The first thing I notice about Michelle Theall is that she lied about her hands. In her book, she describes them as ugly. In person, they are petite with short, clean nails. They are expressive, moving about as she talks, cupping her soda. A small knick on her knuckle interrupts the smooth landscape, but it seems right at home.
After this interview she’s on a plane to Anchorage, where she is an editor for Alaska Magazine. The staff is working on the April issue, and she will spend all week focusing on that, rather than fretting about her book — a memoir titled Teaching the Cat to Sit that came out Feb. 25. Theall will host a book signing at the Boulder Book Store on Tuesday, March 4, at 7:30 p.m.
“Hands down,” Theall says, “writing this book is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The memoir chronicles Theall’s childhood in Texas and the struggles she went through with sexual abuse, spirituality, multiple sclerosis, family and her realization that she is gay. In alternating chapters, she discusses her more recent past here in Boulder, as those struggles continued when she and her partner had their adopted son baptized at the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish. The baptism was rescheduled at the last minute and did not occur during the regular church service, which she soon realized was happening to the children of all gay couples. These “closet baptisms” infuriated Theall, and she and her partner withdrew their son from the Sacred Heart of Jesus School.
“Anywhere you go, someone will say that it’s not OK to be who you are,” Theall says, her hands, previously so energetic, now still on the table.
Theall began openly telling her story through the Boulder Weekly in 2010, when she sent an email to Managing Editor Jefferson Dodge after reading about how a different lesbian couple’s child had been turned away from the Sacred Heart of Jesus School. Dodge wanted to interview her but told her she couldn’t remain anonymous, she recalls. Theall decided it was time to speak up.
She talks about writing as therapy, how repeatedly editing the lines in the book gave her the strength to face the pain of her past head on, rather than hiding from it. Her book is also timely in an age where gay rights are constantly in the headlines. Bullying and trauma still exist but, Theall says, we are creating a more inclusive world, and she wants her memoir to be a part of building that world. Still, putting her story out there is terrifying.
“It’s like running around naked in front of everyone I know,” Theall says.
That “everyone” includes her mother, who has had an enormous influence on her life and is the person who instilled in Theall a strong sense of spirituality.
“We’re in a good place right now,” Theall says of her relationship with her mother, although this hasn’t always been true — Theall’s mother has had a difficult time reconciling her own dedication to Catholicism with her daughter’s sexuality.
Her mother declined to read the drafts of the book, though she previously requested total transparency from Theall for her nonfiction works.
Theall’s mother plays a major role in the book, as her influence and the growth of their relationship has been important to the person Theall has become. She worries about what will happen if her mother decides to read the book, or begins hearing about it from others. But Theall remains firm. Nothing can change the truth behind who she is or what she has been through, and for Theall, that truth is everything.
“I wouldn’t change one thing. All of it has made me who I am,” Theall says.
Despite the therapeutic effect that this book had, she doesn’t plan on writing another memoir. Instead, along with the work for Alaska Magazine, she’s got a novel in the works about a brother and sister and their experiences in foster care. She says there are more than 400,000 children in foster care in America and she and her partner are being re-certified as foster parents. She is spinning so many plates it is dizzying, but Theall isn’t the type to buckle under pressure.
Theall’s insight into her strength is simple. She says that no matter what you are going through, someone out there has gone through something similar, maybe even something worse. What matters is being able to conquer your struggles.
“Our experiences are universal,” she says. “I think of it as sweeping up a pile of dirt and finally being able to stand on top of it.”
This sense of universality is what she hopes to convey with the book.
“This book is really about how we navigate, and how we are navigating,” Theall says, speaking not only of our own personal struggles, but also of the struggles that come with building and maintaining relationships. You are born into one family, but along the way, you figure out who you are and who is important to helping uphold that.
“I think it’s about who stays,” Theall says, and for anyone lucky enough to be a part of her life, Theall isn’t going anywhere.