My parents met as library students at the University of Kentucky in 1979. From my intimate point of view, library school is a bit of an academic catchall, sometimes a plan B, appealing to weirdos of many backgrounds. People assume that librarians love books, but that isn’t even it. University librarians like my parents love flying below the radar, omniscient about university curriculum but not bound by classroom teaching, grading, or even regular students. When she went to library school, my mom was a 25-year-old polyglot, very pretty and shy, who until then had been taking graduate German courses and hanging around Lincoln, Nebraska, listening to the Who. My dad was 32, starting a new career after years of working for the army as an Arabic translator. He is very loud and friendly, bubbly even. Contrary to the stereotype, he is a librarian who is constantly being shushed.
On their first date, he raced up the stairs to her apartment too enthusiastically and fell and broke his arm. He tried to deny that he had injured himself, and they went to a showing of Casablanca. He cradled his arm like a baby in the dark of the movie theater until the pain became too great, and my mom took him to the emergency room. The next day was Labor Day, and no pharmacies were open within walking distance of my dad’s house. He didn’t have a car, so he sheepishly called my mom to ask if she would drive him to get his prescription. She took him back to her house and made him grilled cheese and tomato soup.
The patently adorable and weird quality of their first date seems to have set the tone for their entire relationship. Early on, my dad gave my mom a copy of one of his favorite books: Roseanna, the first in a series of ten mystery novels by Swedish writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that follow the detective Martin Beck. “You’ll find it ironic,” he told her coyly, and she did: the title character, whose murdered corpse washes up on the shores of a Swedish lake, is a librarian in her 20s from Lincoln, Nebraska. My mom was not put off by the implications of this macabre coincidence, and she and my dad are still together now, many decades later. Improbably, my parents’ marriage echoes the Dead Girl story, but with a happy ending.
Uncovering the origins of my dad’s Martin Beck obsession has been more of a project than I first anticipated. When I asked how he discovered the books, he first told me that he read about them in a footnote in Robin Winks’s 1969 essay collection The Historian as Detective, a study in the methods and pitfalls of the academic historian, imagining historians as sleuths solving thorny cases. Throughout the book, there are references to actual detective fiction, which my dad used as a syllabus. He talked to me at length about The Historian as Detective, but later was fuzzy on whether Winks had mentioned Sjöwall and Wahlöö at all. He was only certain that it was where he had heard about Robert Hans van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels, historical mysteries about Tang Dynasty China. (The last Judge Dee mystery is called Poets and Murder, a possible alternative title for this book.)
When that lead dried up, he launched into a story from when he was in the army, working a desk job in Charlottesville, Virginia, and, as he told me, “having a lot of fun.” Unexpectedly in 1973, he was called back from vacation and ordered to report to Fort Bragg. The Russians were in danger of joining the Arab-Israeli War, which might require reciprocal action from the United States. Nixon had put all of the 82nd Airborne, of which my dad was nominally a member, on alert. His superiors on the base refused to issue him a uniform because they didn’t know how long he would be staying there. Instead of having him run information in street clothes, they sent him to the library and told him to read whatever he wanted. “I asked them whether they could teach me to jump out of an airplane if we had to go to the Middle East,” he said of his time at Fort Bragg. “They told me, ‘Eh, no problem.’” He read several of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books there, but he was already very familiar with the series, so in the end, they were not very important to that story.
A few days later, he called to tell me he actually first read the Martin Beck books when he was a student at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. He had known he would be drafted and sent to Vietnam, so he joined the army and became an Arabic translator, an ironic way to avoid combat, considering our current geopolitical situation. In Monterey, he said, he had studied stupidly hard and had no fun, but he found a Martin Beck book on a rare trip into town. Later, he emailed me another confounding update: he visited a relative, a man named Jim who he claimed was his father’s “cousin/nephew,” the night Nixon had fired his attorney general. Jim had worked briefly in the Nixon White House, he told me. His stories unfold this way, full of the small, intriguing details that in a novel might work as foreshadowing. “I typically spent the first hour of the workday looking through The Washington Post to see what the latest Nixon news was,” he went on to say before circling back. “I think I was at Jim’s when I got a call instructing me to go to Fort Bragg.”
I have found his stories often share an eccentric focus on what he was reading during his somewhat Forrest Gumpy journey through the 20th century. Once he regaled me with memories of his time as a firefighter in Idaho in the late 1960s, when he lived with an agriculture student who was later a prisoner in the Iran hostage crisis. (Rory Cochrane, the guy who played Lucas in Empire Records, portrayed Dad’s roommate in the movie Argo.) Dad hitchhiked down to Jackson Hole during a day off and got The Twenty-Seventh Wife, Irving Wallace’s biography of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s wife, and Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon from the library. He took issue with my saying in an early version of this essay that he checked out books about the Mormon Trail. “I was more interested in biography than the settler experience,” he wrote me. “I have since read books like Angle of Repose, and taken an interest in TV shows like Deadwood and Hell on Wheels.”
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were a pair of Swedish journalists, a married couple who wrote the Martin Beck novels over long nights after their kids were asleep, working on alternate chapters. Their ten novels, released between 1965 and 1975, were an unexpected sensation, popular worldwide and the subjects of dozens of film and TV adaptations. The books are violent, sexually frank, and political, updating the hard-boiled American noir for the liberal Scandinavian 60s. Nearly everyone acknowledges Sjöwall and Wahlöö as the origin point for Nordic noir, a regional genre that has produced international stars like Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and Jo Nesbø. But Sjöwall and Wahlöö didn’t just inspire other Scandinavian writers to embrace the murder mystery: they shaped the genre so completely that all of their descendants bear their eccentricities. The Martin Beck series is bizarre, a fitting starting point for what has become a multimillion-dollar industry selling other bizarre, exasperating books.
The novels follow the melancholy detective Beck and his cohort in the Swedish National Police’s Homicide Division as they solve cases including a serial sex murderer preying on children, a mass shooting on a bus, a “locked room” mystery involving a corpse decayed beyond recognition, and the assassination of the Swedish prime minister. Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books hold very little allegiance to the typical noir that is sparsely written and pessimistic, showing one man against the world. Beck is the putative hero, but in practice, the books are ensemble dramas, shading often into ensemble comedies. His colleagues are annoying misfits, described by their quirks, like the fastidious Fredrik Melander, who has a photographic memory, passionately loves his ugly wife, and spends too much time on the toilet. The series abounds with pairs of hapless bozos whose comedic value is underlined by their alliterative names. Bumbling beat cops named Kristiansson and Kvant wreak havoc at several crime scenes until Kristiansson is tragically killed. After that, Kvant gets a new partner named Kvastmo.
Sjöwall has said she and Wahlöö were influenced by “progressive” crime writers like Dashiell Hammett and Georges Simenon, but they took this progressive imperative rather further. Believing that “people read more mysteries than they do political pamphlets,” they set out to write a Marxist indictment of the failures of the Swedish welfare state disguised as a series of mystery novels. They titled their series “The Story of a Crime”—that is, the crime of a cruel and unequal society. They described their political agenda as “the project,” as if it were a covert mission of infiltration, when it could not have been more obvious. In book after book, the authors include pages-long polemics about the nationalization of the police system, Stockholm’s overdevelopment and the miseries of urban life, and the many demographics that had fallen through society’s cracks. Their political tirades are written in a strident, journalistic tone, fissures where narrative conceit drops out completely. A visit to Beck’s elderly mother becomes an occasion to bemoan (at length) the state of Swedish retirement homes:
Nowadays they were called “pensioners’ homes,” or even “pensioners’ hotels,” to gloss over the fact that in practice most people weren’t there voluntarily, but had quite simply been condemned to it by a so-called Welfare State that no longer wished to know about them. It was a cruel sentence, and the crime was being too old. As a worn-out cog in the social machine, one was dumped on the garbage heap.
My notes from the books are filled with comments like “so didactic” and, more to the point, “why didn’t somebody cut this?”
Critics revisiting Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books now are fawning, using that canonizing method of inverting their weaknesses instead of acknowledging them. A write-up in The Wall Street Journal from 2009 hilariously calls the Martin Beck books “anything but polemical.” Louise France writes in The Guardian that while the action in the books is “often slow,” they are addictive: “You want to block out a week of your life, lie to your boss, and stay in bed, gorging on one after another, as though eating packet upon packet of extra strong mints.” I admit that I don’t recognize the impulse to stay in bed for a week binging on mints, so maybe that’s why I found the experience of reading these slow books a bit slower than France. The sometimes-tedious lack of action in the books is often pointed to as a strength. In his introduction to Roseanna, Henning Mankell writes that “it’s probably one of the first crime novels in which time clearly plays a major role.” Sjöwall echoed this idea recently, saying that “slowness, and the tension that waiting, distance, and irritating gaps in communication create, became an aspect of the books’ realism.” This argument smacks of imitative fallacy to me, but the wonky pacing of the series does point to its redeeming strength: the utter wonkiness and unconventionality of their entire approach.
Roseanna is more wrapped up in Dead Girl genre tropes than the rest of the books. At first, the series seems less a treatise against corrosive changes in Swedish society than a darkly funny and melancholy meditation on the absurdity of Swedish bureaucracy. The novel opens by describing the administrative procedure for dredging the lake that eventually reveals Roseanna’s body: it is unclear who can okay plans for dredging, and papers for it move among agencies, “passed from one perplexed civil servant to another,” a process that takes months. This critique is more existential than political, a mirror for the frustration Martin Beck experiences in his marriage and his career. As a good Dead Girl should, Roseanna haunts and excites Beck, who for a time is unable to identify her. The case consumes him, so that “when he closed his eyes he saw her before him as she looked in the picture, naked and abandoned, with narrow shoulders and her dark hair in a coil across her throat.” Once he identifies Roseanna, though, his image of her is inevitably complicated.
In conversations with her roommate and her boyfriend, back in Nebraska, Beck learns that she was promiscuous and odd, that she looked messy and slept with her friend’s boyfriends. Where Beck thought he had found a Dead Girl, he had, in fact, found an ordinary dead woman.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books at first seem to follow the Dead Girl genre’s usual depiction of female sexuality as sinister and crazy. Women are constantly described as “nymphomaniacs,” including Roseanna and other female victims, seemingly indicating that they have been punished for their insatiability. There are the requisite femmes fatales, many of whom make attempts to seduce Martin Beck, who distractedly rebuffs them—like many noir detectives, Beck is at first little more than a neutered intellect. But especially as the series wears on, we see that many of the regular characters have adventurous and unconventional sex lives, like Beck’s detective friend who lives with his wife only on the weekends and has a girlfriend in Copenhagen. Beck releases himself from his unsatisfying marriage and finds new love with a magnetic and iconoclastic leftist. Unlike most detective series, which rely on the bleakness of their protagonists’ lives, Sjöwall and Wahlöö allowed their detective a journey of enlightenment and redemptive love.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö did not have a conventional relationship either: Wahlöö was married when they met, and Sjöwall was twice divorced. They lived together for 13 years but never legally married. Sjöwall has said that after Wahlöö died, shortly after the publication of the last Martin Beck novel, she was “kind of wild for a while. With guys, with pubs.” She has had relationships since then but maintained her independence. “I know many guys,” she said. “Some of them I have been together with for a while, some are just good friends. That is enough for me.” Considering the authors’ lifestyles, the books read as less judgmental of their promiscuous female characters. Despite my skepticism, I’ve come to believe Sjöwall and Wahlöö did what they set out to do: write a series of novels that are truly progressive, or, at least, that have fewer hang-ups.
My dad told me he had read the entire Martin Beck series “five or ten times.” “Why?” I asked him. “Because I love them,” he replied. I don’t know why it’s so frustrating that my dad refuses to say or even think about why he likes the things he does, when his preoccupations run so deep and are so consistent. When I ask him why he likes something, it’s a perverse exercise less to gain new insight than to trick him into admitting to his personality. It’s obvious to me why he likes the Martin Beck books. They are exactly the kind of thing he likes!
When I was a kid, the Martin Beck books were everywhere in my house, old duplicate copies my dad bought at garage sales and used-book stores, leering out at me with their incendiary titles: Cop Killer. The Terrorists. I had never read them until I began working on this book, when I read all of them over the course of several trying months, capping off that experience by reading another Swedish mystery series, the only one that has managed to supplant the Martin Beck books in my dad’s heart: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I thought I was reading them in a quest to understand him better, but I’m not so sure that’s true now. At worst, this essay seems like a Freudian patricidal project to ignore, then obsessively read, then talk shit in print about my dad’s favorite books.
My dad’s fixation on the Dragon Tattoo books began so quickly and has held for so long it is stunning. He listened to the audiobooks on his iPod over and over again, until he reached the point where he would listen to their chapters on shuffle. I am admittedly inclined to be frustrated with Stieg Larsson’s project, especially because after Larsson’s idols Sjöwall and Wahlöö so cleverly subverted Dead Girl tropes, he embraced them. His books have the Dead Girl story’s typical investigator with a good-guy complex, the crusading investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, whose career is dedicated to revealing fraud and corruption in the financial industry. In the first book, he is drawn into solving the 30-year-old disappearance of a wealthy industrialist’s niece, Harriet Vanger. The second and third have him trying to get to the bottom of an ever deeper conspiracy that begins with the smuggling of prostitutes from the Baltics and ends with a secret and all-powerful cabal in Sweden’s security police. Since Dead Girl stories are so psychologically fraught, harried by every demon Freud ever thought up, they often have the torturously complex plots of nightmares. The serial killer plot in the first book particularly has that frenzied kitchen-sink feel: there is not one but two killers, targeting scores of victims over many decades. Some of the murders are humiliating and bizarre, inspired by verses in Leviticus, and on top of this, the killers have ties to nascent Swedish Nazi organizations.
The key element of any Dead Girl story is the investigator’s haunted, semi-sexual obsession with the Dead Girl, or rather, the absence that she has left. Larsson plays with this overtly, as Blomkvist investigates Harriet Vanger’s case and he finds himself “hopelessly fascinated with the enigma of the dead girl’s disappearance.” A police officer he talks to also admits that he is still captivated by the Harriet Vanger “puzzle.” The implication of this choice of vocabulary, if I am being uncharitable, could not be more clear: that women are problems to be solved, and the problem of absence, a disappearance or a murder, is generally easier to deal with than the problem of a woman’s presence. True, Blomkvist (spoiler alert) eventually finds Harriet alive and has an affair with her, as he does with most of the women he comes into contact with in these novels, lending this Dead Girl story a stupefying and ambiguous denouement.
After Larsson’s death, one of his hangers-on, the Swedish journalist Kurdo Baksi, wrote a strange hagiography of him for the Daily Mail, in which he discusses Larsson’s passionate opposition to violence against women. When they discussed this violence, Baksi writes, “Stieg’s eyes would fill with tears. He could not accept someone could be denied their freedom simply because of their gender.” Larsson’s disgust at what he saw as a ubiquitous misogyny was supposedly the impetus for the Dragon Tattoo books, with the original Swedish version of the first novel being titled Men Who Hate Women. But forgive me if I find the Dragon Tattoo books to be something less than the feminist treatises they claim to be. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in his characteristically rude piece on Larsson, their “moral righteousness comes in very useful for the action of the novels, because it allows the depiction of a great deal of cruelty to women, smuggled through customs under the disguise of a strong disapproval.”
More troubling to me than the books’ violence is a flaw at the core of Larsson’s anti-misogynist mission. Throughout the novels, characters insist that “men who hate women” are not monsters: they are everyday people. Blomkvist’s fellow investigator, Lisbeth Salander, says in the first book that their villain is “not some insane serial killer … he’s just a garden variety bastard who hates women.” But Larsson’s villains are as monstrous as he can make them, even though they may hide in plain sight. They are cruel, insatiable, and meticulous, with strange and deviant sexual appetites. The first book is obsessed with sexual sadism, ending with a flourish in a serial killer’s tricked-out torture chamber. This depiction sidesteps the complicated truth of sexual desire and fantasy, which is that in certain circumstances, a person can be turned on by the idea of violence that they would never commit or condone. In the same way, the books sidestep the true face of misogyny: if men who hate women are normal and common, then misogynist violence does not have to be so diabolical. Larsson’s partner, Eva Gabrielsson, has said that Larsson was inspired by comic books, and he obviously could not resist the temptation of the archvillain, a worthy foe for his hero. Where Sjöwall and Wahlöö succeeded in deromanticizing crime and criminals, in his mission to condemn violence against women, Larsson has ended up lionizing its perpetrators by exaggerating the same old prudish tropes.
The first Dragon Tattoo novel features what is in my eyes a maddeningly long final act, where Blomkvist, having solved the mystery of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, seeks revenge on a corrupt Swedish billionaire who has sidelined his career. Later I came to see that this fight against corruption was exactly the point of Larsson’s books, with misogyny functioning more as an occasional thematic hobbyhorse. Larsson was a lauded investigative journalist, having founded the anti-fascist Expo magazine, and his plots about corruption among CEOs and government agents gave him the opportunity to write random op-eds a la Sjöwall and Wahlöö on subjects including the injustice of the stock exchange, the Swedish police force’s use of hollow-point bullets, and inconsistencies in enforcing prostitution laws.
In fact, twisted misogyny often acts as a metaphor for other kinds of personal corruption, with fascism, authoritarian overreach, and greed manifesting as sexual malignancy. The political intrigue Blomkvist is investigating in the second and third books turns out to be a conspiracy of perverts, as a sadistic rapist lawyer, a security agent who consorts with prostitutes, and a pedophile psychiatrist conspire to get Salander institutionalized. Blomkvist and Salander hack the hard drive of the psychiatrist, Peter Teleborian, and discover masses of child pornography. This evidence is sprung upon him during his testimony against Salander in the third book, and he is led in handcuffs from the courtroom. After that, as if caught off guard by the implausibility of the book he has found himself in, the judge remarks, “I have never even heard of a case in which the prosecutor’s chief witness is arrested during a court in session.” My dad told me that the downfall of Peter Teleborian is “one of the great moments in literature.”
If I sound completely fed up with Larsson’s books, it’s because I have barely talked about Salander, the girl of the books’ titles, who is undeniably their soul and their selling point. When Blomkvist first meets her, she is working as a private investigator at a firm called Milton Security, a role she dispatches so brilliantly, we later learn, because she is one of the most skilled hackers in Sweden, as well as a polymath with a photographic memory. The books are as preoccupied with her unusual appearance as with her unusual talents: she is very small and looks very young, with tattoos, piercings, and a personal style that could be approximated as motorcycle Goth.
Larsson is seemingly in love with the trick of having his heroine judged as a child, a criminal, a deviant, only to have her prove everyone wrong with her unbelievable intellect. The longest arc of the novels is correcting the injustice she suffered from Sweden’s guardianship system. She was put in a mental hospital as a child, and when she was released was assigned a guardian within the government who had control of her legally and financially. An incorrect psychological assessment from when she was a teenager had the government believing she was mentally ill, with criminal tendencies and very low intelligence. Her edgy appearance did nothing to persuade the guardianship agency of her competency.
But despite the Dragon Tattoo books’ focus on Salander’s journey to seize self-determination, she is often constrained by the narrative’s own gaze, even when it is mediated through characters who will end up in the wrong. Descriptions of her are icky either in their prurience or disgust, with a creepy focus on her body. In the first book, I count six times where she is described as looking anorexic (she is not anorexic). Before we have gotten to know her at all, several pages are devoted to her boss’s coming to terms with his sexual attraction to her, a plot element that goes exactly nowhere. She later jumps into bed with Blomkvist, as she is (conveniently) into older men. Salander is, in many ways, a male fantasy of a rebel girl: she is bisexual, rides a motorcycle, works out at a boxing gym, and eats only junk food. Considering that she is only one of Blomkvist’s many paramours, her characterization works especially to distinguish her from his other girlfriends. As with so many detective series, the Dragon Tattoo books seem to be a study in every kind of woman the detective, as proxy for the writer, could possibly be attracted to.
Luckily, Salander is a more compelling, surprising, and complex character than Blomkvist, in his possessive and protective desire, can see. Salander, a classic avenging angel, has her own notion of justice, but it is hard to rationalize her actions, as Blomkvist repeatedly does, as stemming from some deep morality. She uses her computer skills to steal millions from the corrupt industrialist at the end of the first book because he is a bad guy, but also because the opportunity presents itself. When she was 12 years old, she attempted to kill her abusive deadbeat father by throwing a burning bottle of gasoline into his car. This violence is constantly justified by Blomkvist and others, who say that she was only trying to protect her mother, but I do wonder if she could have protected her in a way that did not involve a firebomb.
Larsson created a character so interesting that she wriggled from the grasp of his narrative, letting ambiguity and chaos into a world he set up as black and white, good guys versus bad. Larsson’s widow, Eva Gabrielsson, often speaks about the books like sacred tracts, seeing them as being didactic first, entertaining second. I would tend to agree. But with Salander, who is impulsive, intransigent, and sad, very often unable to be there for the people she cares about most, it is difficult to say what lesson is to be learned—fortunately for the reader. Without her, we would have only Blomkvist, a character as intolerably, triumphantly decent as Perry Mason. (Mason, the hero of Erle Stanley Gardner’s legendary detective series, is the smuggest, most well-adjusted milquetoast in the history of mysteries. In the early nineties, my dad recorded every episode of the Perry Mason TV series onto VHS tapes and cataloged them on our old DOS-prompt computer.)
Salander injects into Larsson’s matrix of morals some of the anarchy of children’s literature, and that was by design. Gabrielsson explains how Salander was inspired by Pippi Longstocking:
this delightful and formidable little girl has been a champion of equality between the sexes: she doesn’t depend on anyone, can use a revolver, has sailed the seven seas … But the main thing about Pippi is that she has her own ideas about right and wrong—and she lives by them, no matter what the law or adults say.
But Salander lends some of the melancholy of children’s literature, too. Pippi’s story, after all, is not only about how she brings excitement to a staid Swedish village but the problem of her loneliness, as she seeks friendship and understanding in a world that wasn’t made for her.
I am charmed by Gabrielsson’s description of Pippi Long- stocking, not only because it describes the near-superhero Salander so well, but because in spirit (though in not many practical details), it describes my dad, too. I always think of him as an impish mischief-maker, something of a manic pixie dream dad, whistling in public, sobbing at stories on NPR, flirting with babies, buying candy and stuffed animals, and generally pissing off uptight assholes. Once when he was walking with my brother, they saw a car with a “Who is John Galt?” bumper sticker, a reference to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. He stuck a notecard on the windshield that said you are an idiot.
As I think about my dad and Pippi, it illuminates another common feature of the films, books, and TV that he likes: girls who kick butt. He was an early fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (though he believes it took a downturn after she graduated from high school) and is even more ardently committed to the cult teen detective show Veronica Mars, whose plucky heroine wields a Taser almost as well as Salander does. I first told him to watch Veronica Mars, and later, after he had breathlessly emailed me about Veronica and Logan and Dick Casablancas enough times, I regretted ever watching it. I used to think that he only had some embarrassing pervy attraction to girls who kick butt, and, I mean, he definitely does. But after he told me through tears that “he only wants Veronica to be happy,” I should have gotten the picture that he sees himself in them, too. I guess it is no surprise that he identifies with teenage girls, when there is an illustrious tradition of grown men expertly crafting young women’s entertainment, from boy bands of all eras to Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, to Buffy and Veronica Mars.
“I definitely think he relates to those girls,” my mom told me. She reminded me of a scene at the end of the first Dragon Tattoo book, when Salander realizes she has fallen in love with Blomkvist and resolves to confess her feelings to him. When she finds him, he is on a date with another woman, and Salander is crushed. This is the most affecting part of the books for my dad, my mom told me. “He’ll just cry and cry about that part,” she said. All along I thought he saw himself as the valiant everyman Blomkvist, who comes to the aid of the sexy girl who kicks butt. I was wrong about that, and I shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I have figured him out again. I told him that I thought he identified more with Blomkvist, but then it occurred to me that he maybe identified with Salander. “I don’t think I’m like any of them,” he told me stubbornly. “I just think the books have the ring of realism,” a description that in my opinion could not be more incorrect.
When I complained to my mom about my dad describing books that strain plausibility in every way as having “the ring of realism,” she explained to me how this is one of the phrases he uses indiscriminately to describe works that grab his imagination (the other is “the spark of greatness”) in the manner of, for instance, the cop show Hill Street Blues. This shorthand praise is another way for him to avoid analyzing his own whims. It’s also, maybe, a defensive posture to keep us from analyzing him.
This could be why I have delayed addressing what was supposed to be one of the points of this essay: whether my dad has autism and if it matters. The therapist he works with has suggested that he has Asperger’s syndrome, based on his difficulty reading conversational cues and other people’s moods; his short temper; his many intense enthusiasms; and his almost complete lack of social inhibition, which often leads to totally inappropriate behavior. When I asked him about it for this essay, it was the first time we had ever spoken about it. “Why are you asking me about that?” he said incredulously, and I explained that it made me think of him when Blomkvist privately guesses that Salander has Asperger’s because of her savant-like skills and social awkwardness. “Yes, that is one possible diagnosis,” he said about Salander. Of his own diagnosis, he would only say, oddly, that he didn’t remember it, comparing it to the apparent amnesia he developed in the 1990s when he had bursitis of the elbow. I pressed him, but he stood by his “no comment.” “I have zero memory of anyone ever saying I have Asperger’s,” he said. “I’d completely forgotten that and I hadn’t thought about it. I don’t have any thoughts or any opinions.”
I really don’t blame him for having no thoughts or opinions. No one even raised the possibility that he was on the autism spectrum until he was 68, and charging someone that age with a condition we often associate with childhood is complicated by a lifetime of ambiguities and examples to the contrary. As he approached his eighth decade, the methods he had learned to navigate the world were just his personality, as they are, I assume, for everyone. He was also unwittingly encountering a fateful tendency in my family to monumentalize the eccentricities of its members, to talk and laugh about them among ourselves and with strangers—write about them, even—until the picture shifts into focus, and those eccentricities reveal themselves as dysfunction.
And no matter his age, I’ve come to see autism spectrum diagnosis as an alienating thicket, where there is no textbook case. At his therapist’s suggestion, he read David Finch’s memoir The Journal of Best Practices, the story of Finch being diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult and using this new self-knowledge to become a better husband. Despite what would seem to be obvious commonalities between Finch and my dad, he found no applicable lessons in his story, and he thought the book made Finch look, frankly, like a jerk. Finch and his wife, Kristen, were on an episode of This American Life in 2012, where Kristen, a speech therapist who worked with disabled kids, says that she and her coworkers would always joke that their husbands were autistic. The stereotypes in that joke are uncomfortable for me in both directions. Joking about men’s emotional stuntedness seems at best inaccurate, at worst self-reinforcing, and joking about autistic people as socially retarded and robotic almost certainly increases their ostracization. But it also collapses the almost endless variation among people with autism spectrum disorders: my dad didn’t recognize Finch’s compulsions, which isn’t to say he has none of his own.
I found myself combing through websites about the autism spectrum, many of which are compiled by civilians who have the disorder themselves, who I think are also trying to come to terms with the many ways one can have autism. One particular website called Inside Perspectives of Asperger Syndrome and the Neurodiversity Spectrum describes possible autism spectrum symptoms across an exhaustive list of categories, including work, sex, eating, sleep, phone problems, “spacing out,” and even allergies and drug sensitivities. The primary sources on every page are testimonials from web users who identify as having autism and related conditions, like Asperger’s and ADHD, describing their own experiences. Many of these don’t describe my dad at all, while others do with eerie accuracy. During the conversation we had about his possibly being autistic, this description was dinging in my head: “Some have problems with reciprocity & timing and either talk on and on without letting anyone else get a word in edgewise, constantly interrupt others without realising that it’s disrespectful to do so, or say nothing at all unless asked a direct question.” There is of course also the claim that many with autism “are able to hyper-focus intently on the same thing for hours, days, sometimes weeks on end, and keep up a special interest for years”—see Sjöwall, Wahlöö, Larsson, et al.
One of the most helpful things I read on Inside Perspectives is this eloquent description from one of the site’s users of the problem with seeing autism as a disorder:
If you have one neurodiverse trait you are more likely to have additional neurodiverse traits. I am not sure why this is. The more of these traits you have, the more difficult it is to function . . . If you can’t function in society because you have too many of these traits and/or they are too intense then it becomes a disability. And when it becomes a disability then they have to put a label on it. . . . The ‘clump traits together and give them a name’ strategy is fundementally [sic] flawed . . . Labeling falsely claims you have one thing, not a group of things which may be better treated individually.
But viewing the autism spectrum as a matrix of possible traits evokes all the problems of mental health diagnosis, because, to put it simply, everyone has traits. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not seek to describe what a healthy person looks like: psychological “normalcy” is judged only by an absence of any of the dysfunctions it addresses. Considering the gargantuan length of the DSM, there are nearly as many ways to be crazy as there are to be alive. But despite the DSM’s attempt at exhaustiveness, it remains very difficult to wrangle a human being’s habits, thoughts, desires, quirks, and pain under the heading of a single diagnosis of mental illness. This is underlined by the manual’s primary use, which is not therapeutic, but clerical: a diagnosis of a disorder with a DSM classification is often the requirement for an insurance company to authorize treatment.
I gained the most insight from the wonderful autistic writer and rhetorician Melanie Yergeau, who discusses the problem of diagnosis on her blog autistext.com. As she writes, “For many, diagnosis is validating and/or leads to self-understanding. Diagnosis can explain a lot.” But a disease model of autism, where there are degrees of severity and some have it “worse” than others, effaces the individual value of autistic people. Yergeau writes powerfully for the model of disability that relies on disabled people’s rights to advocate for their own needs:
Whether your disabled child screams in the grocery checkout line or testifies in front of Congress, he is self-advocating. Whether your disabled child throws peas in your face or writes a snarky blog post or falls asleep during board game nights or says NO in all capital letters, she’s self-advocating. And none of these things is less noble or gutsy than the other.
All people have needs that flow from their humanity, not from a predetermined list of problems that we call disability. Diagnosis and the vocabulary that it trades in should be tools to help people understand themselves and ask for what they need. It follows, then, that if the language of disability doesn’t help someone advocate for himself or herself, he or she should be free to reject it.
For my dad, navigating the “neurodiverse traits” that make functioning more difficult individually—like helping him to remember not to make too much noise around the house, to reflect more on his emotions, not to give in so quickly to frustration—is most helpful, and it doesn’t require him to align all the vagaries of his personality with a diagnostic label. The autism designation isn’t helpful for him. The autism spectrum is one more place I’ve looked for my dad, with only partial success. My mom told me that, library cataloger that she is, one of her greatest interests is in creating typologies, finding categories and seeing where things fit. But she has never been that good at categorizing the people close to her, not suspecting that there was anything in my dad’s weirdness that might be explained by someone else’s weirdness. “I tend to be accepting of the way that people are,” she told me helplessly, which might be another way of saying that love is blind.
Larsson died of a heart attack shortly after delivering the manuscript for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, never living to see his novels published, much less the worldwide sensation they would become. Per Wahlöö died after he and Sjöwall finished the tenth Martin Beck novel, blessedly missing most of the social degradation he had warned against. These deaths are both eerie in the same way: socially conscious writers not living to know how right they were. Sjöwall cheerily admits now that “the project” was a failure. “Everything we feared happened, faster,” she says. “People think of themselves not as human beings but consumers. The market rules, and it was not that obvious in the 1960s, but you could see it coming.” What would have been harder for them to see coming was the murder of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986, 11 years after they wrote about a fictional Swedish prime minister being assassinated in The Terrorists. The most remarkable thing about reading the Dragon Tattoo books now, in the spring of 2017, is their overwhelming, prophetic resonance with the scandals of the 2016 election and the Trump administration, as they involve neofascists, computer hackers, sexual misconduct scandals, Russian spies, government corruption, evil billionaires, and journalistic integrity. It makes me wish Larsson had lived to comment on it, although I assume the current era would immediately make him wish he were dead.
Many people have noted the marketing brilliance of changing the title of Larsson’s Men Who Hate Women for the English translation, shifting the focus from creepy men to always more salable “girls.” Men Who Hate Women could be another alternate title for my book, and I have chosen, maybe hypocritically, to sell it on girls instead. In the end, the careers of Larsson and Sjöwall and Wahlöö turn out to be Dead Man stories, where men leave their wives and collaborators to deal with their absence for decades. This female survival is probably the truer story and, I think Larsson, Sjöwall, and Wahlöö would agree, a better one, but it doesn’t have the same addictive glamour that comes with a Dead Girl. In Roseanna, one of Beck’s colleagues mentions a movie that the suspect they’re trailing goes to see. “It has a wonderful ending,” he says. “Everyone dies except the girl.”
Larsson died at 50, after years of working too much, eating too much junk food, drinking too much coffee, and smoking too many cigarettes. There has been extended drama involving his partner of 30 years, Gabrielsson, who, since they never legally married and Larsson left no will, is not entitled to any of his posthumous millions. His death was ironic and unjust, having happened at altogether the wrong time. I can’t help but think about my dad when I read about Larsson’s heart attack: how Larsson’s colleagues found him in a chair, breathing heavily and in a cold sweat, and even then he did not want to admit he was sick. My dad was probably in congestive heart failure for weeks before my brother and his boyfriend found him hunched over in a parking lot, gasping for air. I burst into terrified tears when I saw him on a gurney in the emergency room, looking so gray and puny. “It makes me cry, too,” he said and sobbed.
Insofar as this is a Dead Girl story with a happy ending, you know that my dad got better. His cardiac emergency became another episode in his life, another story underscored, appropriately, by reading. In the hospital after his angioplasty, he had a paradoxical reaction to a sedative that launched him into an hour-long panic attack. Every 60 seconds, he would jump out of bed and run around his hospital room, endangering his fresh stitches. At one point my mom, her nerves completely shot, picked up The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and began to read from Salander’s trial. This was the only thing that soothed my dad, and she read to him until he fell asleep.
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From Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin. © 2018 by Alice Bolin. Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.