Monday, May 4, 2020

Q&A with E. Kay Trimberger

E. Kay Trimberger is the author of the new book Creole Son: An Adoptive Mother Untangles Nature & Nurture. Her other books include The New Single Woman, and she writes the Adoption Diaries blog for Psychology Today. She is professor emerita of women's and gender studies at Sonoma State University. 

Q: Why did you decide to write your new book, and over how long a period did you work on it?

A: I began to write a memoir to help me come to terms with my complicated experience as an adoptive mother. As a retired academic, I wanted to write for a more diverse audience and to write with more emotion. I took a number of writing classes, where I introduced myself as a recovering academic.

I also wanted to make social, historical and psychological arguments accessible to a lay audience. But when I discovered the field of behavioral genetics, which based much of its research on the study of adoptive families, I found I could use my academic training to help me understand my experiences.

Behavioral genetics analyses the psychological and cognitive traits of adoptees over time and compares them to those of their birth mothers, adoptive parents, and birth and adopted siblings. Behavioral genetics zeros in on how genes and the environment interact and alter each other, together constructing individual behaviors. 

Integrating my study of behavioral genetics with my memoir of parenting offers a unique perspective.

As Andrew Solomon says in his introduction: “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.”

It took me 10 years to write this book primarily because of the difficulty of understanding behavioral genetic studies, integrating them with the memoir and writing about them in clear prose.

Q: You write of the book, "I can say that it is a complex love story and a cautionary tale." Can you say more about that description?

A: I adopted my son when he was five days old. From the beginning, I loved him and loved being a mother, although raising a mixed race son as a white single mother with mostly white friends, even in a mixed race neighborhood in progressive Berkeley was more difficult than I had imagined. 

This book is a cautionary tale, because it debunks the beliefs I had when I adopted in 1981. Like other social scientists, feminists, and adoption experts of that era, I presumed nurture was everything, each infant a blank slate awaiting parental inscription, with genetic inheritance providing a minimal, if any, influence. 

When one applied this theory of the primacy of nurture to adoption, one healthy baby was as good as another; what mattered was how the baby was raised.

When my son was an adult, he might want to meet the white woman who gave birth to him and meet his black birth father in order to clarify his identity, but that would have no effect on me. My son, whatever his race, would share my white, middle-class values, with their emphasis on the importance of education and work to the good life. I was wrong.

Q: Your son wrote an afterword for the book, offering his own perspective. How involved was he during the time you were working on the book--did he comment on it as you were writing it?

A: From the beginning, my son, Marco, knew I was writing this book and approved of the effort, but was not interested in seeing it. This was the period of his intense addiction. At that time, I gave him a pseudonym, as I did his birth family and others in the book.

After I had finished a second draft, I gave him a part to read, but he didn't. Finally, I pushed him in sit in my living room for two days (fortified by lots of food and snacks) and asked him to read especially the parts about him and his birth parents. I said he didn't need to read the science parts.  

I wanted him to tell me if anything was inaccurate or if he had objections to anything I wrote. He read the science, said he loved the book, and wanted only a few changes or deletions. He wanted me to use his real name. I was so relieved, because I didn't know if I would have published it if he had objected.

About this same time, Andrew Solomon asked me if he could interview Marco for his forthcoming book, Who Rocks the Cradle, and for his original audible book, Modern Family Values. Marco was hesitant, but then enjoyed the interview. He said to me afterward that he wished Solomon was a therapist.

LSU Press did not want me to show the manuscript to any members of the birth family before publication. The press asked Marco if he would still want the book published if any of his birth family objected. Marco said, "Yes."

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

A: I hope that readers, especially parents (adoptive and biological), will have a more realistic view of what they can and cannot accomplish as a parent. 

I hope Creole Son convinces them that biology plays a big role in the adult their child becomes. The more parents understand the genetic predispositions of their child, the more they can target their parenting to have an effect on enhancing or repressing this predisposition, probably with limited, but important, effects.

Adoption professionals and educators who read this book will, I hope, give more attention to the role of biological predisposition. I advocate, and hope others will too, that we go beyond open adoption to attempt to form a new kind of extended family, one which integrates both adoptive and biological kin.

I hope adoptees and birth parents will read this book in order to better understand adoption as a social institution and their role in it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I will be writing more for my blog, Adoption Diaries, on Psychology Today online. I hope to write more op-eds and articles on my ideas and experience as a single mother raising a biracial, adopted son.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Previously scheduled talks about Creole Son have been canceled or postponed. Events are forthcoming when we can leave our homes.  For updates, check my website at

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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