The moment the doctor at the airport placed the five-day-old, mixed-race infant in her arms, Berkeley resident E. Kay Trimberger knew her life would be changed forever. It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Jan. 15, 1981, and the white, single, 40-year-old professor of sociology was fulfilling a long-held dream of adopting a baby and raising him in multicultural Berkeley.
For all her good intentions, Trimberger could not foresee the emotional journey that would take her and her son Marco from a happy childhood through a troubled adolescence to an early adulthood marred by addiction and unemployment.
In April, Trimberger published Creole Son: An Adoptive Mother Untangles Nature & Nurture (LSU Press). Part memoir, part introduction to behavioral genetics, (the study of the genetic and environmental bases of individual differences in behavior), the book explores the factors that shaped her son’s life across nearly four decades
“I learned that nurture isn’t everything, and that’s what the book’s about,” Trimberger said in a phone conversation with Berkeleyside from her South Berkeley home. “It’s important, but it’s not everything. You can’t just take any child from anywhere and they’ll turn out like you or your family.”
Having grown up in Ithaca, NY as the daughter of a Cornell professor, Trimberger earned her BS in chemistry at the university and received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. She moved to the Bay Area in 1971, living in San Francisco and then Berkeley, commuting to teach at Sonoma State University. She is the author of The New Single Woman, a 2005 book that explored the lives of single women, and writes a blog about adoption for Psychology Today.
From 1981 to 2000, Trimberger was coordinator of the women’s studies program at Sonoma State University (now the Women’s and Gender Studies Department). Currently, she is professor emerita at Sonoma State and an affiliated scholar at the Institute for the Study of Social Issues at UC Berkeley.
Not in a stable romantic relationship and unable to conceive, Trimberger decided in her mid-thirties that adoption would be the best option for her.
“I always thought I was going to spend all this time on my career and that by the time I was 35, I would have it all together and be coupled,” she said.
The opportunity to adopt “just sort of fell into my lap,” Trimberger said, noting that Berkeley connections led her to the private adoption of a baby from Louisiana.
“From the feminist movement, I got the chutzpah to do this,” she said.
Marco’s early years were marked by his extroverted personality and his flair for creative pursuits. He and his mother first lived in a communal home with a married couple and their son, a living situation that, according to Trimberger, ended in acrimony.
Then she moved to the south Berkeley neighborhood where Marco grew up, a mixed-race, mixed-class neighborhood, the kind of neighborhood adoption specialists recommend for interracial adoption, noted Trimberger.
“But we had different neighborhoods,” said Trimberger of her and Marco. “He saw people that looked like him and were like him, but they were different from the people I related to in the neighborhood and were like me.”
Trimberger describes Marco’s childhood as “wonderfully happy,” full of shared interests and common activities. Despite their closeness, by the time he attended a local public middle school, Marco had begun to experiment with illegal drugs.
Marco attended four area high schools and eventually earned his GED. His late teens and early twenties included the use and selling of hard and soft drugs, with minor brushes with the law and periods of housing insecurity.
“I really didn’t pick up quickly enough what was going on with drugs,” Trimberger admitted. “I didn’t use them, not even marijuana. My friends called me a substance abuse virgin.”
When Marco was 26, Trimberger encouraged him to reunite with his Louisiana kinfolk. His birth mother is white and Cajun, his birth father black and Creole. Marco’s trips to New Orleans seemed successful, introducing him to many people who shared his ancestry.
“It was very lucky that his birth mother had told her other mixed-race kids about him ten years earlier,” Trimberger said. “She was extremely accepting.”
But these newly discovered relatives came with their own set of problems. Marco and his birth parents all used together and liked the same drug — crack cocaine.
“And what happens when addicts get together?” Marco wrote in an afterword to his mother’s book. An excerpt appeared in Psychology Today. “In my experience, they use, and that’s just what occurred during the time I spent getting to know these very important people who gave me life. We hung out like we were long time friends on an endless mission to stay high. ‘How great is this,’ I remember thinking. ‘I get to meet my birth family and I’m getting high at the same time.’”
Marco’s dive into using drugs with his birth parents startled Trimberger. “That made me say, ‘Wow, I need to look at genetic and biological factors,'” she said.
After the reunion, Trimberger began thinking more about nature versus nurture. Marco’s similarities to his Southern relatives led Trimberger to write Creole Son.
The book operates on multiple levels: as a memoir of motherhood under especially challenging circumstances, as a portrait of Berkeley at the turn of a new century, as an exploration of how heredity and environment intertwine in unexpected ways, and as a springboard for a discussion of how to build strong and healthy bonds between adoptive parents, birth parents, adoptees and extended family members.
“Maybe it was a way to get myself off the hook,” Trimberger speculated. “But when I found behavioral genetics, research done on adopted families was really interesting.”
It was a question calling out for research as interracial adoptions have been growing in recent decades, according to census data. In 2000, 17% of adopted children lived in families of a different race. In 2010, that percentage was 24%, according to the census data.
“My experience and research have altered my intellectual point of view from ‘nurture is everything’ to ‘nature is significant,’” she writes in the appendix. “While nurture may be less important than nature in determining the adult outcomes of adoption, nurture creates significant attachments that usually are as, or more, important to the adoptee than biological similarities to people with whom the adoptee has not grown up.”
According to Trimberger, researchers observed that in the first four years, similarities – cognitive ability, processing, temperament – between the adoptee and the adoptive parents tended to be stronger than between the adoptee and the biological parents. But then as the adopted child reached their mid-teens, they exhibited fewer individual traits with the adoptive parents. They were beginning to have similarities to the biological parents, with whom they hadn’t had contact.
Trimberger also discusses her attempts to get help for Marco and herself. As a parent, she said she found Al-Anon useful, and Marco would engage in AA and drop out again. The program that seemed to work best for him was in-patient rehab at a private rural clinic in Sonoma County.
Trimberger said, “If you don’t have insurance, it’s very expensive and it lasts only a month. But it’s very creative, and they do individualized programs on whatever the problem was.”
In the afterword for Creole Son, Marco writes that his mother’s book gave him a new perspective on his life and the opportunity to express his gratitude to various supporters.
Trimberger said she now has a better understanding of her son and his addictions.
“I see it now as a life-long problem. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away,” she said. “The question is how he’s going to deal with it and how he’s going to live with it. I now feel like it’s up to him.”