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The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy Paperback – December 6, 2011

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About 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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Smart Pop (December 6, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1936661349
  • ISBN-13: 978-1936661343
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #378,724 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I chose to read this because of a previous entry in the series, which was on the psychology of Dexter. I thoroughly loved that book (see my review on Amazon), and had hoped that a series devoted to "Psychology and Pop Culture" would be more entertaining, engaging and better written than a number of books that I have read that purport to be about philosophy and pop culture. Unfortunately, this book is only a mediocre effort, with some essays good, some bad, and some ugly.

The book is broken up into three sections: The Girl with the Armored Façade, the Girl with the Tornado Inside, and the Girl Who Couldn't Be Stopped. Each section does appear to have a basic theme. The first section deals with issues of identity and trying to get underneath the "armored façade" that Lisbeth Salander has created. The second section deals with issues at the intersection of the individual and the community. The third section deals with Lisbeth Salander's position vis-à-vis society in general.


The first section's essays held to the mandate of "psychology and pop culture". There are essays on whether Lisbeth Salander is a Goth, the psychology of body modifications, gender expectations and roles, and an attempt to understand why Lisbeth is so silent and emotionally isolated. The second section looked at the psychology of violence, the definition of psychopaths (and whether Lisbeth is one), post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorder, and a mock forensic psychologist's report to the court. ***** This last theme was presented by Marisa Mauro in "CONFIDENTIAL: FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGICAL REPORT--LISBETH SALANDER", and is the shining gem of this collection of essays. It purports to be the risk assessment for the court that Ms.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Sharon F. Wilson on March 29, 2012
Format: Paperback
As a Psychologist teaching at the College level, I've found this book to be and excellent resource. I would strongly recommend it as supplementary reading for any Abnormal Psychology class as well as any advanced level class in Counseling. The essays are wonderful for promoting discussing as well as demonstrating specific theories that any professor would want to use to bring a more "up to date" feel for class. The essays on Gender, Anger, Body Image and Sexual Hostility are particularly pointed and thought provoking.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Star @ The Bibliophilic Book Blog on February 23, 2012
Format: Paperback
One of the big reasons I enjoyed The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is because the writing is engaging, which is not always the case when reading psychology texts. The contributing writers do not dumb anything down, but instead present the information in layman's terms. Please remember these essays contain the views of the author(s) and may not always reflect your own views or opinions after reading Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. I enjoyed the book and I felt it gave some additional insights into one of my favorite female characters in literature.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Chuck Guerrero on January 16, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
For those that have fallen in love with the Millenium series, this is a collection of pieces which examine Lisbeth's actions and motivations from a psychological point of view. If you are looking for an in depth analysis, this book is for you.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jack Byrd on August 5, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A 'must' for fans of the books and movies. Several insightful views into the mind and spirit of one of the most amazing fictional characters of the past 30 years.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Abbey Estes on January 14, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
I loved this book. I liked being able to see different psychologist and psychiatrists views on Lisbeth and the other characters. However I didn't give it five stars because even if you're a huge fan of the series as I am, you would definitely need a background in psychology background to understand some of the things that are discussed in the book.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Great supplement to read before the Dragon trilogy
Provides possible backgrounds for the origination of the series
Thought provoking
Recommended for readers of the trilogy before or after reading the entire series.
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