Not typically liking mysteries, I was at first skeptical when my oldest daughter asked me to read the Stieg Larsson trilogy that had been sweeping the country. She wanted to talk with me about it, she said, because she had questions about the brilliant but quirky protagonist, Lisbeth Salander. Then when she said that she had enjoyed these books second only to the Harry Potter series-a family favorite-I figured that I had to give them a try. And so I did. I wanted to enjoy them, I really did. They were engaging, and well written, and told an intriguing, absorbing moral tale with Dostoyevsky-like characters. So caught up in the unfolding narrative, I once was almost late to a speaking engagement because I lost track of time in my hotel room trying to finish the third volume. So why am I disappointed in Stieg Larsson?
Although already present in the first two books, the reason for my disappointment comes to full bloom in the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Everyone in this book who is a decent human being becomes indignant when they discover that Lisbeth Salander had been committed to a mental hospital during her childhood for sinister reasons I will not divulge to those readers who have yet to plunge into these seedy waters. They are indignant because Lisbeth Salander does not appear to have a mental illness and therefore it was an infringement on her rights to lock her away in an asylum and treat her as if she were mentally ill. It was a grave injustice to take her away from her mother and to place her in a psychiatric institution. One of the most prominent villains in this third book is the psychiatrist who was responsible for doing so.
I am not disappointed that the psychiatrist emerges as a villain; there have been enough real life psychiatrists who have done heinous things to justify this characterization. I am certainly not disappointed that the mental hospital is depicted as a horrible place to confine a young girl, as they certainly have been. What I am disappointed about is that Stieg Larsson-the right-minded political journalist turned mystery novelist with a conscience-does not stop to consider what this story suggests, and the message it perpetuates, about people who do have a mental illness. Is it any less of an infringement of their rights to lock them away in hospitals? Is it okay for a society to deny their humanity, to destroy their credibility, to negate their value, just because they do have a mental illness?
Why does this not occur to someone like Stieg Larsson? Surely he would not admit to wanting to send such disparaging messages. I had a similar reaction to Princeton anthropologist João Biehl's groundbreaking work Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Not unLike Salander, Biehl's preoccupation is with a woman who had been discredited and discarded by her community under the pretense that she was mentally ill. Biehl goes to great lengths to try to prove that she does not have a mental illness, that she has been misdiagnosed and more likely suffers from a hereditary neurological condition, in order to reclaim her worth as a human being. Why does it not occur to him that people with mental illnesses also have value as human beings? That "even" people with mental illnesses do not deserve to be thrown away by their communities; do not deserve to live in "zones of social abandonment"?
Why do I care? Because reading these otherwise very good books leaves my 17-year old kind-hearted, compassionate, and socially conscious daughter with the impression that it is okay to think of people with mental illnesses as non-human. It is apparently important to prove that people who are suffering do not have mental illnesses, while it is also, nonetheless, people who do have mental illnesses who also are suffering. How can people who are so devoted to discovering the truth and exposing social injustice miss the very basic fact that people who do have mental illnesses are still people too? Is it so necessary to have a foil, to have some group of people who can be looked down on, in order that others can feel okay about themselves? And what would a society be like in which there were no such dispensable and disposable people? I am disappointed in Stieg Larsson that he failed to envision such a world.