dr-don-carvethSKYLIGHT: A Window Into Guilt
By Nicole Stamp, in conversation with Dr. Donald L. Carveth


David Hare’s critically-acclaimed 1999 play Skylight tells the story of Tom and Kyra, reunited several years after the painful end of their secret love affair. Both struggle against guilt, and their parallel torments are manifested in ways that reflect their diametrically-opposed political worldviews. A 2015 Broadway production starring Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan was nominated for seven Tony awards, suggesting that audiences are still connecting with this narrative about the destructive consequences of guilt.

In fact, guilt and shame are hot topics all over these days: researcher and author Dr. Brené Brown gave a brilliant TED Talk on vulnerability, in which she describes her own experiences with shame. With over 25 million views, Brown’s is one of the top-5 TED Talks of all time. Brown’s view is that, “there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done, or failed to do, up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful belief that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior.”

It’s arguable that Toronto’s resident expert on guilt is Dr. Donald L. Carveth, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Social and Political Thought at York University, registered psychotherapist, and author of “The Still Small Voice; Psychoanalytic Reflections on Guilt and Conscience.” Don views Skylight as a skilled study of the effects of guilt.

I sat down with Don to discuss the play, literally on his comfortable therapy couch. He occupied his own seat of analysis, a sturdy armchair tucked, appropriately, below a large portrait of Freud.

Nicole Stamp: Don, how do guilt and shame figure into your practice? 

Donald L. Carveth: Majorly! I wrote the book because the themes of guilt and shame just became so central to the work that I do with patients. With symptoms like anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, often people are directing aggression at themselves because they feel guilty about something that they may not even consciously know they’re guilty about. 

Do you identify a difference between guilt and shame? 

Yes I do. There are two main types of guilt: The first is punitive guilt, in which “I’m whipping myself”, and that’s almost indistinguishable from shame, which is a narcissistic emotion. In shame, my mind is entirely on myself. We often think of selfishness or narcissism as focusing on “how great I am” but it’s equally narcissistic to be going on all the time about how terrible you are. Shame is self-persecution. It’s a horrible feeling. You beat yourself up, and once in a while, in order to stop beating yourself up, you beat somebody else up- that’s the scapegoat mechanism. When I’m depressed, my superego has me in its crosshairs, but if I can shift someone else into its crosshairs: “That guy over there is the sinner, let’s attack him instead of attacking me.” People can get relief from depression by targeting somebody else. All of this is destructive guilt.

But there’s another kind of guilt altogether, which is reparative guilt: your mind is not on yourself, it’s on the person you’ve injured. The move into reparative guilt is a move out of narcissism. We get our minds off ourselves long enough to actually see the harm we’ve done to others, and to be concerned about them, and to want to do something to make it right.

The example I use is, “I’ve injured someone, and he’s bleeding in the corner. With persecutory guilt or shame, I’m flagellating, I’m such a terrible person.” But that’s useless to the guy who’s bleeding. If I put down the cat-o-nine tails, go get the first aid kit, and start bandaging- that’s reparative guilt.

So guilt can lead to better behaviour. 

Yes. Now I make a distinction between the conscience and the superego. The superego is the inner, moralistic, hanging-judge torturer. Superego is about aggression turned on the self and sometimes on scapegoats.

Conscience is quite separate. Conscience is grounded in love, is grounded in concern. You give love, because you were cared for, and you know you have an obligation to give care back. When you’re out of sync with your conscience, or doing something wrong, Conscience bothers you. By contrast, the superego tortures you- the superego’s attitude is, “OK I caught you in wrongdoing, good. Now I can do what I like to do, which is beat the shit out you.” Conscience doesn’t react that way. The conscience is saddened by the fact that you’re doing wrong. It encourages you to turn around and do right, it calls you to contrition and pulls you to apology and to reparative action, and that is useful guilt.

I like that. Let’s talk about Skylight.

As background: Kyra worked in Tom’s restaurant, and they had an affair while Tom was married to Alice. Kyra was very close to the family, including Alice and Tom’s son, Edward. After six years, Alice discovered the affair, and Kyra abruptly removed herself from their lives. Tom’s relationship with Alice never recovered; Alice became ill and died. Kyra has now moved to a low-income neighbourhood and taken a job teaching very difficult students. Skylight shows us Tom’s and Kyra’s first meeting, 3 years after the end of their affair.

What do you observe in the characters?

My reactions to the play deepened every time I read it. On the first read, you’re very aware of what a bombastic narcissistic character Tom is; and he’s also a symbol, and a critique, of Thatcher’s neoliberal market fundamentalism nonsense. He’s likeable, intelligent, charming, energetic, but he’s easy to identify as a narcissist and a coward. When the wife he’s been unfaithful to is dying, his act of reparation is to throw money, which is nothing to him; he builds her a house, but he can’t face her.

My initial tendency was to see Kyra as a bit of a victim of this narcissistic male, but I think she’s pretty guilty in her own way. She felt fine sleeping with her friend Alice’s husband as long as Alice didn’t know. So now, Kyra’s freezing in this tiny, shoddy apartment, a little bit like she’s sent herself to jail– Tom calls it Siberia. But she would not have to continue in this bread-and-water prison if she came consciously to terms with her guilt. If she did that, she could get over it. So she’s paying a big price for her failure to acknowledge her guilt. And now she’s unconsciously making reparation for her sins by becoming a devoted teacher.

And yet, after Alice discovered the affair, Kyra had 3 years to make true reparations before Alice’s death, but instead, she vanished.

And now, her first words to Tom after a 3-year separation– she doesn’t even say hello- she says, “I’m not guilty.” 

Exactly! She’s making a joke, but as you say, it’s the first thing that comes out of her mouth, which indicates how guilty she really is.

Let’s talk about the relationship between Tom and his teenaged son, Edward.

Edward, the son, observed the father’s cowardice and desertion of the dying mother, so he holds up a mirror. If Tom looks at himself in his son’s eyes, he’s hit with guilt, so he’s hostile to the son, describes him as a total shit, which doesn’t come across at all in the play- he’s a nice young kid- but the father really devalues him. The play shows the damage done to the children by narcissistic parents, in this case particularly by the narcissistic father.

Nietzsche’s famous aphorism was, “the one thing a person can never forgive you for is for having helped them out in a time of need”, and I think this really applies to narcissistic people. Pathological narcissists are grandiose, arrogant, self-obsessed- because deeply buried, deep down, is intense shame and an intense sense of inferiority. Skilled narcissists have ironclad defenses against their feelings of inadequacy, and if they’re talented, they can get constant applause and avoid the underlying inferiority- but in nightmare moments, they’ll get to it. Something will happen–

—their infidelity will be discovered—

Exactly. But they usually get the defenses back very quickly. Except as they age! Aging narcissists—that’s a nightmare. My mentor once said to me, “Don, you want to know the secret of aging? It’s loss, and it’s loss and it’s more loss.” Narcissists can’t stand losing. But when you start losing your powers, your potency, your vision, getting aches and pains, and you’re not the stud anymore… then the underlying inferiority feelings start coming up. So aging is a nightmare for a guy like Tom.

And there’s another factor: his company went public, and now he’s got a Chairman of a Board to report to; he suddenly has a boss, and just drips contempt towards him. That’s another way his life has taken a turn for the worse.

Now, Tom’s still only 50, he’s got energy and he’s able to stay away from those feelings… But the fact that his son saw his weakness, his cowardice, is something that he just can’t stand, so he can’t stand his son.

I think it’s significant how their affair was discovered. Kyra is a reserved person who keeps her feelings close to her chest, but during their affair, she did write a series of love letters to Tom. She says, “in those letters, I gave you my heart…”

Yes, and she told him to burn them…

Right, and don’t ever let Alice find them. And what does Tom do? He leaves them where Alice is guaranteed to find them. Throughout history we see this repeated pattern of people engaging in behavior that can jeopardize their entire life, like a politician having a sordid affair. It’s almost like they’re asking to be discovered.

Absolutely, and I think unconsciously they are asking to be discovered. You know, certain police will tell you that criminals catch themselves.

Yes! They come back to the scene of the crime…

They leave clues. So Tom’s not consciously feeling guilt, but on some level he knows that cheating is wrong behavior. It’s the superego at work- again, not exactly a conscience- it’s more like a hanging judge. It’s a stern, critical part of the self. Tom’s good at gagging it, but in the dark of night, it gets its pitchfork into you, so you feel guilty on that deeply unconscious level, and that translates into a need to get punished.

You see it in childhood. The kid knows he’s not allowed to have cookies before dinner, but when no one’s around, he helps himself… and now he’s anxious. He might even confess! And then he can relax, after he’s gotten the punishment that he feels he deserves. People are constantly getting themselves caught for this kind of reason, and I certainly think that’s what’s happening with Tom. He arranged to get caught because he needed to get punished.

Let’s talk about Kyra’s reparative tactics in the face of guilt. She takes a job teaching in a school with some vicious students– the previous teacher’s cat was cruelly murdered– and when Edward asks her, “Do you like it?” She says, “Well no, I don’t exactly like it- but I do feel stretched, and I think that if I didn’t do this work nobody else would.” 

At some points, when Kyra talks about her students and her neighborhood, David Hare’s choice of language is notable. For instance, she says social workers, “clear out society’s drains,” and “clear out the rubbish”. One way to read these statements is to infer that Kyra feels subconscious contempt for the people around her, even as she tries to walk among them, in which case, her motives for doing this work may not be entirely selfless. 

Modern social work as a profession has bent over backwards to distance itself from the social work of say, the early 20th century, which was like “Lady Bountiful” holding her nose with her white gloves, going into slums and giving to the poor and feeling better about it.

Yes, and that’s paternalistic and it’s narcissistic. It’s not about the people you’re helping. It’s about creating a dynamic in which they depend on you, and thank you– 

Yes, and you get to pat yourself on the back for your generosity. That language is significant; in some ways she may be looking down on these people and using them as part of her project of atonement. Hare hasn’t made it clear how conscious her guilt is. I don’t know whether she’s saying to herself, “How could I have betrayed Alice, how horrible, how unconscionable…” It’s not in the book! So the fact that she’s not saying that to herself, means that it’s unconscious. She has to feel that guilt; she’s so intelligent, but she’s keeping it unconscious, so now she’s using this lifestyle to punish herself.

I will say that even though I cringe at some of the language that Kyra uses to describe the people that she works with, I’d take her brand of somewhat paternalistic reparation over Tom’s self-interested, contemptuous capitalism, any day! 

Totally. She’s doing useful things. What’s Tom doing? He’s just doing what he always did- making money, bossing people around. But Tom sees Kyra clearly! He accuses her of exactly that, self-flagellating, and he’s right in his assessment. That’s part of what you sort of have to admire in a guy like Tom. Sure he’s this bombastic narcissist but he’s really intelligent and he speaks some truth–

Yes! He speaks truth to her, and she speaks truth back to him. They each see through each other in a heartbeat, which speaks to their chemistry, but they’re both completely self-deceived about their own behavior, which I think is really funny, I mean who hasn’t been in a relationship like that. 

Now, as a therapist, what would you recommend for someone in a position like Kyra’s? The person she’s wronged is now dead, and she can’t ever apologize. What are healthy ways of dealing with those feelings?

You have you have to find symbolic ways that you can actually make reparation. I had a PhD supervisor who was very good to me. After I got my PhD I got busy, hustling my own career, and once I did a thing on TV, and he saw it and he phoned me, and I said, ”When I get back to Toronto we’ll get together.” But I got busy again, and then when I finally called, I got his widow. So, a year or so later I met another man, also older than me, who was very good to me. And so here was an opportunity to make reparation. I can’t make reparation to that man, but I’m going to be very careful to be very good and available with this other man. So that’s what you have to do. I mean you have to find someone else in need, or some symbolic way, to make reparation.

Right. In Kyra’s case, what are some things she could do to assuage her guilt, to deal with it in a healthy way?

Ok well… I’m a therapist, so the first element-

(laughing) Come to therapy!

Exactly! (laughs) But whether you do it at therapy, or whether you do it with a priest or a friend or with yourself– you have to become conscious of your guilt. I don’t think that you can make genuine reparation until you first have confessed, fully, to yourself.

Kyra has to look in the mirror and say, “What I did to Alice was horrific.” And she has to feel that guilt, and she has to become contrite. Because you see, genuine reparation is not warding off guilt feeling. The guilt feeling is there, and it’s felt, and it’s acknowledged, and then the reparation is a way of getting past it. It’s not a way of going around it: it’s a way of going through it and then moving past it

If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.

Exactly. There can be a lot of creative things that you can do in a reparative way… but only after you’ve first faced and worked through the guilt. And she’s not doing that. She’s kind of repairing for a crime which she’s not even fully acknowledging having committed.

What do you think Skylight says about the function of guilt in the modern world?

Well, Freud got this backwards because he didn’t distinguish these two kinds of guilt. He thought that in order to have a civilized society, we have to suppress our dark side, our sexuality, our aggressive self, but the price of pushing all of that down, is increasing levels of guilt. So he thought that civilized society led to this buildup of guilt, and he felt that what we need in society is less guilt. But the only guilt he was looking at was punitive guilt.

What Freud didn’t understand is that in civilized society we need much more guilt– of the reparative kind. The problem in society is that we’re not guilty enough. There’s too much beating ourselves up, or others as scapegoats, but we don’t have enough of taking responsibility, acknowledging our faults, and getting busy to overcome our faults and make reparation for them. That’s something we need a lot more of.

In some cases, that’s actually how I measure progress in therapy. Well, first let me say that there are some situations where the guilt that the patient brings in really belongs to someone else who has projected it into them. That’s a different story. But in many cases, people come in and they’re torturing themselves in one way or another, and they don’t even know why. In the course of therapy, they discover why they’re torturing themselves, and they stop. They begin to feel consciously guilty about the harm they’ve done to other people, and they start to make reparation for the harm, and now they’re starting to feel better about themselves, and their self-esteem is rising. In other words, they are beginning to win their own self-respect. And that’s the only way out of this type of psychological problem: to earn your own self-respect, and to start acting in changed ways. For some people, that is the course of a good therapy.

That’s really interesting.

Well, you know, the only way we as analysts get to be able to analyze someone else is to clock years on the couch ourselves. Freud advised us to go back into analysis every five years, and some of us do that–

Do you?

Oh yeah! You can’t see the back of your own head. You could spend your whole life in analysis and never get to the bottom of the unconscious, because we can’t see ourselves entirely. We need someone else to mirror ourselves back to us.

On that topic, your partner is also an analyst. Can you talk about your marriage?

When we met and she showed me her library, the two of us almost fell over because 95% of the books that were in her library are in my library; we’d read the same damn books, so we see very much eye to eye. She’s trained in a slightly different school of thought, so we have differences, and they spark a lot of interesting dialogue. But you know, analysis for us is work, and we like to get paid! So we’re not constantly analyzing one another or other people; you do it as a profession, you don’t do it all the time.

Overall it’s very helpful because we believe in, and we practice, The Talking Cure. When little things go wrong between us, we talk it out. It may take a few days of avoidance to get around to it, but eventually we sit down and we put it all into words, and we lay it out as best we can and try to resolve it through talk.

I like to imagine what dinner looks like. (Laughter)

Oh– I wanted to mention this quotation from a Yeats poem at the beginning of the play:

“We had fed the heart on fantasies; the heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”

So here, Kyra and Tom had the illusion that they could help themselves to this fantasy of pleasure and that it wouldn’t hurt anyone as long as they kept it secret. Well that is a total illusion, because ultimately there are no secrets. Even in physics, scientists say everything connects. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon; it affects the weather in Toronto. People have this illusion that there is a hiding place, but it all comes out, and it affects us. Tom and Kyra are maintaining this illusion that their affair is not hurtful, and so…

…the heart has grown brutal as a result.

Repressed guilt and shame are toxic. It’s not the guilt and shame themselves that have a toxic effect, it’s the repression of them, the avoidance of them. So I think it’s a perfect epigraph for the play. Illusions are hard to see through– that’s why we need other people who see us better than we can see ourselves.

(laughing) You should know.

(laughing) Well, it works both ways! One of the great things about doing this work is that the patient sees me as well. When you work with patients intensively for a long period of time, they get to see your weak spots, biases, blind spots… and they tell you about it!

Oh! Can you tell me some of the things they’ve called out?

Sure! One said, “You know, Don, when they called it a Talking Cure, they meant the patient talks!” (laughing)

(laughing) How does that feel?

Well, sometimes… (laughs). But really, I like it, because they’re teaching me something. You know, sometimes I’m clumsy, sometimes I’m arrogant, sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes I’m sleepy, and the patient is going to tell me the ways in which I’m not perfect!

But I’m also getting real gratitude. Sometimes people will thank me with tears in their eyes, and this makes me feel very good. And you don’t get the good without the other side of it. It’s a very deep kind of connectedness with other people, and it’s very gratifying work.

Why did you become an analyst?

When I was younger, I was unhappy, I was self-punishing by getting depressed, by not letting myself be as successful as I otherwise could- and by not being able to write my doctoral dissertation! So I started analysis, because I knew that there was something wrong with me. I had done all of the trendy therapies- this was the sixties- but it was useless. And so, my very first psychiatrist—when I fired him—said, “Consider psychoanalysis.” And I said, “What, they still do that thing with the couch?” But within a matter of weeks I knew this was the therapy for me. I started to change, overcame the writer’s block, wrote the PhD, got the PhD and a tenure-track position, and I started publishing. And as soon as I got tenure, I applied to train as an analyst, and I’ve been practicing ever since. But it started out with a need to deal with my own personal issues, and only then did it turn into a career.

As someone who’s read the play several times, and as someone who has professional insights about its themes- what do you think audiences will take away from Skylight?

I think the audience will be quite moved, and they’ll be shaken. But also entertained. The dialogue is incredibly amusing; some of Tom’s diatribes are hilarious, and Kyra has such a dry, acerbic wit- this is a play that should really be enjoyed. But it’s going to shake people as well. I look forward to seeing it.


This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.