I first got to know Professor E. Kay Trimberger from her 2005 book, The New Single Woman. It was a delight to discover such a thoughtful and carefully researched book that defied all the prevailing “poor me, I’m single” stereotypes. Over the years, I’ve invited her to write several guest posts for this blog, including this one about her own life as a single woman and her mother’s married life, and how they differed from what Kate Bolick described in Spinster. She has also described the alternative, communal family of friends that she tried unsuccessfully to create for her son.
Professor Trimberger just published a new book, Creole Son: An Adoptive Mother Untangles Nature and Nurture. It is an inspiring memoir about single parenting, race, love, adoption, addiction, a new kind of family, and the ways in which nature sometimes prevails over nurture. I had lots of questions for her, which she generously answered. I will share our conversation in a series of blog posts. This is the first.
Bella: For people who have not yet read Creole Son, want to give them a quick introduction?
Kay Trimberger: Creole Son: An Adoptive Mother Untangles Nature and Nurture is a memoir, about my life as a single, white mother raising an adopted bi-racial son, combined with an analysis of behavioral genetics research and written for a general audience. The book includes an introduction by award winning writer Andrew Solomon and an afterword by my son, Marc Trimberger, in which he contributes his perspective, noting a better understanding of his life journey gained through his mother’s research.
I began to write Creole Son after Marco’s reunion when he was twenty-six with his Creole and Cajun birth parents in Louisiana, his several long stays with them and my shorter visits. I end by suggesting a new model for adoption, one that creates an extended, integrated family of both biological and adoptive kin.
I use behavioral genetics, explained in non-technical prose, with findings based on research over time with adoptive families, to better understand my son’s and my experience. Not only are the findings of behavioral genetics based on study of adoptive families, but they are not genetic determinist. Rather, they give a lot of emphasis to the environment, especially that outside the family, and its interaction with an individual’s genetic makeup. The book contains an appendix on “Implications for Adoption Theory, Practice and Research.”
Sharing deeply personal reflections about raising Marco in Berkeley in the 1980s and 1990s, with its easy access to drugs and a culture that condoned their use, I examine my own ignorance about substance abuse, and also a failed experiment in alternative family living. Creole Son addresses additional topics of contemporary interest: life in mixed race families, the impact of drugs and violence in the environment outside the home, and a widespread curiosity about how nature and nurture interact to make us who we are as individuals
Andrew Solomon says in his introduction:
“This is both a rigorous and a brave volume, both a meticulous study of behavioral genetics and a deeply personal story of the complex relationship between the author and her adopted son, Marco. It explores cultural touchstones such as race, addiction, and love, and it does so with compassion and sadness. . . . This is a book about the same lessons learned two ways: painfully, by living them; and restoratively, by studying them. Kay Trimberger is given to neither effusion nor self-pity, and her intellectual nature frames this book, but the emotions nonetheless run high.”
Bella: Did your experience raising a black son give you a perspective on the protests today about police and institutionalized racism?
Kay Trimberger: More than twenty-five years ago I used to teach about structural racism and white privilege. While I’m glad that this analysis has now become part of public dialogue, it has been my specific experience and reading about the detailed experience of others that has led me to a deeper understanding of the impact of racism in our society. I’ve learned that although I live in a mixed race and class diverse neighborhood and city, and although I have colleagues who are people of color, all of my extended family, friends, and close neighbors are white and middle class. When I walk from my neighborhood in the flats of Berkeley into the nearby hills, I know Marco could not comfortably do the same. Even when he’s with me, people stare. His long beautiful dreadlocks, usually well groomed, and central to his identity, as much as his skin color, mark him as different. Even though I provided a setting where my son could find others who looked like him and had his interests, residential integration is not enough to combat racism.
I’ve also learned from intimate experience how black men are stigmatized by most police. Marco speaks good English, usually dresses well and could be mistaken for middle class. He learned early that he has to be extremely polite when he is stopped by the police. He never has been thrown to the ground, put in a chokehold nor had a knee put on his neck. Still, being followed in a store, having neighbors who called the police, because they didn’t recognize him after a long absence, and being stopped indiscriminately by police takes a huge emotional toll. Here is an example from the book:
To attend the funeral of his beloved uncle [my brother], Marco, in his late twenties, rented a car and drove seven hundred miles from New Orleans to Charlotte, passing through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. In Alabama he was stopped by a state trooper. Marco knew he wasn’t speeding and presumed that this was yet another instance of being stopped for driving while black. The trooper wanted to wait for a backup so that they could go through Marco’s belongings. Marco was furious but he knew he couldn’t show his feelings.
“That’s fine with me,” Marco said in his most respectful manner, “even though in California you would not have the legal right to search my car without probable cause. I’ll wait even though now I’ll probably be late for my uncle’s funeral.”
After another twenty minutes, the trooper released him without a search or a ticket. When he was away from there, Marco stopped to call me on his cell phone. He started to cry as he related the incident. Tears began to cloud my eyes, but I was also angry that Marco had been humiliated, something no one in our white family has had to endure.
I have learned from other people’s stories too. The 2015 book, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by LA Times journalist Jill Leovy taught me a lot about how racism is structured into the LA police department. The book focuses on one true story—a murder of the teenage son of a black policeman and the heroic effort by a white police detective to solve the murder. He faced hurdles within the police department, where an indifference to black lives took many forms. He also faced the distrust of the black community because of years of police brutality and neglect.
The specificity of the video of George Floyd’s callous murder by a white policeman’s knee on his neck for more than eight minutes was a huge factor in sparking the world-wide protests against the policy.
Marco’s story too has much to teach about race in America.
Kay Trimberger is a professor emerita of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University and an affiliated scholar at the Institute for the Study of Social Issues at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The New Single Woman, among other books, and she also blogs about adoption.