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Heartbreaking Memoir Troubled Indicts The Elites Tearing Apart Two-Parent Homes

Troubled exposes the ‘luxury belief’ that stable families are unimportant and that education and upward mobility can repair volatile upbringings.


A Korean boy makes good by overcoming significant childhood disadvantages in Rob Henderson’s new memoir, Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class. Henderson recounts how he landed a coveted op-ed in The New York Times, graduated from Yale, and earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge. Yet, he writes, “I would swap my position in the top 1 percent of educational attainment to have never been in the top 1 percent of childhood instability.”

My body shook with tears before I finished the preface. What was so unsettling? Twenty-one years ago, my ex-husband had an affair and sought sole custody of our daughters, seeking to use them as bargaining chips in our divorce. I opposed the lawsuit. I knew instinctively that inevitable suffering awaited if he abandoned our family permanently, even though our children had economic privileges Henderson didn’t.

Pain Etched Deep

At 3, Henderson clutched his drug-addicted mother and sobbed. It’s his earliest memory. He has no recollection of the father who abandoned them after his mother became pregnant. In his second memory, he spills chocolate milk. But his abusive mother can’t help. She’s in handcuffs beside him, about to be deported to Seoul. He never sees her again.

Over the next five years, he’s shuffled between seven foster homes, his only constant being the social worker who ferries him from place to place. He throws a fit the first time she collects him. By the last, he’s resigned. Before third grade, he attends six elementary schools, always competing with other foster children for scarce resources such as food. His word to encapsulate those years? “Dread.” Mine? Harrowing. The prose is spare. Henderson has no need to embellish.

At 8, a working-class couple adopts him, and his life improves briefly. He bonds with “Dad” and blows out candles on his first birthday cake. When his younger sister gives him toys of his own, her kindness burns so deeply within his memory that he’ll never forget it, he writes.

The trouble is that the pain brought on by unstable environments etches itself as deeply down.

A year after he’s adopted, his parents divorce. “Mom” announces she’s gay. “Dad” seeks revenge by cutting off visitation with him. His mother’s girlfriends move in, then out, along with assorted relatives. They relocate from house to house.

Meanwhile, the habits he honed in foster care resurface. With a rotating cast of other unsupervised children from broken homes, Henderson smokes weed and cigarettes, gets plastered, curses, fights, steals, and refuses to do schoolwork.

Short-lived respites such as boxing, therapy, and part-time jobs are never curative, although reading — he teaches himself — becomes a thin lifeline. The undercurrent of rage that percolates beneath the surface boils over in moments like the day he smashes cars with a baseball bat.

Like Henderson, I buried my pain. Taking care of my daughters gave structure to my days. At night, I contemplated suicide. If an adult like me with a law degree who’d grown up in a stable, close-knit family had difficulty coping, be assured my children suffered. After failing to save my marriage, I fought for the small measure of stability provided by my children remaining in the same house, neighborhood, church, and schools. Their father had successive wives and stepchildren. During visitation, my daughters lugged their belongings to about nine apartments. I got the house, thankfully, but the family court penalized me for my opposition.

Like me, Henderson sensed something amiss in his chaos. The families on television shows confused him — they bore no resemblance to the adults in his life who came and went. Until he impulsively joined the military at 17, survival mode governed his actions.

By providing the structure, discipline, and caring that all children need and long for, the military gave him time to mature and process his past in silence. And, for the first time, contemplate his future. It also kept him out of jail. At Cambridge, he organized what time, experience, and inner wisdom had taught him into a book.

Elite Causes Doing the Most Harm

While Henderson doesn’t absolve the adults who abandoned and neglected him, he indicts the main culprits: elites, driven by self-interest, moral superiority, and often faux compassion, who use their money and position to influence policies that maintain the false “luxury belief” that stable families are unimportant and that education and upward mobility can repair volatile upbringings.

Renowned Yale professor Harold Bloom told Henderson that he was forged in a fire. While his classmates attended recruitment sessions for Goldman Sachs, Henderson taught poor kids how to read, hoping to forge another type of connection that would give them hope.

He points out that popular elite causes (defund the police, sexual freedom, drug legalization, etc.) disproportionately harm the classes beneath them who have inadequate resources to cope.

Similarly, elite lawyers, legislators, and feminists are primarily responsible for our nationwide system of unconstitutional no-fault divorce laws and continue to oppose divorce reform. Research refutes their banner cry that children are resilient. Family courts give lip service to the legal mandate they act in the best interest of children. Like those in foster care, children of divorce suffer lifetime anguish.

And lest anyone attempt to reduce Henderson’s horrifying tale to an isolated anecdote, he coughs up proof to the contrary. Eighty-five percent of children in upper-class families are raised by birth parents compared with 30 percent of those from working-class families. Boys raised in broken homes are five times more likely to be incarcerated. Children from low-income families are no more likely to commit crimes or take risks than those from wealthy families, unlike children raised in unstable environments.

If education alone wasn’t the touted cure-all, how did Henderson, in a sense, make it out of his predicament alive? He got lucky, he says. It is a miracle, really.

But there’s another one. He emerges from his ordeal not with the hardened heart one might understandably expect, but rather with a loving, kind spirit that thinks about a kid like him stepping into a library looking for his own inspiration, and pledges to be a better dad to his own family one day. A warning to us all not to underestimate the power of a simple act of kindness like his sister’s, tucked away in an 8-year-old boy’s heart, waiting to flourish.

In fact, despite all their mischief, his group of ragtag friends come off as far more likable and decent than Henderson’s college peers who demand that a professor who offends them be fired, criticize white privilege, and tell Henderson they condone child/parent and brother/sister incest. Henderson doesn’t call them hypocrites by name; he doesn’t need to. They educated him so well that he can effortlessly take them down.

When word got out that he was writing a memoir, a dean at Yale asked him to be “gentle” to the university, he says. Henderson chose truth instead.

He sums up the message of Troubled near the end: “A solid two-parent home is critical for a child’s future. There simply is no shortcut.”

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