The Girl Who Dealt with Trauma: Lisbeth Salander and the Familial System that Shaped Her in "The Millennium Trilogy," by Stieg Larson
The Milennium Trilogy, by Stieg Larson, which includes "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played with Fire," and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," is famous for Lisbeth Salander, its tattooed, profusely pierced, and stony-eyed female protagonist. Ms. Salander, one of the most iconic anti-heroes of…well, this millennium, is referred to variously as suffering from schizophrenia, paranoia, psychosis, Asperger's syndrome, social withdrawal, and mental retardation, these being among the more benign labels. While the novels comprising the Millennium Trilogy make for addictive reading, it is Salander herself, and the familial system that shaped her, which concern me here. So what is the history of the girl who dealt with trauma?
We are first introduced to Salander as an employee of Milton Security. An expert computer hacker with a photographic memory, Salander is a highly valued but unmanageable employee; she comes and goes as she pleases, and is indifferent to ethics and boundaries governing intellectual property. To Salander, such considerations are secondary to achieving her main objectives − information, survival, and protection of those she cares about. Like a cyber-age Robin Hood, she outwits the corrupt and abusive, using her skills to fight for her independence and punish men who perpetrate violence on women. While operating virtually outside the radar of recognized authorities, Salander, we sense, is always in danger, just one step ahead of the officials and doctors who placed her under guardianship as an adolescent when, to quote the novels' cryptic, frequently recurring phrase, "all the evil happened." References to what that "evil" might be are woven tantalizingly through the main plotlines, and many nail-biting chapters later, eventually come to light.
Salander, along with a twin sister, Camilla, are the daughters of Alexander Zalachenko, a former high-ranking Soviet spy who defected to Sweden after running foul of Soviet authorities. Zalachenko's defection represented so significant an intelligence coup to Sapo, the Swedish Security Service, that an illegal faction within Sapo, known as the Section, was appointed to cover up his many illegal activities, judging him too valuable to be held accountable for his crimes. These included repeatedly abusing Salander's mother, one day beating her so badly that she suffered permanent brain damage. Salander, 12 years old at the time, deemed bright but introverted, and violent when challenged, retaliated by setting her father on fire. Zalachenko survived, but remained permanently disfigured and in chronic pain. To avoid the risk of Zalachenko's exposure, given the extreme nature of his wounds, the Section had Salander declared insane, committed to a children’s psychiatric hospital, and placed under surveillance of a psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Teleborian, who conspired with the Section to effectively neutralize Salander as a threat by reason of her alleged psychosis. When Salander subsequently aged out of the children’s hospital, Teleborian had her declared legally incompetent, and a legal guardian was appointed to monitor her care. Salander consequently had to account for how she spent her time and money, her every act and thought criminalized. Cumulatively, the Section's systematic destruction of Salander's credibility insured she would never achieve redress for the crimes committed against her and her mother; further, that no one would ever believe her if she tried to describe what had happened.
So what were the forces that shaped Salander? While it is true that the repeated trauma of a punishing, invalidating environment taught Salander that it was pointless to try and reason with the forces that repressed her; while it is true that this learning experience, combined with Salander’s own native intelligence, led her to turn inward and follow her own resources, her own idiosyncratic code of ethics guiding her judgments and subsequent actions, my chief focus here is on the familial forces that shaped her. In order to do that, I’d like to introduce Murray Bowen’s concept of triangulation.
In family systems theory, which views change as resulting from systems of interaction among family members, conflict between two people in a relationship may be diverted by the involvement of a third person, who then becomes the problem, a process known as triangulation (Bowen, 1978). Different people within the triangle may occupy the “problem” position at different times, the overall goal being to maintain the stability of the family unit. Individual family members may rebel against the unit, staging what Bowen referred to as an emotional cut off, a physical or psychological separation from the family. Family members who cut off in this manner might move away, be unwilling to visit home, or refuse to speak about certain topics. Depending on family members’ levels of emotional differentiation – their ability to manage their emotions, thoughts, individuality, and connectedness to others in a more or less independent fashion – they may carry the propensity to triangulate into the next generation (Bowen, 1978).
In the Millennium Trilogy, Salander, her mother, Agneta, and her father, Zalachenko, form the 3 points of the triangle, Salander’s intervention always serving to buffer her mother from the worse of her father’s assaults and keep the family intact. “When all the evil happens” Salander, decisively thwarted in her attempts to act as her mother’s savior, is ready to detriangulate, or break the dysfunctional family equilibrium by staging an extreme emotional cut off − setting her father on fire. Zalachenko survives, however, and given his value to the Section, he is saved from exposure, Agneta hidden away in a nursing home, and Salander effectively silenced by corrupt legal and medical machinations. The triangle lies temporarily dormant, but remains very much alive. Over the years, Zalachenko’s fury over his daughter's action festers, his aggression turning from Agneta to Salander. At the same time Salander herself, the dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade a mythical reflection of her dragon-slayer status, fights the same battle over and over again – other abusive men and brutalized women standing in for the father (dragon) she couldn’t slay, the mother she couldn’t save. As though to emphasize the power of the triangle, in her quiet moments, when not on the job or on the run, Salander still visits the nursing home and watches over her disturbed mother, the integrity of her grieving, silent guardianship an ironic echo of the corrupt guardianship imposed by Teleborian and the Section.
Salander's maintenance of the triangle is not only societal − as depicted in vigilante-type efforts to save abused women from brutal men − but personal. While Salander has relationships of her own, she cannot/is afraid to, maintain a
consistent connection; nor can she communicate/interact with warmth, as her primary parental influences taught her to be ever vigilant of physical or emotional pain. The only interactions Salander knows and understands are ironic permutations of the original family triangle. Thus, Salander reflects her father's aggression −albeit non-violently − by taking her sexual pleasure when, where, and for how long, it suits her, and reflects her mother's passivity by allowing other lovers to dominate her in sexual play. Salander herself thus contains and perpetuates the roles of agressor/father and victim/mother, within herself.
Small wonder that the girl who deals with trauma finds it next to impossible to shed defenses as scaly as a dragon's hide; small wonder that individuals embroiled in real, rather than fictional, triangulation find themselves perpetuating the dynamic, no matter how far they run or otherwise try to distance themselves from its primary source. But Lisbeth Salander is, of course, a fictional heroine, her trauma exaggerated for dramatic effect. Triangulation of the less dramatic variety strains individuals within families every day (mother/father/"problem" child; son/daughter-in-law/ interfering mother-in-law, etc). Recognizing what underlies this dynamic is often the first step towards restructuring the family into a healthier, more adaptive system of relationships, one in which 2 people take an honest look at their problems, and refrain from using other family members to shield them from awareness and the need for appropriate action.
Bowen, M. (1978). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. NY: Aronson, Inc.
Larson, Stieg. (2011). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Book 1 of the Millennium
Trilogy. NY: Vintage Press
Larson, Stieg. (2011). The Girl Who Played with Fire: Book 2 of the Millennium
Trilogy. NY: Vintage Press
Larson, Stieg. (2011). The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: Book 3 of the
Millennium Trilogy. NY: Vintage Press
11/18/2012 03:39:32 am
Wow! what a brilliant and profound psychological evaluation of this girl in the story. The effects of ones familial structure are evident in relationship challenges. It's disturbing but it helps me have compassion and empathy when I struggle to understand the idiosyncrasies of the people I am involved with that want to make me run in the other direction. Thank you for that, I am more enlightened than I have ever been and considering my current circumstances I believe it was meant for me to read that.
11/18/2012 07:43:04 am
Hi Cici - thank you so much for your response - I'm really happy if I was able to give you some insight into your own situation. All the best-
11/18/2012 11:31:40 am
Very interesting evaluation of the character and family dynamics. I read it with great interest. Thank you
11/18/2012 12:37:19 pm
I'm glad you enjoyed it, Faos!
Debonee Morgan, LMFT
11/19/2012 12:02:45 am
Rivkah, this is terrific! We are immersed in stories via film, books and social media, yet we rarely take the time to pull apart the insights, and use the story for our own growth. Thanks for an astute analysis and a good read.
11/19/2012 10:12:26 am
Thank you so much, Debonee; I do believe there's a reason why pop culture becomes 'pop'ular, and very often it is because of universal processes and dynamics that transcend the story/movie itself and resonate with corresponding processes within ourselves. I'm so glad the analysis resonated with you!
11/20/2012 01:25:49 pm
I loved your analysis of the psychological underpinnings of the story. I am sure that triangulation exists to a greater or lesser extent in most families. I am aware of the triangulation within my own family and the effects of it on family members within the triangulation and also ramifications for other members. I am a little concerned at your use of the term "vigilant of actual or emotional pain", as though emotional pain isn't actual pain, or have I read that wrongly? Emotional pain sure feels like actual pain to me, just as physical pain does. I hope to read more of this kind of analysis. Thank you.
11/20/2012 08:39:07 pm
I'm glad you enjoyed the article, Ingrid, and that it spoke to you in terms of triangulation within your own family.
Thank you so much for pointing out my oversight regarding the expression "vigilant of actual or emotional pain": I have made the necessary change to "physical or emotional pain," which of course is what I meant. It seems as though no matter how much I edit and edit, there's always something that slips under the radar! Tks again for your feedback, and check back for more articles.
11/26/2012 03:56:38 am
Rivkah, I very well written! I liked it
12/1/2012 09:03:14 pm
Thank you so much, Jacob!
7/18/2014 05:18:14 pm