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The Cost of Justice: The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Part 1

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This blog post is an excerpt from a chapter (co-written with Elaine Shpungin) in the anthology titled The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, published by BenBella. Part 2 of this essay is available here.

Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander is a unique and compelling heroine who, as Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, told Charlie Rose1, refuses to become a victim no matter what happens to her. Haunted, resilient , savvy, dark, unpredictable, and endlessly resourceful, she delivers ingeniously planned and colorful acts of "vigilante justice" to the irredeemable criminals who have the misfortune or poor judgment to cross her path. 

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Following in the footsteps of previous superheroes-she does, after all, take on evil villains-Lisbeth is a female David to all the misogynistic Goliaths in Sweden. She's the ultimate underdog: abused, abandoned, disenfranchised, and waif-like in appearance. And we love her, not despite her anger and violent potential, but because of it. Her anger is righteous. Her violence, apparently justified. After all, we neither mourn for the monsters heroes kill, nor question their choice to kill them. Killing and being killed are what monsters are for. But what are the costs to Lisbeth-and to society at large-for this violent brand of vigilante justice? And, given the exact circumstances at hand, was there anything she might have done instead that would have served both her and society better?

These questions are not posed solely for the sake of a fictional analysis. Though less common than in works of fiction, vigilantes-including female vigilantes-exist in the real world too, as of course do the inhumane individuals upon whom the vigilantes exact their revenge.2 The Millennium trilogy presents fertile ground for exploring these questions. Lisbeth may be a fictional character, but the world she inhabits is very much like the one that Larsson actually occupied and seemed to clearly want to illuminate and critique. In the words of Larsson's lifelong partner Eva Gabrielsson, "Stieg Larsson's actions, and his views of the world, can mainly be understood from a perspective of women's rights.... The Millennium crime novel trilogy is a new way of making discrimination and violence against women visible."3 By giving the reader glimpses of her tragic life and the multiple abuses endured by her and other women at the hands of these men, Larsson sends Lisbeth forth as his personal angel of justice. In this context (as social commentary), Lisbeth seems to represent one way that real justice can be achieved-not just in Larsson's world of hopelessly twisted men and broken justice systems, but also in our own. Before examining this idea further, let's take a few moments to unpack the meaning of the word justice.


Doing Justice

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Justice is defined by Dictionary.com as "the quality of...righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness," while "doing justice" is defined as "acting or treating fairly." This intertwining of the concepts of fairness, moral rightness, and deserved punishment is at the heart of what is most confusing about the idea of justice: Fairness by whose standards? Rightness according to whose morals? Deserving according to what criteria?

The implied answer to all these questions is "according to the law of the land." Indeed, in democratic states like Sweden4 and the United States, the country's laws are considered to constitute a social contract in which the people select representatives (i.e., legislators) to make the law and then are morally and legally bound to follow it. In this context, justice becomes equated with compliance with the law and "doing justice" becomes operationalized as the legal process of determining who broke the law and how to punish the "offending" person(s).

In this way, the concepts of justice and punishment are so thoroughly intertwined that it might initially be difficult to even conceive of the former without the latter. Yet there are, in fact, a variety of legitimate answers to the questions above other than "according to the law of the land." Religious teachings (which vary according to the religion in question), philosophical ideas (e.g., Kant's categorical imperative), political ideologies, and cultural frameworks all influence both individual and community notions of justice. The complexity and disagreement inherent in different answers to these questions explain, in part, both the multiplicity of "justice systems"5 in existence among human societies and the frequent dissatisfaction with the extent to which these systems bring about desired outcomes. While a comprehensive review of such systems is beyond the scope of this essay, a bird's eye view of some ways in which they differ will help us examine the underlying justice themes in Larsson's world, and our own.

One way of looking at justice systems is to examine where they may land on the "punitive" to "restorative" continuum. Generally speaking, the more punitive a justice system, the more it is concerned with what rule was broken, who is to blame, and what punishment would best match the severity of the rule-breaking. Examples of justice systems encompassing this approach are Old Testament justice ("an eye for an eye") and vigilante justice-both practiced to some extent by our heroine-as well as by what we typically see in the formal, Western criminal justice system, as represented by police, attorneys, judges, and mandatory sentencing laws that treat crimes as having been committed not against individuals or communities but against the state.

On the other end of this spectrum, the more restorative a justice system, the more it is concerned with what harm was done, who was impacted by the harm, and what action would best address (restore, repair) the harm to all parties.6 Examples of such systems include victim-offender mediation7, family group conferencing8, and restorative circles9.

We all operate under some form of justice system-in our families, workplaces, relationships, and communities-even if we are not fully aware of the systems we follow (many of which we have simply inherited without examination). Thus, one of the benefits of examining justice systems this way is to make visible that which is often invisible. Doing so allows the community in question (and the individuals in those communities) the possibility of choosing a way of doing justice that is more closely aligned with its values, rather than merely going along with a system that may not actually be serving those values10. To make such choices, community members must be aware of what they value as a community11 and realize that the different justice systems have very different implications for those we label "victims", those we label "offenders", those empowered to decide how justice will be administered (e.g., judges, peers), those who carry out the administration of justice (e.g., prison corrections officers, community members), and the community itself.

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Despite the mainstream justice system's hegemony in both Sweden and the United States, the alternatives are real, not hypothetical. This is most obvious in U.S. tort law12, where the individual harmed has the choice of addressing the harm by filing a lawsuit (i.e., engaging the mainstream justice system) or engaging an alternative justice system such as mediation, arbitration, or a restorative process. However, even in criminal law, in which the breach of a duty is considered to be against the state rather than an individual,13 those involved in or impacted by the alleged criminal behavior have the option of asking the District Attorney not to file criminal charges (though the D.A. may file them anyway), as well as engaging an alternative justice system (e.g., a restorative system, vigilantism) that would operate in parallel to-and often independent of-the criminal proceedings.

The Millennium series presents one such alternative to conventional justice in the form of Lisbeth's response to the violence she encounters. In Gabrielsson's words, "Larsson believed in 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' He never forgave and he was very clear about this: to get revenge, or avenge your friends, is not just a right, but an absolute duty.14" However, the Millennium trilogy takes this Old Testament model of justice one step further. It seems to advocate for vigilante justice,15 an approach that, by definition, bypasses the formal criminal system and thrusts the responsibility of judge, jury, and executioner solely into Lisbeth's hands.



  1. Charlie Rose interview. Season 18, episode 75. April 20, 2010.
  2. Consider, for instance, the case of Kimberly Cunningham. In 2003, she learned that her then fourteen-year-old daughter Amanda was (at age nine) raped on two occasions by the girl's uncle, Coy Hundley. Cunningham bought a gun and confronted Hundley at his place of work. When Hundley did not deny the allegations, Cunningham shot him five times, reloaded the weapon, and fired five more rounds, killing him.
  3. From a 2009 speech to Observatorio contra la Violencia Domestica y de Genero: http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/54145, people,news,stieg-larsson-remembered-by-eva-gabrielsson#ixzz1To21EaHn
  4. Sweden is technically a constitutional monarchy, with King Carl XVI Gustaf as the head of state, but, as in most contemporary constitutional monarchies, royal power in Sweden is limited to ceremonial functions. Notably, Sweden is currently ranked fourth on the Democracy Index (9.5 on the 10-point scale), an index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit that claims to measure the state of democracy in 167 countries. The United States, with a score of 8.18, is ranked seventeenth.
  5. We use "justice system" to refer to an institutionalized process for dealing with rule violations and/or conflict in a given community. In addition to the formal criminal and civil justice systems, schools, workplaces, and families all also have institutionalized ways of "doing" justice.
  6. Zehr, H. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse: Good Books, 2002.
  7. A process in which the victim of a crime and the person who has taken responsibility for committing that crime have an opportunity to talk to each other (usually face to face) with the help of a trained mediator. In the meeting, the offender and victim typically talk about what happened and the impact the event had on their lives. Sometimes there is also the additional step of agreeing on a plan to repair some or all of the damages.
  8. A restorative approach that is designed to have child and adult family members solve their own conflicts, instead of involving courts or other professionals.  
  9. A restorative practice developed in Brazil that seeks to engage conflict without pre-identifying offenders and victims (because those roles are seen as dynamic) and that involves both those who directly participated in the conflict and the community members who are impacted.
  10. The possibility of choosing how to do justice comes from the work of Dominic Barter, who, with his associates, developed (in the favelas of Brazil) a restorative practice called Restorative Circles. See http://www.restorativecircles.org
  11. This is both an individual value and a group process, as communities (e.g., municipalities, school districts) are comprised of individuals who must reach some consensus regarding what kinds of justice systems will be available to the community.
  12. A tort is a common law term used to describe a breach of any civil duty (other than a contractual duty) owed to someone else. It is differentiated from a crime, which involves a breach of a duty owed to society in general. Examples of torts include auto accidents, defamation, product liability, environmental pollution, and any intentional act that could reasonably be predicted to result in harm to an individual.
  13. Thus, if John brutally beats Nathan, who dies from the injuries, John's crime, according to criminal law, is against the state  (for violating the state's prohibition against battery and homicide) not against Nathan. The implication of this distinction is that the wishes and needs of the so-called "victim" are not prioritized and sometimes completely ignored. Thus, in a homicide case, the District Attorney may ask for the death penalty (and the judge may grant it), even against the wishes of the victim's family.
  14. From Gabrielsson's memoir Stieg And Me as quoted in the 2-18-2011 issue of the Daily Mail: click here
  15. An alternative reading is that it is Blomkvist's style of justice that the novels condone. Either way, as our editor correctly pointed out, what a man advocates for in fiction is not necessarily the same as what he advocates for in real life.
Continue reading: Part 2


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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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