The Uncanny Metonymy of Helen Phillips’s “The Need”

Sara Ahmed argues that fear behaves like a metonymy. It is a sticky, parasitic attachment to objects that slides easily from sign to sign and, in the process, remakes how matter are named, and hence how they exist in the world. This is how “terrorist” sticks to “Islam, Arab,” or “criminal” to “Mexican,” even in the face of arguments (with facts!) that should otherwise unmake them. Whereas anxiety is static, it becomes fear when the object recognizes the fearful (or the other way round), and approaches. Ahmed, citing Freud, explains that these affects are responses to a love that can disappear, that connection which “secures the subject’s relation to the world.” Because fear expects pain, the fearing subject is split psychically between a present and a future, and is felt intensely in the former at the same time they are dissociated from it. Fear may unveil how absent we are in the present. In the moment of fear, the body wants to flee in the face of the feared object. To whom does it turn? Ahmed writes that fear also turns us towards love, towards protection and care for an other. “In this way,” Ahmed argues, “fear is that which keeps alive the fantasy of love as the preservation of life, but paradoxically only by announcing the possibility of death.” At the instance when the body erects a wall between it and the threat, fear also intimates the possibility of a love as intense as fear. 

What if fear’s metonymic power inverts the objects of love into those of fear? These knotted intersections of care, aversion, and annihilation are staged in Helen Phillips’s latest and most bracing novel, The Need, an unflinching and visceral high-minded thriller that confronts the vectors of motherhood and ultimately personhood. This is well-trod territory for Phillips, whose previous works pair the supernatural with the ordinary. But her variation on these concerns are deepened and more nuanced in The Need; the result is a more arresting and beautiful–and searingly human–exploration of the mysteries of being alive. 

Written in five parts, the book centers on Molly, a paleobotanist and mother to four-year-old Viv and newborn Ben. Part One alternates between two times separated by only hours in Molly’s day, showing us how Molly integrates maternal responsibility with professional demands: It places Molly in two distant, but not different, modes of fear. At work, Molly’s work sparks renewed (or just new) interest thanks to the discovery of fossils of a different vintage: a Coca-Cola bottle whose script tilts in the opposite direction, an Altoids tin with slightly altered dimensions. Such uncanny similarities aren’t the ones that inspire death threats from religious zealots. That’s the Bible. According to the expert she contacts, it’s the right paper, the right publisher, and the right number of pages. Except that every instance of the male pronoun has been feminized. 

So many threats pile up that the fear they hope to inspire becomes abstract. Or so it would seem. While leading a Q and A, Molly calls on a man seated in the front. His disdain is betrayed by his paternalistic and sardonic flattery: You seem like a nice lady, with kids, I bet, he says. The tension in the room is acute, and Molly freezes. Her body reacts for her. “Twin droplets of milk emerged from her nipples, dampening her bra ever so slightly.” When she’s not excavating, cataloging, or leading tours for a newly interested public, Molly is pumping. “When she poured cow’s milk for Viv she experienced a flash of mother-to-mother gratitude: Thank you, Ma Cow, for letting me steal your milk for my own offspring, Phillips writes in an earlier scene, and in another, “Reminder: Mother. Reminder: Animal.” Molly regards her milk as a cosmic fact. She marvels at her body as if it regenerates itself, because it does, and her stupefaction in the face of this fact never ceases to affect her.

But her characteristic talent for unmaking such sentiments into high-stakes existential quandaries are also in motion here. In front of the zealot, Molly doesn’t know what to do or say. The biological expression of motherhood has unmade one layer of her person, and leaves with her no choice but to tarry with its paralyzing effects. Fear pulls Molly in two directions. Molly’s safety, the crowd’s safety, her children and, perhaps distantly, the safety of community. It’s a ciper for the book’s thesis: What does it mean to need, and how many ways are needs satisfied? 

 This chapter abruptly ends before we get to see her reaction, as we’re back in another typical scene of parenting: Putting the kids to bed. The back-to-back structure replicates the particular way fear both slows and hastens time, and helps Phillips stretch the tortuously pleasurable and impeccably rendered set piece in this half of Part One. Her musician husband David, off-stage for much of the book, is flying to Europe for a last-minute gig, which means Molly is left on her own to put the kids to bed. As she argues with Viv and Ben, she hears footsteps in the other room. Or thinks so. It’s yet another instance of her seemingly chronic anxiety which, the more it happens, increasingly presents itself as a private ailment. Anxiety’s fallacy seems to convince that her constant (mis)hearing “a passing ambulance mistaken for Ben’s nighttime wail” means she’s ill in the head, which must mean she’s a poor excuse of a mother. 

Phillips’s use of anxiety and fear’s logics are masterful and incisive; at no place does the reader feel unduly manipulated. In fact, she welcomes it. Doubt and self-doubt move the story forward: What if those were really footsteps? What if there is an intruder in the house? What if she is an incompetent mother? What if, when Molly goes out to the living room to find not The Why Book that Viv wants to read, that floating deer head emerging from the coffee room table is in fact a decapitated deer head? “But at the final moment, just before he exited, he raised his gloved hand and pointed at Viv, his finger sharp as a threat.” 

In the logic of The Need, it might as well as be a literal Deer Person, as many of the familiar tropes of represented motherhood are literalized and made uncanny. The rest of the novel jettisons the back-to-back structure, focusing on the world-altering relationship between Molly and this creature who, in the folklore of Indigenous Americans, is associated with fertility and love. Molly will be forced to confront and contend with her limitations and capacities as a human who happens to be a mother, a mother who also happens to be a human. Phillips explores motherhood’s myriad contradictions and paradoxes through Molly’s trials, which, at many points in the novel, seem like they have no other end than the end of her world.

Though it is impressive how the book ably uncovers, without a whiff of sentimentality, the intimacy that mundane activities like rinsing berries contain, it’s important to point out that its subversions have limits, but are not necessarily weaknesses. Molly and David live in a house in a well-to-do neighborhood, earn enough money to hire a babysitter consistently, and own two cars. One’s an artist (working and profitable), while the other has an advanced degree (though, sadly, we might imagine they are in some serious debt). Though its questions about difference, of self and other, are integral to the narrative, it builds them through a specific mythology of a conventional (read: normative) motherhood, and we can’t ignore how the book starts: Religious zealots are sending death threats to Molly and her team because a Bible has appeared where God is a woman (God forbid!). It is hard not to think of our current moment. It’s an uncomfortable, world-turning circumstance for them that Molly keeps at arm’s length at first, but this layer of the novel’s parable will have readers almost ripping the pages in anticipation and excitement. 

These limits are part of the point, part of the mystery of motherhood that Phillips helped me see. Equal parts private and public, necessary for community as it is separate from it, the imaginary necessitates the real as much as the former depends on the latter. Phillips wants us to see just how weird, and weirdly normal, the everyday is inside of motherhood, as enigmatic as it is mundane, transcendent as it is humbling–The Need is shattering and marvelous. By the book’s end, we see that fear can forge a path towards belonging, which four-year-old Viv, not Molly, expresses, whose words radiate strongly with the warmth of Molly’s womb. 

“I want to get older so I can be a mommy.”

“Yes, I had to get old enough,” Molly said, resisting the urge to correct Viv, to say that she should look forward to being older so that she could be a scientist or artist or president as well as a mother. “So that I could be yours.”

“Yes,” Viv said, “because I was waiting for you.”

“You were waiting for me?”


“Where were you waiting for me?”



The Need
by Helen Phillips

Simon & Schuster; 272 p.

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