The New York Times Magazine devoted its cover story on November 18 to the struggle of Ashlyn Blocker, a teenage girl in Georgia who has a congenital condition that makes her insensitive to pain.
Congenital insensitivity to pain (also known as congenital analgesia), is an extremely rare medical condition. But Stieg Larsson was intrigued with it while he was writing the Millennium trilogy in 2001-2003—right around the time Ashlyn was a toddler and exhibited her first symptoms. Larsson decided to endow Zalachenko’s hatchet man, the giant Ronald Niedermann, with that characteristic and to create a number of plot points in The Girl Who Played with Fire that revolve around Niedermann’s insensitivity to pain. Here’s what we wrote about congenital analgesia in our 2011 book, The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time:
Ronald Niedermann’s syndrome: congenital analgesia: Niedermann is the evil giant, who turns out to be Lisbeth’s half-brother. (His character may well have been created by Larsson with the Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren in mind, since Lundgren’s height and build is suggested by Niedermann’s details, even though Lundgren has claimed he turned down offers to be cast in any of the films.)Niedermann is able to be a particularly good foot soldier for his father, the evil Zalachenko, because of the medical syndrome he suffers from, congenital analgesia. This is a real medical syndrome in which a person literally feels no pain, even from experiences that would be extraordinarily painful to the most stoic normal person. The real-life medical syndrome is much more of a problem than a blessing, since pain is, for most people, a valuable warning signal. If your finger is burning and you feel no pain, you don’t instinctively pull it away. Although congenital analgesia is very rare, it is also very serious, especially in children, who haven’t yet learned other ways of intuiting what stimuli or experiences might be destructive to their bodies. Unlike the “photographic memory” Lisbeth is said to possess, researchers do believe that congenital analgesia is inherited. Zalachenko, Niedermann’s father, shows signs of being able to endure a great deal of pain, but does not have his son’s complete oblivion when it comes to pain. It might be noted that imperviousness to pain is a not uncommon plot element in the science fiction stories Larsson read voraciously. A prime example is Andrew Miller’s novel, Ingenious Pain (1998).