From the time she was born, Michelle Theall knew she was different. Coming of age in the Texas Bible Belt, a place where it was unacceptable to be gay, Theall found herself at odds with her strict Roman Catholic parents, bullied by her classmates, abandoned by her evangelical best friend whose mother spoke in tongues, and kicked out of Christian organizations that claimed to embrace her—all before she’d ever held a girl’s hand. Shame and her longing for her mother’s acceptance led her to deny her feelings and eventually run away to a remote stretch of mountains in Colorado. There, she made her home on an elk migration path facing the Continental Divide, speaking to God every day, but rarely seeing another human being.
At forty-three years of age and seemingly settled in her decision to live life openly as a gay woman, Theall and her partner attempt to have their son baptized into the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in the liberal town of Boulder, Colorado. Her quest to have her son accepted into the Church leads to a battle with Sacred Heart and with her mother that leaves her questioning everything she thought she knew about the bonds of family and faith. And she realizes that in order to be a good mother, she may have to be a bad daughter. Teaching the Cat to Sit examines the modern roles of motherhood and religion and demonstrates that our infinite capacity to love has the power to shape us all.
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Teaching the Cat to Sit
JULY 27, 2009: BOULDER, COLORADO
“RAIN IS GOD’S SPIT,” Connor tells his grandmother through my iPhone. He turns his head sideways and puts his right eye close to the screen, as if she might be trapped inside it. “God spits. He really does.”
My mom’s sandpaper ex-smoker’s laugh bursts through the speaker like a spray of gravel from a semitruck. With equal parts amusement and disapproval, she says, “Oh, Connor, I’m sure God doesn’t spit.” Connor flinches. Before Grandy can get out another word, he drops the phone on the kitchen counter, tucks his chin to his chest, and bolts from the kitchen. At almost four years old, he’s already learning to navigate her sharp corners.
He may even be better at it than I am. My mother will be here in five days for Connor’s baptism, and I’m too afraid to tell her it’s been canceled.
As I retrieve the phone, my partner, Jill, edges by me with Connor’s plate of pancakes in one hand and his sippy cup in the other, calls our son to the table, and taps her watch at me—a reminder that we’re going to be late for school. I nod to her and shrug, mouthing the words, I know but . . .
“I can’t wait to see that little booger,” my mom says. “Where on earth did he learn that? The rain is God’s spit, honestly.”
“Where else?” I laugh. “Catholic school.” I pour two to-go thermoses of coffee.
“So, did you get him the shoes like I told you?” my mother asks. “They have to be summer white to match his outfit.”
Because Connor is too old to fit into a traditional Catholic christening gown for infants, Jill and I planned to dress him in a coat and tie. Hearing this, my mom opted for something a bit more sacred: a baptismal suit she won after bidding aggressively for it on eBay.
“Yes, I got him the shoes,” I respond. I open my mouth to confess about the baptism being called off and then close it just as quickly. Like a kid hiding a bad report card, I think if I don’t tell her, the problem won’t exist.
A woman with more courage would already have told her mom that Father Bill has refused to baptize our son, perhaps before my mom bid on the suit or started buying holy items for Connor and having them blessed by their bishop in San Marcos. If not then, certainly before she and my dad drive two days and five hundred miles in the minivan and pull up into our driveway. And maybe I would have if the Catholic Church wasn’t the paper clip holding our relationship together. Also, I like the grandmotherly doting and fussing. It’s one of the few things helping me forget that nothing about our situation is normal, as much as I might want it to be.
“Michelle, are you listening? He can’t wear Batman underwear because the black wings will show through the white pants.” There’s a thud, followed by my father swearing in the background. “Al, what in the Sam Hill?”
I shake my head and smile. “No Batman undies, got it.”
In between her instructions about Connor’s shoes and underwear, Mom yells at my father as he packs their suitcases, “No, Al. Honestly. The Purell goes in the outside pocket.” Before she hangs up she says to me, “Make sure you get his hair cut. We want him to look good in the photos. Love you, sweetie, see you this weekend.”
At the back kitchen door, I lift Connor into my arms and Jill yanks his rain hood up over his head before we dash to separate cars to rush him to school. I’ll be staying at Sacred Heart for a meeting with Father Bill in a final attempt to make him change his mind about us. I buckle Connor into his seat and back out from the garage where the sound of thunder rattles our steel cocoon. “You think He’s mad?” Connor asks.
“Who, God?” I look over my shoulder. “No, little man.”
He puts his hand against the window and nods. “Well, something’s going on with Him.” He traces a drop of rain with his fingertip as if he can stop its momentum. “You’d never let me spit like that without a really good reason.”
FIVE MINUTES LATER, JILL and I stand with Connor in the doorway of the Teddy Bear room at Sacred Heart of Jesus School, waiting for his classmates to finish morning prayers before we step inside. Beyond the glass-paneled door, a paint-chipped Virgin Mary cradles baby Jesus in her arms and candlelight flickers across the toddlers kneeling on their square ABC mats. Hands touch bellies and ears and noses in no particular order, in an attempt to make the sign of the cross that looks like baseball coaches calling plays from the dugout. After a chorus of amens, the teacher motions for us to come inside. I flick on the lights and settle Connor at a table with some other kids.
Jill helps the teacher distribute packets of crayons before she bends over and kisses the top of Connor’s head. She walks toward me and places a hand on my shoulder. “Let me know what Father Bill says today.” She taps a finger along my collarbone to make sure I really hear her. “I know you’re angry, but this isn’t about you.”
“You could go with me,” I say.
“Sure. We could hold hands, because that would make it better.”
“The whole thing’s ridiculous. I asked all the right questions ahead of time.”
“Think of it this way, would you rather be right and have to explain to your mom that the baptism’s been canceled? Or be wrong and have your mom standing with us at the altar next to our son in his little white eBay suit?” She gives my shoulder a squeeze, our equivalent of a good-bye kiss in public, and she is out the door, walking to her car.
I am leaning over to say good-bye to Connor too when the girl sitting next to my son asks me, “Why does Connor have two mommies?” Heat rises to my cheeks. Of course I expected this moment to happen at some point, but I’m still unprepared for it. How can I explain to her that I sometimes do my own double take? At home, I stare at our family photo above the fireplace—the one we took at Disney World—and I see two white, middle-aged women with their half-Cambodian son wedged between them and I think: Who are these people? I peer down at this tiny girl in an art smock and striped leggings, terrified that she will judge me.
I’m about to answer the girl, whose mother happens to be the school’s director, when Connor’s teacher, a married woman with five kids of her own, quips, “He has two mommies because he’s lucky.”
Connor takes a thick black crayon in his small fist and starts to color in a picture of hippos and bunnies heading two by two up a ramp onto Noah’s ark.
“There are lots of different kinds of families,” I tell the girl. I’m aware that the teacher is watching me, and a class aide too. I’m still so new to this mommy thing that I don’t know if I can pass scrutiny from the real moms, the ones who know how to do this, the women who seem born to it. Plus, I feel like they might think I represent all gay parents, which means I have to get this exactly right. I continue, “Some people have a dad or a mom or both. Some are raised by their grandparents. And some have two mommies or two daddies.”
“Oh,” she says, then wrinkles her brow in confusion. “Well, which one of you does he call Mommy?”
“That’s a great question. I’m Mama and his other mother is Mommy,” I say, knowing full well that as two anxious, newly minted moms, we answer to just about anything: running water, the smell of open markers, items dropped into toilets, and anything that sounds like a head hitting the floor.
The girl places her palm over the drawing of Noah in front of her. “My daddy doesn’t live with us anymore.” She says this without emotion, as if she is explaining to me that Barney the dinosaur is purple. I look at her little hand covering Noah’s face and kneel down next to her. She twirls a strand of wavy hair around her finger, which starts to turn white at the tip.
I unravel the hair from her hand, replace it with a blue crayon, and resist an overwhelming urge to sit down next to her and color for a few hours. “I’m sure your dad loves you very much,” I say, placing my hand on top of her head. I hold on for a few extra seconds, trying to convey all the things I haven’t said: You will be okay. You are loved. And whatever is going on with your parents has nothing to do with you or anything you have or haven’t done.
I look at Connor, coloring intently, and wonder if he wishes he had a dad, if Jill and I will be enough.
I give Connor a quick kiss, and we touch noses. “Bye, sweet boy,” I say and trail my hand across his bony spine. Even though he drinks a high-calorie PediaSure every morning, his shoulder blades jut from his back like broken bird wings. It’s as if all the things he can’t or won’t say about the family he was born into—before he came to us—are written on his body anyway. How much of his past will determine his future? And, as for the immediate future: What in God’s name am I going to say to Father Bill to convince him to baptize my son?
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Teaching the Cat to Sit includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In her poignant memoir, Michelle Theall tells her compelling story of a woman finding that middle place between being a daughter and being a mother, as a Catholic gay woman who is raising her son with a loving partner and flying in the face of discrimination. Author Michelle Theall grew up Catholic in the Texas Bible Belt. She also grew up gay. Throughout her childhood, she found herself at odds with her strict Roman Catholic parents, bullied by her classmates and kicked out of the very Christian organizations that claimed to embrace her. Shame and longing for her mother’s acceptance led her to deny her feelings and eventually run away to a remote stretch of mountains in Colorado. There, she spoke to God every day, but rarely saw another human being. At forty-three years of age and seemingly settled in her decision to live life openly as a gay woman, Theall and her partner attempt to have their son baptized into the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in the liberal town of Boulder, Colorado. Their quest to have their son accepted into the Church leads Michelle into a battle with both the Church and her mother, an ordeal that leaves her questioning everything she thought she knew about the bonds of family and faith. In order to be a good mother, Michelle begins to realize that she may have to be a bad daughter. Teaching the Cat to Sit is a moving story that examines the modern roles of motherhood and religion and demonstrates that our ability to love is what ultimately shapes us.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Explain the significance of the book’s title. Why do you think she chose this title for her memoir? Specifically, what does Michelle’s childhood relationship with Mittens, her family cat, tell us about her? What does the cat symbolize?
2. Michelle’s therapist tells her, “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” (p. 195). Do you agree with Michelle’s therapist? Discuss examples of the power that Phyllis, Michelle’s mother, has over her family.
3. When Michelle, Jill, and Connor visit Michelle’s parents’ house for Christmas, she says, “The house smells like pecan pie, but also of Lysol, perfume, and lemon Pledge—sweet and sanitized—welcoming us and asking us not to touch anything at the same time” (p. 118). How does Michelle’s statement apply to her relationship with her parents during her visit home? In what ways are Michelle and Jill made to feel both welcome and unwelcome?
4. When Michelle and Jill decide to adopt a child, Michelle waits until they are far along in the process before telling her parents and sister about her decision. Why do you think she does so? Do you agree with her reasoning? Were you surprised by Michelle’s family’s reaction to her decision to adopt? Why or why not?
5. Michelle writes, “Our first knowledge of right and wrong doesn’t come from God—it comes from our mothers” (p. 71). Discuss this statement with regard to Michelle’s relationship to her mother. What values does Phyllis impart to Michelle that resonate with her? Are the two able to reconcile the differences in their values? In what ways?
6. Of Dale Crandall, Michelle’s father says, “He can’t be a bad guy if he got full custody. That’s something” (p. 31). What do you think of Dale Crandall? When Michelle tells her parents of the abuse that she suffered at Dale’s hands, how do they react? Were you surprised? Discuss Michelle’s attempts to gain closure. Do you think her trip back to Meeker to confront Dale is a good idea? Why or why not?
7. When the time comes to adopt Connor and Jill and Michelle decide that he will take “Theall,” Michelle’s last name, as his own, she writes, “I made him belong to my family. I created permanent acceptance where I wasn’t assured of any” (p. 224). What does she mean by this statement, and why is it so important to Michelle that Connor take her last name? Discuss the families portrayed in Teaching the Cat to Sit. Compare and contrast the family that Michelle creates for Connor with the one in which she grew up.
8. After Michelle and Jill pull Connor from Sacred Heart, she decides to speak about the school’s change in policy, first writing anonymous letters to the editors of the Boulder Weekly and Daily Camera and ultimately speaking on record. What accounts for Michelle’s activism? Why does she ultimately decide to go on record with her story?
9. Michelle and Jill keep a photograph of Brian and Tara, Connor’s biological parents, in his baby book. What are their reasons for doing so? How does Connor respond to seeing their photograph? Discuss the challenges that Michelle and Jill face as they raise Connor in light of his past.
10. When Michelle is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she decides to attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. What are her reasons for doing so? Upon asking her guide about alternative routes and procedures, should she need to go back down the mountain instead of climbing with her group, she is told, “There is no way down except to go up” (p. 240). How does this statement apply to the rest of Michelle’s life?
11. Were you surprised by the revelations about Father Kos? How does Michelle react to them? What effect, if any, do the revelations have on Michelle’s relationship both with the Catholic Church and with her mother?
12. After reading Holly’s letter, Michelle says, “I’m always telling Connor that our words have power and meaning. Holly’s letter is a gut punch and a psalm” (p. 245). Why does Holly’s letter have such a profound effect on Michelle? Were you surprised to learn what became of Holly after she left Meeker? What are other instances in Teaching the Cat to Sit where one’s words have power? Discuss them.
13. When Michelle moves to the mountains of Colorado, she finds refuge and, in it, “I allowed myself to realize several different things” (p. 231). What does she learn? Discuss the various revelations that Michelle makes about herself. Why does she ultimately leave her refuge in the mountains?
14. After Michelle and Cassie break up, Coach Scott calls Michelle into her office to find out why her performance as a runner has been so poor lately. Coach Scott tells Michelle, “You haven’t learned to use the downhill” (p. 175). What does she mean by this statement? How does Coach Scott’s training practice apply to Michelle’s current situation? What do you think of Coach Scott’s advice?
15. At her family reunion, Michelle and Connor are included in the Theall family photo montage, but Jill is not. Why has Jill been slighted? Michelle reacts by telling the reader, “In order to be a good mother, I may have to be a bad daughter” (p. 224). Why is this the case? Is she able to reconcile this conflict? If so, how?
16. In the memoir, several of the characters have been abandonedemotionally or physicallyby their mothers, through death, mental illness, or instability. Discuss the role of motherhood and the impact its absence has on the lives of Holly, Father Bill, Father Kos, Brian, Tara, Michelle’s mom, and Michelle. What does it mean for Connor to have two moms?
17. Nature versus nurture figures prominently as a theme within the book. Can you come to any conclusions about the dominance of one over the other in the text?
18. Are you disappointed that Michelle offers to change her name? At what point do you feel she finally accepts her identity?
19. Michelle says she sees Wink and Sparrow as a “refuge.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
20. How do people stereotype Michelle, and in turn, how does she stereotype others?
21. While the cat is a significant symbol in the book, birds also figure prominently throughout much of the memoir. How many references to them can you find and what are their meanings?
22. Discuss Michelle’s faith in God. Does it become stronger because of adversity or in spite of it?
23. Michelle concludes that God made her gay. Do you agree or disagree? Discuss the steps she took to accept her sexuality. What does true acceptance look like and does she attain it?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read an article from the Boulder Weekly (http://www.boulderweekly.com/article-1993-parent-sacred-heart-had-other-lesbiansrs-children-lscloset-baptismsrs.html) about the Sacred Heart policy change and controversy that followed. Discuss it in light of what you’ve learned about the families affected in Teaching the Cat to Sit. How does Michelle Theall’s memoir deepen your understanding of the issues discussed?
2. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Michelle decides to attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Learn more about Mount Kilimanjaro here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kilimanjaro
3. Read the article Michelle published about being gay in the Bible Belt South (http://www.5280.com/magazine/2010/10/all-thats-left-god) and discuss her struggles with her sexuality.
4. To learn more about Michelle Theall, read her blog, and connect with her online, visit her official site at http://www.michelletheall.com/