What’s Scarier Than Motherhood?

In Helen Phillips’s The Need, a parent’s nightmares take the form of a home intruder — who looks exactly like her.

Photo: David Barry
Photo: David Barry
Photo: David Barry

One sunny Tuesday afternoon when my daughter was 5 months old, a man climbed halfway through the window in our D.C. living room, stopping only because my husband happened to be working at home for the day. If he hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened next. We nailed that window shut. I slept on my daughter’s floor for three nights. I obsess about it on humid days like these, when the weather reminds me of the threat.

Perched on the floor of her Ditmas Park living room, with clouds gathering outside the expansive windows and a grid of bright, framed children’s artwork peering down at her, novelist Helen Phillips relays a similar maternal horror story. “One night,” she says in a measured voice, “when [my husband] Adam was out somewhere, I was home with my daughter. She was a few months old. I was naked and I was nursing her, and I thought I heard someone in the other room.” Phillips paused, terrified, unsure of how to protect herself from the amorphous threat.

“What would I do if someone came into the apartment right now?” she wondered. There was, luckily, no intruder, “just this animal vulnerability. I got this shiver through me and then I was like, I have to write about that.”

The fruit of that fear is The Need, her poison dart of a sophomore novel. If her surrealistic, critically adored debut, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, traces those scary, uncertain years of your mid-20s, when stray dollar bills sustain days’ worth of cup-ramen dinners, The Need is a horror story about what comes next — the unrelenting, paranoiac emotional undertow that accompanies parenthood. It’s also a story about how mothers find themselves split into two selves: the one who yearns to break free, and the one whose eyes sweep every crevice for danger, and can’t imagine being parted from her child for a single second.

From the novel’s very first moment, we’re shoved into the dark with Molly, a paleobotanist. Her husband, David, a musician, is away touring, while she’s home alone with her two small children, 4-year-old Vivian and baby Ben. She crouches in her bedroom, holding both children, attempting to determine if she really heard footsteps. She’s afraid a malicious force has entered her home, and simultaneously worried one hasn’t. What does it mean if we hear things that aren’t there?

The novel, which author Emily St. John Mandel calls “a page-turner [but] really elegantly written,” plays a cat-and-mouse game with us for 14, tiny, precise chapters. Molly is hunting for a weapon when, suddenly, the lid of their toy chest–cum–coffee table rises up, and a deer head — a papier-mâché mask David constructed as a silly birthday gift for Molly — emerges, attached to a body clad in a black turtleneck, a black hoodie, and black pants. The intruder, whom Molly assumes to be a “small, slim man,” lures her out of the house after the kids have gone to bed, and removes the deer head. “She found herself,” Phillips writes, “face to face with herself.” It’s another Molly, who calls herself “Moll.” “The same uneven eyebrows and recently emerged wrinkles on the forehead … the angle of the nose; the placement of the mole on the cheek … She stared at her self and her self stared at her.”

The Need is a thriller, and it isn’t. It’s a novel Shirley Jackson might write if she’d dropped acid with Rivka Galchen. It has obvious ancestry in Dostoevsky’s The Double, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dorian Gray, though Phillips cites Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream as by the far the most influential text she considered while writing.

“Ultimately,” Phillips says, “what is scary about the book is the idea that when you bring life into the world, something can happen to that life that you’ve brought into the world.”

Molly is a doppelgänger of sorts for Phillips herself. Every day, she dresses in a uniform just like the one Moll is wearing when she rises up in the deer head: black jeans, a black shirt, and big, geometric earrings to set off her head, bald from alopecia.

Phillips doesn’t shy away from connecting her own life to her characters’. “Isn’t all fiction auto-fiction in a sense?” she asks as we pick through her zealously organized tea drawer and sit down at her kitchen table. When she speaks, Phillips projects an air of unflappability. Because of her alopecia, she doesn’t have eyelashes. Women usually curl and lacquer them to “open up” their eyes, but her hairless lids do the job better than mascara might. She’s always, it seems, fully open. “Fiction and speculative fiction, and thriller, and sci-fi,” she continues, fixing me with her blue-green eyes, “are ways of distancing [my life] from me so that I can explore it and understand it better.”

The second of four children, Phillips’s childhood had unusual parameters. Her sister, Katherine, to whom she’s dedicated this book, suddenly began sliding developmentally backward after her first birthday. It wasn’t until Katherine was 7 (and Helen was about 5) that she was diagnosed with Rett syndrome, a rare neurological disorder found almost exclusively in girls that manifests as a near-complete shutdown of bodily, and often cognitive, autonomy. With Katherine, Phillips explains as she sits cross-legged on her living room floor, “It’s not even like you could say, ‘Blink once for yes.’ You couldn’t have that level of communication. She could definitely smile … Sometimes she would cry out or cry, but whether that was a physical or an emotional or psychological pain, there was no way to know. That’s a hard thing — to not really know what someone’s experience is.”

Then, at age 11, Phillips learned she had alopecia, an autoimmune condition that can lead to complete hair loss, a trauma that made her “really feel like a freak in those years.” She began writing a poem a day. Phillips was so dedicated to the task, she kept it up until she turned 21. “I would write poems about being bald, and I would write poems about my sister and my family,” she recalls. “It was a way of processing everything.”

Growing up, her home was host to hundreds of volunteers — other mothers, in a sense — who came to work with and care for Katherine over the years. They came “eight hours a day, seven days a week,” and engaged in an exercise called patterning, which is “moving the child’s body through these different patterns in the hopes that it will train their brains so that they can make up the lost ground.” Katherine was eventually moved to a facility close to their home. She died in 2012, weeks after Phillips gave birth to her first child, and just as the idea for The Need was taking root. The duality of siblings is what led her to write Molly as a mother of two instead of one. “Your sibling,” she says, “is kind of a doppelgänger of you. They’re both your pal and your nemesis. You are competing for the same attention.” To move into the novel at that particular moment in her life gave her a “sense of standing at this portal of life and death.”

Katherine is the only subject that brings Phillips to tears in the time we talk. “I was the lucky one,” she says. “I could have been her. If we’re talking about different possible lives, I mean, mine’s been with me always.”

Phillips used to joke that motherhood was her good-luck charm. In the seven years since her daughter was born, she’s published four books — two novels, a book for young readers, and one collections of short stories.* Her labor music — Brian Eno’s Music for Airports — quite literally turned into her writing music.

Success wasn’t instantaneous, however. She and her husband, the artist and cartoonist Adam Douglas Thompson, moved to Brooklyn in 2004,* and stepped tentatively into life as a creative couple forced to take on noncreative work. Both worked as “mystery reviewers” for bars and restaurants, but were ultimately fired for writing “glowing” reviews. Yale college sweethearts, they married “exceptionally young” at 25, and landed an apartment at the unheard-of rent of $950 a month. Their lives changed in 2009, when Phillips won the Rona Jaffe Award, a $30,000 grant for emerging female writers. From there, they launched themselves into adulthood. Now 37, they live in a sunny walk-up one block from Prospect Park that is Scandi-bright and unthinkably tidy for a tiny space that houses two adults and two boisterous children.

Thompson, who is long and lean with a thick, questioning brow, describes Phillips as “uncommonly disciplined.” Her debut, the 2011 short-story collection And Yet They Were Happy, is a series of interconnected fables and miniatures that was conceived as a writing exercise: Could she limit herself to a single sheet of paper for each individual tale? (“There is power in limitation,” she says.) Phillips returned to work right after her first child’s birth, writing every day for 15 minutes, no exceptions. She stripped The Beautiful Bureaucrat down to half* of its original size after her agent “helpfully” panned the first draft, then had the spark of an idea for The Need, gave birth to their second child, and continued teaching creative writing at Brooklyn College. “She turns her emotional turbulence into more forward motion,” Thompson explains.

The bidding war around The Need — which eventually resulted in a nine-house, weeklong auction and a lucrative sale to Simon & Schuster — turned Phillips into the family’s primary breadwinner. As a result of the book’s success, Phillips says, Thompson is able to rent a studio. It’s secured them, at least for now, financial stability.

If some writers create fiction to act out their alternative selves, Phillips identifies how such an act can cleave a writer into two fully formed beings — one fed creatively by her children, the other stifled by them. Without her kids — whose ages and genders match those of Molly’s children — there would be no The Need. With them, the act of writing becomes incalculably more difficult. The novel’s form — short, fast-paced chapters that pile up one disaster after another — functions as a metaphor for parenting itself. Phillips mostly wrote in one-hour bursts (she sets a timer) in between parenting and teaching duties. The novel is a fantasy and a nightmare of what might happen when we see our (parenting) selves objectively.

When Molly comes face-to-face with her doppelgänger, panic storms her at every moment. Moll, she learns, has her own tragic genesis story and explanation for emerging in Molly’s life. She wants, to Molly’s horror, to share Viv and Ben. Moll sees this as reclaiming what’s hers. For Molly, it’s practically an abduction, an eradication of the self. The pair begin a minuet, with Moll inching slowly into Molly’s space, and Molly desperately twirling away from and then back toward her partner.

Motherhood as horror isn’t a new genre, but The Need sends it to a new place. For the most part, it’s been dominated by tales of devilish babes that send mothers screaming. For Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the author’s own history of child loss — four of her five children died in infancy, including her first baby — no doubt played a role in the story’s own genesis. One hundred and fifty years later, Rosemary’s Baby, with its depiction of a woman stunned to discover the devil himself inseminated her, reinvigorated the genre just as baby boomers entered their own age of parenting. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, published at the dawn of America’s school-shooting epidemic, Eva Khatchadourian wonders if it is her own indifference to parenting that turns the titular Kevin into a mass murderer. More recently, in the title story of Karen Russell’s short-fiction collection, Orange World, evil is an unshakeable sidekick, accompanying a baby into the world. An expectant mother strikes a bargain with the devil: she will breastfeed it in exchange for the health of her child.

Russell describes Phillips’s book as a “totally new vernacular” for the experience of motherhood. “She found some way to activate these primal anxieties,” she says. “You do sort of feel, on any given Wednesday, there’s a shadow story connected to the day you’re living.” With The Need, rather than deliver a blackhearted child, Phillips plays with the terror of encountering your parent-self. Not unlike Jordan Peele’s horror film, Us, as Molly comes to terms with Moll’s presence, we slowly begin to wonder which woman, if either, is the villain. I bring up the Bible story of King Solomon and the two mothers, which shows up in its entirety in The Need. In the tale, two mothers who live in the same house show up to seek the king’s wisdom: One baby has just been smothered, and each claims the living baby as her own. Solomon says, “Bring me a sword … Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.” One mother offers the baby to the other, but the second encourages Solomon to split it in two. He gives the baby to the first woman, who, he says, is obviously the child’s real parent.

Phillips has unexpected sympathy for the second mother. “Remember,” she says, “that woman is wild with grief. We never think of that. She seems like a villain, but in fact she’s just lost her infant.”

When I ask what kind of mother Phillips sees Molly as, she says, “A human one.” A good mother, “who is in a tough situation. It’s straining her along every vector, physical, emotional, intellectual.” We’re standing in front of a wall of her children’s art, and she points to a crayon sketch of mother and daughter. It’s an uncanny depiction of Phillips, dressed in all black, no hair, with the hint of technicolor squares dangling from her ears. “I just adore this,” she says. She stares at the woman, and the woman stares at her.

*Three small errors have been corrected: Phillips and her husband moved to Brooklyn in 2004, not 2006; she’s published four (not five) books since her daughter was born; and she trimmed The Beautiful Bureaucrat to half, not one third, of its original size.

What Is Scarier Than Motherhood?