Stieg Larsson

Inside the Mind of Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth Salander ’s Unique Psychiatric Profile

There is a similar Lisbeth Salander in my life, so I know first-hand how complex this character is. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on their thought processes, they behave or think in opposition to your expectations. Sometimes these people look like pretty flowers, but when you try to pick them, you discover stinging nettles in your grasp.

While it is true that Lisbeth does not fall completely within the diagnosis of high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, we should not discount the possibility she suffers from either a complex multitude of mental and emotional disorders or a disorder that is hereto unknown in the psychiatric community. Autism is still not completely understood. Aspergers is known only insofar as the number of people studied to date and is by no means exhaustive. There exist many people in society with mild and moderate forms of Aspergers who manage to function within their confines, yet remain undiagnosed and misunderstood. They may seem simply ‘odd’ to us…not completely sociopathic, but detached or mentally out-of-sync. Our knowledge of these unique individuals relies exclusively on published case studies and the more sensationalised cases (like Rain Man). Also, it is possible that part of Lisbeth Salander’s psychiatric oddities are simply her way of being able to cope with trauma (PTSD), social dysfunction and attachment disorder.

Lisbeth Salander has obviously exhibited poor coping skills for life problems, and for which she has developed her own unique and brilliant methods of emotional survival, yet the reader must admit that her life is anything but ordinary. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. She is able to clearly process information and formulate solutions to problems because she does not have to wade through social constraints or emotional conflict. She sees ‘patterns’ that defy ordinary comprehension. Lacking emotional insight, she relies on logic to determin a course of action. Her ‘gift’ of a photographic memory presents another problem because her brain must constantly process and analyse information, like a computer, and can’t relax or shut down to provide a mental resting place.

Lisbeth lacks social skills and self-awareness but her character occasionally strays outside the boundaries of known psychiatric diagnoses and, while capable of love (or a verisimilitude), she cannot cope with this depth of feeling, shuts down emotionally and exhibits avoidance behaviour, as when she ‘falls in love’ with Blomqvist but runs away from their relationship when she sees him with Berger and cuts off all communication. Her lonliness is like a black hole…limitless and darkly daunting…either due to her unique personality, or because of it. Lisbeth is not lonely for simple social acceptance and companionship; she is lonely for a comparable intellect and validation. Lisbeth is like the last of a species, seeking, in vain, for a counterpart. Lonliness, and the saving grace of hope, drives her attempts to form relationships yet she lives almost exclusively in her own world of detachment. It isn’t that she does not have the ability to love, after a fashion, but that she does not understand this emotion outside of her own experience. For her, love is relative and, ultimately, not necessary to survival. She has no insight (or caring) about how others relate to her. Salander also experiences joy, as when she stole the Harley motorcycle (The Girl Who Played with Fire) from one of the men who attacked her and drove it with such abandon that she altered her journey in order to draw out the experience. The ability to experience love, hope and joy are her saving graces.

Lisbeth Salander exhibits conflicting mental states in that she both turns her self-loathing inward (harms herself) and outward (harms others). I cannot decide if Stieg Larsson did not truly understand this unique and very real set of psychiatric and emotional disorders, or if he did to a point, but took licence when he created the character of Lisbeth, as is any authors’ right. Lisbeth is the most complex literary protagonist I’ve ever encountered. Stieg Larsson gives true value to his readers in the depth and breadth of Lisbeth’s personality and in the complexity of his story lines. The literary world is poorer for his absence.

Jean Ferguson in Toronto, Canada
Submitted: 4 May 2012

5 comments on “Inside the Mind of Lisbeth Salander”

  • Larry says:

    Brilliant and so well written analysis. Thank you!

  • Trina Marie says:

    This is me in a nutshell…

  • John Ross says:

    Blomkvist wonders about aspergers and this reference. later is related to a comment by Blomkvist and Palmgren and Blomkvist speculate on the notion but that is the only reference as I remember but I have a different take. Lisbeth was strapped to a bed for 381 days when she was 12-13 into 14 years after real traumatic events– “all the evil.” Lisbeth has a very high IQ and a photographic memory (not all with a memory like that has a specially high IQ–witness Micheal Caine–the brit actor says he has a photographic memory but had problems in school when more was required than simple recall. Anyway, Lisbeth had to go thru puberty while strapped to a bed with no stimulation save a voyeuristic overseer and a few staff members with whom she was able to establish the semblance of a relationship. Having raised a daughter, and having spent some years running a group home for teens with problems, I know that what happens at that point in her life–at puberty–is really indelible to a girl’s ability to form relationships and maintain balance between things personal and things social, some girls really go off the rails. Lisabeth had no stimulation, no models to emulate, no ones eyes to see her self reflected: she had to construct her adult self from a child self while hormones stormed and that Creepy Doctor walked in on her whenever the whim struck him (even late late at night). I think Larsson had some intuitive understanding that this would produce the person he created and offers the Aspergers notion as a cover or an obfuscation to maintain the “suspension of disbelief” for the third person narrative. He too fell in love with her, I think; and I think, that is why the books affect us so.

  • Robert says:

    My experience with Lisbeth started in an RV, a road trip. The girl with the Dragon Tattoo.. I had to follow her… Who could not. The entire trilogy. A gifted writer, Stieg was captivating.It was a must to take the entire trip through the trilogy.

  • Elisabeth Moore says:

    All the talk of Lizbeth’s sickness discounts the importance of what made her that way. She deeply loved, then defended with violence (against a violent monster, the only alternative) her mother. She visits her until mother’s early death, felt to be caused by the rotten life that man gave the two. Her heroism is called violence against society by the “justice” system. But with a child’s purity of thought, she knows society is wrong. Her enemy father is unknown to society. When mother dies, only Lizbeth knows. Institutions further damage her, as is too often the case. Many of us know Salander from the inside. Repeatedly misunderstood by simpler minded conformists, the original thinker is usually outcast. The justice system, with its society-condoned, right leaning authorities in America, victimizes an entire race, black Americans, whose lives in poverty often come off as anti-social. Long live Lizbeth, who gives hope to the misunderstood abused!