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Michelle Theall’s memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit (out now from Gallery Books), weaves together two narratives—her story of growing up gay and Catholic in the Texas Bible Belt and her recent struggle to baptize her son in her local Catholic church—in a poignant, honest exploration of God, acceptance, and the power of family.
Michelle is an award-winning health, fitness, and travel writer, and the founder of Women’s Adventure magazine. She’s appeared on NBC Today, MSNBC, The Travel Channel, and the Fox Sports Network. Her essay, “All That’s Left is God,” earned a 2011 GLAAD Media Award nomination. She lives with her partner, their son, and three dogs in Boulder, Colorado.
Michelle was kind enough to talk to Lambda Literary Review about the process of writing Teaching the Cat to Sit; her new initiative, The Pope Project; and what she’s up to next.
How did writing Teaching the Cat to Sit come about?
In 2010, I was compelled to write an essay about the priest at our son’s Catholic school who decided to expel all children with gay parents, including our four-year old son. I thought it was a fairly black-and-white issue. Even if this priest believed that being gay was wrong, how could he blame a child for having parents he didn’t choose? Evidently, it wasn’t black and white, and in the end, neither were my reasons for having my son in the school in the first place. I had to examine my past in order to move forward and realize that I was trying to win the church’s blessing to try to win my mom’s. In order to be a good mother, I’d have to feel like a bad daughter, and speak out publically, even when my mother forbid it. The book was a culmination of that.
You write, very frankly, about some pretty thorny subjects and brutal moments in your life—how difficult was that process?
I put my life under a microscope, and at times it wasn’t pretty. Now though, I feel free. I have no secrets and don’t really plan on making new ones. There’s a fine line between privacy and shame, and most of the things I held private, had more to do with my own self-esteem issues than anything else.
You wonder, at some point in the narrative, Is it possible to rewrite the past—to get what you never had from the people who are around you now? Which strikes me as a really important idea in regards to your book—by telling your story, does it, on any level, feel like you are giving yourself what you need?
Telling my story and having it so well received by strangers along with people from my past makes it worth it. When my family stopped speaking to me after the book launched, I wondered if I’d truly done the right thing. But every day, I get letters saying that the book has changed them or helped someone close to them to understand what it’s like to be gay and come out, even with things as progressive as they are today. Families still struggle. And a lot of that comes from religion, the sense that being gay is wrong. Religion has really done a number on families.
Related to that last question, is there a sense of power and/or relief and/or owning what happened to you in your life because of writing about it?
I found out a lot about myself through writing the book and used the act of writing it to explore (under the pretenses of research) things from my past that had really haunted me. I found people on Facebook and went to old high school reunions. Many things I dove back into didn’t even end up in the book, but the investigation brought me closure.
How have your parents and sister reacted to the book? Have they read it?
My parents and sister haven’t read the book and don’t plan to—though I offered the opportunity several times prior to and after publication. My mother did read the blurbs on Amazon, and that was enough for her to stop speaking to me for a while. We are back in touch, but neither of us has broached the subject. She has really come a long way, and this book is certainly not a portrait of either of us on our best day. So, I understand her being hurt by it. That said, without any of these struggles, painful as they were to both of us, we wouldn’t have gotten this far.
I’d be remiss to not ask you about God, about Catholicism, about faith—because this is, essentially, a book that grapples with God, with His word, with how His word is portrayed, with how one makes peace with the dichotomies inherent in the way religion gets treated today. I was raised Catholic, and walked away from the church long before I realized I was gay; I’m no atheist, but I have a lot of—shall I say, problems—with organized religion. In some ways, I’m a person you might have a friendly argument with in a bar, but, enough about me. What I really want to know is, what it was like to write about God? To grapple with God on the page? To confront your own struggle, in black and white, to essentially bring something incredibly private into the public sphere?
It’s funny, because it’s almost embarrassing to write about my belief in God, because it is so personal. It’s a lot like coming out of the closet again: Shh, don’t tell anyone, I’m a gay Christian! It’s a bit of an oxymoron to many people. As much as I had problems with organized religion (and the people who believed in God, but felt just fine rejecting and condemning me in His name), I never felt separated or unloved by God. Just didn’t. In fact, the farther away people tried to push me from God, the closer I became to Him/Her. It’s a hard thing to separate people’s rejection and condemnation of us from God’s, which is why I try to remind myself that God is in the people, but the people aren’t God. I have a quiet faith, but it’s very real to me. And I make no judgments on any other person’s beliefs. I don’t care if someone is an atheist or agnostic or Wiccan. Go for it.
You talk, toward the end of the book, about no longer considering yourself Catholic—it comes up first as surprise, something you said in an interview almost without realizing it—and then later as a conscious move, when challenging your mother. I have a sense, from your words, that you will always consider yourself Catholic, no matter which church you worship in, but what’s the impact, the feeling, these days, in your sense of self—as someone who values the presence of God so highly? Do you find yourself longing for the rituals of your youth? Do you foresee any sort of coming back to the Church? Especially now that there’s a Pope who seems, on many levels, ready to embrace the times, to embrace the idea that one’s being gay doesn’t cast them from God?
I think so many of the rituals of Catholicism are engrained, imprinted on me, that it’s tough to not still “feel” Catholic. Many lapsed or recovering Catholics write to tell me the same thing. I think this Pope is great, but doctrine still teaches that homosexual acts are a sin. Over 200,000 LGBT youth experienced homelessness from being kick out of or running away from their homes after coming out. Almost all of that was a direct result of parents believing that homosexuality is immoral. One mother had an exorcism for her daughter. A dad said he’s rather his son die on the streets or burn in hell than live under his roof. Religious teachings spur that kind of rejection, and unless the Pope reviews old texts and theology and takes a new stance, it’s not likely to change. I have a new section of my web site called The Pope Project, where I’m asking for people to tell their stories and sending them to the Pope. He’s got a meeting with senior clergy this fall specifically to review gay marriage and other issues. He’s the most powerful Christian leader. Regardless of what a person believes, this man can have a positive impact on the gay community and the way families handle the coming out process. He’s asking for feedback. Let’s give it to him.
The idea of family, both blood and chosen, is a central struggle in Teaching the Cat to Sit. Toward the end of the book, in regards to adopting your son, you use the phrase: creating permanent acceptance where I wasn’t assured of any. It’s a really powerful realization, I think, to have: this notion of constructing acceptance rather than seeking it. Can you talk more about that, what the process of constructing acceptance for yourself, and for your life, and for your family, has looked like, how it has changed you?
Family is complicated and powerful. I’ve said that our first idea of right and wrong doesn’t come from God, it comes from our mothers. And if the person who taught you to brush your teeth and share your toys and flush before the next person thinks you’re going to hell, some part of you initially believes her and internalizes that. It can take such a long time to figure out who your really are, separate from your family and their expectations, and then an equally long time to accept who you are and hold onto that in the face of all the obstacles (culture, society, religion, parents, jobs, media, etc.) you encounter along your lifetime. I wasn’t born into a family that accepted who I was or understood me. At some point, I had to decide if I was going to sacrifice who I was in order to gain their approval, or risk losing them to be myself and life my life fully. I chose the second. Now, I’ve created my own idea of family, and it has less to do with blood than love and commitment. Love makes a family. We’re in the foster care system again to try to adopt a couple more.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a novel about a brother and sister who are separated in foster care after the sudden death of their parents.
And last question, because I always want to know: what are you reading right now?
The Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline