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Rob Henderson — Foster Care, Family, and Social Class

Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class (book cover)

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.

Rob Henderson grew up in foster homes in Los Angeles and the rural town of Red Bluff, California. He joined the US Air Force at the age of seventeen. Once described as “self-made” by the New York Times, Rob subsequently received a BS from Yale University and a PhD in psychology from St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and more. His weekly newsletter is sent to more than forty thousand subscribers. Learn more at His new book is Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class.

Shermer and Henderson discuss:

  • Autobiographies and memoirs and the hindsight bias
  • Memoirs: Tara Westover, Educated; Amber Scorah, Leaving the Witness; J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy; Yeonmi Park, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
  • Genes, Environment, and Luck/Contingency
  • Childhood: drug-addicted mother, absence father, 10 different foster homes
  • 60% of boys in foster care are later incarcerated; 3% graduate from college
  • Marriage, divorce and childhood outcomes; one parent vs. two
  • Poverty, welfare programs, and social safety nets
  • The trouble with boys and men: competitiveness, risk taking, and violence, “the young male syndrome, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly
  • Alcohol, drugs, depression
  • Choice: top 1% of educational attainment or top 1% of childhood instability
  • Luxury beliefs of educated elites
  • College education vs. having a parent who cares enough to make sure you get to class
  • Wealthy but unstable home vs. low-income but stable home
  • How many who wield the most influence in society only pay lip service to inequality
  • What it was like in the military
  • What it was like at Yale
  • What it was like at Cambridge
  • What does it mean to be “self-made”?
  • Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works
  • Jonathan Haidt’s lecture on the telos of universities
  • Nicolas Christakas and Yale’s privileged students
  • Jordan Peterson
  • The Coddling and Canceling of the American Mind
  • Self-Help books
  • Warrior-Scholar Project.

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This episode was released on February 17, 2024.

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