Like a few million other Americans, I watched the recent premiere of Three Identical Strangers on CNN—its most viewed documentary ever.
It is the story of three triplets separated at birth who reunite through coincidental circumstances at age 19 in 1980. The narrative arc delivered by director Tim Wardle ran its gamut for me as it was supposed to: from amazing and celebratory human interest tale to dark and painful morality play. It began by lifting my spirits and then crashed down and plumbed the depths of my emotions of pain and anger, all the while raising challenging questions about the ethics of psychiatry, about whom we entrust with society’s secrets, and about the daunting challenges of organizing the adoption process.
But another bell went off for me as well: The story about what seemed to be a highly unusual and apparently deeply unethical study of triplets echoed a similarly secretive and even more frightening tale of the unethical twin study that lay at the heart of David Lagercrantz’s 2017 novel, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye.
Although Lagercrantz’s story was fictional, set in Sweden, and involved Stieg Larsson’s signature characters from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (Lisbeth Salander, Mikael Blomkvist, etc.), a significant strand of that novel’s plot (complete with poisoning, murder, psychological terror, and investigative reporting) hangs on an out-of-control Swedish twin study and the desire to bury it and keep it secret—much like the architects of the American real life twin study in the CNN (and Channel 4 UK) documentary have tried to do by locking up their archives at Yale until sometime decades hence.
As an author of The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time, I know quite a bit about Stieg Larsson and the original books that Larsson wrote before his untimely death in 2004, in which he created the indelible stories and characters for the books that have become known in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy—or, as he would no doubt have preferred, The Millennium Trilogy. And I have strong feelings about the way in which author David Lagercrantz, who was selected by Stieg Larsson’s publisher and his father and brother (who control his estate) to write the successor novels, has acquitted himself.
In particular, I believe Lagercrantz has handled the amazing character of Lisbeth Salander poorly in the two books he has published to date, The Girl in the Spider’s Web and The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. Lisbeth has been turned from Larsson’s constantly surprising and complex psychological character who I once called the early 21st century’s outsider equivalent of Holden Caulfield, into Lagercrantz’s badass superheroine, with all the nuance of any other action character of our times. Lisbeth’s hard-to-understand and often superficially contradictory moral code has also been altered by Lagercrantz. In Larsson’s hands, Lisbeth never killed…she frequently set up a situation where a bad guy would be killed, but she was never the one pulling the trigger. She was happy to inflict punishing pain, but not mortal blows. Lagercrantz, by contrast, has turned Lisbeth into a revenge-oriented killing machine.
Lagercrantz has taken the charm and quirkiness of Larsson’s deliberately Swedish world and Anglo-Americanized it, presumably for the sake of “broadening” the already global bestselling market for the Larsson books.
Most of all, Lagercrantz has taken the feminist Larsson’s view of women as heroines and reversed it. In his books, women are among the prominent evil characters: Lisbeth’s bad seed twin sister Camilla in The Girl in the Spider’s Web and the evil female psychiatrist who directed the twins study in The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye.
Having said all that by way of criticism of Lagercrantz, I must say that when I read The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, I found the twin study—and the way it played out among adult twins (the fictional characters Dan and Leo) at the center of one of the main subplots in the story—among the most interesting parts of the novel. Even though I thought the novel as a whole was on the weak side, and not worthy of Stieg Larsson’s reputation, the twin study subplot has often haunted me in the year and half since I read the book. It made a strong enough impression on me that I thought of it immediately as soon as CNN’s Three Identical Strangers crossed the chasm from human interest in finding long-lost siblings to understanding that these triplets had been part of an apparently unethical, manipulative psychiatric study. It’s a continuing and painful morality tale that should haunt us all.
–Dan Burstein, January 2019