Does Lisbeth Salander have Asperger’s syndrome?

A discussion of this question excerpted from Chapter 11 of The Tattooed Girl:

In The Girl with the Dragon TattooMikael Blomkvist wonders to himself if Lisbeth Salander has Asperger’s syndrome. She seems to fit the criteria. But elsewhere in the Millennium Trilogy, particularly in Hornet’s Nest, as we read through all the efforts to trump up mental disorders against Lisbeth that will succeed in rendering her mentally incompetent and in need of guardianship, Larsson seems to be steering us away from any diagnosis at all. Although she seems to show classic signs of Asperger’s syndrome, Larsson is also trying to tell us: Look at the whole person, don’t put labels on people, understand and be tolerant of the wide variety of personalities in our world, judge, if you judge at all, by what people do and how they live their lives, not by fear of non-traditional behaviors or differences in clothing, habits, or tattoos, nor by abstract diagnoses in a mental health book.

Thus, Larsson appears to raise the idea of Asperger’s only to dismiss it. Yet we know from some of Larsson’s correspondence before his death that he intended to feature Lisbeth as a character with Asperger’s syndrome and that he believed having such a lead character was a breakthrough thing to do in a crime novel. Lisbeth’s friendly brain surgeon, Dr. Jonasson, who removes the bullet from her brain in Hornet’s Nest, argues with the evil Dr. Teleborian that Lisbeth is not a paranoid schizophrenic or a paranoid, delusional sociopath as Teleborian believes, but should be thought of with a much “simpler” diagnosis—Asperger’s.

In fact, there are many kinds of Asperger’s on the spectrum of autism, and a variety of overlaps between Asperger’s and other types of spectrum disorders. Most people with Asperger’s are fairly ordinary people and are not necessarily either incredibly brilliant nor completely socially clueless. However, there is a not infrequent form of high functioning Asperger’s whose hallmarks include various kinds of specialized intelligence in a person who, despite their brilliance, simultaneously lacks the basic ability to read basic social cues and to conform to “normal” social standards and expectations. If you have ever know a person like this, you know that part of their repertoire of survival skills is an uncanny ability to get under your skin, into your thoughts, and win a place in your life, even though they are so supremely difficult and hard to deal with. Lisbeth is just like that in the way she captures Blomkvist emotionally, to the point that he can’t stop thinking about her, even though there is no rational explanation for why he would want to remain involved with her.

At exactly the moment that Larsson was finishing the Trilogy and getting it ready for publication, the first literary novel to win critical acclaim featuring a character with Asperger’s was published: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon. Haddon has since said he is not an expert on Asperger’s or other forms of autism and thinks that readers who want to learn about these syndromes should read books written by people who have experienced them. Both the title of Haddon’s book and much of the plot relates in various ways to Sherlock Holmes—with the not so subtle implication that Conan Doyle, in his presentation of Holmes’s character, may have been suggesting that Holmes was afflicted by something like Asperger’s although it was not a known diagnosis in Conan Doyle’s era. In a recent BBC series that brings Sherlock Holmes to life as a 21st century character in contemporary London, this new version of Sherlock clearly has Asperger’s or something resembling it. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, this new TV Sherlock displays amazing feats of intelligence and intuition (and we see special effects that simulate the neurons firing in his brain to arrive at his conclusions so quickly). But he is a terrible friend and extremely difficult person to all around him. At one point he blurts out, “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high-functioning sociopath!”

Recent films and TV shows that have tackled Asperger’s syndrome and other types of autism include: Adam (“A story about two strangers. One a little stranger than the other;” Adam is played by Hugh Dancy and is a young man with Asperger’s whose passions are astronomy and a girl who just moved in upstairs); Mozart and the Whale (a 2005 movie based on the true story of Jerry and Mary Newport, showing how two people with Asperger’s met and their relationship developed); and episodes of Boston Legal and In Plain Sight. Some people think the only explanation for Sheldon’s behavior on the comedy Big Bang Theory is Asperger’s syndrome.

In the Pippi Longstocking children’s books, Pippi is such a wild character drawn so clearly from an imaginative fantasy world that it would be hard to make an argument or even a comment about her psychological or behavioral profile. But by the time Pippi was turned into a Swedish TV character in the 1960s, the TV show’s creative team clearly intended to convey that Pippi has a “problem,” however unnamed or undiagnosed that problem may be. In numerous episodes of the TV show, Pippi consciously expresses the self-knowledge that she is not good at interacting with people in social settings. Even when she steels herself to be on her best behavior, she can’t do it and something always goes radically wrong. Commentaries on Larsson have stressed his own stated interest in exploring the grown-up Pippi, now in her 20s, through Lisbeth. The similarities are obvious. Pippi and Lisbeth not only share red hair, Lisbeth shares Pippi’s mythical strength despite her small size, her independence, her wealth, and her freedom to define her own personal and moral standards. But Larsson may also have been thinking about the Pippi from Swedish TV, which he would have seen in his youth, who had more than a hint of some sort of Asperger’s-like syndrome.

John-Henri Holmberg, coauthor of The Tattooed Girl and longtime friend of Stieg Larsson’s, tells us, “My suspicion would be that Stieg initially had the idea of an Asperger heroine, but gradually reached the conclusion that Lisbeth would be a stronger character if allowed simply to be totally self-sufficient but with no ‘mental problems.’ This would make her into a heroine and a possible role model, not an ‘unfortunate’ towards whom at least Swedish readers would automatically feel pity. Stieg was no friend of pity. My guess instead is that he began writing the first novel more or less without plan, got drawn into it, went ahead full steam into book 2, and somewhere in there started to consider this as a series of novels.” According to Holmberg, thinking of the books as a series caused Larsson to rethink a number of his initial assumptions, including possibly about Lisbeth and Asperger’s.

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2 Responses to Does Lisbeth Salander have Asperger’s syndrome?

  1. Pingback: In Love with a “Girl” | The Contrarian

  2. David Thatcher says:

    Stieg Larsson wrote it, really you must read it yourself to come to your own conclusion, but Michael Blomkvist, Holger Palmgren and Dr. Anders Jonasson all three believe she has Asperger’s syndrome or something like it, she may also be a sociopath or psychopath (now known as Antisocial Personality Disorder), which The evil Dr. Peter Teleborian suggests, and Stieg may have agreed with this after the first novel, but the three people believing it is Asperger’s within the trilogy, never come across with that, both Asperger’s disorder and are defined within the DSM-IV-PR and the ICD-10. The author threw many references and keys to reference against Pippi Longstocking and her Villa Villekulla in the trilogy; Larsson stated in interviews that he based the character of Lisbeth Salander on what he imagined Pippi Longstocking might have been like as an adult. Lisbeth is a redhead although she dies her hair black.

    Excerpt, p. 367 “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”;

    Michael Blomkvist:

    Asperger’s syndrome, he thought. Or something like that. A talent for seeing patterns and understanding abstract reasoning where other people perceive only white noise.

    Excerpt, p. 414 “The Girl Who Played with Fire”;

    Holger Palmgren:

    “She has an extremely hard time relating to other people. I thought she had Asperger’s syndrome or something like it. If you read the clinical descriptions of patients diagnosed with Asperger’s, there are things that seem to fit Lisbeth very well, but there are just as many symptoms that don’t apply at all. Mind you, she’s not the least bit dangerous to people who leave her in peace and treat her with respect. But she is violent, without a doubt,” said Palmgren in a low voice. “If she’s provoked or threatened, she can strike back with appalling violence.”

    Excerpt, p. 167 “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest”;

    Dr. Anders Jonasson:

    Jonasson looked intently at Dr. Teleborian for ten seconds before he said: “I won’t argue a diagnosis with you, Dr. Teleborian, but have you ever considered a significantly simpler diagnosis?”

    “Such as?”

    “For example, Asperger’s syndrome. Of course, I haven’t done a psychiatric evaluation of her, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would consider some form of autism. That would explain her inability to relate to social conventions.”

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