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Dan Riley [00:02:23]:
Welcome to the show. It's great to have you on.

Rob Henderson [00:02:26]:
Thanks, Dan. It's great to be here.

Dan Riley [00:02:28]:
I thought, and I mentioned this before we kick this off, that I finished your book last night. It gives a window into a world that, frankly, I think most of America never really gets a chance to delve into. And I thought maybe we would kick the conversation off by having me ask you how this book even came about in the first place. How do you make sense of how the book even was something that you would consider writing and ended up actually creating yourself?

Rob Henderson [00:03:01]:
Yeah, I appreciate that question. It's funny, I was speaking with a british professor the other day, and he'd gotten a wind that I was writing this book, it was coming out soon, and we made a couple of jokes together about how I'm probably too young to be writing a memoir. But then he's british professor. He was like, it's an american tradition. Americans. He's like, it was tongue in cheek. But there is something to that, that whenever you hear someone in their late twenty s or early 30s writing a memoir, it's probably an american. Yeah, we do like that somehow.

Rob Henderson [00:03:35]:
But how did it come into exist? I figured at some point, especially around the period where I entered college, when I got to Yale, at some point, once I realized just how anomalous my trajectory figured, you know, someday maybe I'll write a book, maybe I'll write an autobiography or a memoir of some kind. But I figured it would be decades down the road. But then sort of forces conspired and aligned in a certain way. And I received this offer, and so I went for it. So let's see, how should I tell this? We can sort of tell different parts of the story, but at least the way that the book came into existence. When I started writing my college applications, this was 2015, I saw this advertisement. It was actually on Facebook. I was scrolling my Facebook feed in 2015, and I saw this link in the New York Times saying, a call for interesting college application essays about money in social class.

Rob Henderson [00:04:36]:
And I submitted my college application to this thing thinking like, oh, this might be interesting. If they ran it. Maybe if they ran it would increase my ods of getting into a decent college. And so I submitted it, and they ended up running it. And so then fast forward two years later, I did manage to get into Yale, and I went to this writing seminar at Columbia. It's called the War horse riding seminar program. I think it's a one week riding seminar for military veterans, specifically at the campus at Columbia. And while I was there, one of the guest speakers at this writing seminar was Jim Dow, who was then the op ed editor at the New York Times.

Rob Henderson [00:05:16]:
And so I introduced myself to him and said something. You know, one of my essays was selected for this contest thing a few years ago. And he was like, you know, I think I read like, you know, I like you. If you ever want to write anything else, let me know. And when I was at that seminar, I had been writing this personal essay for a while, and I sent it to him some weeks later, I think, and he wrote back right away saying he really liked it. And then they ended up running this op ed in the New York Times. This was 2018, the day I graduated from college, and it got more attention than I expected. And then a literary agent contacted me saying, hey, do you want to expand on this and write a book? And I thought, I'm about to enter grad school.

Rob Henderson [00:06:02]:
I'm sort of living in the world of sort of writing and thinking in the world of ideas. I'm on a university, maybe difficult to do a phd and write a book at the same time, but I was feeling ambitious, and I was feeling like I could do this. So I went ahead and agreed to. It took a while to get a book deal from there. This is not usually how it goes. Usually authors, they spend years, and so difficult to get a literary agent. This was another reason why I decided to go ahead with it, because I thought maybe I'd never get another chance like this again. So the agent and I put a proposal together.

Rob Henderson [00:06:37]:
Took about two years to finally get a publisher interested because I was still a relatively unknown person. I didn't have much of a social media footprint or anything, but by 2020, I had a little bit of sort of an online following, and I had written some other essays since then. We signed a deal with gallery books, which is an imprint of Simon and Schuster. And, yeah, that sort of came together from know. It's weird. Like, I needed both things at the same time. I sort of needed an online following, and I needed this sort of what I needed to still go through this sort of gatekeeping mechanism of getting an op ed placed in the right kind of newspaper. And it's just getting harder, man.

Rob Henderson [00:07:22]:
It's like, harder and harder to get a book deal, harder to get publishers interested. And then that was early 2020. I've seen these articles since then of, if you're just a regular person, especially if you don't hit certain identity markers, it's next to impossible now to get a book deal from a traditional publisher now, especially from one of the sort of big publishers. So in a way, I got lucky. Well, I admit I got very lucky, but the timing was in my favor, and things just sort of worked out. It's weird. The first, whatever, 20 some years of my life were extremely kind of unlucky. And then since then, luck has been sort of working in my favor ever since then.

Rob Henderson [00:08:06]:
So that's basically the story of how the book came into existence, and then I've just been working on it ever since. It's been sort of five years in the making, writing this book.

Dan Riley [00:08:16]:
I am one of those people who has been following your work for a number of years, and I'm a huge fan of your writing. And one of the thoughts I kept having as I was reading your book was, I can't believe this is where you come from. You mentioned this in the book. I believe that if not for a few fortunate events in your life, this book never would have been made and you would probably be dead or in jail, as a lot of your friends you write about are currently or have been. And I wonder if we can maybe, to continue the beginning of the conversation, go back to your early life, because your first 18 years or so before you enter the US Air force are unlike almost anyone I've ever met. And I felt like when I was reading this book, that I was getting a better understanding of what life is like for the voiceless millions of people in this country and around the world who live in the kind of instability that you grew up in. And I don't know where you want to start with that, but maybe at the beginning where around when you have your first memories of what life was like when you were a young boy.

Rob Henderson [00:09:35]:
Yeah, it's funny. Before I entered college, I think I'd mentioned this, that I didn't realize just how unusual my life was, because the people I grew up around my life wasn't that different from theirs. We all sort of had this immersion in squalor and dysfunction and stability. There was material deprivation. I grew up sort of relatively poor, but it was like, kind of working class. There were sort of periods in my childhood where maybe we reached, like, sort of the threshold of lower middle class. But we were poor. We were kind of broke.

Rob Henderson [00:10:13]:
But it wasn't like I never went hungry. It was something else, which is a point that I make in the book, is that the sort of instability was worse than the poverty. So, yeah, just backing way up. I was born in LA, and I never met my father. And my mother, she was an immigrant from Seoul, from South Korea. And it wasn't until I was an adult that I learned anything about my father. My mother didn't even know who he was. And so I took a DNA test.

Rob Henderson [00:10:50]:
This was actually pretty recently, and it was kind of a surprise. My father was actually hispanic. He was most likely mexican, based on sort of the DNA results that I received. And so, yeah, my mom was just heavily addicted to drugs. We were sort of moving into. We were homeless for a while. We lived in a car. Then we moved into a slum apartment in a kind of rundown part of LA and Westlake.

Rob Henderson [00:11:19]:
And, yeah, I got these documents later from a forensic psychologist. I had this file that my adoptive mother later gave me and sort of reading through it, and a forensic psychologist was sort of documenting my mother's deteriorating condition. My birth mother. And she was doing drugs. She was having people sort of come in and out of the apartment at all hours. And, yeah, one day some neighbors called the police because they heard me screaming. My mother would do drugs. She would tie me to this chair in another room so I wouldn't disturb her.

Rob Henderson [00:11:50]:
And, yeah, then the police showed up. They arrested her. That was my earliest memory, was seeing her arrested. And, yeah, I was placed into the La foster care system when I was three and spent the next few years just bouncing around seven different foster homes. And then I was sort of adopted and sort know different kinds of family configurations after that, but in LA, it was seven different foster families. And, yeah. Was that the first chapter of the book? That was maybe the hardest to write. I mean, there were a lot of hard chapters in the book to write, but that was really tough for a lot of reasons.

Rob Henderson [00:12:28]:
But one was just sort of remembering just what it was like to be a little kid again before you had sophisticated thoughts, before you had any sort of. It was almost all just sort of emotion and intuition and feeling. Right. Like your brain isn't fully developed. You're not really sort of thinking clearly or logically. It's just sort of, this is happening to you, then this is happening to you, and you sort of have these wisps and fleeting relationships and people coming and going. And so, yeah, it was really pretty challenging to sort of recapture those feelings. And a lot of the documents that I mentioned before that my adoptive mother had given me just sort of the case file from my social workers, those sort of helped to fill in some of the gaps and sparked some unexpected memories.

Rob Henderson [00:13:21]:
That was the point that I wanted to make in the book, the sort of issue of instability versus poverty, because foster homes, very few of them are extremely well off, but you have to qualify. You have to sort of meet a minimal level of financial stability in order to qualify as a foster parent. And then the state supplies a certain stipend. It isn't a lot of money, but it's something. So they give money to these families to help care for the kids. So materially, it wasn't that bad, but it was the uncertainty in everyday life. And later, I got a PhD and sort of read studies and sort of learned more about the sort of research and the psychology of all of this that actually, research suggests that instability is a far stronger predictor of harmful and risky behaviors later than poverty is. So essentially, being poor doesn't have the same effect on future behavior as living in chaos.

Rob Henderson [00:14:27]:
So essentially, research has found that even among sort of middle or upper middle class families, if there's a lot of sort of disorder and divorce and remarriages and separations and just sort of day to day uncertainty in a young child's life, they're much more likely to go on to get involved in crime or become addicted to substances, or commit self harm or hurt others compared to living in a materially impoverished environment. But the family is stable and the child sort of has a predictable routine and a schedule and attentive parents. And I get that those two things are connected, that poverty and instability, there is a correlation there, but it's far from perfect. I think a lot of people know sort of affluent families that are still kind of a mess and have kids who are struggling and aren't necessarily great people because of their early life experiences. And many people also know sort of poor families or immigrant families or families that are struggling, but still manage to sort of supply the care and attention for the kids, even if they don't have a lot in the way of financial resources. And so it's really the instability factor that I wanted to highlight. And so, just as one example of this, I looked into the college graduation rates for kids in different kinds of environments. And so the overall us college graduation rate, something like 35% of Americans go on to get college degrees.

Rob Henderson [00:16:00]:
It's around 35%. And for kids born into the bottom socioeconomic quintile, so the bottom 20%, 11% of them graduate from college compared to 35% overall. So that's low. It suggests that being poor can create obstacles to college graduation rates. But then if you look at the college graduation rates for foster kids, it's only 3%. Only 3% of kids who spend time in foster care go on to graduate from college. So in other words, in the US, a kid who's born into a poor family is three. Basically, a kid born into a poor family in the US is four times more likely to graduate from college than a kid who spends time in foster care.

Rob Henderson [00:16:43]:
And I point out elsewhere that, and this is in later chapters in the book, that research indicates that the best predictor of being on any kind of psychiatric medication is being a foster kid. It's a stronger predictor than family history or genetics. In some states, something like two thirds of kids in foster care are on some kind of medication. And so, yeah, I mean, a lot of this suggests that it's that sort of instability. The uncertainty. And it's not just the personal uncertainty. One thing that I describe in the early chapters when I'm describing my experiences in foster care, is, of course, I didn't know where I was going to be from one week to the next. But then I'd befriend or grow close with my foster siblings, and then they would be taken, and then they would be replaced with some other kid.

Rob Henderson [00:17:33]:
And so it wasn't just where am I going to be, but it's where my foster sibling is going to be, who's going to be around me tomorrow. And when you're five, six, seven years old, the sort of formative, critical period of childhood that is extremely debilitating and can affect your sort of emotional configuration, the way that you treat relationships, the way you think about other people. And so, yeah, it's above and beyond, I think, just material deprivation alone, sort of emotional security and attachment and family and care. And all of those things are also extremely important. And later, it wasn't just foster care. I mean, later when I was adopted and moved up, and we can talk about this, too. I saw with my friends later that my friends in high school, most of them weren't in foster care. They were just from the kind of families that are pervasive in kind of working class, lower middle class neighborhoods in America now.

Rob Henderson [00:18:34]:
It's really a point that I try to hammer home is this sort of instability and the squalor rather than the poverty in and of itself.

Dan Riley [00:18:44]:
I marked the hell out of your book with so many notes in the pages, and one of the comments that kept coming to mind was heartbreaking. And I know you convey this many times in the book that you're not after pity, but I kept thinking that, and you allude to this towards the end of the book about how really, I believe your hope for who this book is really for sounds like a younger you. And I think a lot of great art comes from people creating something they wish they would have had at some point in their past. And to me, the book just resonated as being amazingly honest. My favorite passages typically were obviously, to me, were probably the parts that were the hardest for you to write because of how difficult they were. I wanted to read a couple of quotes from the book and just get your thoughts. Some of this I think you've alluded to, and this is from you, unstable environments and unreliable caregivers are bad because the children enduring them experience pain, pain that etches itself into their brains and bodies and propels them to do things in the pursuit of relief that often inflict even more harm. This is another one.

Dan Riley [00:19:58]:
When kids are in survival mode, they don't have much energy left for contemplative thought. It wasn't until later, when I was in a much more stable environment, that I began to think more deeply and realized that I'd spent most of my youth in a relentless state of fight or flight. And this was one that I think captures a lot of what it must be like to be raised in the sort of environment that you were like. And this is the final one.

Rob Henderson [00:20:30]:

Dan Riley [00:20:30]:
I had little supervision at home and no one who took an interest in my grades. When adults let children down, children learn to let themselves down. I wanted to just give you an opportunity to take those ideas and run with them in whatever way you think might resonate with people, especially kids that might be in the situation that you were in, that could be coming across this interview and feel as dispossessed and hopeless as you once did.

Rob Henderson [00:21:00]:
Yeah. I mentioned somewhere near the end of the book that this wasn't. I didn't want people to. I wanted the book to be honest, I wanted it to be authentic. But that was a lingering worry, actually was like, people are going to feel bad. I didn't want it to be that kind of book. And in a way, it's almost like if the book didn't have a quote, unquote happy ending, where my life, in the end, turned it out okay, the book would just be a huge bummer. Right? It's only because my life turned out to be relatively okay that I didn't follow the sort of statistical trajectory that I should have been on, that I'm even in a position to write a book like this in the first place.

Rob Henderson [00:21:39]:
And so I had a bunch of friends who ended up in much worse places than me. Most people in foster care end up in horrible situations. Something like, I think it's 60% of boys in foster care are incarcerated. So for every one male foster child who graduates from college, 20 are locked up. And so I didn't follow that. And so I'm in this position to write this book. So I wanted it to communicate the experiences that kids in those environments face. Not just foster care, but just sort of general instability, which I write about in the sort of the middle parts of the book after I'm adopted.

Rob Henderson [00:22:16]:
What did I say? The pain, the instability. Why are these environments bad? That's another theme of the book, is there's a lot of attention paid by policymakers and affluent people, whatever you want to call them cultural elites or the intelligentsia, the chattering class, what I call sometimes the luxury belief class, is social mobility. We need to get more kids into college, we need to improve grades, we need to improve learning outcomes, we need to get kids better jobs, bring more kids into the middle class. And that's all well and good, but it's this sort of very kind of materialist, credentialist, kind of reductive view of what social mobility is or what happiness is. I mean, ultimately, what is it about we just want kids to get more degrees and have more money? But isn't the ultimate aim sort of well being and flourishing and thriving and happiness? And you and I probably know plenty of people who have fancy degrees and earn money, but they're not necessarily happy, right? Those things can help. Those things are sort of loosely correlated with well being and happiness. It's probably on average they do sort of are associated with those things. But ultimately I think it's about well being and so early life experiences.

Rob Henderson [00:23:34]:
If you've had a lot of stressful or traumatic or upsetting childhood experiences, and then later on you go on to earn a fancy degree and make a lot of money, those things don't magically make up for everything that happened before. There's a line, I think, in the preface, I say that I took this childhood instability scale. This is like a sort of widely used scale in developmental psychology research, sort of measuring how much instability is in a child's life. And it asks questions like, were you raised by sort of two married parents? Were there divorces? Were there separations? How many times did adults move in and out of your home growing up? How frequently did you relocate? How many different occupations did your mom and dad hold throughout your childhood? Were they constantly kind of unemployed, changing jobs, that kind of thing? Just sort of day to day disorder and uncertainty. So I took this out of curiosity, and I scored well into the top 1% of most unstable childhoods in the US. And I write that I would trade my position in the top 1% of educational attainment, getting degrees from Yale and Cambridge. And yeah, it feels good and it's better than, for me, at least, it's better than not having them, but I would trade them to have not experienced everything I did before. And I think if you asked, a lot of the kids now in foster care, even if they were guaranteed positions at some fancy Ivy League university, but hey, you're going to have to go through foster care first.

Rob Henderson [00:25:13]:
I think a lot of them would not take that deal. They would say, if you sort of gave them the choice. You can live in a sort of stable family. You can stay with your parents and they're going to treat you well, but you're not going to go to college later. Or you can stay in this kind of instability and squalor and uncertainty and kind of emotionally upsetting situations, but later on you're going to earn money and get some fancy degrees. I don't think kids would sort of take that latter option. And so this is another point that I try to drive home is like, okay, yeah, social mobility is something that's important. And still, I would rather it be a sort of a side effect, a sort of byproduct of things that are more important, which is sort of safety and security and well being for young children rather than sort of focusing on what happens after they turn 18.

Rob Henderson [00:26:04]:
Oh, they're 18, and they're from these impoverished backgrounds. So let's try to get some of them into college. Let's sort of fix the problem at the wrong end of that sort of marker of adulthood at 18 years old. These are just a couple of the points that I wanted to highlight throughout the book. The importance of safety for kids, security for them, and sort of questioning the idea that credentials and money will make up for everything.

Dan Riley [00:26:37]:
One of the things that the quote that I kept thinking of when you were making that point about our culture's obsession with education, status and credentials being the marker of a quote, unquote successful person is this quote from Peter Drucker that only what gets measured gets managed and educational attainment money, yearly income that is easily digestible as a statistical piece of information, well being might be quite a lot harder to get a handle on. I don't know if you agree with that, but in your just general obsession, and I totally agree with you, that I think most people, if they're sane, would choose a happy family with less money than a lot more money and a chaotic, unhappy home life. Why do you think it is that? At least in America, it seems like we have come to a similar view on this, that there is this obsession with focusing solely on these status markers, the income that you're obtaining. How do you make sense of that?

Rob Henderson [00:27:47]:
Well, I think one is. So there's a lot of focus on school and credentials. And I think part of that is just because of the people who set policy tend to be nerds who are really good at school. And they kind of think, well, I was good at school, and if we could just get more other kids to be good at school, then they can live like me and sort of live happily ever after. And you can sort of twist the dials of education policy, of whatever, creating academic tracks or programs or school funding or those kinds of things. No one's ever going to get voted out of office or be shouted down because they say schools need more money. So you can sort of blame schools or condemn schools or condemn education policy or universities are an easy punching bag, and I indulge in that myself. I think a lot of it is well deserved.

Rob Henderson [00:28:41]:
Universities have made a lot of blunders and missteps, which maybe we can get into later. But it's hard with family, right? Because no one wants to. People, I think they feel bad, they feel guilty if they start saying poor families or single moms or, this is funny. Sometimes when people read my book, they say, so are you saying that single moms are doing something wrong? And I feel like nowhere in my book do I point the finger at single moms. And if it makes you feel better, if anything in the book, I feel like it sort of came through and in the writing process itself, as I was writing about my adoptive mom and her partner and the women in my life who helped to take care of me, if anything, I feel like a lot of the sort of finger pointing was actually at the men, my birth father who abandoned my mother and me, my adoptive father who stopped speaking with me. And so if we're going to blame anyone, I would rather blame the absentee fathers or the deadbeat dads or the fathers who aren't involved in their children's lives, more so than the women who are often left holding the baby and having to care for it on her own. But I think that's what it is, is that it's hard to, you can't invoke policy to change parenting all that much, but you can with schools, you can with academic programs, with education. And so Melissa Kearney wrote this great book that just came out, the two parent privilege.

Rob Henderson [00:30:07]:
Really good book. And she makes this point in her book, too, that she's been involved in sort of upward mobility and questions around policy and education for years now. She's a professor, I think, at the University of Maryland, and she goes into these academic conferences and these policy discussions and how whenever she brings up family people, they sort of slowly inch away from her like, oh, that's weird. Like family. Let's get back to talking about the safety net in schools and education. But one point that I make in the book is my schools actually weren't that bad. They weren't great. But they were like decent public schools.

Rob Henderson [00:30:50]:
And my teachers were actually pretty switched on. And they saw that I had potential and they were like, why are you doing this to yourself? You're squandering your potential. You're a smart kid. They can tell teachers, they're usually pretty good at telling which students are. Even if the student isn't the most attentive or conscientious, they can kind of tell which kids are curious or which kids are smart. They could see a bit of this in me, but I just didn't see the point. All of the chaos, all the different homes, the different foster families, all of the uncertainty and disorder in my life, I just thought, what's the point? Why would I invoke the energy or invest the energy? And I enjoyed just sort of screwing around with my friends. And you can put a smart kid in the best possible school, but if he's going home to a place that's just sort of chaotic and mad and unpredictable, a lot of those kids won't take advantage of those opportunities.

Rob Henderson [00:31:47]:
This was a study that I cited in the book as well. This study from James Heckman, the economist and Nobel laureate, and he compared the social mobility rates of Denmark and the US and found that there wasn't a difference between the two, despite Denmark having very generous social benefits. University education is free in Denmark, but the same amount of poor kids go on to graduate from university in Denmark as in the US. And I think a lot of that has to do with. And they point this out in that paper, too, Heckman and his co authors, that families are overlooked. The inputs that kids receive from their mothers or their fathers or their parents or caregivers, if they're not receiving that sort of regular emotional check in with their families, very few kids feel motivated to do well in school. It's hard enough to make good choices for yourself, even in the best of circumstances, even when you do have parents who are on your case, telling you to do your homework and whatnot. But if you don't have that, even if you're a smart kid, just very few kids want to do hard things without some role model or some adult oversight, sort of gently encouraging them and checking in on them and sometimes making you do things you don't want to do, but it'll be good for you in the long run.

Rob Henderson [00:33:08]:
No kid wants to do homework. No kid wants to study. I mean, maybe a few do, but most don't. And so when you have adults around it, it can really go a long way. But when you're raised by a single mother or neglectful parents or people who are just kind of checked out, it's just not going to work out very well. I think that people who wield cultural influence, whether they be columnists or academics or policymakers or talk show hosts or podcasters, people who have some kind of a voice, if they could start to speak a little bit more about how. Yes, I'm not opposed to helping the schools get along and making sure that education policy is where it should be, but also what's going on at home? What about the other, whatever, 16 hours a day, the kid isn't in the classroom. Let's make sure he or she is also sort of being looked after there, too.

Dan Riley [00:34:05]:
I mean, it did seem like for many of those years in that context that you were forged in. You have this professor, I think, at Yale who says you were forged in a fire, something like that later.

Rob Henderson [00:34:15]:
That was Harold Bloom.

Dan Riley [00:34:18]:
And the thought that I had when I was reading that the years of your life before you entered the military, it seemed like it was filled with a sense of just nihilism. And you must get this a lot. I think you probably just alluded to this a little bit, and you're probably as qualified as anyone I know of to comment on this. But in general, what are the big ideas that you have for how the culture at large can help these people? Right. I mean, I think you just alluded to, we always kind of look to policy as being the first mover to try to help in these contexts. But additionally, in just the zeitgeist of the culture, and maybe this links to the luxury belief ideas and the luxury belief class that you talk about extensively in the book. How do you make sense of that? How would you respond to how the greater culture can begin to try to help change the kind of disrepair and chaos of so many kids who are growing up in that kind of a.

Rob Henderson [00:35:23]:
You know, it's so I received an early review of my book from Kirkus Reviews, and they said something about how so much of the book was bleak. And you use this term. You know, I knew that the first few chapters were pretty rough, pretty grim. But then I thought as the book goes on, it sort of waxes and wanes. There are sort of highs and lows. But I think taken as a whole, actually, the book is probably actually heavier than I expected. And, yeah, it's funny because I lived it and there appears where it did feel bad, but it didn't feel as bad until I saw it sort of written down on paper, reviewing it multiple times and just sort of getting a feel for it. I'm like, yeah, even though it does have somewhat of a positive ending, it's a long way to get there.

Rob Henderson [00:36:15]:
The nihilism and all of that. Yeah, I mean, that was especially the teenage years. How to mitigate that? I do think that it has a lot to do with sort of community, family neighborliness, just sort of basic, what used to be just sort of conventional moral norms of neighborliness and respect and all of those things. I mean, it's funny, I mentioned my grandparents a few times, my adoptive grandparents in that book. My adoptive mother, she was adopted herself. But anyway, so my grandparents, if anything, they were probably poorer than us when they were kids. They went through the Great Depression and neither one of them went to college. My dad was sort of this part time mechanic handyman.

Rob Henderson [00:37:05]:
And my mom talked about how when she was growing up, it was actually much harder in some ways for her materially. But my grandparents stayed married. They built a sort of nice home for my mom and her siblings and they made it work. And my mom basically says money was tight, but she has almost nothing but positive memories of that time growing up in the 1960s and early seventy s with my grandparents in rural Oregon. And I think a lot of that was because the neighborhood and the values and the people there of people just sort of looking after one another and watching each other's kids and people felt safe. And it was just different. And over time, with this sort of gradual deterioration of expectations and standards, I wrote this piece in my substac. No one expects young men to do anything, and they respond by doing nothing.

Rob Henderson [00:37:58]:
And a point I make is that we used to have very high standards for young men. For example, so much of my book is about how just me and my friends at 1617 years old, we're just sort of wandering around the neighborhood or the town, just like trying to find things, to do mischief, trying to get people to hook us up with weed or beer or pills or whatever, like starting fights, just sort of thrill seeking. We did have jobs. I mean, most of my friends and I, we had part time jobs. But I think that if we had had a bit more sort of oversight, sort of adults around us maybe held us to a higher standard if our families weren't in such dire situations. Just sort of the configurations. There was me. It's sort of chaotic the way that my family sort of worked out with the divorces and the remarriages and the single mother for a while.

Rob Henderson [00:38:58]:
But there was me with those kinds of situations. I had another friend who was raised. I had two friends raised by a single mom, one friend raised by a single dad, one friend raised by his grandmother because both of his parents were in prison. And so that was the kind of norm around us. I had one friend whose parents were still together, but even then, his dad was probably cheating on his mom. And even then, even when you did have that kind of stable two parent situation, or seemingly stable, there was still, like, infidelity. I think there's more of it now than there used to be, or if there isn't more now at the least. In the past, people attempted to sort of keep up appearances and do their best for their spouses and for their kids, even if they themselves had personal failings or weren't always 100% devoted to their spouse.

Rob Henderson [00:39:49]:
Whereas now, I think it's just this kind of, if it feels good, do it. And I think parents are. There's this sort of obsession with authenticity. And if you feel this desire to cheat on your spouse, and even if your kid finds out about it, it's okay as long as you provide for them in some way, whereas kids actually pick up a lot from example. And that friend that I had mentioned, who was raised by both of his parents and his father cheated, it just occurred to me. I don't even think I made connecting these dots in the book is that he himself has two kids with two different women. I think I mentioned that part in the book, but he didn't connect that with his father, who was unfaithful to his mom. And we like rumors about it.

Rob Henderson [00:40:34]:
People would tease him about it. It just seems unlikely to me that that didn't have some effect on the way that he viewed women later and the way that he treated his own relationships. And I think that's overlooked, too, is like, if you're a teenage boy and you're seeing adult men around you, whatever, be disrespectful to women, or just even if you lack good sort of role models around you for what a relationship is supposed to look like, then, yeah, you're just going to sort of indulge your base desires and impulses naturally. I think without some containment, young men are going to treat people around them not very well. Not just women, but their own friends. I mean, probably the main victim of my friends and I were each other, and then we didn't really treat girls especially great either. But we didn't have anyone around us. No oversight.

Rob Henderson [00:41:33]:
It's funny, we hear when you enter the sort of middle, upper middle class educated class. There's a lot of discussion around toxic masculinity and all of these kinds of things, but these conversations are almost all had among people with college degrees who are generally nice people. That's the other thing, is now I interact with guys like you, and guys like my friends now are like, everyone is very nice. Everyone is like, to me, it's like this. Everyone is chivalrous and kind and polite. It's like nothing like the guys I grew up with. And it took me a little while to sort of adjust to that. But it's just funny to me that as I interact with more and more polite men, that's where all the conversations are about how horrible men are.

Rob Henderson [00:42:16]:
If you want to meet horrible men, there are places you can go, but it's not going to be on a college campus. I mean, you will find some horrible men, but not nearly to the extent you would in some rundown neighborhoods.

Dan Riley [00:42:28]:
I think that's a very good point, and I want to transition into the post red bluff era of your life shortly here. But one of the things that I knew I wanted to ask you about is your views on parenting in general. And a lot of my takeaway from, especially your early years was these were stories of kids who were either unwanted or certainly felt unwanted. And if you think that parenthood in general should be reserved or more the exception than the rule, really reserved for people who have, across cultures, across socioeconomic classes, just people who have gotten to a point in their life when they have really gotten to a place where they know they want to be a parent and can actually be the sort of role models and parents that kids really desire. I'm sure you've thought a decent amount about this. I know you allude to the fact that you hope to be a dad, I think, at one point in your life. But in general, I just wanted to put that to you to get your thoughts on parenthood for people still kind of being the default, rather than something that maybe not everybody is quite equipped to handle in a way that doesn't result in these catastrophic second and third order consequences of the father disappearing after year two of the kid's existence, things like that. I just wanted to get your thoughts on that in general.

Rob Henderson [00:44:07]:
Yeah, that final point. I witnessed this myself. And these experiences, these recollections, match sort of broad national trends. There's a book by a couple of sociologists called promises I can keep by Maria Kefalus is one of the authors. The other author's name escapes me, but they're two female sociologists. It's an excellent book, and they sort of document the lives and experiences of single moms in various sort of poor and impoverished neighborhoods across the US. And it's like a very diverse set. I mean, these are not just poor white women, but also poor black women, poor hispanic women, different, just sort of different backgrounds of sort of the lower socioeconomic strata.

Rob Henderson [00:44:57]:
And, yeah, one of the things they point out in that book is something like, if two unmarried parents are in a relationship when a child is born, by the time that child has his or her second birthday, something like greater than 50% chance those two parents are no longer going to be married or no longer going to be together after two years. And so, yeah, it would be nice if people thought more deeply and more carefully about whether they want to have kids or not. I think this is just sort of one of the unforeseen consequences of the sort of championing of the sort of cultural or sexual revolution of the 1960s of suddenly, if it feels good, do it. If you want to have a lot of promiscuous sex with people you don't know very well, as long as everything is consensual, it's fine. And, you know, I think it is fine. I'm not saying I would outlaw any of this. People are adults and they're going to do what they want. That's fine.

Rob Henderson [00:46:04]:
But it would be nice if we did have a bit more just sort of awareness of there are risks involved. Pregnancy is like, we have reproductive technology, but I'm not sure that they had necessarily the intended effect. I mean, I think they do manage to control pregnancy. But one thought experiment that I've suggested elsewhere is if you traveled back to 1945 and you told people, within a couple of decades, we're going to have a pill you can take that's going to prevent pregnancy, we're going to have, at least in most states, depending on the laws and so forth. But abortion will be pretty widely available, and you're just going to have this massive expansion of reproductive technology, morning after pill and so forth, much different than the situation in 1945, which was basically nothing or like whatever crazy back alley abortions and sort of homeopathic approaches to try to protect or prevent pregnancy. And so you ask people, you were going to have this future, do you think there are going to be more foster kids or fewer? Do you think there are going to be more single parents or fewer? Do you think there are going to be more unwanted kids or kids who are living in squalor, chaos or poverty or what have you. And I think a lot of people in 1945 would have said, no child's ever going to be born again unless their parents want them. There's probably not going to be any foster kids because any parent, any person who wants to have sex doesn't have to get pregnant anymore.

Rob Henderson [00:47:45]:
And there was a really interesting paper from Brookings Institution from the 90s, Ackerloff and Yellen, Janet Yellen, who I think is, she's in the Biden administration. But they wrote this really interesting paper about sort of reproductive shock, technological shock on pregnancy patterns. And one of the things they point out, the data seemed consistent with this idea that once motherhood became a biological choice for women, fatherhood became a social choice for men. So prior to the advent of reproductive technology, if a man got a woman pregnant, there were all of these social forces and norms in place, like from parents, from older people in the neighborhood, from the woman's parents, from the woman herself, from the man's friends. It was dishonorable among young men. If you got a girl pregnant, you had to marry her. That was just what you had to do. You had to take care of her and the baby.

Rob Henderson [00:48:42]:
But then once birth control was introduced and abortion was introduced, suddenly if a woman got pregnant, the implicit thinking seemed to be, well, that's your fault. Now it's on you. It wasn't the man's fault. The man didn't get you pregnant. You kind of got yourself pregnant. And so if you want to have the baby, you can, but the man doesn't have to stick around because you had these options ahead of you and you chose to have the baby anyway. And so, yeah, there's child support, and the man can maybe financially send some money to help with childcare and upkeep, but he has no obligation or duty anymore. And all of the social pressure and the guilt and the stigma and the shaming on him more or less evaporated to the point where now in 2024, you can essentially find more people stigmatizing and shaming people for smoking cigarettes, cigarettes than for being absentee dads.

Rob Henderson [00:49:36]:
I mean, if you learn a guy doesn't see his kids very much, it's like, oh, that's too bad. But if you see someone smoking, it's kind of still okay to say, hey, you know, that's bad for you. But no one's going to tell the absentee father that, hey, that's bad for your kids, that you're not around. So we've sort of shifted our condemnation and the things that we tend to care about, to your question. Yeah, it would be nice, but we seem very bad at sort of understanding externalities and second order consequences. But I would sort of encourage people to think more about, is it a good idea to have kids? And is this person that you're currently in some kind of a relationship with, would that be like if you're going to be in a relationship with them? And if pregnancy is a possibility, is this person going to be the best sort of parent? I saw this tweet, and it was funny to see the comments on it, but it was like sort of a tongue in cheek tweet, I thought. But it was something like, you shouldn't have sex with anyone unless you want them to be the parent of your child. And I don't think the person was saying, you should marry, you shouldn't have sex unless you're married.

Rob Henderson [00:50:38]:
I don't think that was the point. I would think it was more like every person you have sex with, pregnancy is a possibility, and do you want to be tied to that person? Do you want to raise that child with that person? I think it's something worth thinking about. I mean, I don't think it's realistic. I mean, the genie is out of the bottle, and we're never going to sort of roll back the cultural changes, but I do think we can be a bit more careful about it. And then to your earlier point about what can we do to maybe mitigate some of this? I mean, I've written before about the sort of incredible success of the anti tobacco movement. In the early 1980s, something like 40% of Americans smoked cigarettes, and by the early two thousand s, it had plummeted to less than 20%. So essentially, cigarette smoking was cut in half or even more. I mean, nowadays it's something like 15% of Americans report that they smoke cigarettes.

Rob Henderson [00:51:35]:
And so it used to be ubiquitous, but then there were all of these policies and measures put in place. Basically, cigarettes were never outlawed. I guess menthol cigarettes were outlawed, but cigarettes were never outlawed. But there were these sort of measures. There were sort of social norms and cultural norms that changed around it, such that it went from being cool or being sort of casual or normalized to sort of being a bit stigmatized. You'd be judged for it. And I think there are ways to do this for other kinds of social norms, too. People say shame doesn't work or stigma doesn't work, but it clearly worked.

Rob Henderson [00:52:06]:
I think in the case of cigarettes, I know there were sort of economic innovations and syntax and those kinds of things. Too. But I really think a lot of it was just people felt bad if they smoked and they didn't want other people to judge them for it. And I think we could do a little bit of this. I remember when I was a kid, I would see, like, billboards or commercials, and it was like some woman with a tracheotomy with a hole in her neck, and she'd have the little device. She'd hold up and talk about how she smoked for 30 years, and now she has to suffer this way. And those made an impact. I mean, I still smoked anyway, but I remember being spooked by it.

Rob Henderson [00:52:46]:
And apparently it worked on other people. It didn't work on me, so maybe this isn't. But anyway. And so I wonder if we had some public ad campaigns. There are different ways you could do it, but one would be if a kid is raised by. In a stable two parent family, they're x percent less likely to be incarcerated. Or if the father is around in their child's life, they're x percent more likely to graduate from high school or go on to whatever, have a successful relationship herself. I mean, there's all kinds of statistics that we could dig up sort of seeing the positive outcomes for kids who have fathers in their lives or who are raised in sort of stable environments.

Rob Henderson [00:53:26]:
It's if we could have something like this and framed it in a way that whatever doesn't necessarily make single mothers or single parents feel bad, but just show that there are ways of life that are statistically aligned with more favorable outcomes for your kids, I think that could be sort of one step in that direction.

Dan Riley [00:53:49]:
And I know you say this towards the end of the book, that that's the looser cultural norms from the luxury belief classes. That's the one specifically that I think, if I remember correctly, you allude to.

Rob Henderson [00:54:02]:

Dan Riley [00:54:06]:
Being the hardest one for you to accept, or the one that made you the most irate, was this view that families and parenthood and marriage with kids was not important, and that you were getting that message when you were on campus and your own life was a testament to how some of those ideas were almost certainly off base. And it reminds me of a quote that I've loved for years, which is that high status Americans walk like the talk. Like the many times when I was reading your book, especially towards the end, I had that quote running through my head because I think that's become much more fashionable to approach subjects like family and marriage, as you just articulated. And many years ago, I interviewed a woman. This was back when I was living in San Francisco, who had lived as a drug addicted homeless person in the tenderloin of San Francisco for more than a decade, took a bus out there from Ohio when she was 19, was immense student in high school, incredibly intelligent woman. Her name was Tracy Helton, and I learned about her from a 90s documentary that was done by HBO called Black Tar Heroin, which is still available on YouTube. And it's one of these 90s documentaries that there were very few of them like it at the time because of how raw it was. And you see this woman who I think Tracy was in her mid twenty s at that time.

Dan Riley [00:55:44]:
She looks like she's days away from death, skinny, obviously strung out on some combination of drugs. And by the time I met her, she was one of the one to two to 3% of people with her background who had escaped. And by the time I met her, she was in her 40s, she was married, she was the mother of three kids. She had a job at, I think, at San Francisco General Hospital, which is where I interviewed her. The story is not the same, but I think the percentages of someone from your background getting to where you are and the percentages of somebody like Tracy getting to where she is are probably not too far off from one another. And you talk about this point in the book where it's related to your transition out of the trajectory you were on. And this is the quote from the book from you, which is, quote, I knew the path I was currently on was definitely the wrong one. Enlisting seemed like the smart choice.

Dan Riley [00:56:51]:
And there's another quote shortly thereafter that you have, which is quote, but the military taught me that people don't need motivation, they need self discipline. Motivation is just a feeling. Self discipline is, quote, I'm going to do this regardless of how I feel. I wanted to know for you how you knew, because to me, it seemed like this was a major transition point for you, that you needed to get out and do something different, and that enlisting was possibly the only real rope for you to pull on, to lift yourself out of there. And I'd love to give you an opportunity to talk about that point, which, in my reading of the book, was really the beginning of your trajectory into a totally different world.

Rob Henderson [00:57:38]:
Yeah, well, so I enlisted when I was 17, right after I graduated high school. And there were a couple of different factors involved there. I was the only one out of my group. I had five close friends. There were six of us in this little group in high school, and I was the only one who enlisted. And the others sort of went on their path to a couple of them were later arrested, went to prison. The others sort of went into sort of menial jobs, minimum wage kind of jobs. To this day, I'm the only one who graduated from college.

Rob Henderson [00:58:13]:
One of my friends, I literally met him this past summer, like, five, six months ago, and he had been in community college for, like, I don't know, ten plus years. And he just recently transferred to a four year state school all these years later. So maybe in another ten years he'll have his bachelor's degree, but that's the one other besides me, and we'll see where that goes for him. But I was legitimately happy because I never understood how anyone could stretch community college out for so long. He failed a budget classes, smoked a lot of weed. He was like, even in his late twenty s and his early 30s, he was. Still. Couldn't get it together.

Rob Henderson [00:58:54]:
Anyway, okay. When I was 17, I lived with my friend, my best friend from high school, who's actually this guy I just mentioned, and his brother and their father. And their father was a retired police officer, air force veteran. And he was, like, basically the only kind of real male figure in my life. As a teenager, I had a lot of respect for him. He was kind of an absentee dad, so he worked as a private investigator by the time I moved in with them. And he was just always on the road for work, always gone. He had to do whatever stakeouts.

Rob Henderson [00:59:31]:
He would just never be home. We'd see him maybe once a week, but whenever he was around, he'd take us out to dinner and he'd talk to us and just sort of give us life advice and stuff. And, yeah, one of the things he said was like, yeah, I think he had grown up relatively poor and joined the military. And that kind of got him on a track into the police academy and sort of got him onto a decent life or a better life than he otherwise could have expected. And then I had a teacher in high school who also had been in the military, and I liked this teacher. I wasn't a great student, but he was one of these teachers who recognized potential in me, and he would sort of take me aside and talk to me. Once he kind of realized I was never going to really apply myself, he would still just talk to me and just sort of see. I think he was curious.

Rob Henderson [01:00:16]:
He was just asking me questions, or we'd just speak after class, or he'd see that I would have books in my backpack that I checked off in the library. And just sort of, what are you reading there? And kind of gave up on me as a student, but just took an interest in me as like, a person. And that was actually nice. And then he showed me some pictures of himself when he was in the military. And he's like, yeah, this might actually be good for you. You're kind of a screw up right now. But he didn't say this, but this was kind of the sense I got from him. He was like, you're kind of on a bad path now, but maybe if you join the military, you'd be able to get yourself together.

Rob Henderson [01:00:50]:
Um, and then the other thing was, I had two different jobs in high school. One was as a dishwasher, the other I was a bagger at a grocery store. And I saw the guys that I was working with, they were in their twenty s, some of them reaching their, reaching their thirty s. And I just thought, do I really want to be washing dishes when I'm 30 years old or making pizzas or sort of working in the back of a kitchen for whatever, seven, $8 an hour? Is this really what I want to be doing in ten years? And these guys, they were fun to be around. And some of them were without them as cool because they'd like, buy us beer or hook us up with weed or whatever. But I did think as high school was coming to an end, I was like, it is kind of weird being like a 30 year old man drinking beer with a bunch of high schoolers. Is that the guy I want to be when I'm 30? And so between those experiences, I figured, okay, well, maybe I'll just join the military. It'll get me right out of here.

Rob Henderson [01:01:49]:
My family life was falling apart, too. I'd mentioned that I was living with these two brothers and their dad, but my mom and her relationship with her partner was deteriorating and there was just a lot of emotional turmoil. And I just really wanted to get out of there. And so, yeah, it was not an especially well thought through decision in that I knew I wanted to get out of there, but I didn't really know what the military was. I knew it would get me out. I knew, like, okay, I'll go to somewhere else, I'll do basic trading, I'll have a job. But I really didn't sort of think step by step what it would entail and how difficult it was going to be. And in a way, I'm kind of glad I didn't know.

Rob Henderson [01:02:26]:
I'm glad that I was maybe under prepared because I'm not sure, I would have done it otherwise, but the fact that I went in pretty ignorant is probably good for me. And I remember in basic training, going through it, I'm like, man, this kind of sucks. I don't like this very much. If I had known this was going to be, I don't think I would have done this. But no, I went through it and I was kind of proud of myself for getting through it. And, yeah, that sort of redirected the path I was on.

Dan Riley [01:02:57]:
One of the things I know you mentioned about that time in the military, which I thought was a really brilliant insight, is that one of the aspects of the military that really helps to redirect, often aimless, especially young men, is the absence of so much free time that I think you say something like this in the book, that success is not always about always doing the right thing. It's about not doing the stupid thing. And when that is removed from you entirely, that that can really help give structure to kids that otherwise don't have that or haven't had that in their life. But to me, one of the other aspects of that story, when you're in the military, that just as a fan of your work for so long that was so interesting and jarring, was that seems to be the time when.

Rob Henderson [01:04:01]:

Dan Riley [01:04:01]:
Of this buried shit from your past just started to percolate again, or maybe even for the first time. And that I was a big drinker when I was that age as well. But I mean, the drinking really seemed to ratchet up in your life. And the drinking and driving was also fairly common. And the fights that you were getting in that even though you seemed to be on a better trajectory, it seemed like a lot of the trauma from your early life. And look, I know what this is like as a guy myself, of how hard it can be to admit to yourself and to other people when you're not in a good place. And that was obviously something that I think you had to do and I think was probably one of the hardest things you probably ever had to admit. I just wanted to give you some time to talk about that phase of your life as well, because I thought the book so brilliantly detailed, even in your little micro family, you are known at that time as the guy who escaped the successful one, the one who's not putting your difficulties on others.

Dan Riley [01:05:13]:
But you say this in the book, that if you want to know the quality of your life, just sit by yourself and listen to the thoughts that are going on in your head. And I wondered if you could give some voice to that phase of your life as well.

Rob Henderson [01:05:29]:
Yeah, so when this book comes out, and I guess by the time this episode of the podcast comes out, this will be the first time where people can read about this part of my life that I had never really spoken about publicly, which was when I was in rehab. So how old was know the way that I marked time. So I was in this treatment facility and in some of the, like, it was housed within a hospital, and the hospital was always playing CNN. And this was the part of whatever, 2014 when that malaysian airliner disappeared. And that's all CNN played for like six months, at least in my memory. And so it was like, so it's weird. We were sort of in the hallways of this hospital and this treatment facility, and it's like, oh, CNN still cares about this random airliner that went missing. So, yeah, always remember that was, I think, 2014, early 2014.

Rob Henderson [01:06:25]:
And so, yeah, probably this was actually this kind of period of deterioration and shame and when the drinking got out of control, this was 23 years old, and this was a period where I started to become a little bit. So this was five, six years into my job and was getting a little bit, what, restless there. I wasn't entirely happy with it because I chose this job when I was 17. This isn't something I always want to do or anything. It was just sort of a last ditch attempt to get out of where I was. And then the job, it wasn't like my first choice. It was like an okay job. So I started to grow unhappy there.

Rob Henderson [01:07:14]:
I was also in a period where, yeah, I had more stability, more predictability in my schedule. I had some time to think, reflect. I think some of this may have just been sort of like almost biological maturation of like, once you reach your early twenty s, your frontal lobes start to develop a bit more. You start to become a bit more sort of self aware and self reflective and sort of processing the memories of everything that I had gone through naturally. So the other thing is, it's funny, I talk about these impositions, the military, whatever. It contained me in that way. Whereas when I was a teenager, we were just sort of getting into trouble all the time. And the military is like this very rigid structure.

Rob Henderson [01:07:58]:
But by the time I was in my early twenty s, one thing that I could indulge as much as I wanted, in which I couldn't as a teenager, was drinking. Right. When I was 17, we still had to find different ways of bargaining and bartering and whatever, trying to see whose older brother could hook us up with booze or whatever, but by the time you're in, your can just drink as much as you want, whenever you want, when you're not on the clock. And so it was literally like, whatever. I'm not working and I'm over 21, so why wouldn't I be drinking? And, yeah, it got like, really? It's funny. It's fun at first. And then there was no break. There was nothing around me, no counterforce to say, that's not a good idea, because for a while, I was living in a house with a bunch of other guys, and they were drinking just as much or more as I was.

Rob Henderson [01:08:46]:
And then I had an apartment later by myself, and it was just drinking alone. And I noticed the more I was drinking alone, the more I thought about my early life and the more unhappy I became. And there was a lot of sort of a sequence of bad things had occurred in a short time frame. One was I'd been in a relationship, and that sort of ended abruptly. And, I mean, in hindsight, all the signs were there that it was about to end anyway. But it did sort of come to a head in one day where she was unhappy. And part of it was due to my drinking and my just sort of selfishness of just, like, I wasn't a good person to be in a relationship with. I had never seen what a good, healthy relationship looked like.

Rob Henderson [01:09:34]:
And I tried my best to, whatever, imitate it, but it wasn't working out well, so she was probably right to leave it at that time. And then one of my coworkers, we weren't super close, but we were pretty good friends, he committed suicide. He was in the same unit as me. We worked together, and that hit me pretty hard. And I was sort of growing more and more distant from my adoptive family. And one day this was like, yeah, one evening after work, I just drank and drank, and then it was like this sort of self destructive drinking of chugging bourbon right out of the bottle. And, yeah, I woke up in my bathtub. I had this apartment, and I was living alone, and woke up, I don't know, it was like four or 05:00 a.m.

Rob Henderson [01:10:32]:
And I just couldn't get my balance and tried to drink water, and I kept sort of retching it back up. I texted a friend, this was like maybe an hour. It was like 06:00 a.m.. A friend of mine, he was sort of just woken up. He was about to get ready for work, and he came over. He and another one of my coworkers came to check in on me, and he just told there was something wrong. And so we went to the hospital, went to the ICU, and I had already been to a clinic before this sort of on my own. I just wanted to check in on myself, but it ended up not going anywhere anyway.

Rob Henderson [01:11:07]:
So I'm in this hospital, and the doctor basically recommended me for treatment. And once they had sort of asked me a few questions, asked how much I'd been drinking and how long this had been going on, and asked me a bunch of questions. And, yeah, they were like, yeah, you've basically been, like, a functional alcoholic for about 18 months, but it's time for you to address this before it gets too out of control. I mean, it already has gotten a bit out of control. You just have gotten lucky and haven't hurt anyone because I would just drink and drive. I'd, like, drink in parking lots, whatever. And it was just a matter of luck that nothing had happened yet other than maybe a few speeding tickets. And that was it.

Rob Henderson [01:11:45]:
It's funny, there was one time I didn't even tell the story in the book. It's funny, like, you write the book and memories still come. There was one time, I was stationed in Germany at this time. I got pulled over one night and I was like, I was hammered. And the pull outside, the german police pulled me over, and the police officer flashed his light in my eyes and he could tell I was american, and I think I was wearing my uniform. This might have been. I think this was after work. I might have been just drinking in, like, a parking lot or something.

Rob Henderson [01:12:14]:
But he asked me in English, how many drinks have you had tonight? And just the way that he said it, especially american cops don't ask that question. Sometimes. They ask, have you been drinking? Or they don't even ask that. They're just sort of trying to trip you up. But this german police officer just straight up said, how many drinks have you had tonight? And I looked at him and I just said, zero. And I was like, he's either going to know or he isn't. But no matter what number I give, even if I say one, he's going to be like, but I just said zero. And he was like, zero? And I said, yeah, zero.

Rob Henderson [01:12:47]:
And he's like, where do you live? And I was fortunate. I was like, literally right around the block, like, maybe whatever, two blocks. And he's like, okay, well, we're just going to follow you home. Then. I'm like, okay. And then that was it. That was an extremely lucky thing, right? If he had called me on my bluff, I could have been arrested that night, but I just fortunately wasn't. And so, anyway, a bunch of things like that.

Rob Henderson [01:13:11]:
And, yeah, it was tough to admit it to my friends. My friends were proud of me. They know I'd visit. They say, like, oh, yeah, this is Rob. He's back from the air force, whatever. I had that sort of proud feeling among them. And my mom was happy. I bought her this license plate frame for her car.

Rob Henderson [01:13:34]:
US Air Force, mom. Which, funny enough, since talking about cops, she's telling me this got me out of a bunch of speeding tickets. And that wasn't the reason she was proud, but she was just very happy that I had sort of climbed out of the situation I was in. My sister was proud of me. And so, yeah, when I had to call them and tell them, like, actually, I'm not okay, I've basically been lying to all of you for more than a year that I'm okay and I'm not. And I don't think I've really been okay, maybe ever. And this is like, just now I'm starting to realize it. And it was important for me to tell them that and just sort of address all of it.

Rob Henderson [01:14:13]:
I make this point near the end of the book about how the body and the mind, we've sort of adapted to overcome difficult situations. But part of the way that works is you can sort of get through a difficult situation, but you eventually do have to sort of pay the cost later. Whatever it is, whether it's a physical trauma or a mental trauma or psychological trauma, right, where in the moment, you could be in a car accident and have a serious injury, but because your body's in shock, you can actually move and the adrenaline is going. You can actually do things you ordinarily couldn't do because your body is in fight or flight and you're trying to survive, and then you don't even feel the pain, right? Like, if you're whatever, you've been seriously injured, you may not even feel the pain at first. And I think this works for psychological trauma, at least certain forms anyway, where in the moment you don't actually feel it very much, but then later, when you're in a situation where your body senses that it's in a safe enough place to start processing those memories or to go through them. And that was the sort of period once I was sort of financially secure, and once my life was predictable and stable enough, that for whatever reason, that was the time for me to just sort of start dealing with that. And unfortunately, it ended up working out. It was tough.

Rob Henderson [01:15:39]:
I mean, it still took a year, year and a half plus after that to sort of develop healthy habits and find sort of healthier ways to communicate with my family and be more honest. But, yeah, it was hard. Like I said, there was a reason I haven't written publicly about that before. And, yeah, that was one of the harder chapters to write, too.

Dan Riley [01:16:01]:
I have no doubt about it. And speaking of that point, this, I think, segues into another one of the quotes from the book that I wrote down, which is, this is from you, quote. For as long as I remember, I felt a constant undercurrent of throbbing rage, along with anxiety and shame, which I sometimes mistook for rage, for being abandoned, for being unwanted. But I was incapable of understanding it or communicating it. I was so overwhelmed by emotions, I didn't understand that I acted impulsively just to prove to myself and others that I wasn't weak. I'd once read that when an animal gets hurt, they know they are vulnerable and that predators will target them, so they are prone to lash out at the slightest sign of danger. I gripped the bat and smashed the taillights of a nearby car in the parking lot. I think that may have been from slightly earlier in the book, but I think it's related to, in general, a lot of the tax that eventually you had to pay for what you had dealt with earlier in your life.

Dan Riley [01:17:05]:
And I think this is also related to a theme that we started with in the book, which is that we're obsessed with success being these objective markers of educational achievement and money, and not like, is this kid. Well, are they a good friend? Are they trustworthy? Are they someone that you would want to have as a neighbor? Are they not dealing with something secretly that they don't feel like they can talk to anyone about? And it's one of the reasons why I feel like conversations like this can be so valuable to people is to maybe reorient our priorities on what we're trying to do here. There's a section in your book where you're talking, I think, to your psychologist or your psychiatrist, and you alluded to this just a second ago. He asked you, when was the last time that you were happy? And I think you said, maybe never. Something like that.

Rob Henderson [01:18:10]:
When I was in treatment. And, yeah, that was. I remember, yeah. When he asked me that, I'm like, yeah, there were like sort of bursts of pleasure, joy, or just sort of hedonistic pursuit of thrill seeking or something like that. When I was a teenager or when I was with my friends in the military later on. But in terms of, I'm okay, I feel like whatever I'm doing what I want in my life, my relationships are in a good place. I'm in a good place. It wasn't until after rehab that I started to sort of build that life for myself and to sort of be more deliberate about the kind of person I wanted to be and the kind of friend or brother and son and boyfriend, whatever.

Rob Henderson [01:18:55]:
Just like, am I the kind. Yeah. Like, almost like the question you would just ask, am I the kind of person I would want to be around? And before, I probably would have said no. And what took a while before I started to say yes, the question of just, there's so much preoccupation with conventional success with, did you go to college, which college, and how much money are you earning? And are you sort of successful in the eyes of other people? And I may have even fell into that trap to some degree, just in the military, at least in the context of Red Bluff. Like, I was doing really well, just joining the military in the first place. It was kind of a more blue collar, working class, patriotic kind of town. So just joining in the first place was kind of cool. And then doing well and getting promoted early and just going to different places, deploying, going to Europe.

Rob Henderson [01:19:49]:
It was like, yeah, you're doing really well, and you're earning money and you have your own car and your own place and whatever, all of those kinds of things. Externally, before the breakup, I had a pretty steady girlfriend, and everything externally looked okay, but internally, I was sort of slowly having to come to terms with everything that had happened. And as a result of that, everything around me kind of had to stop, and I had to pause for a bit and sort of process and reflect. And, yeah, it was hard because it seemed like I was on this upward trajectory. There was a period early on I'm like, okay, well, I guess I'm going to go to college. I'll use the GI bill. But then I had this major sort of misstep, this sort of downward spiral, and there was a period where I thought, I may not even go to college after this. That feeling of, I went into foster care because my parents had let me down, and then I joined the military, in some ways at least, because my adoptive family had let me down.

Rob Henderson [01:20:58]:
And then now I'm in rehab. And that wasn't anyone's fault of my own, at least sort of proximately. It was my behaviors that led me there you can talk about, oh, well, where did the behaviors come from and all of the effects and everything. But it was like the choices that I made led me there. And so I had basically let myself down, and I thought, wow, if I can't even. Once I got out of all of the mire, once I had gotten all the detrimental situations I had been mired in, and I still can't get it right, then maybe I'll never be able to. And that was really hard to deal with that, especially the early, maybe like the first week or so of rehab. It was such a shocking experience because a lot of the people in there that was like their third or fourth attempt in treatment to try to get clean.

Rob Henderson [01:21:42]:
And I was like, is that going to be me? And is this what it's going to be like? Or how much can I really improve? Because I thought I was improving. And it actually seems like in some ways, I'm worse than when I had started because I didn't have a drinking problem when I was 17 when I first joined. So it just took a lot of effort, a lot of sort of self work before I realized what I wanted.

Dan Riley [01:22:07]:
To do next and what you did next. And I think I wrote this in the margins. When you launch from living in Germany, having gone through rehab, entering New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale, and then eventually, I know you went to Cambridge for your phd, but the segue from you going from where you had been in your life into Yale in your reading of it, I mean, I grew up in kind of the industrial midwest myself. I was obsessed with going to a really good school. I was obsessed with the west wing when I was in high school, which I know you talk about, learning about how that was an important tv show to get acquainted with. When you went to Yale, I went to Duke, and I think had a lot of the same observations about feeling almost like an alien being in this new land around people who were not really like anyone I had grown up with in my own life. And I know just from knowing what I do about your own background that it must have been even more extreme for you going from Red Bluff to then the military to this elite school. And I won't do justice to a lot of what you write about in the book related to your observations of what you learned in your time on campus.

Dan Riley [01:23:36]:
But I remember there's one section in the book where you talk about this Halloween incident at Yale with the Christakis family. I've had Nicholas on this podcast before, and I love that guy.

Rob Henderson [01:23:48]:
That was a great episode I listened to.

Dan Riley [01:23:50]:
Thank you. He talks about that, and to me, he walked away from that looking damn near saintly in how he handled himself with such grace during that period. And I just wanted to give you an opportunity. There's so much here about what you saw when you went to Yale, but one of the things you write about in the book is that after this Halloween incident, initially you were concerned that maybe you weren't intellectually on par with a lot of these students. And after this incident, you no longer had those issues so much. And I just wanted to give an open space for you to talk about the major. You think, most important, relevant ideas and observations that you made from coming from such a different place into this other, really upper class world that Yale really is.

Rob Henderson [01:24:42]:
Yeah, it was a strange, was. I was excited. I mean, of course, Yale is a pretty famous school, and it was surreal the first few weeks. So I arrived in the fall of 2015. I got out of the military in August and started classes in September. And then in October, all of that stuff about the Christocuses and the Halloween costume controversy blew up. And, yeah, I remember feeling the first few weeks into that first semester, I was like, man, the reading load is so heavy and there's just, like, a lot going on and it's really hard to keep up with it. And I hadn't been a student in, whatever, seven, eight years by this point.

Rob Henderson [01:25:25]:
I had taken some night classes at a community college, but that was like, just different. Whereas now I'm like a full time student and there's so much to keep up with. And by this point, I had some familiarity with graduation rates. I knew basically no one ever failed, but I still wanted to give it my best effort. And I realized most people actually didn't do all of the readings because it's literally physically impossible. Some of these professors would assign. It's just impossible to read whatever, 5000 pages in a week or whatever. You learn to sort of skim, you learn how to do sort of strategic reading to get the gist of certain things and how to sort of approach problem sets as a group.

Rob Henderson [01:26:07]:
And some people can work on some and some people can work on others, and you can just sort of communicate how you got your answers. And there are just sort of different ways to understand how to do the assignments. And I noticed, like, a lot of these kids who went to places like Exeter or whatever, they knew how to approach these assignments. They knew how to approach the classes in a way that I didn't. And so there were periods where, you know, I felt like, am I actually sort of academically and intellectually equipped to be at a place like this? And then gradually, I learned, like, no, it was just because you didn't go to the greatest of public schools, but then also weren't a good student. You had so many bad habits. I was just kind of academically rusty. And it's funny, the longer I went on, kind of the better my grades got.

Rob Henderson [01:26:47]:
And once I sort of got the hang of how to handle the classes, it was fine. But that first semester, that first year was pretty difficult. But then, even with the Christakis thing, I would speak to students about what the issue was. This was sort of the early days of what would later become whatever, like identity politics, social justice, whatever. The wokeness or something. 2015, it still hadn't quite become as pervasive. But Yale was, like, one of the elite universities where the whole movement was born. And I saw it, and it just made no sense to me whatsoever.

Rob Henderson [01:27:25]:
I mean, I read and reread Erica Christakus's email defending freedom of expression and basically telling students, you can wear whatever Halloween costume you want. And then suddenly, all the students are harassing and screaming at her husband, saying, you're trying to hurt us. You're humiliating us. You're making us feel unsafe. This isn't a safe place. I'm in danger. And I'm like, you're all, like, the children of millionaires at one of the richest universities in the world, and you're all in this gated community. I mean, Yale itself is like this idyllic bubble housed within a place that's actually not dangerous or that isn't safe.

Rob Henderson [01:28:01]:
Rather, it is dangerous. New Haven. New Haven, Connecticut, is actually pretty rough. So I didn't live on campus. I lived downtown in Haven. The apartment itself was, like, a relatively decent area, but I did have to walk through some sketchy parts of town to get there. Like the New Haven Green, where you'll see people, like, shooting heroin needles in broad daylight and people who are clearly mentally unwell and homeless and whatever. And so I'd go from a place where I would see whatever.

Rob Henderson [01:28:29]:
Yeah, again, like the children of millionaires, and this is the future ruling class talking about how unsafe they felt. And then I'd walk through the New Haven Green and see people who were actually impoverished, and then I would think about the people that I grew up with on my way back to my apartment and think, like, just this juxtaposition, it made no sense to me. And when people would try to explain whatever, like, identity politics, and marginalized groups and so forth. In some ways, I didn't necessarily disagree with it, but I thought, if you're going to a place like Yale, you're not really marginalized. I'm not. I can talk about my background, whatever, but I am well in the top 1% of people who. Where I came from and where I am. I would feel ashamed to talk about how marginalized I am and how oppressed I am and so forth, despite my fortunate outcome, because I know what people who grow up like the way that I did, how they end up usually what the usual outcome is.

Rob Henderson [01:29:27]:
And so it was just weird to see people who superficially may have resembled historically mistreated groups. Or if you're a young female student at Yale and you talk about how much misogyny is affecting you, I just can't really take it that seriously because whatever, you have an internship at Golden Sachs and you're going to be attending Harvard Law School in three years. I'm like, are you very. It felt very unserious to me. And then that was where these sort of early thoughts had been sparked in my mind about the luxury beliefs idea of interacting with people. And they would say things that seemingly were so at ods with beliefs that I held or the people I grew up around held, even if I didn't live up to them necessarily. But we still had these ideals about monogamy and marriage in the two parent family, and we still thought of them as ideals growing up, even if we didn't really see much of it around us. It did seem like something that was probably good, something that maybe we wished that we had.

Rob Henderson [01:30:34]:
But then I would talk to these students at Yale and they would say, oh, monogamy is outdated, or marriage is this kind know. It's rooted in these patriarchal assumptions, and we need to evolve beyond it. I did have this conversation with one young woman at Yale who she basically said, yeah, we should evolve past it. And then I asked her how she grew up, and unsurprisingly, she had been raised by both of her birth parents. And then I asked her, what kind of family do you plan to form later? And she said, I'll probably get married. I'll probably have a husband kind of do the same thing that I'm familiar with, but these are just my personal choices. That doesn't mean that everyone should do it. And I thought, like, okay, so you benefited from this institution.

Rob Henderson [01:31:22]:
You had stable family life. You had a mom and a dad who took care of you and made sure you got into a place like Yale, and you're planning on bestowing the same advantages to your own kids, but your official public position is that this is an outdated thing and no one should do this. It just seems so sort of deceitful and duplicitous to me. And I saw this with other things, too. Substance use, or there are other examples, too, I think even screen time and technology use and body positivity. I would hear students talk about fat shaming and body positivity, but they were very careful with their diets. They would play tennis every day. They were just sort of super conscientious and concerned with how they looked.

Rob Henderson [01:32:09]:
But if anyone ever said anything about being healthy or sort of tackling the obesity problem in the US, they would say, like, healthy at any size or whatever. I knew that they wouldn't accept that for themselves or for their own children or for their own loved ones, but they would hold everyone else to a much lower standard. And I think this attitude of, for better or worse, if you're in that position, if you're a member of the ruling class, the cultural elite, if you are just sort of in that prominent position, economically or culturally or mean, you wield outsized influence on how the culture goes. And so collectively, if we all sort of look around and see tv shows on Netflix or op ed columnists or radio show hosts, just sort of, in the aggregate, all of the sort of media around us, all of the people around us, people who our culture deems as relevant and important voices to listen to. And all of them are saying, like, hey, healthy at any size, instead of like, hey, it's a good idea to sort of monitor your weight and your health and take care of yourself. Gradually, people are going to sort of follow into one pattern or the other based on the messages that they're hearing over and over from, quote unquote, important people. And so, yeah, I just thought of that as later I came up with the right term for it, which was a luxury belief, ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while inflicting costs in the lower classes. These beliefs, there was the finger snapping thing where students would snap their fingers if they agreed with what the other students were saying, and so they would say, whatever, like, marriage is outdated, and then people around them would snap their fingers and they would feel good about themselves.

Rob Henderson [01:33:52]:
But in the aggregate, that belief among people who are in culturally influential positions has had effects on everyone else. There was one example of this, a friend of mine, I don't know if I put this part in the book. But a friend of mine, he told me that when he set his dating app, radius, to just around the campus, which is like a 1 mile radius or whatever, he said that most of the women at this point, I think he was either a grad student or undergrad. He was early twenty s, and he said most of the women around him would have in their bios, I think. I don't remember what app this was, but a lot of them would say, like, polly, or keeping it casual, or nothing serious, or just kind of having fun and seeing what's out there. Just this sort of relaxed, casual attitude to relationships, or just like the poly thing of just like non monogamous, whatever. And then he said when he extended the radius to the dating app to encompass the rest of the town in its outskirts, which was a more sort of blue collar, low income area, same age category of women, whatever it was, 18 or 19 to 24, something about half of the women were single moms. And so this is a sort of a contrast between what extreme sexual freedom looks like for one class of women versus the other.

Rob Henderson [01:35:20]:
If you go to an expensive university, being poly or casual or whatever just means having fun and having a good time. But for women who are not in that situation, who are in a more sort of more low income, more impoverished, dysfunctional environment, often you just get. You have sex with some guy, and then you end up having to take care of the resulting kid, and the kid goes on to have a difficult life. So, yeah, it just looks very different. And it would be nice if we thought more about this, that maybe you yourself, as a highly educated, intelligent, high impulse control, careful person with access to resources and cultural capital and so on, you yourself may be able to have a lot of different sexual partners and try different substances and sort of partake in things that may be fun and technically, maybe isn't hurting anyone in the short term, but in the long run, if people who are less fortunate than you partake in the same behaviors, it will cause their life to spiral out of control. I have a line in the book somewhere that if you're a student at Yale, you can probably snort some cocaine on the weekends, and all likelihood your life will be just fine. But a lot of the guys I grew up mean, if they would take that first hit of meth to self destruction, it would just lead them on a horrible path. And so, yeah, just sort of indulging in all of your appetites.

Rob Henderson [01:36:53]:
I don't think it should necessarily be promoted. I'm not saying it should be outlawed or that we should lock everyone up for doing anything. I'm just saying that if you're in a fortunate position and you can't partake in them, that doesn't necessarily mean you should broadcast it and say, this is the greatest thing and everyone should do it. Or if you're getting married and you have thoughts about it, even if you're not promoting marriage, it would be nice if you're getting married to at least not denigrate it for everyone else.

Dan Riley [01:37:18]:
Yeah, I remember when I came across that idea, and I know you've spoken widely about luxury beliefs in your public appearances, and it's one of those ideas that is just very difficult to unsee once you have glimpsed it, in my opinion, in my own experience, and I know it's getting late where you are. And before I have a final closing question for you, I would love to just say how great I think the book is. I think a lot of people are going to benefit enormously from it. I thought I mentioned this earlier, that it must have taken a lot of courage to write, especially some of these passages that are in there. And I know many of those ideas and passages will stay with me, and I know I will speak for a lot of people who will eventually read your book that I think will benefit from it. So I just wanted to convey that to you and congratulate you on completing it and congratulate you on the courage it must have taken to write, especially some of those more difficult passages. I alluded to this earlier, and I thought maybe this would be a good place to end, was, I think a lot of great art and great work in life is done out of creating something that one wish they would have had at an earlier phase in their own life. And I wonder if that at all resonates with you, with this book.

Dan Riley [01:38:45]:
And I wanted to ask you for if there are kids that come across this, or even teenagers that learn about your story over the coming years and stumble upon this interview or other conversations that you have about this forthcoming book, what would be some parting messages that you might have for them? You've already spoken about some of them. You write about this in the book in some detail, but I wanted to maybe close the conversation with asking you that specifically.

Rob Henderson [01:39:18]:
Yeah. So messages for kids. I did write the book to be accessible. I don't think it's maybe in some ways, it's emotionally difficult to read, but in terms of just the prose itself, I wrote it to be sort of accessible, and anyone can sort of pick it up and go through it and understand it right away. But yeah, I'm seeing all these reports now. More and more people aren't reading and everyone's on TikTok, and I'm like, maybe people will sort of chop up clips from this podcast and put it up on TikTok. But parting messages for kids. There are a couple of things.

Rob Henderson [01:40:04]:
One would be everything you're feeling when you're young is so much more intense and amplified. I mean, this is one of the things that I noticed when I was going through my book was trying to recapture the feelings. And everything just feels like when you're angry, you're just extremely angry. And when you're sad, you feel so down and it's difficult because you don't have a lot of experience with your emotions, and you think that that's always how it's going to be. When you're sad. You're like, oh, I'm sad. And this is just how it is now. And you don't necessarily have the maturity and awareness to say, oh, I'm sad, but I've been sad before and I can sort of give it enough time and the emotions will sort of dissipate and you'll sort of return to baseline and you sort of have that rhythm.

Rob Henderson [01:40:50]:
But when you're young, it just feels like everything is either super great or the end of the world. And to just sort of understand that, don't assign too much value to whatever emotion you're feeling in the moment and try to think more about the future. It's hard, though, I think, especially when there's not a lot of good role models around you. But one thing that I did when I was a kid is, and this was pre YouTube, pre TikTok or whatever, was I did sort of read memoirs, I would watch movies or whatever, and I would try to find good behaviors or patterns or sort of role models in these spaces of people that I admired and wanted to be more like. And I think one benefit, there's a lot of discussion right now about some of the negative effects of social media, but one of the positive effects is you can follow influencers and people who I think have been great sort of advisors and people who can supply really useful guidance to young people, people like Jordan Peterson or Jocko Willink or David Goggins. I'm speaking more on the sort of male side here, but I'm sure there's plenty of examples, and I know a lot of women listen to those guys, too, that young people can sort of seek out these role models, try to avoid too much, at least some of the more toxic viral influencers who supply maybe less beneficial advice. Maybe it's funny and maybe it's entertaining, but will it actually help you in the long run? And also think about who you want to be. I'd mentioned before when I was a kid working for minimum wage, and I saw the guys around me, I thought, is this who I wanted to be? And the answer was no.

Rob Henderson [01:42:41]:
And so look around you and see, well, who do you want to be more like? Who do you want to be less like? It's one thing to sort of receive these abstract pieces of advice. Do this, don't do that. This is a good thing, this is a bad thing. But it's much more concrete when you see people behaving in a certain way that you admire or behave in a certain way that you yourself would disapprove of or wouldn't want to see yourself or your loved ones doing, and try to draw yourself closer to the people that you admire and the people who are doing good things and try to figure out why you like it so much and those specific behaviors, and try to build relationships with people who are doing things that you find desirable and honorable and so on.

Dan Riley [01:43:30]:
Yeah, I think that's a good place to stop. Thank you so much, Rob. As I said when I first kicked this off, it was a real honor to do this, and congratulations on the book. We're all going to benefit from you making it out of that fire and creating all the great stuff you're just beginning to do. So congrats, man.

Rob Henderson [01:43:49]:
Hey, thanks, Dan. Thanks very much.

Dan Riley [01:43:54]:
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