Phenylethylamine: The Chemical Composition of Love

For all my fellow romantics, this one’s for you. Featuring Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark and Anastasia: The New Broadway Musical 

Phenylethylamine [phe·nyl·eth·yl·amine]

It’s the reason why we get butterflies in our stomach when we think of our significant others. It’s the reason why we feel nostalgic when we leave our homes. It’s what every Disney princess sings about (except Moana). It is the feeling of euphoria. And it is the answer to the question that Stephen asks Rane after her refusal to love a child that will look like Jacob, it is the chemical composition of love.

In Clay’s Ark, issues of consent are constantly arising. But if we take a step out of Butler’s fictional world and think about the real” world, we might come across an issue we may not have addressed. Which is that our own ability to provide consent is compromised because of that strange looking word mentioned above. Phenylethylamine is responsible for the feeling that keeps us up at night as we fantasize about our crushes. It is getting a whiff of our significant other’s scent (perfume/cologne/body odor? [no judgment]) and imagining them next to us. These feelings of romance that are sometimes unwarranted and spontaneous in nature are all the result of phenylethylamine working in our bodies.  I won’t begin to explain to you how it works, so I’ll provide a link below for those interested. But it’s strange because when we were criticizing the people of Clay’s Ark, we failed to realize that we too are guilty of being consumed by love, and if not now, or in the past, then in some point in the future.

Here’s the passage I am referring to:

Sometimes, when we’re attracted to what seems like the wrong person, we ask ourselves why. Stephen is aware of this feeling. He is aware that the children with the Clay’s Ark disease are different and ugly, but what human baby is born looking adorably squishy? THEY ALL LOOK LIKE POTATOES. There’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about a newborn baby, covered in gooey blood, crying for bloody murder. But still, we love them.  So is it surprising then, that the people of Clay’s Ark love their four-legged children? No, of course not!

Love is a wonderful emotion. Falling in love is an amazing feeling. But if we’re all looking for chiseled chests or flawless skin, then we might get stumped and feel as conflicted and angry as Rane. Sure, she must have been overwhelmed by her encounter with Jacob, but if Kiera is capable of viewing Jacob for what he truly is, an innocent child, then why can’t Rane? Why did we not judge her as hard as we judged Eli?

Maybe my extensive knowledge of Disney fairytales is the reason why phenylethylamine makes so much sense to me. But if we all realize that we’re not that different from the people with the Clay’s Ark disease, we may begin to view them less critically and more humanely.

As Butler would say, there is a risk when dealing with phenylethylamine.


If, for whatever reason, my descriptions of the romantic feelings associated with phenylethylamine were mediocre, try listening to this song from Anastasia titled, “We’ll Go From There.”

Also, here’s an article about phenylethylamine.


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