I first peeked into Boulder writer Michelle Theall‘s world three years ago when she penned a heart-wrenching essay for 5280. What I discovered was a woman anxious to find certainty in her identity as a gay woman even as her strict Catholic upbringing—and family—threatened to tear her apart. She was told her adopted son would be expelled from his Catholic school because he had gay parents; her mother and father all but disowned her after the essay was published; and Theall was struggling to reconcile her self with the teachings of a Catholic Church that doesn’t recognize her or her partner’s lifestyle. Last month, the 47-year-old released Teaching the Cat to Sit (Gallery Books, February), a memoir, which I review in this month’s issue, based on that original piece.
In December, I caught up with Theall to learn why she felt the need to write this book, what she learned about herself along the way, and how her relationship is with her family now.
5280: Why write a memoir?
I think when you write something like this, you have to come from a place where you’re not doing it because you’re angry or have something to prove. Really, it’s about self-acceptance in the face of whatever it is you’re fighting: organizations, bullies, your family, teachers, religion—whoever you keep acquiescing to instead of being who you’re supposed to be in the world. This book, I hope, gives people a measure of courage to be able to see you can come through that and be better and stronger for it and there’s still love and acceptance there.
5280: Self-acceptance is a key theme in the book.
I could never truly accept that my mother loved and accepted me when I couldn’t show her who I really was. She was accepting someone who was false. If putting this story out there in the world is sort of the final climax of this part of my life where I’m completely being who I am with no apologies, and I’m putting it out there and she still remains in my life, then that’s true and full acceptance. She almost walked away after the 5280 article came out. But we got through that. And that’s the whole point of the book: The only way you can know if people truly love you and accept you is if you can be courageous and be who you really are.
5280: What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
Writing this book is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s taking an emotional archive of every letter, every friendship, every memory, and evaluating that and looking at it with a microscope. The emotional roller coaster that puts you through….
It was hard to write it without thinking every single word I put on paper was putting a bullet in my mom’s chest because I’m a mom and I understand. I was constantly going back to my expectations for my son: How he will disappoint me without meaning to? The many ways our kids don’t necessarily become who we expect them to become or want them to become.
5280: I’d think that writing a memoir would be particularly trying since you’re working from memory, trying to recreate conversations and the exact order things happened. How did you deal with that?
I had plenty to go through. I don’t throw things away. I keep a pretty good journal. I have boxes and boxes full of letters, letters I didn’t send, things I thought, letters from my family, cards from my family, photos, tons of emails. I have a pretty good reference that way.
You can’t completely reconstruct a conversation. If I had a conversation with somebody when I was eight years old, I’m not going to remember word-for-word what I said or what that person said, but I will remember the emotional content of that conversation. The emotional content of how you’re reading the situation is there, and I think you can speak to that truth. You certainly can’t speak to the truth of what [the other] person was feeling. It’s all about how the things that happened shape and affect you, your emotions, and your actions.
5280: You’ve been through a lot of terrible things—abuse, shame, identity crisis—but somehow the memoir never feels overly depressing. How did you manage that?
I wrote everything from the point of having been through it. I don’t necessarily look at the things that I’ve been through as terrible, horrible, awful things. I think there are terrible, horrible, awful things in the world, and the things that happened to me—perhaps because they happened to me and I’m still here—I just look at them as a piece of my story and part of who I am and part of how I got to be who I am. Things just happen to us in life that we don’t bring on ourselves, societal norms that shift. I don’t think I would change a thing because I don’t think I’d be the same person I am now, and I like who I am. I’ve accepted who I am.
5280: Has your mom read it? What feedback have you received from your family?
She hasn’t read it. I asked her three times. I can’t help but feel absolute relief at that. My sister doesn’t want to read it either. I’m happy about that, too.
My mom and I are in a really good place right now. The whole process of writing this has continued to push us into a better and better place of understanding, acceptance, and clarity. It’s tough for it to come out when all that growth has happened because people will look at this and see us at our worst. Perhaps writing this book caused us to end up being at our best as a mother-daughter.
5280: And your partner?
She’s been tremendously supportive. I continue to be in a little bit of denial about the reaction that my family will have over this book. I’m hoping against hope that it doesn’t cause my family to implode. But she’ll be there no matter what. Her family will be there no matter what. I think that was also part of the book: There’s the family we’re born into and the one that we make. It’s very hard for me to let her family adopt me in certain ways, to have her mom let me call her Mom. Her family’s all read the book, and they’re there waiting in the wings.
5280: When your son grows up, will you let him read it?
He knows I’m writing the book. I think he was three when I started it; now he’s eight. He definitely has an idea that “You’re writing a book and I’m in it and why did you change my name?” He’s the little love of my life and anything in those pages shows that. It’s something he can always hold on to. When he’s old enough, if he wants to read it, he can read it.
5280: In the book you talk about Colorado being a place of refuge. The state almost becomes its own character. Was that on purpose?
This is the place that healed me. I never felt like Texas was home. It was another way I didn’t belong. The second I saw Colorado, it was home. I knew I had to live here. The pull of the mountains, I can’t explain it except that it changed me in a profound way. I fell in love with the place, and I don’t ever intend on leaving it.
5280: Where do you and Catholicism stand now?
We have a church here in Boulder we go to. It’s not Catholic. It’s an open and affirming church. We can be exactly who we are there, and our son sees other families that are the same as we are and also ones who aren’t. There’s not a big deal made about it.
As far as the Catholic Church, it would still be very hard for me to be part of it when fundamentally their doctrine still says they don’t really accept our family as a valid family unit. And that may change. I have hope that it may change.
5280: Anything else you want to tell our readers?
I never intended on being a gay activist. We just live our lives and want to be left alone with our lives. The book is not intended to be a look at how great gay people are and you should just completely accept us and religion is wrong. I am a Christian and a very spiritual person, and I wouldn’t want anyone to attack those beliefs. It’s not meant to say, ‘My way is the right way.’ It’s more to say, ‘Just love.’ It’s about acceptance and self-acceptance. It’s just a story.
—Author photo courtesy of Christina Kiffney