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🏚️🎓 Troubled by Rob Henderson

Not a Book Report

I enjoy reflecting on the movies, TV, books and other media that I consume. I’m notoriously sentimental. This series documents the books that I read. These aren’t reviews or recommendations. Just a list. For me. Mostly so that I can page through what I read, where I was, and when.

Why did I read it?

The Economist has a Culture section each week that often features book reviews. They recommend books across a range of subjects, most frequently history. The books vary across polital spectrum and idealogy (within a somewhat narrow band).

They highlighted this book as it gains traction in a few different hot-take-industry circles. The idea of class in the United States (and Europe) interests me and I was curious about exploring this story.

I did not realize how much traction this book has within the conservative movement. I later found out that this has become something of an “anti-woke” anecdote. That said, I’m glad I read it. I am generally liberal and the media I consume reflects that. We are probably all guilty of spending too much time inside of our own idealogical bubbles. The non-fiction books I read last year included a scathing indictment of the final days of the Trump administration and a liberal take on the history of capitalism. Time to expand those horizons a bit before my echo chamber gets smaller.

What is it?

Category Value
Title Troubled
Author Rob Henderson
Year Published 2024
Format Kindle
Pages 336

Publisher Summary

In this raw coming-of-age memoir, in the vein of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, The Other Wes Moore, and Someone Has Led This Child to Believe, Rob Henderson vividly recounts growing up in foster care, enlisting in the US Air Force, attending elite universities, and pioneering the concept of “luxury beliefs”—ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while inflicting costs on the less fortunate.

Rob Henderson was born to a drug-addicted mother and a father he never met, ultimately shuttling between ten different foster homes in California. When he was adopted into a loving family, he hoped that life would finally be stable and safe. Divorce, tragedy, poverty, and violence marked his adolescent and teen years, propelling Henderson to join the military upon completing high school.

An unflinching portrait of shattered families, desperation, and determination, Troubled recounts Henderson’s expectation-defying young life and juxtaposes his story with those of his friends who wound up incarcerated or killed. He retreads the steps and missteps he took to escape the drama and disorder of his youth. As he navigates the peaks and valleys of social class, Henderson finds that he remains on the outside looking in. His greatest achievements—a military career, an undergraduate education from Yale, a PhD from Cambridge—feel like hollow measures of success. He argues that stability at home is more important than external accomplishments, and he illustrates the ways the most privileged among us benefit from a set of social standards that actively harm the most vulnerable.

How did I read it?

Category Value
Date Started April 7, 2024
Date Finished April 7, 2024
Places Read Sintra

Notes - No Spoilers

  • The first 65% of this book is harrowing. This man’s childhood has to rank at the absolute bottom of what is possible inside of the United States. I cannot fathom ever making it out of those environments.
  • I was also reminded of how little contact with the foster care system or poverty that I’ve ever had. You can assume, from books or television, that foster care is tough. This elevates that idea in painful detail.
  • Not only foster care, but the social ills that plague these communities. Drugs, booze, gambling. And then the outrageous string of just bad luck with Shelly’s accidents.
  • His “escape” seems to really hinge around getting lucky (many of the activities described in the book could have landed him in jail like the other members of his community who remained stuck), the encouragement of a couple people who noticed that he had potential, his passion for reading, and his work ethic.
  • I enjoyed his description of joining the military and serving in uniform. His call outs that it wasn’t just, contrary to his assumptions, “for poor or working-class” kids. The confinement to a strict schedule to just keep him out of trouble. I also appreciated the more thematic ideas about how teenage boys are absolutely stupid and dangerous. A system like the military, that is painfully aware of that, can provide structure and bumpers.
  • The military “didn’t fundamentally ‘transform’ me. It just provided conditions that prevented me from acting out…”
  • The community college statistics shocked me. 70% do not complete their programs? In the rich communities that I orbit people talk about community college and trade schools as a kind of panacea.
  • His surprise that his professors wanted to keep working into their old age while Red Bluff residents counted down the minutes to retirement.
  • The last 30% of the book exits memoir territory and becomes more of a bullet point list of frustrations with the environment he encountered at Yale.
  • Many of those frustrations make complete sense. The accusation that he is a person of privilege would have baffled me too. I would also have been astounded by the substance abuse at an institution like Yale if I had the kind of childhood he had.
  • The bit about working class Americans being more likely to read local news while upper class folks read about politics or national news surprised and delighted me. It makes so much sense. Why on earth do I read international news? What has years of reading the New York Times changed about the substance of my life? I have no control over those events and they rarely have impact over my day-to-day life. I read it to stay “informed” which I think is a real positive but I completely understand how living paycheck to paycheck working multiple jobs would lead someone to spend what little leisure time they had reading just the news that impacts their life more directly.
  • Some of them were silly or stretched. I don’t believe that the upper class lost interest in Hamilton because it became more accessible on Disney+. I don’t believe most members of the class he is referring to know what Disney+ is.
  • I completely agree with him that economic disadvantage is the most significant determinant of outcomes and that rich kids and poor kids grow up in totall different Americas.
  • This seemed like a variation of the JD Vance memoir universe until an acknowledgement at the end of JD Vance made that absolutely certain.
  • Who is this for? At the end of the memoior Henderson goes to lengths to say he did not write this for rich folks to read and gawk (which, in this case, was me). He wrote it for kids in circumstances like his. Noble goal, but if that were entirely the motive he could probably have removed about 20% of the checklist of political grievances and instead focused on what his education opened up for him or policy recommendations around poverty or foster care.

Published Apr 8, 2024

Austinite in Lisbon. VP of Product at Cloudflare.