Book Reviews: Teaching the Cat to Sit, Kitty Genovese
Terri Schlichenmeyer, The Bookworm Sez
3/25/2014

Teaching the Cat to Sit: A Memoir by Michelle Theall
Gallery Books, $24.99, 288 pages

Sometimes, you feel so adrift.

Unmoored, unanchored, you feel as though you ride each wave alone, emotions and events washing over you until you can’t weather the storm any longer and you need an anchor. That’s when you reach for your family or your God.

But what if both were denied to you?  In Teaching the Cat to Sit, Michelle Theall shares her story of standing up instead of standing still.

Al Theall and his wife were sure their second child, born in 1966, would be a boy but—surprise!—they got another daughter. Later, they were even more astounded that their second girl was so different from the first one: unlike her older, popular, outgoing sister, Michelle grew to be athletic, bullheaded, and introverted; in fact, aside from the cat, her only friend was a neighbor girl whose parents had scandalously been divorced.

Divorce, of course, was against the teachings of the Catholic Church, the religion that Theall’s mother devoutly followed. She was reluctant to even let her daughter play at the Crandall’s house, but reasoned that Theall needed onefriend.

That bond ended abruptly when the girl’s father molested Theall.

In high school, Theall had an Evangelical Christian friend, but the girl’s mother thought Theall was a lesbian, and put an end to the relationship. That hurt, because Theall herself didn’t yet realize her sexuality.

After a sweet and almost-accidental love affair with another woman while at college, Theall examined her sexual preferences and felt deeply ashamed. Catholicism taught that being gay was a sin against God. Her parents would not accept her as a lesbian. She tried to be heterosexual, but that wasn’t who she was—so, upon graduation from Texas Tech, she moved to Colorado where she chose long-term celibacy and started re-building a relationship with her parents.

Then, after a surprising (and awkward) introduction, Theall fell in love. When she and Jill started their family, she fell in love again with a baby who’d had a rough start in life. They’d hoped to raise their child in Theall’s Catholic faith.
And the Church said “no…..”

Though it made me very sad, and though I spent a lot of time with my mouth open in astonishment, I just couldn’t stop reading Teaching the Cat to Sit.

That might be because author Michelle Theall is a first-rate storyteller, and she really knows how to keep a reader wanting more. Half of this book is about her battle with Catholicism and with the Church for recognition of her partner and their son and, eventually, their search for an acceptable (and accepting) religion. That’s fascinating, but there’s more: the other half is the memoir of her tumultuous relationship with her parents and her journey to understanding, both of them and of herself.

Overall, I think I liked this book because of its deliberateness and its ultimately empowering message of truth to self. For that, and for the great biography it is, Teaching the Cat to Sit is a must-read – especially if you’re in the same boat. 
 

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime That Changed America by Kevin Cook
W.W. Norton, $25.95, 256 pages

You always hold doors open.

That’s because your mama taught you to help others: you hold doors for stragglers, lend your ear, dispense advice, volunteer, donate, and keep an eye on your neighbor’s house. Really, it’s no big deal.

You’re a good helper, but how involved do you get in other people’s matters? Read Kitty Genovese by Kevin Cook, for example, and ask yourself what you’d do if you heard a murder.

By all accounts, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was a nice girl with a great smile and a generous spirit. As the manager of a local bar near her Queens, New York neighborhood, Kitty was trustworthy, good with customers, and was known to loan money to regulars in need. She made friends easily and was an “adventurous, troubled but optimistic, hard-working, fast-driving, living, breathing person…”

Until the morning of March 13, 1964.

It was just after 3 a.m. that morning and Kitty was on her way home to the apartment she shared with her girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko. Most people thought they were just roommates and, though it wasn’t quite the truth, the women let others believe it because it was safer. In 1964, homosexuality was still illegal.

She was in her beloved red Fiat and was driving fast, as she usually did. Perhaps because of the hour, Kitty didn’t notice that she was being followed.

Quiet, soft-spoken Winston Moseley had done something noteworthy for a Negro man in 1964: he’d purchased a house in an up-and-coming, mostly white neighborhood where he and his wife, Betty, were raising their boys. Between his good job and Betty’s salary, they were relatively well-off but Betty sometimes worried about Winston. He was an insomniac and liked “just thinking.” What she didn’t know was that he was “thinking” about killing.

In early March 1964, Moseley committed the “particularly gruesome” murder of a black woman, then calmly went to work. He wondered if killing a white woman would be any different. Two weeks later, while driving around, looking for a victim, he spotted a little red Fiat and had a “compulsion” to find out…

You might be asking yourself what’s so unusual about a fifty-year-old crime. Author Kevin Cook will tell you as he takes you on a journey through the early 1960s and a death that literally impacts everyone in North America today.

But that’s not all you’ll read in Kitty Genovese.

Cook reminds us in many ways that Genovese was more than just a victim, that she was a real person who loved life. On the flipside, we meet the neighbors who supposedly ignored her cries and we’re shown the slow making of a “monster” who seems chillingly without conscience. Cook uses these parallel stories to illustrate what happened as he busts myths that still linger to this day.

There are outrageous surprises in this book, some heartbreak, and passages that are grisly enough to make anyone squirm. But if you’re a true-crime fan or you love good storytelling, Kitty Genovese is a book you can’t help but devour.

* * *

And if Cook’s book piques your interest and you absolutely need to know more about this crime and the aftermath, then look for Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences by Catherine Pelonero.

Here, Pelonero takes a deeper look at Moseley and the murders he committed prior to the attacks on Genovese. You’ll also get a few more details on the trial that followed Moseley’s arrest. It’s a nice companion to the Cook book for anyone who’s still curious.


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