Books / Culture

Teaching the Cat to Sit: One Woman’s Struggle with Faith and Family

I have a morbid fascination with people’s relationships with their parents, so when I heard about Michelle Theall’s book “Teaching the Cat to Sit,” I snapped up a copy. Michelle’s book, which just came out in paperback, chronicles her childhood growing up in Texas, her struggle to come to terms with her sexuality and her tense relationship with her mother, a devoted Catholic, a hypochondriac and a constant critic. I talked to her last month about writing the book, her on-going relationship with her mother and how the book has changed her life.

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“You can hide behind words. But I also have found that words are very powerful,” she said.

Deciding to write the book and publish it, silenced the relationship between Michelle and her mother for at least six months. Before the hardcover version was published in February, Michelle’s mother threatened to sue her and asked her to change her last name, so her mother’s identity could remain more hidden. But, the powerful need that she had to speak up propelled her forward.

Michelle became a public LGBTQ figure locally, in Colorado, when she published a feature in a local magazine, 5280, telling the story of her fight to have her adopted son baptized in the Catholic church. Confronted with the treatment she and her wife and child received by their own church and Michelle’s own parents, she first started writing letters to her church and to her son’s school. Eventually, she went public with her story.

Over the last 10 years, Michelle has become what I sometimes like to call a “reluctant activist.” Her personal values combined with her personal circumstances have thrust her into the spotlight more than she has sought it out.

“I was really hesitant, but I thought it needed to be done. The way that we accept other people’s differences is knowing someone,” said Michelle. But like so many other experiences in her life, she was torn between betraying herself or feeling like she was betraying her mother.

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Michelle’s relationship with her mother has since been rekindled. They started speaking again on Easter, a perfect metaphor for rebirth.

In addition to the book and magazine publication, Michelle has been a public speaker for PFLAG and in some more progressive churches, including a Catholic church in San Francisco, but she is also still banking on figureheads, such as Pope Francis, to lead the way for gays and lesbians.

“I love the new pope,” she said. “If he is telling people not to turn away from their gay children, then maybe fewer of us will feel the painful abandonment of being rejected by our own parents”, Michelle added. She doesn’t think that the pope’s words will instantly turn her mother’s heart, but she hopes that it will start to heal some of her mother’s pain about Michelle’s identity and their strained relationship.

Having a son and a grandson also seems to have caused Michelle and her mother to have a renewed commitment to their relationship. The love they both feel for Logan* has caused them to want to work harder on their connection for his sake.

“She can’t turn away from him, because he’s innocent,” said Michelle about her mother.

More than healing her relationship with her mother and with her church, Michelle hopes her story will help other children growing up in conservative Christian households to understand that they are not alone. She also wants to encourage other gay couples to consider becoming parents through adoption.

Read Michelle’s story in 5280 Magazine.

Read more about her memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit.

Buy her book on Amazon using the VillageQ affiliate link.

Visit Michelle’s Web site to learn about her and her author workshops.

 

*Name has been changed to protect this child’s identity

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