Mental Illness & The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Social Commentary on Page & Screen

The American book cover.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is rife with social commentary. Which is the biggest understatement in any review I have ever written. Stieg Larsson was a man on a mission. Every issue he touches in his Millennium Trilogy, from corporate corruption to violence against women, includes shockingly evil villains who seem to bend over backwards to illustrate the social dangers Larsson wants us to fear. Society’s treatment of women takes center stage; the Swedish title of the first book is, in fact, Men Who Hate Women. Even in the American film, one main character says to another, “I want you to help me catch a killer of women.” (Was it in the licensing agreement that that line be spoken in those exact words? It’s the only line in the movie that screams “this was translated from Swedish!” Also, disclaimer: I didn’t make it through more than twenty minutes of the Swedish film. It cut from violent scene to violent scene during the beginning and the visuals triggered a flashback for me to the sexual assault I experienced as a child.) Larsson critiques the way society interacts with mental illness through his main character, Lisbeth Salander, and her experience with public mental healthcare. Or lack thereof. His criticism, while harsh, is one of his more subtle themes, at least during the first book.

A version of the American film poster.

Much to my relief, that social commentary was not left out of the American film. This first installment in the Millennium Trilogy, on paper and now on screen, sets up a theme that becomes much more important to the plots of the second and third books: is Lisbeth really “crazy” or is she protecting herself from the real dangers that appear in her environment with disturbing frequency? She has become a notorious character for the long list of bizarre and/or extreme and/or violent things she does. We do eventually find out why she has done each of these “crazy” things, but Larsson wisely sidesteps actually giving her a diagnosis by refusing to separate her mental state from the environment in which she exists. Lisbeth’s life story makes that impossible.

Something relatable does lie beneath the hyperbole–so many of us who struggle with mental illness spend our lives wondering wondering where and when our biographies contributed to our illness. If my childhood had been different, less traumatic, would this be so hard, now? Given my own family history and genealogy, I have no doubt that there is in my DNA a genetic predisposition to anxiety and depression. I will never know what triggered the onset of the actual illness or whether it could have been avoided. It’s validating that Larsson sees this side the struggle. Even though Lisbeth’s behavior is extreme, anti-social and often violent, the fact that she knows why she is reacting violently makes the “nurture” factor so obvious. It’s no surprise when we learn that what society ignored when Lisbeth was a child has made violence normal for her, even if the scope of the violence she grew up with is truly bizarre. When she finally makes a big enough mess to get some major attention, Larsson gets his chance indict a society that views mental illness and its presentation as a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. Lisbeth’s story is so extreme and the mess so violent that her society simply cannot continue to ignore the contribution its own mistakes and priorities have made to “the problem.”

Of course, as soon as the government gets involved, the “public good” becomes a concern, and, as I pointed out earlier, Larsson happily hammers home the way too many personal freedoms disappear in the name of protecting the public from individuals who do not fit. In fact, Larsson picks up on a documented problem: a study by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm points out that negative attitudes toward mental illness in Sweden create obstacles to successful treatment. Which comes first–being isolated as mentally unstable and dangerous or rebellion against a society that seems to have no place for you? A huge factor in Lisbeth’s lack of independence in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is that she has not done enough to fit in, according to government standards, since she was declared “mentally incompetent” years ago. As a result, she cannot access her own bank account without permission, has her name flagged in police databases and must regularly report details of her personal and professional life to a “guardian” she does not choose (a bit like a foster parent for grown-ups). The way Larsson paints it, you can almost see some of the “bad guys,” especially in the last book, wearing Storm Trooper costumes. But really, the dark side is that the government can decide that you can’t take care of yourself, and your rights can disappear. It takes a lot to get those rights back; even if you are now as healthy as any other Swede, you may be stuck, without much recourse, waiting years for a bureaucrat with enough power to acknowledge that fact.

And now it’s time to acknowledge a huge factor in any American liberal’s discussion of Larsson’s indictment of his own society: Scandinavia, which includes Sweden, Norway and Denmark, usually seems like the Promised Land when it comes to human rights. Larsson’s trilogy was a pretty big shock to me! And I’m not the only one. Back in my academic days, I met a lovely Swedish scholar at a Virginia Woolf conference, and she told me that it was a bit of a shock for her, too, when the Millennium Trilogy pointed out that a society she had always thought of as so responsible and even caring could have such a dark side. She said that even she was used to thinking of her country as a model for the world when it comes to human rights and family-friendly public policy. All three Scandinavian countries provide universal health care, child care, education and who knows what else for its citizens. Almost every woman I know has heard about incredibly long and well-paid family leave policies across Scandinavia. As it turns out, all of Scandinavia is not equal: Norway far outranks Sweden according to the WHO, but Chile, Saudi Arabia and Morocco all outrank the US. Even if you look at this while wearing rose-colored glasses, US citizens receive a highly variable quality of care even as our country outspends every other developed country on medical care.

While I want desperately for my government to take a more active interest in the way mental illness impacts my daily life, Lisbeth wants nothing more than to disappear, something she could easily do if she lived in the United States. As a Swede, if she wanted the kind of medication, psychiatric care and therapy that I struggle to pay for, she would get it for free. Unlike me, Lisbeth doesn’t want these things or trust the system that believes it is helping her–and I wouldn’t either, in her circumstances. The agents of the Swedish system infantalize and humiliate her because she rejects their values, and that’s how the well-meaningbureaucrats she encounters behave. I won’t get into the ways Larsson explores the ease with which less well-intentioned individuals are able to take advantage of the system and its “wards.” Lisbeth’s story illustrates that when the government does get involved, it is far too easy for the policy makers and implementers to become too far removed from the people they are “helping.” Individuals get lost in a sea of rules and guidelines. The further the policy makers get from those individuals, the greater the chance that policy will be badly implemented on the ground level and the greater the chance that those with real power will never see the suffering caused by the lapses and oversights.

So, how do we find some sort of middle ground between the US system that fails me so often and the Swedish system that fails too often under the weight of the stigma of mental illness? Any attempt to balance the regulations that necessary go into any policy and the actual best practices involved in caring for and/or treating someone who is mentally ill, which require so much nuance, seems to me a Sisyphean task. But I have to give Larsson credit for starting a few more conversations about it. And he does leave us with a model of sorts. There is a character who understands Lisbeth better than anyone she has ever encountered; largely by chance, long before the story begins, she is assigned a guardian, Holger Palmgren, who approaches her “case” with nuance and empathy. Rather than expect her to become a model citizen out of a a Swedish tourism brochure, Palmgren takes the time to get to know her. He sees the her own violent behavior as reactions to her environment that seem entirely reasonable to her. It’s pretty easy for us to see, through his eyes, what will trigger a violent reaction from Lisbeth, which makes it all the more difficult to understand why she is still labelled as unpredictably violent. A huge catalyst in the plot of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the incapacitating illness of this guardian and the loss of the freedom and stability he has helped her achieve by fudging reports and breaking other small rules. I won’t get into the ways in which his successor is an exception to, well, every rule of behavior dictated by basic human decency. That’s really more closely related to Larsson’s other agendas. Lisbeth’s relationship with Palmgren is that while it seems at first like a relatively simple part of the plot (his “loss” incites Lisbeth to change her previously well-established patterns of behavior when the opportunity arises), it actually serves as model for the way mental illness needs to be handled. Through Palmgren, Larsson demands that rules give way to the recommendations of the people who know their “wards,” because mental illness does not follow a script. It does not progress or improve in the same way that a physical illness does.

It’s easy for readers and viewers to focus on the most sensational aspects of Larsson’s stories, and I worry that future films will lose sight of the themes discussed here in favor of visually sensational sex and violence. I really hope that the filmmakers don’t drown the story arc of Lisbeth’s quest to reclaim her independence, her struggle to cooperate enough with the government she distrusts while continuing to protect herself. When I was being admitted to the hospital, I was afraid that if I said the wrong thing, I’d be labelled with the wrong diagnosis and suffer through a treatment I didn’t want. As is appropriate for fiction and a thriller, Lisbeth’s stakes are much higher. The drama of her struggle with the Swedish government and with herself has the power to help people understand how exactly treating mental illness is a uniquely complicated undertaking.

One Comment

  1. kurt said:

    This is not good news man. The world has shaped in a foul form in my opinion,and will most likely not change for the better. At least not before another Ice Age,or something similar.

    Amazing,briliant review my friend,it has been a plesure reading it.


    April 27, 2013

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