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The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy

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Lisbeth Salander, heroine of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, is one of the most compelling, complex characters of our time. Is she an avenging angel? A dangerous outlaw? What makes Salander tick, and why is our response to her—and to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy—so strong?

In The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 19 psychologists and psychiatrists attempt to do what even expert investigator Mikael Blomkvist could not: understand ...

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The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy

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Lisbeth Salander, heroine of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, is one of the most compelling, complex characters of our time. Is she an avenging angel? A dangerous outlaw? What makes Salander tick, and why is our response to her—and to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy—so strong?

In The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 19 psychologists and psychiatrists attempt to do what even expert investigator Mikael Blomkvist could not: understand Lisbeth Salander.

• What does Lisbeth’s infamous dragon tattoo really say about her?
• Why is Lisbeth so drawn to Mikael, and what would they both need to do to make a relationship work?
• How do we explain men like Martin Vanger, Nils Bjurman, and Alexander Zalachenko? Is Lisbeth just as sexist and as psychopathic as they are?
• What is it about Lisbeth that allows her to survive, even thrive, under extraordinary conditions?
• How is Lisbeth like a Goth-punk Rorschach test? And what do we learn about ourselves from what we see in her?

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781936661343
  • Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/6/2011
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 665,901
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD, is a clinical psychologist. She writes college-level psychology textbooks and has taught psychology courses at Lesley University and Harvard University. She also writes about popular culture figures and the psychological phenomena their stories reveal.

Shannon O’Neill is an editorial consultant for a prominent literary agency in Washington, D.C. She also teaches at American University. Shannon has a master’s in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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Read an Excerpt


Reading a good book is like undertaking an investigation: as readers we comb through paragraphs and pages—linking pieces of plot and character together to make sense of it all—to build a coherent, compelling picture of a complete world. When we come to the end of a book and snap shut the cover, we often feel satisfied that our investigation is over. Our questions have been answered; the “case” is closed. But the books that truly affect us—whether thrillers, mysteries, or stories of unrequited love—often don’t give us a complete sense of closure. They raise questions that linger long after the last page.

Stieg Larsson’s books The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest whisk us away almost instantly with their spellbinding characters, fast-paced action, and dark, brooding mysteries. Larsson gives us a world in which we can lose ourselves, ignoring dirty laundry or dishes in the sink as we race through the streets of Stockholm on the back of Lisbeth Salander’s motorbike to try and stop a serial killer. But instead of merely going along for a fictional ride, Larson challenges us to look beneath the surface of things, to ask difficult questions, and to seek the truth for ourselves. We are driven to try to make sense of—or at least find our way through—the labyrinth of clues the book lays out.

It’s not just his plots that have twists and turns and blind corners, however. Many of his characters are puzzle-boxes: difficult to pry open and hiding a wealth of secrets—some simply shocking, others downright dangerous. Many of these characters—for instance, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander—are truth-seekers themselves, driven to unearth clues, solve complex cases, and hunt down dangerous criminals.

Unlike Mikael and Lisbeth, we aren’t in the business of hunting down serial killers or unraveling cold cases of state-sponsored espionage. But that doesn’t mean the cases we’re challenged with solving as readers of the Millennium trilogy are any less complex. Stieg Larsson seems to want us to wonder much more than simply “whodunit.” His books force us to question why we judge people by their appearances and why we so often unquestioningly accept authority. But for many of us, the central case to be cracked in the trilogy is that of Lisbeth Salander: who she truly is, what she really wants, and what she has to tell us about our world and ourselves.

Lisbeth is one of the most enigmatic and intriguing characters you’ll ever come across—an astoundingly intelligent, prickly bundle of contradictions. We know about her unorthodox looks, her unslakable thirst for the truth, her fearlessness in the face of danger, and her…unusual relationships. But there’s also a lot we don’t know. What makes her tick? Is she a vulnerable young woman or a powerful hero? A crusader, a vigilante, a psychopath—or some combination?

Lisbeth relies on her brilliant skills of deduction to solve cases, but as a computer hacker her first step is breaking into data systems to access valuable, secret information. If we had Lisbeth’s skills, we could find out more about her past and even her future by hacking into Stieg Larsson’s computer; after all, we know the author had planned more books in the series before his death. Perhaps the answers to Lisbeth’s true feelings and motivations, as well as her future path, could be found in the notes he supposedly left behind. Well, for better or worse, we can’t work like Lisbeth. We don’t have her skills or her daring, or possess her willingness to break the law. But we do have something else: the ability to “hack” Lisbeth herself. Unlike our heroine, our work doesn’t involve getting inside a software system or a mainframe. Rather, we’ve chosen to delve into Lisbeth’s psyche, using the tools of psychology to guide our way.

Our first step is to gather the clues on the trilogy’s pages: what Lisbeth says and does; the way she portrays herself to the outside world; how others perceive her and react to her; and how she transforms the expectations of those she encounters. But collecting the clues as written by Larsson will only get us so far—an investigator ultimately must make sense of the clues. Consider Blomkvist, for instance. He assembled a lot of information about the Vangers in trying to solve Harriet’s disappearance, but he needed Lisbeth’s help to dig deeper into the case and piece it all together. Like Blomkvist, we’ve also recruited help in our quest to solve our case. We’ve asked psychologists and psychiatrists to take the clues they collected from the trilogy and use them to “crack the case” of Lisbeth Salander. Just as Salander can amass bits of data and make a coherent whole out of them, our contributors have taken the bits of intel Stieg Larsson has given us and used them to unearth meaning.

In this book, The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the contributors use all of the tools at their disposal—as readers, as investigators of psychology, as “mind-hackers”—to understand Lisbeth’s inner world. Each essay in this book takes a facet of the Millennium story and examines it using a psychological lens, employing research and theory to better understand who Lisbeth Salander truly is. The conclusions our experts have drawn are not uniform; using the same clues, in some cases our investigators have come up with surprisingly different understandings of Lisbeth. That the findings range so widely says a lot about Lisbeth’s complexity and richness as a character.

The appeal of the Millennium trilogy isn’t solely due to Lisbeth Salander, of course. The novels raise questions about violence, about the nature of justice, and about the quest for truth and redemption. Those questions are essentially psychological in nature, addressing things like desires, motivation, resilience, and the psychological underpinnings and consequence of moral choices. Through examining Lisbeth, we also gain a broader understanding of these issues, and of ourselves.

The table of contents of this book is true to the process of investigating Lisbeth. We start with the most obvious clues we get from the Millennium series: the ways in which Lisbeth is different than other people. From the moment we encounter her, Lisbeth looks, acts, and reacts differently than most of us, even as we may recognize elements of her character in ourselves. Part of her difference is her tough exterior—her many piercings and her unwelcoming attitude. Essays in the first section of this book, The Girl with the Armored Façade, help us better understand that armor. They explore the ways that Salander is different and what her differences might tell us about her.

Robert Young and Lynne McDonald-Smith help us understand Goths, and Rachel Rodgers and Eric Bui hone in on Lisbeth’s tattoos and piercings. Misty Hook uses the psychology of gender to help us understand Lisbeth’s unusual behavior and how people react to it. David Anderegg focuses on what at first glance might appear to be an absence of behavior—silence—and why Salander might choose to wield it as power. And Prudence Gourguechon highlights how and why Salander “does” relationships differently than most.

Once we—and others in her world—start to see how different Lisbeth is, we also begin to catch glimpses of what exactly is happening underneath her hardened exterior, and to wonder whether something is seriously wrong with her. We learn about the horrible trauma she suffered as a child and young adult, and we want to understand how these experiences shaped her. Essays in the second section, The Girl with the Tornado Inside, focus on the sources of her trauma and her response to it. Lisbeth is deeply troubled; she is mistrustful, angry, and guarded, and capable of harming certain people without remorse or regret. Is she dangerous enough that it warrants her being locked up, as the courts originally suggested?

Wind Goodfriend’s essay starts us off by placing Lisbeth in context—that of a society steeped in sexism; her essay explores the ways that societal sexism has contributed to Lisbeth’s behavior. Joshua Gowin examines Salander’s use of (and seeming comfort with) violence, and the extent to which her use of violence might be rooted in her genes. Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt and Melissa Burkley consider whether Salander, who can be ruthless, is in fact a psychopath. Hans Steiner explains how Lisbeth’s traumatic history has shaped who she is—and whether she’s “abnormal.” Forensic psychologist Marisa Mauro finishes the section with an evaluation of Salander, performed the way the courts in the trilogy should have.

Finally, we look at how Salander has taken trauma and transformed it into power. Essays in this final section, The Girl Who Couldn’t Be Stopped, focus on what allows Salander to overcome the odds not only to save herself, but to help rescue others as well. These essays explore her strengths and abilities, and address whether Lisbeth’s accomplishments are heroic…or something else. These essays also unearth another key theme of the series: the idea of (re)gaining power through knowledge, and using that power to seek justice.

First, Sandra Yingling explores what makes Lisbeth such a powerful and polarizing figure, as well as the power Lisbeth holds over us as readers. Pamela Rutledge explains Lisbeth’s remarkable resilience, despite a childhood infused with trauma, neglect, and horrendous mistreatment. Bernadette Schell shines a light on Lisbeth’s amazing hacking ability and compares her to real-world hackers. Robin Rosenberg proposes that Lisbeth is not just the hero of the series, but a bonafide superhero. In the book’s final essay, Mikahil Lyubansky and Elaine Shpungin explore the costs of some of Salander’s use of power—both to herself and to society.

In the end, Lisbeth is all of these things—damaged and resilient, victimized and powerful, terrifying and awe-inspiring. But in the end, too, she isn’t quite as contradictory or as impenetrable as she initially seems. In giving us a character replete with incongruities and complexities, Larsson has made Lisbeth seem incredibly real. She is brought to life in three dimensions; her quirks and rough edges and aberrant behavior make her as frustrating and intriguing as an incredibly gifted but profoundly troubled friend. Understanding more about that complexity doesn’t diminish the fascination she holds for us—it deepens it. We want to know even more. We want to figure her out.

Lisbeth is the true enigma at the heart of this blockbuster set of mysteries. To understand her, as well as her powerful effect on us, we’ll need all the professional help we can get.

Let’s get this investigation started.

—Shannon O’Neill and Robin S. Rosenberg

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Table of Contents


"Lisbeth Salander and the 'Truth' About Goths" – Robert Young and Lynne McDonald-Smith
"The Body Speaks Louder Than Words: What Is Lisbeth Salander Saying?" – Rachel Rodgers and Eric Bui
"Lisbeth Salander as a Gender Outlaw" – Misty K. Hook
"What to Say When the Patient Doesn't Talk: Lisbeth Salander and the Problem of Silence" – David Anderegg
"Mistrustful: Salander's Struggle with Intimacy" – Prudence Gourguechon

"Sadistic Pigs, Perverts, and Rapists: Sexism in Sweden" – Wind Goodfriend
"Broken: How the Combination of Genes and a Rough Childhood Contribute to Violence" – Joshua Gowin
"Men Who Hate Women But Hide it Well: Successful Psychopathy in the Millennium Trilogy" – Stephanie N. Mullins-Sweatt and Melissa Burkley
"If Lisbeth Salander Were Real" – Hans Steiner
"Confidential: Forensic Psychological Report—Lisbeth Salander" – Marisa Mauro

"The Magnetic Polarizing Woman" – Sandra Yingling
"Resilience with a Dragon Tattoo" – Pamela Rutledge
"Lisbeth Salander, Hacker" – Bernadette Schell
"Salander as Superhero" – Robin S. Rosenberg
"The Cost of Justice" – Mikhail Lyubansky and Elaine Shpungin

About the Editors

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2013

    Great insight

    Great innsight into lisbeth salander

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2012


    Stinks never even got it

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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