“Teaching the Cat to Sit”: Michelle Theall’s New Memoir

“You said your mom’s moods dictate how everyone in the family acts and reacts….And yet you say she’s fragile, and you have spent your energy trying to protect her from anything upsetting….I guess maybe I’m missing something. She sounds pretty powerful to me.” Therapist of Michelle Theall, author of Teaching the Cat to Sit (Simon and Schuster)

In Michelle Theall‘s new memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, the lesbian journalist recounts significant struggles she’s experienced related to her sexual orientation, her religion, and her family. From the publisher:

Even when society, friends, the legal system, and the Pope himself swing toward acceptance of the once unacceptable, Michelle Theall still waits for the one blessing that has always mattered to her the most: her mother’s. Michelle grew up in the conservative Texas Bible Belt, bullied by her classmates and abandoned by her evangelical best friend before she’d ever even held a girl’s hand. She was often at odds with her volatile, overly dramatic, and depressed mother, who had strict ideas about how girls should act. Yet they both clung tightly to their devout Catholic faith—the unifying grace that all but shattered their relationship when Michelle finally admitted she was gay. Years later at age forty-two, Michelle has made delicate peace with her mother and is living her life openly with her partner of ten years and their adopted son in the liberal haven of Boulder, Colorado. But when her four-year-old’s Catholic school decides to expel all children of gay parents, Michelle tiptoes into a controversy that exposes her to long-buried shame, which leads to a public battle with the Church and a private one with her parents. In the end she realizes that in order to be a good mother, she may have to be a bad daughter.

Publishers Weekly provides more details about the author’s background:

Born in 1966, and diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003, Theall had wrestled with issues of shame and acceptance her entire life; at age 11 she was raped by her best friend’s father and never told her parents because she knew her mother would be mortified and denounce her. The pattern of silence and denial was entrenched throughout her childhood, torturing her emotionally, and even after Theall came out to her parents, she felt keenly the residual effects of her mother’s displeasure, especially her inability to bring Jill into the family.

Kirkus Reviews: “In the journey away from Catholicism and the need for maternal approval that followed, Theall eventually found peace. She also came to understand that the ‘raging love’ between her and her mother was part of what made them ‘something more.'”

Below Theall introduces Teaching the Cat to Sit, including the meaning behind the title. Hint: have you ever tried to teach a cat to sit?

Selected Reviews

Cris Beam, author of To the End of June: “Teaching the Cat to Sit is a powerful reminder of the ways that discrimination and cruelty still flourish, even as laws shift to recognize more of the LGBT population. Michelle Theall beautifully captures the effects of bigotry on a community, a family, and on an individual psyche both afraid and determined to change.”

Wendy Lawless, author of Chanel Bonfire: “Theall’s written a memoir that is genuinely moving, compelling, and at times, hilarious. As she grapples with the basic questions of family, faith, love, and identity, she expresses with great poignancy the transformative power of love in all its forms.”

Sara Corbett, co-author of A House in the Sky: “Michelle Theall has written a clear-eyed, brave-hearted and utterly unforgettable memoir about life’s big things—love, faith, identity, and justice—and the sometimes-ferocious effort it takes to balance them. At this book’s center is a beautifully rendered relationship between a mother and daughter that’s as complicated and memorable as any I’ve ever read. Here is a story told with grace, honesty, and remarkable spirit.”

Find where she’s speaking by going to her website.

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