in life and how to fix them. A lack of financial resources is not the problem. As he notes, “being poor doesn’t have the same effect as living in chaos.” But he also worries that the only way we can talk about family structure in elite circles is as a way of improving people’s economic prospects.

“I’ve come to believe that upward social mobility shouldn’t be our priority as a society,” he writes. “Rather upward mobility should be the side effect of far more important things: family, stability, and emotional security for children.” Unfortunately, measuring family stability and emotional security is a little harder, and thus public policy will inevitably be geared toward outcomes like income and education. But, as Henderson notes: “Even if upward mobility were the primary goal, a safe secure family would help achieve it more than anything else. Conventional badges of success do not repair the effects of a volatile upbringing.”

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