Lisbeth Salander’s Unique Psychiatric Profile
Stieg Larsson and Psychiatry re Millennium Trilogy
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 i Toronto, Canada
Submitted: 4 May 2012