an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 14, Winter 2017/2018, ISSN 1552-5112


Carol Gilligan’s Kyra: Myth, Psychotherapy and Relationship



Muriel Lederman





In the beginning of her germinal study In a Different Voice (1982), Carol Gilligan, an icon of feminist psychology, says that her work is concerned with male and female voices within relationships as portrayed in psychological and literary texts. If turnabout is fair play, it is appropriate to investigate relationships and voices in her novel Kyra (2009). This essay will show how its plot is grounded in the themes that Gilligan has advanced over a lifetime of scholarship, research, and non-fiction writing, especially her critique of psychotherapy and the connection between inside and outside. This analysis will also invoke the myths of Dido and Aeneas and Cupid and Psyche, stories that Gilligan uses to place her work in context. These are tales that we use to inscribe and proscribe the human condition, which reveal the structural and psychological bases of the novel.



The central character in Kyra is a 30-ish architect, on faculty at the Harvard School of Design and without obvious credentials, who lives with her sister Anna, a psychotherapist. The novel tells the story of her relationship with Andreas, a mittel-European opera director.  When they meet in Cambridge, they are described as “ . . . exiles, strangers in this city, the desperation of Europe in (their) blood” (2009, p. 40). The remnants and reminders of their previous marriages resonate throughout their affair, coloring its course, leading eventually to its foundering.

Kyra and her sister, her only close relative, seem disengaged from the world outside their professional duties, perhaps as a withdrawal or refuge from their family’s having been inadvertently enmeshed in military conflict. Her parents, refugees from the continent during World War II, met on Cyprus, but instead of finding peace, are caught up in the Greek-Cypriot wars. By that time, Kyra has married, but tensions between her half-brother Anton and the rest of the family, fueled by fascist politics, turn deadly, and Anton murders Kyra’s husband Simon. Afterwards, her reality was “(N)o touching, no leaning on one another. It was more or less how I had been living since Simon was killed” (2009, p. 5).

Her career is likely something of a prison and may well have been even if Simon had not perished. He, too, was an architect and their shared ideal of a socially just architecture may not have come to fruition for Kyra: her aunt tells her that her mother was wary of her marrying Simon, concerned that he would repress her talent and drive. Only after reflection does Kyra realize the validity of her mother’s fears, “Here’s what I didn’t let myself admit. That it wasn’t perfect. He wanted many children. I needed to do my work. He would say, it won’t be a problem. I receded into myself. And then he died” (2009, p.196). She looks to the relationship with Andreas as a way to avoid these hangovers from her previous reality, as “the possibility of love and freedom” (2009, p. 114). When he leaves, she finds that “Simon’s spirit returned” (2009, p. 101), and she reverts to her previous restricted existence.

Andreas, too, has lost his spouse; his wife Irina, an opera singer, is presumed dead at the hands of the Russians as they occupied Hungary. When she disappears, he, his father, and his son Jesse flee to England, fearing for their lives.  Andreas’ directing operas is likely a memorial to his collaboration with his wife; ironically, perhaps, while courting Kyra, he asks her to design the sets for a deconstructed version of Verdi’s Tosca, whose heroine is an opera singer. His work, the memories inherent in it, and the responsibility of caring for his son and father, may limit his ability to be emotionally engaged fully with Kyra. He leaves her for an opportunity to start his own company in Hungary, where he can fulfill “the ambition I had to do opera in a way that would change how people saw” (2009, p. 214).

The breakup causes Kyra to cut herself (attempt suicide?); she then enters into a psychotherapeutic relationship with Greta Blau, and challenges the structure of the process itself. In the end, the future of the liaison between Kyra and Andreas is ambiguous.



A contrast between inside and outside is introduced early in Kyra. In a public lecture, she and her sister Anna apply this tension to their respective fields, Kyra stating that the change from the Romanesque cathedral with closed walls to the Gothic cathedral with openings filled with windows shows that “The form of the building is essential to the religious experience. . . this new structure allows the Divine to enter the material world, creating an interchange between the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside.’” (2009, p. 27). Anna says that there is a similar exchange in the “inner and outer structures of human life…the psyche is porous, permeable in a constant relationship with the world” (2009, p. 26-27).

Both sisters suggest that these exchanges are grounded in women. Is there a clue here . . . in the link between Gothic architecture and the cult of Mary on the other hand and psychoanalysis and the study of hysterical women on the other? Had a new spiritual or psychological connection with women spurred a new understanding of the relationship between inner and outer worlds? . . . Does the exploration of the seen and the felt presence hinge on men coming into a new spiritual or psychological relationship with women? . . . The change in architecture has come out of “a new relationship with women, the cult of Mary, notre dame, (a)s psychoanalysis would come from the study of hysteria, Anna O. (2009, p. 28)1

On Nashawena, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, Kyra has been given free rein to create her vision of living and public spaces. Referencing the woman-ruled civilization that favored art and commerce, the project is called New Carthage by its patron. Later, at a lecture in Vienna describing her goals for the physical structure of the installation, she says that she wishes to create:


. . . spaces that would encourage peoples’ aspirations without linking ambition to being at the top. Structures and materials that would challenge conventions of control and authority by evoking an experience of life as fluid, flowing from one person to another, one activity to another (2009, p. 192).


This description of New Carthage reiterates standard feminist grievances about patriarchal hierarchies but more importantly, repeats the sisters’ analysis of architectural change and echoes the connection between inside and outside. Kyra credits the Akha people of Thailand as inspiration since they “believe, like the builders of the Gothic cathedrals, that the spiritual world infuses the material world” (2008, p. 191).

Inside/outside is a thread in the novel in more than one sense and relates directly to Gilligan’s work on women’s psychological development. In In A Different Voice (1982) Gilligan and her collaborators conclude that the authentic female voice becomes interiorized and hidden at adolescence: “Women come to question the normality of their feelings and to alter their judgments in deference to the opinion of others” (1982, p. 16). This dissociation causes the inability to reconcile the inner (authentic) voice with the outer voice required to “fit in” in the world. The linkage between inside and outside is ruptured, resulting in an unhealthy influence on the connection between men and women. In other words, “Without voice, there is no relationship” (2002, p. 229). This rupture can also be considered a “leaving,” paralleling the separation that occurs at the end of a psychiatric relationship.



     The centrality of “voice” and its link to relationships in Gilligan’s works suggests that it would be fruitful to examine the “voices” of the main characters in the novel in light of their relationships. Here, voice will mean both what the individual feels and what they express to the world. Gilligan’s research showed that ongoing continuity between the inner and outer realms is not guaranteed; for women, their internal voices become muted (2002, p. 29). In adolescence, girls often discover that if they give voice to vital parts of themselves, their pleasure and their knowledge, they will endanger their connections with others and with the world at large. The inherent “spunkiness” of young boys, their sense of adventure, their outgoing nature, along with their tenderness, similarly become restricted to fit prescribed modes of behavior (2002, p. 69). Analyzing the voices of Kyra’s protagonists will show that the novelist has (consciously or not) structured their relationships to reflect her perception of voices and gender dynamics in current society.



     Kyra is the primary narrator of the novel.  Her external, professional voice is somewhat flat, that of an academic, explaining her work in ways that are perceived by her audiences to be successful. After the lecture with her sister on architecture and psychology, a colleague says “…The artist’s task is to state the problem correctly and you did that brilliantly” (2009, p. 29). Andreas says of her talk in Vienna “It was riveting. My attention never wandered, and the slides were just right. The talk was beautifully crafted” (2009, p. 195).

After her relationship with Andreas is established, Kyra’s inner voice is rich and seductive, giving the novel an aura of lushness, sexuality and warmth. In one sense, the book is the ultimate female academic’s romance novel, suggested by the line, “You can’t love a man unless you love his work” (2009, p. 38). Nevertheless, Kyra is also capable of anger. She feels betrayed by her therapist’s referencing her in a public lecture – as well she might, as this could be a breach of professional ethics. She may also feel that her ideas about the faults in psychotherapy have been appropriated. She is angry at Andreas for leaving and especially for his not being able to articulate his reasons for doing so. In spite of her having lived so many years as an emotional recluse, the sparks of relationship and voice are still present.



Andreas’ voice is less obvious in the novel than Kyra’s. In the first three-quarters of the book, we hear Andreas in two ways - through Kyra’s descriptions and in letters he writes to her. As a director, he makes emotional connections between the libretto, the music and the psychology of the characters in Tosca, the kinds of connections that illuminate the plot of the opera and the genius of its creators. It is possible that Kyra fell in love with his work before she fell in love with him. (Similarly, Andreas says, “My wife, Irina, she was a singer, a soprano. Beautiful voice. I fell in love with her voice, and then with her.” [2009, p. 34]). Andreas can appreciate the freedom inherent in young children before the world imposes its restrictions: “I found myself thinking of Jesse, about this time with him. It had that quality, that openness to the world” (2009, p. 197). Sadly, he has boxed himself in, and cannot connect words and emotions in his relationship with Kyra. His ultimate abdication of voice is that he does not tell her directly when he decides to return to Europe: instead, she finds out about his incipient departure from a mutual friend.

He has little ability to articulate his feelings or imagine the consequences of his actions. The same common friend tells her “He couldn’t believe he would hurt you so terribly by leaving” (2009, p. 136). The first letter he wrote to Kyra after he left abruptly is emotionally inchoate: “I am past the point where I can accept your love under any terms other than permanently, and I am not at the point where I can accept it permanently” (2009, p. 101). In sum, at this point in the novel he appears emotionally stunted and immature.

The last quarter of the book is written in his voice, which is flat and displays little affect. Gilligan may be suggesting that men, too, are subject to constraints on expression. Nevertheless, he seems more in control than previously and more willing to let go of self-imposed restraints, more willing to be open to Kyra’s needs.



It is Anna who introduces “inside/outside” with respect to the psychological realm and it is she who embodies this connection, abandoning her work as a psychotherapist because it was constantly concerned with the leavings after inviting relationship, encouraging trust and working through the grief after its ending. . . “It makes no sense. That’s why I can’t do it any more” (2009, p. 131). She personally chooses the freedom that Kyra demands of her therapist Greta Blau, for both their sakes, and which eventually comes to fruition in a changed relationship.

In summary, these characters reflect different locations on Gilligan’s spectrum of emotional authenticity with respect to the relationship between inner and outer voices. For much of the book, Andreas is unable to break open, even though he seems desperately to want to do so. Kyra, on the other hand, is successful is challenging the patriarchy, using her professional voice in her work on Nashawena and a more private voice in her confrontation with the structure of psychotherapy. Anna represents one who has already achieved the goals they aspire to.



The heart of the novel is Kyra’s cutting her wrists after Andreas leaves her to start his own opera company in Europe. She takes a box of memoirs of her relationship with him to a hut on Nashawena, where she begins to burn his letters, catching her hair on fire. When she finds a knife used in the production of Tosca, she begins to cut her wrists. At first reading, it seems like an overly dramatic response to Andreas’ leaving, out of character for Kyra herself, since up until this time, she has been depicted as quite rational, except perhaps for her letting herself become deeply involved with Andreas. The act appears to be manufactured, a plot device, to be used as a springboard for introducing the problem Gilligan perceives with the structure of psychoanalysis.

The stated objective of the cutting is to see what is real. “I took the knife, I had to cut through the surface. I had to see inside, to see, to feel what was real” (2009, p. 115). “When you left in the way you did, everything I thought I knew, everything I had felt between us, knew in by body, suddenly made no sense. I didn’t know what was real” (2009, p. 196). It doesn’t seem clear how cutting her flesh will allow her to reach the “real,” which to her is defined as her relationship with Andreas being long-lasting.

Kyra hopes that the psychoanalytic relationship will disclose something “real,” just as she wished in her relationship with Andreas. Yet, she becomes dissatisfied. Even though her sister proposed that the entrée to humans’ psychological “inside” had been achieved through Freud’s breakthrough analysis of Anna O.’s hysteria, a different psychoanalytic structure to access that interior evolved later which constrains Kyra’s therapy. “The relationship is not a container for healing, but is in itself therapeutic. At least that’s the ideal. With the therapist, people enact the problems of the relationship that brought them into therapy, but if the therapy relationship itself is problematic, then therapy only compounds the problem” (2009, p. 27).

Kyra identifies the problem in the connection between analyst and analysand as reinscribing the incident that initiated the need for therapy. Since many crises result from a “leaving,” why does the therapeutic relationship also end in a leaving? Why does the therapy repeat the trauma? She asks Greta, “Why do you set up this situation, this structure, in the first place. Why set up a relationship with the ending built in? You’re asking women to buy this, but my question is, why have you bought it?” (2009, p. 154)

Greta responds to this challenge in a public lecture, whose content is brought to Kyra’s attention by a colleague2, by acknowledging the structural problems with psychotherapy. She says: “Living in this world, women have learned to adapt to structures not of their own making, and this adaptation has to be confronted and changed. . . Some action has to be taken in the arrangements to demonstrate to the woman that she has the power to change the situation in which she finds herself” (2009, p. 146). It is a mistake . . . “to separate therapy or the problems that bring people to therapy from the society or culture in which it is taking place. Ultimately the process of change has to extend beyond the individual and affect the family structures, the religious and political structures that are implicated in people’s suffering” (2009, p. 147).

When Kyra informs Greta that she has heard about the lecture, Greta discloses a traumatic incident in her professional life when she had to silence her own voice. Eventually, she offers to change the structure of their relationship, a revolutionary act. She and Kyra are to write their dreams to each other and comment upon them, sharing their voices from a realm in which they are unfettered by social conventions.

There is a chapter (“Free Association and the Grand Inquisitor”) in Joining the Resistance (2011) that gives Gilligan’s thoughts on the origin of the current structure of psychoanalysis. Her thesis is that Freud moved away from the insights he obtained from working with women, in part because this work “broke a cultural taboo . . . by forging a method of inquiry that placed him in direct opposition to the fundamental rule of patriarchy: the claim on the part of fathers to authority” (2011, p. 89). Freud’s new method, based in the Oedipus complex, puts Freud (or any analyst) in the position of interpreter, rather than privileging the voice of the patient. Thus Freud “aligned psychoanalysis with patriarchy, its inherent misogyny and its equation of the father’s voice with moral authority” (2011, p. 93). He has abandoned his connection with women to avoid the associated risk of appearing gullible, incompetent or intellectually naïve by his colleagues. Freud has left the voices of women behind – the leaving that occurs again and again in psychotherapy, repressing them in favor of an androcentric myth. This tension between women-centered work and the Oedipal view becomes inscribed in the structure of psychoanalysis, reinforcing social attitudes and structures.



Bill Moyers says in his introduction to The Power of Myth [s] “the remnants of all that ‘stuff’ (Greek myths) line the walls of our interior system of belief like shards of pottery in an archaeological site” (1988, p. xiv). In other words, human behavior is described in light of particular myths as well as being constrained by them in ways that may not be obvious. Since Gilligan uses myth to contextualize her work, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Kyra’s project on Nashawena is called New Carthage, as this city is central to two myths, the stories of Dido and Aeneas,  and that of Cupid and Psyche, and each story may be applied to Kyra - Dido and Aeneas because it inspired the basis of the plot, and Cupid and Psyche because of its centrality in Gilligan’s investigation of voices and relationships.



Gilligan states that the inspiration for the novel was reading a book review of a recent translation of the Aeneid by Robert Fitzgerald, specifically the portion concerning Dido and Aeneas (2009, p. 245). In the mythical tale, Aeneas leaves Dido, who is queen of Carthage, a woman-centered place of peace, arts and commerce, to fulfill his destiny by founding Rome, an androcentric warrior-state. In response, Dido, with her sister Anna (sic), build a funeral pyre upon which she kills herself by plunging onto a sword. Aeneas finds her in the underworld where, according to Gilligan, he says “I couldn’t believe I would hurt you so terribly by going and I do not understand” (2009, p. 245) This leads Gilligan to wonder how it is possible that, in the current world, “a sensitive, intelligent man not know the effects of his action on somebody who he really loved . . . how crazy for a woman in that situation where you feel somebody is deeply connected to you and loves you and acts as if there were no connection” (2009, p. 245).

It is clear how this version of the myth could be the basis for the novel’s plot. Kyra’s accidentally setting her hair on fire and cutting her wrists parallels Dido’s self-immolation. Aeneas’ abandoning Dido to fulfill his destiny, as ordained by the gods, parallels Andreas’ leaving Kyra to fulfill his dream of having his own opera company. That he chooses to create it in Europe rather than in the United States - “When I came back to Budapest after a summer in Nashawena, I felt I had no choice . . . I thought it was my fate to live here” (2009, p. 214) - in a place more like Rome than Kyra’s Carthage - suggests that he feels more comfortable in a patriarchal society. Andreas/(Aeneas) eventually admits that he did not foresee the effect of his leaving: “Before, I had said that I loved her more than anything, and then I had abandoned her. She couldn’t make sense of it. I hadn’t seen that” (2009, p. 223).



Another myth that has its origin in Carthage, the story of Psyche and Cupid, recorded in Metamorphosis or the Golden Ass by Apuleius, speaks to the inner psychological structure rather than the external aspects of the novel, to how myth preordains and constrains our actions. To paraphrase Gilligan’s synopsis of the tale in The Birth of Pleasure (2002), Psyche is the youngest and most beautiful of a king’s three daughters, more beautiful even than Venus. Since she has not married, her father consults the oracle Apollo, who prophesies that she is to be wed to a cruel monster; he then takes her to a wild place and leaves her to her fate. Meanwhile, Venus is concerned about being usurped and sends her son Cupid to have Psyche fall in love with the most dreadful of men, but he falls in love with her himself. Psyche’s sexual self is awakened by Cupid, who visits her at only night; he tells her that he will leave her if she tries to see him or to speak of their love.

     When Psyche becomes pregnant, her sisters encourage her to kill Cupid before he kills her and her unborn child, believing him to be the cruel monster. While preparing to cut off her lover’s head, she looks at him in the light and discovers she has been manipulated. She touches one of his arrows to her finger, but presses too hard and draws blood, falling in love with Cupid. He wakes, discovers that Psyche has seen him, and leaves, saying he is punishing her merely by leaving. Eventually, Cupid finds that the punishment he intended for Psyche is punishment for himself; he asks Jupiter to arrange a marriage in which they are equal and their love is not hedged by threats of leaving, and they eventually issue a daughter, Pleasure.

Gilligan believes so strongly in the importance of this tale to understanding female-male relationship dynamics that she has titled one of her books The Birth of Pleasure (2002). In this work, Gilligan uses the myth of Cupid and Psyche to examine Shakespearean plays, offer a close reading of the emotional shifts in the various versions of Anne Frank’s diary and contextualize the revelations exposed in several couples’ marital therapy. It would thus seem appropriate to analyze the relationship between Kyra and Andreas in light of this myth, with Kyra as Psyche and Andreas as Cupid.

In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, the rupture of the relationship is preordained, just as the ending of a psychoanalytic relationship. Cupid lays down the rules, proclaiming an end to their liaison if she looks at him. In the novel, in response to Kyra’s saying “I know about betrayal,” Andreas responds, “Then we both know to be careful” (2009, p. 85), likewise setting boundaries. Just as Psyche flouts Cupid’s rules, so does Kyra – her revolutionary act is demanding to speak in her authentic voice, wanting to know what is real in the relationship with Andreas.

If the voice of Anna O. was silenced by Freud and replaced with the Oedipus story, Gilligan believes that the voice of Psyche offers us a way to resurrect women’s voices. More broadly, “the tension between these two myths, the way in which one eclipses the other. . . offers us a way of locating our position in the historic struggle to end the contradiction between democracy and patriarchy. . . If the Psyche and Cupid myth is the polestar of democracy, the story that shows a way leading to freedom and to equality between men and women, the conditions for the birth of pleasure, the Oedipus tragedy is the lodestar of patriarchy” (2002, p. 226) Thus, Psyche offers a model for the re-envisioning the expression of voice, interpersonal relationships, psychotherapy and society as a whole.



     In Kyra, Carol Gilligan has distilled much of her life’s work in fictionalized form, even though she claims that her academic efforts haven’t influenced the novel (2009, p. 246). Writing fiction allows her to return to earlier, happier days “Having spent my undergraduate years immersed in Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Joyce, Faulkner and Woolf, I was taken aback by the readings we were assigned (in a clinical psychology program): journal articles and clinical cases where the banality of the descriptions of people and their lives were covered by an array of numbers, cloaked in what passed for objectivity and conveyed in a voice of expertise that veiled an attitude of superiority if not contempt” (2011, p. 79).

All of her work pivots around dissociation – the change in self-perception and loss of voice for girls as they transition to women, the loss of sensitivity of young boys as they become “masculine,” the loss of relationship at the conclusion of psychotherapy, the loss of women’s voices in Freudian psychoanalysis, (being replaced by the Oedipus complex), the attendant loss of connection between the psyche and the outside world (2002, p. 216). The dissociation is often caused by the shock of a leaving; a shock that is reinscribed over and over in the book: Kyra’s loss of her husband Simon by murder, Andreas’ loss of his wife Irina presumably by murder, Kyra’s loss of Andreas to his lack of perception, Kyra’s loss of trust in Greta Blau.

Kyra speaks specifically to two losses, that of the female voice in psychotherapy and the loss of Kyra’s relationship with Andreas. On a small scale, within her own therapeutic relationship, she is successful in challenging the former. It seems likely that she may regain a more permanent, if unconventional, liaison with Andreas. The myths referenced here are Gilligan’s way to metaphorically address the interplay between the external and internal realms and the losses and gains as humans strive to connect to each other.

What is even more powerful about the novel is the location of Kyra’s (and Gilligan’s) challenges within a broader, societal level. Her built environment on Nashawena aims for connectedness that would affect all who enter it, even without their seeking it out, and she forces Greta Blau to speak to the embeddedness and influence of society on psychotherapy and vice-versa. Kyra is well worth reading, not only as a novel per se but also as an expansion and distillation of Gilligan’s psychological oeuvre.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 14, Winter 2017/2018, ISSN 1552-5112





1.     The relationship between the cult of Mary and the emergence of Gothic architecture is more likely correlative rather than causal. Cathedrals, such as those at Chartres, Paris, Laon, Noyon, Amiens, Rouen and elsewhere, were designed to “please the queen,” (Cahill, pp.  109-116), while the structural forms were derived from geometry (Gilligan, 2009, p. 27).





Apuleius. 2011. The Golden Ass. (trans. Sarah Ruden). New Haven: Yale UP

Cahill, Thomas. 2006. Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe. New York: Doubleday.

Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers. 1988. The Power of Myth. New York: Broadway Book

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP.

Gilligan, Carol. 2002. The Birth of Pleasure. NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gilligan, Carol. 2009. Kyra. New York: Random House

Gilligan, Carol. 2011. Joining the Resistance. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.