Natural Selection

University of Houston creative writing professor Mark Doty first turned from his poetry to try his hand at a memoir because he no longer felt the limited vessel of a poem could express what he needed to say. His latest work of biography, Firebird, on its face is a story about growing up gay, but his search for self-awareness is a universal one.

"The origins of sexual feeling don't interest me much; they seem permanently shrouded anyway, as resistant to explanation as any form of desire: why, exactly, do you like strawberries? From whence springs your affection for the cello, your attraction to blue?" Doty writes. "Genetics, hypothalamus, environment, chance, some inscription coded in the DNA or soul: your choice. Or no choice; doesn't the need to understand the origins of desire arise from an impetus to control it?"

Far more interesting for Doty is the way sexual feeling makes itself known, and how we choose to negotiate it. Sex is simply the way we reproduce, yet its compulsion is so powerful that a good many of our traditions, morals and laws are designed to manage it.

What drives a president to take advantage of an intern when 30 percent of the country would give an appendage just to find an excuse to watch him go down in flames? Why is it that something like sexual orientation can become so important to us that someone like Doty's mother could be prevented from firing a Luger at her 16-year-old son, not because she couldn't pull the trigger, but because she couldn't negotiate the safety? What force of nature would make Doty face that kind of hostility, if it weren't hardwired into his being?

Who knows to what extent we control -- or are controlled by -- our desires, but when you finish reading Doty's book, you can't help but think that what the human race really needs is a long cold shower.