Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fröken Salander & Me: How a misanthropic computer hacker will change autism in literature and life

Some Spoilers Ahead
The recent big hit that's taken the English-speaking literary world by storm is Stieg Larsson's posthumously published
Millennium Trilogy.
Since I work in a bookstore, I tend to, in a small way, have my finger on the public pulse in terms of what's popular reading and what's not. And The Millennium Trilogy, consisting of, in chronological order, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) The Girl Who Played With Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden) and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes) have defied my usual, admittedly narrow-minded, expectations about what could become a bestseller in America. These are intelligently-written books that openly address misogyny, violence against women, sexism in the workplace, unfettered creepings of Nazism spreading through Europe like a sneaky STI, the treatment of both the police and the medical establishment of persons with disabilities and children, and AND the role that the media plays in manipulating the public in high profile cases. All while remaining a wonderfully written story that grips the imaginations of the reader and leaving them wanting more.
But this post isn't going to just be endless paragraphs of babbling praise for these modern masterpieces. You can read them in just about any newspaper or literary magazine if you wish. My specific wish is to talk about the most popular, controversial, (in)famous character in the novel, the "Girl" in the translated English titles of all three. Lisbeth Salander. She's being hailed as one of the greatest female characters to hit ink in the 21st century, she's already been captured onscreen by Noomi Rapace, and... she's autistic.
Ladies and gentleman, the literary paradigm regarding autism has been thrown off its feet.
It's not just revolutionary because it has a character with autism. It has a person with autism as one of the main characters (I don't think the word 'protagonist' is proper here) and often narrates using her point of view. Usually when this is attempted, it's clumsy and ham-fisted, and filled with overly flowery prose about connecting to the outside world, or else presents the person as a narrow-minded tabula rasa with no personality, only a long series of ramblings regarding interests in very obscure subjects (I'm looking at you, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time!) Salander however, is given the full force of a well-developed personality, and while she is presented with savant-like abilities, she is shown to be tormented by them, her photographic memory in particular.
I imagine this post might draw some ire from people who reject the notion that Salander is autistic. She is never properly diagnosed by the author as such, several characters, including a doctor, speculate that she has Asperger Syndrome. She also doesn't entirely fit into the stereotyped mold of autism, being in some ways emotionally vulnerable, having scars from abuses, and being actively sexual. Others may claim that since Salander is never officially diagnosed, labelling her as autistic is both a moot point and counterintuitive to the character, who is a complete individual that might sneer at the label of Aspergers after so many false diagnoses in the hands of abusive medical professionals.
But I saw myself in Lisbeth Salander. Like Salander, I've experienced hardships in my life and abuse at the hands of parental figures and authority figures, and I have some unusual talents, including a near-photographic memory (Though mine is not nearly as extensive as Salander's) Whether the character would accept the label or not, or whether she fills the entire criteria is not particularly relevant. Whether she likes it or not, Salander will change the way neurotypical authors portray autistic women, and any person with autism who reads the Trilogy will probably walk away with a different idea of what limits their diagnosis places on them.
What is particularly interesting to me as a woman with autism is the way that Larsson portrayed the pattern of abuse that Lisbeth experienced at the hands of her caretakers and people who were supposed to be in charge of her health and well-being. One of my major met peeves about portrayals of people with ASD, particularly ones with Asperger Syndrome, is to portray us more as victims of our own incompetence, poor social skills, and difficulty with verbal language and metaphor. Very rarely do neurotypicals take responsibility for isolating us, bullying us, abusing us, or turning us into pariahs for the crime of being different. But Larsson savages this illusion. Salander is a survivor who has been physically, emotionally, and sexually abused.
She is a child when it starts, and the fact that she is perceived as a "retard" (sic) makes it all the easier for her to be shuttled from one abusive caretaker to the next. Larsson's unflinching condemnation of Salander's abuse speaks for more than this girl with a dragon tattoo and enough emotional baggage to bring the strongest to their knees. It speaks for the systematic abuse of people on the entire spectrum of mental and physical disabilities. Larsson's native land of Sweden is the main target, but the message rings true in every nation, including my own America and Canada.
My hope is that Salander's fictional plight will cause the millions reading the Trilogy to reconsider the way that the disabled and vulnerable are treated outside of the pages of fiction. Though Salander and her plight are fictional, for disabled people across the world, it is a very real story.
Lisbeth somewhat fits the trope of an autistic savant, with her near-inhuman abilities in mathematics and computer hacking, and ingenious ways of getting herself out of difficult spots that any neurotypical would flounder in haplessly. But it is never mentioned whether this is a by-product of her autism, or a manifestation of her sheer will and intelligence after many years of having to cope with situations others can barely dream of. So it does not necessarily fall into the clichéd realm, but I hope it destroys the idea that people with autism are helpless outside of their narrow "obsessions" and have an incredible knack for self reliance and resourcefulness. We pretty much have to, facing constant abuse and isolation at the hands of neurotypicals. In the future, Lisbeth Salander's intelligence, resourcefulness, and ability to cope with the most incredible of circumstances will be in the minds of future authors when they pen a story about someone with autism.
Salander's sexuality will be the last thing I discuss in this post. But it's one of the more important things I want to address. Like me, Salander is bisexual. She has relationships with several characters in the book, most notably the main protagonist male, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and her on-again-off-again lover Miriam "Mimmi" Wu. Both relationships are shown to be tied up with complex emotions most people who are unfamiliar with autism probably assumed was exclusive to neurotypical people. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that her relationships with both Blomkvist and Wu are multifaceted and intricate with emotion, shattering the idea that people with ASD are incapable of having relationships rich in both their sexual chemistry and emotional compatibility. Salander is far from the asexual being of past incarnations of autism, and she is even less like the raging rapist that with Asperger Syndrome that has become all the rage in "ripped from the headlines" crime dramas. She is open and candid about her sexuality, and in spite of some characters that are less sympathetic and trustworthy calling her promiscuous or a whore, Salander is never victimized by her sexuality. She is fully in control of it, even when suffering the scars any rape victim goes through.
The abuse that Salander has experienced makes her more antisocial and misanthropic than the average person with ASD. The only character I can think of that even comes close to matching her in her disdain for humanity and its flaws is the infamous Rorschach of Watchmen fame. I predict that Salander will become just as much of a cultural icon as Rorschach has in the public psyche. With that kind of fame, I hope that Salander will stick a knife into the heart of stereotypes about people, especially women, with autism. Or else tattoo "I'm an antiquated anachronism, an old stereotype, and a cliché" onto its stomach.


  1. I haven't read the books, or seen the movie, yet, but I'd like to.

    Lisbeth Salander also sounds like a character I'd relate to very well; I've encountered a handful of characters who are never explicitly described as autistic (sometimes because "autism" didn't exist when the book was written, sometimes just because the author just didn't choose to use that word) but who are odd in very familiar ways.

  2. I can see how many women with autism would relate to her, I think she makes for a good unofficial "mascot" in many ways.
    I've encountered many characters like that before, and I even did a paper for a class in postwar Japanese literature where I argued that a character had autism, which was pretty well received.
    I think it's important in this day and age though for authors to make an effort to describe their characters as autistic. It's important for people with ASDs to have literary characters they can relate to and see themselves in.

  3. Really interesting post! I work with individual with developmental disabilities & autism (I'm new to the field) AND I just finished "Girl with a Dragon Tatoo" a few days ago. So your post gives me a lot to chew over. Posting to Twitter & FB.

  4. I had no interest in reading these books, until I read this. Thank you for the fabulous review.

  5. I agree completely with your thoughts on Salander.

    I also completely disagree with you on The Curious Incident. I related very well with the narrator of that one, 'cause my thought processes work EXACTLY like that. It makes it very hard to carry on a conversation, because I will speak like the narrator tells his story. You will ask me how I've been, I'll tell you how I am, and how it has come to be that I am this way, and how my current situation is linked to what I think of the world cup finale, and what I think about Iker Casillas, and how I wish I could one day go to Barcelona, and I'd love to see the Sagrada Familia, which I just saw an exhibition about and all of this in very great detail - it'll likely take me about the length of the book to say... wait.. what were you saying?


    I actually function like that. It is... problematic to say the least, so I'm kinda sorry to hear you bash the book so off-handedly, since it is not as flawed in its presentation as you seem to think.

    But aside from that. YES THIS! I adored Salander from the get-go. Her possible Asperger's dx is not mentioned till the end of book three, but from our first meeting with her in book one I knew she was like me - except I'm not a savant. I'm just of somewhat high-ish intelligence, but not of savant like skills like she. But I related so well. And I love her.

    I could have done with a warning about the rape scenes, though. I had to throw up after reading the worst one of them. But that is just about my only criticism :D

  6. I am also posting about her and her aspie-like characteristics on my blog. I swear, I have not read very much leisurely since my last four years of high school. this series is making me want to read again, which will be great for college.