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 abandoned--emotionally or physically--by 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/