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Michelle Theall’s new memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, brings some big topics—God, sexuality, abuse, loneliness, love, family—to the page. It’s a rocky ride, full of contentious conversations, frank disclosures, and plenty of struggle.
Teaching the Cat to Sit presents two interwoven narratives: first, adult Michelle’s struggle to get her adopted son baptized in the Catholic Church, her decision to pull him from the Catholic school he attends, and the ongoing battle to win her mother and father’s acceptance. The second narrative begins with Michelle’s youth—a journey that leads her through abuse, her grasping to understand her sexuality, a brush with a pedophile priest, her first relationship with another woman in college, her attempts to “turn straight,” her coming out, her leaving her home state, and the healing process that eventually leads her to her life partner. A lot happens in this book—and Theall moves through the circumstances of her life with remarkable dexterity.
Theall writes with compelling honesty about loneliness—in fact, the title of the book comes from a line she overhears her father say to her mother on that topic—and the feeling she so plainly articulates has real resonance. And while her loneliness hobbles and confuses her as a young adult, her ability to be alone is ultimately what heals her.
God plays a big role in Teaching the Cat to Sit. And this isn’t just any God; this is the Catholic God—not exactly touchy-feely, not exactly a paragon of acceptance. And those with major chips on their shoulder in regards to the Catholic Church and its treatment of gays may balk at some of what Theall says. But ultimately, Theall’s grappling with the God of her youth deconstructs a very real barrier between public and private. God is, on one hand, such a personal choice, and worship, while often done in public, is arguably one of the most private acts we humans do. For Theall, having been forced to keep secrets for most of her life—to protect herself, to gain her family’s love—privacy has too long meant silence. And the breaking of a silence she is no longer willing to bear becomes the ultimate act of bravery, one that threatens to crack the delicate acceptance she’s gained from her family.
There are moments when I wanted Theall to slow down, to let me in and show me a little more of her internal struggle—but a book of this scope, covering as much ground as it does, can make that sustained interiority difficult. Some of the moments Theall presents, especially her encounters with wildlife, allow us a telling window into her state of mind—those moments of understanding, of transformation and acceptance, are very powerful.
Teaching the Cat to Sit portrays real courage, and Theall proves herself a woman willing to stand up for her convictions—for the life she has struggled to make—and the journey she has taken is inspiring. Never preachy, often witty and humorous, and ultimately heart-warming in an honest, hard-won way, Theall’s memoir is a welcome addition to the literature about the struggle between religion and sexuality. At its core, this book is about not giving up—on God or yourself.
Teaching the Cat to Sit
By Michelle Theall
Hardcover, 9781451697292, 286 pp.