Tropes: The Problem With Bjurman

[Content Note: Rape, Stalking, Guardian Abuse, Sexist/Demeaning Language]

Ana's Note: This is the second post in my series on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The post deals with rape and violence against women, and some of the ways in which the books may or may not fall down on the whole "feminist message" thing. I'm going to put the whole post after the jump because the image used in this post -- while probably Safe for Work -- is potentially triggery.

Last week I talked about the Millennium Trilogy and how Stieg Larsson wrote the books -- "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "The Girl Who Played With Fire", and "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest" -- from the perspective of a feminist ally who had witnessed a profoundly disturbing rape in his childhood. He seems to have wanted his books to reflect his strong feelings about rapists and abusers of women, to the point where the original title for TGWTDT was "Men Who Hate Women".

As titles go, "Men Who Hate Women" is pretty descriptive of the whole series. The Bad Guys in the books are serial rapists, serial murderers, sadistic abusers, slavers, and men with deep-seated anger issues towards women. The people in the former categories -- the hardcore abusers -- are almost all people of Privilege who use their power to hurt women. The people in the latter category -- the facilitators -- are often ancillary characters like police officers, legal officials, or medical professionals who are just as much a part of the problem as the killers and rapists. And I believe this is a good point: not everyone who hates women goes out to rape and kill them. Some people who hate women 'merely' make their lives difficult by persistent marginalization and prejudice. So +10 for pointing that out.

Conveniently enough, there's a bit of a bingo game you can play with the facilitators. Any time a new character shows up, you can bet your hat that if they refer to women as "bitches" or to sex workers as "whores" or if they use "lesbian" as a derogatory slur, then they're not on the side of angels. If, on the other hand, they refer to women as "women" and to sex workers as "prostitutes", then they're probably okay. And since there is a lot of prostitution mentioned in the series, there is a lot of opportunity to weed out the wheat from the chaff in this regard. And I believe this is also a good point: Words Mean Things and certain words are frequently used to undermine and marginalize people. So +10 for pointing that out. 

But... there is a problem with this story of Men Who Hate Women, and that problem is perhaps best exemplified in the person of Bjurman.

Bjurman is the legal guardian of Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth has been illegally classified by the government as incompetent to handle her own affairs, and she has been assigned a guardian to handle her affairs for her. Bjurman completely controls her finances, her freedom, and her future. He controls all of Lisbeth's legal rights. He's a respected lawyer, a pillar of society, and a 100% credible witness against 'violent, crazy Lisbeth Salander'.

This situation would be problematic even on its own. Larsson notes pointedly that the system is ripe for abuse, and that putting citizens under the legal control of strangers without strict oversight is dangerous. If the guardianship program is a necessity, then should there should not be layers of careful oversight to ensure that society's most vulnerable members are not preyed upon by the most powerful? Or are we just going to let society's powerful and privileged members operate on the honor system? In TGWTDT, Larsson writes:

Taking away a person's control of her own life -- meaning her bank account -- is one of the greatest infringements a democracy can impose, especially when it applies to young people. It is an infringement even if the intent may be perceived as benign and socially valid. [...]

Occasionally there are reports that charges have been brought against some trustee or guardian who has misappropriated funds or sold his client’s co-op apartment and stuffed the proceeds into his own pockets. That those cases are relatively rare may be the result of two things: the authorities are carrying out their jobs in a satisfactory manner, or the clients have no opportunity to complain and in a credible way make themselves heard by the media or by the authorities.

Bjurman is white, male, wealthy, and powerful. He's amicably divorced and has been a member of the guardianship program without complaint for years. He's respected by his colleagues and regarded fondly by his prior wards. He's also a sadist who has been dreaming about finding the perfect victim for years, until he meets Lisbeth. Not long into the story, Bjurman begins to abuse his complete control over Lisbeth by raping her on two different occasions: once in his office at work and then a second time in his home.

It's important to note that any sex that Bjurman could conceivably have with Lisbeth would be abuse. The power differential between them makes it impossible for her to freely consent to sex with him: he owns all her legal rights, and he controls her money to the point where he can literally determine whether or not she will be allowed to eat that week. There is no room for willing consent in this situation; any sexual advance made by Bjurman to Lisbeth would be saturated with coercion and control.

But Bjurman doesn't rape Lisbeth by emotional manipulation or financial coercion. The rapes that Bjurman perpetuates on Lisbeth -- particularly the second rape in his home -- are extraordinarily violent. He beats her until she nearly loses consciousness. He ties her and gags her. He keeps her helpless for hours while he deliberately inflicts pain on almost every inch of her body. He abuses her so badly that she very nearly dies. There is no way that a well-adjusted observer could see this act and not classify it as brutal, horrific, and -- yes -- obviously rape.*

And this is the problem with Bjurman: he's a rapist who rapes obviously.

There is a tendency in society to "rank" rapes. Raping a drunk woman is Bad, raping a woman you deliberately drugged is Very Bad, raping a stranger who you jumped while walking home at night is Really Bad, raping your exceedingly vulnerable ward so badly that she nearly dies is Super Bad. And this "rape-ranking" is very problematic for a good many reasons.

I think many humans have a basic tendency to classify things, and that this tendency can be very hard to switch off. But I think we do need to switch off that tendency when it comes to rape-ranking. It's harmful to victims, because it creates this internal tension of well, yes, I was raped but I shouldn't complain because it wasn't as bad as it could have been. That internal voice is not something that we should inflict on victims. But even beyond that, we should stop rape-ranking because it's toxic to society and it contributes directly to our Rape Culture.

Rape is always very bad, no matter what method is used to accomplish it. No matter how Bjurman chose to rape Lisbeth, the rape would still have been a monstrous violation of her rights and her body. Any rape he could commit against her would still have been a crime against society and a disgusting abuse of the power and trust granted to him. Larsson does note this explicitly in the text. And yet... he still chooses the most 'obviously' awful method of rape imaginable when the time comes to paint a character portrait of a rapist. Why?

In the context of this particular text, I think maybe Larsson wanted to clarify just how badly the vulnerable members of our society can be abused and marginalized. I think he wanted to shock his audience: you think you know the worst thing that can happen to this woman? You're wrong. I'm going to show you something that sickens you. I think he wanted to paint the ugliness of rape as he saw it into an ugly scene that would horrify his readers.

And yet... and yet.

We live in a Rape Culture. We live in a world where people will admit to having sex with unwilling partners by use of force, threats, or drugs and yet persistently refuse to call the act 'rape'. We live in a world where people refuse to believe that 1 in 20 or even 1 in 50 men are rapists, in a world where people claim with a straight face that a woman who uses the word "rape" to describe something that clearly is rape but is not legally recognized as such is a 'false accuser'. We live in a world where 1 in 6 women are raped at some point in their lives and yet our society does not take rape seriously as a social ill...

...unless, of course, the rape looks like the kind of rape that Bjurman practice.

We live in a world where the Law & Order episode I saw last week -- a re-run that couldn't have been more than five years old -- seriously argued that the rape of an experienced sex worker couldn't possibly have traumatized her because wasn't it just another routine sex act, really? I mean, sure, there was a gun to her head, but did that really count if she wasn't being otherwise brutalized? Someone wrote that script. Someone else green-lighted it. A good many someones acted it out and aired it and what the heck am I the only one who sees the problem with that? What kind of messed-up society am I living in? And the answer is that I'm living in a Rape Culture.

I kind of think Larsson knew that. I kind of think he was working with that in his novel. I think he knew that when Lisbeth's rape came out later in court, both she and he needed it to be as damaging as possible if she was going to be taken seriously as a victim. I think he needed Lisbeth to not only be a rape victim, but also a rape victim that society will clearly recognize as such. And... I don't know whether to blame him for perpetuating rape culture or congratulating him for understanding it so well and brilliantly deconstructing that the only way Lisbeth would ever be taken seriously was if she had a video of a rape so brutal it nearly killed her. Do I hand out +10 for pointing out how incredibly messed-up our society is? I honestly don't even know.

No novel can send every possible good message. If Larsson's novels were written with the intent to illustrate how marginalized people can be horrifically abused in ways that the majority of us privileged people don't have to worry about, then maybe the "shock wake-up-from-your-comfy-privilege value" was something that couldn't be given up without compromising the underlying message. Maybe the framework wasn't there for seriously undermining rape culture. Maybe the next blockbuster trilogy can check that one off the to-do list.

And yet... and yet...

In the meantime we have Bjurman, the violent rapist. We have Gottfried and Martin, serial rapists and killers. We have Zala, the man who beat Lisbeth's mother nearly to death. We have a pedophile psychologist whose hard-drive isn't merely full of child-porn, it's full of violent child-porn. We have Erica Berger's stalker, a man who thinks nothing of slinging bricks through her picture windows. We have Men Who Hate Women In Obvious, Easily Definable Ways.

I like the Millennium Trilogy. But as much as I enjoyed reading "Men Who Hate Women", I'm still waiting for "Men Who Hate Women In Subtle Ways That Society Deems Acceptable".

That book actually probably already exists.

But I'll bet it's not a bestselling blockbuster trilogy.

* Ana's Note: I feel like I should make an addendum after writing this in order to clarify before someone brings up BDSM sex and we run off on a derail. I am not saying that the act of violent sex is "obviously rape". When I say that anyone who sees Bjurman with Lisbeth will classify the act as "obviously rape", I mean anyone who also has seen that she does not consent to what he is doing.


Bayley G said...

That book exists and it's called Twilight *ba-dump tish*

On a serious note, I just finished an amazing book called The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I think everyone in America needs to read this book because it so obviously exemplifies the way men and women interact, outlining the patriarchy and the feeling of being an outsider not because the men consciously exclude you, but because they have the power and no matter what you do you'll never be one of them because you have boobs and they can't take you seriously. Nobody is raped in that book at all, but there's a lot of the normal, subtle kinds of messed-up things going on.

Launcifer said...

This isn't entirely on-topic, but the phrase came up in your post, so...

I once had an interesting discussion with my old man (who, for the record, was a police officer who spent more than ten years as part of the local Dangerous Persons Unit, gave lectures at various police training colleges and generally dealt with violent sexual offenders on a daily basis) who was adamant that the phrase "child porn" can inadvertantly cause similar problems to the whole ranking rapes thing. His contention was that the word pornography brings with it certain connotations of payment, scenario and consent that he found problematic when it came to actually having to deal with such people.

Obviously, I don't know anywhere near enough about the subject to determine if this is a genuine issue or not, but I always found the possibility that the use of a single word might subtly change the way it was perceived by sections of society to be frankly disturbing.

Ana Mardoll said...

Checking to see if I understand correctly: The concern was that the word "porn" imbued a concept of consent that the child simply could not have made? Interesting.

There was a good Melissa McEwan piece a few weeks ago about a newspaper that chose to describe a situation of a 14-year-old girl being repeatedly (but apparently not violently) raped by an adult man as a "relationship".

On the one hand, the situation probably did meet the Definitive standard for the word: the two human beings had a "relationship" to one another in the sense that I have a "relationship" with everyone I meet. But on the salient hand, the term "relationship" seemed to Connotatively imply that the girl was consenting to sex, where she had no ability to legally do so.

Launcifer said...

It was largely concerning the issue of consent, I think, though he had a few bugbears about pornography generally because he felt that certain niche genres made his job more difficult given that they provided fantasy material for people in whom he later ended up taking a professional interest, shall we say? That's probably a somewhat separate issue, though.

I'm fairly sure the other thing you mention, concerning the term "relationship", cropped up more than once. I know of at least one case where the use of that word in a specific context was a significant problem, actually, though for very different reasons than the piece you mentioned.

Ana Mardoll said...

A stickier issue on the other front, I'd say, and suffers (imho) from Correlation/Causation issues. There are (as evidenced a good post I shall be re-blogging this weekend) many women, for example, with rape fantasies who may consume, say, rape pornography without graduating to going out and deliberately seeking or perpetuating rape.

However, I think that's a derail for another post on another day possibly on another year. I tend to see porn as very complicated. :)

Launcifer said...

Oh, I agree with you there. I made the comment more to cover myself given that I'd mentioned three factors of concern to him and then only continued rambling on about one of them ;). I would imagine that the other two would crop up more whenit comes to attempts to excuse or justify the behaviour documented in such images which is, again, a derail for another lifetime. I've already had one shower today and all that.

Ana Mardoll said...

Aha, I understand. Thank you. :D

Makabit said...

The question standing out in my mind here is: do we ever find out abut Bjurman's prior victims? Because "He's also a sadist who has been dreaming about finding the perfect victim for years, until he meets Lisbeth," doesn't ring true from a psychological perspective. Perhaps there's someone out there capable of carrying out the described rape and torture, sober, with no group urging him on, for the first time, at the age of, what, fiftysomething, only after finding a perfectly safe victim, but I would say that this person is psychologically pretty damn rare.

He's done something like this before, a number of times. Maybe not to this degree, but I'm gonna bet that his wife and a string of sex workers and previous wards would be able to tell you something.

Ana Mardoll said...

Good question! I can answer that in the book, Lisbeth runs a pretty detailed research on him and all of his prior wards seem to think he's awesome, in a well-adjusted sort of way. The omni-narrative later states that he's done role-playing with his wife and with sex workers, but that it was unsatisfying for him because it wasn't real. (I cannot find the quote now, and it's irritating me that I can't.) I've no idea if that's realistic.

Ana Mardoll said...

Aha! It was in the second book, which was why I had trouble finding it.


It was the first time he had exploited one of his clients. Previously it had never occurred to him to make advances to anyone with whom he had a professional relationship. To satisfy his sexual needs, he had always turned to prostitutes. He had been discreet and he paid well; the problem was that prostitutes were not serious, they were only pretending. It was a service he bought from a woman who moaned and rolled her eyes; she played her part, but it was as phony as street theatre.

He had tried to dominate his wife in the years that he was married, but she had merely gone along with it, and that too was a game.

Salander had been the perfect solution. She was defenceless. She had no family, no friends: a true victim, ripe for plundering. The opportunity makes the thief.

Makabit said...

Thanks. Huh. I don't know. There's a pretty big ramp-up there that seems unrealistic to me, but I'm not an expert on criminal psych by any means.

Launcifer said...

How long has he been part of the programme?

I only ask because, if he's been involved for any length of time, it's rather difficult to believe that it's never occurred to him to make use of the pool of potential victims presented by this aspect of his life. Hell, I struggle to buy the idea that he *didn't* enter the programme specifically to trawl for victims. It's also difficult to believe that Lizbeth's the first person he's encountered whose circumstances suggest she's the perfect victim.

Ana Mardoll said...

Salander focused on his ex-wife, whose name was Elena. She was born in Poland but had lived all her life in Sweden. She worked at a rehabilitation centre and was apparently happily remarried to one of Bjurman’s former colleagues. Nothing useful there. The Bjurman marriage had lasted fourteen years, and the divorce went through without disputes.

Advokat Bjurman regularly acted as a supervisor for youths who got into trouble with the law. He had been trustee for four youths before he became Salander’s guardian. All of these cases involved minors, and the assignments came to an end with a court decision when they came of age. One of these clients still consulted Bjurman in his role as advokat, so there did not seem to be any animosity there either. If Bjurman had been systematically exploiting his wards, there was no sign of it, and no matter how deeply Salander probed, she could find no trace of wrongdoing. All four had established lives for themselves with a boyfriend or girlfriend; they all had jobs, places to live, and Co-op debit cards.

She called each of the four clients, introducing herself as a social welfare secretary working on a study about how children hitherto under the care of a trustee fared later in life compared to other children. Yes, naturally, everyone will be anonymous. She had put together a questionnaire with ten questions, which she asked on the telephone. Several of the questions were designed to get the respondents to give their views on how well the trusteeship had functioned—if they had any opinions about their own trustee, Advokat Bjurman wasn’t it? No-one had anything bad to say about him.

I guess if he had child wards and they were now grown up, he's been guardian'ing for several years.

Loquat said...

And apparently Disqus doesn't like my comments this week. Trying again...

I agree that there's no way a middle-aged guy holds positions of power for years, never has the slightest inclination towards abuse, and then suddenly turns around and starts brutally exploiting one particular client. Maybe he's never gone so far as to outright rape a woman before, but I do not for a minute believe that he never tried to overstep any woman's boundaries of consent until Lizbeth Salandar walked through his office door.

Nick said...

@Launcifer -- Can you think of a more apt phrase?

Launcifer said...

@Ana: Thank you for posting up the relevant text. I'm still not entirely sure I buy it, but I do see your reasoning there and I can probably accept what Larsson's trying to highlight by framing Bjurman that way, even if it does feel a bit hand-wavey to me. It might simply be my own cynicism getting in the way.

@Nick: A more apt phrase than what?

Makabit said...

Complete brain download. Skip if you wish, this is just me rambling:

I notice that the wording does not give us a clue as to whether any of the previous wards were female, which leaves the possibility that he's warded for a series of young men who he didn't see as suitable prey.

I'm still having trouble accepting this guy's apparent psychological profile. His behavior says psychopath, and while you can be a psychopath and hate women, hating women doesn't CAUSE you to be a psychopath if you aren't. Bjurman's just got the magic double whammy.

He's apparently intelligent and upper-middle-class, both factors which tend to allow a psychopathic personality to rise to authority and respectability, rather than end up in jail early on. He's a manipulator, which is par for the course. I'm not going to say that the experimenting with consensual powerplay with his wife and sex workers makes no sense, but I can't see him trying it more than a couple of times without pushing it too far. Consent would not hold any possible interest for him. But carrying out extended torture in your own home is not a beginner's crime.

It feels to me as though Larson is assuming that psychopathy is just a tagalong in the service of misogyny, but it would be entirely possible to rewrite this scenario with a male victim. It's not possible for me to just look at this and say, "Oh, well, that's just what men who hate women DO," because without a certain sort of psychological framework, they don't. I don't care how friendless and vulnerable she is, keeping someone against their will, torturing and raping them in your HOUSE is high-risk behavior from someone whose entire past appears to have been kept very free from scandal. This is not the profile of your garden-variety rapist, either in motivation or behavior.

But regardless of whether he's garden variety or not, I don't buy that he hasn't practiced, probably on sex workers if not his former wards. And, I don't know, this seems to miss the whole point. The problem with misogyny and rape culture and institutionalized sexism and othering isn't that it's done by crazy people, it's that it's NOT done by crazy people. There's almost a Anti-Mary Sue thing going on here with this guy. He's someone who acts like he's got a personality disorder, except when he doesn't. Because he's just that amazingly smart, and only ever commits perfect crimes. Yeeaaahhh.

I also think that the idea of having a single person in a guardianship like this is just asking for trouble, but did they ask my opinion?

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, I'm not really sure how to respond, because it seems like I'm going to come off saying "read the book!" Ha. I'll try not to sound that way.

He doesn't commit perfect crimes and his first attack of Lisbeth is not in his home. He orally rapes her in his office. When she doesn't report him, he feels safe enough to escalate. (What he hasn't counted on is that she's decided to let him orally rape her again in order to get him on tape and blackmail him to stay away from her.)

There are two other very salient points:

1. Bjurman thinks that Salandar is so mentally disabled that she literally cannot report him.
2. Bjurman knows that Salandar has been diagnosed from a variety of sources as being violent, mentally disturbed, etc. that she will not be believed.

I understand why you don't get -- from what is posted here -- why the book follows the path it does, but I'm afraid that with a 300+ page book (and it's a trilogy, ha), I had to cut a few corners. I *am* sorry about that. :(

But I would definitely say that Bjurman is not mentally disabled. Crazy is not synonymous with Evil. :)

Makabit said...

I'm willing to accept that that this makes more sense if you read the book, and that he has reason to believe that his behavior is safe.

But the specific scenario of his past behavior does seem to me to defy probability. I'm a psych student, so I certainly don't think that crazy means evil. But just because a character is evil doesn't make his behavior automatically psychologically convincing.

Eh. I shall accept that it makes more sense if you read the whole thing, at least until I read the whole thing.


Runeless said...

I think in ways that your psych status is actually making it harder to view. A rape fantasy that has gotten to the point of roleplaying it is... not too far from actual rape.

If he's sane, not crazy at all, then his behavior makes perfect sense. He's a hungry, opportunistic bastard who just hasn't gotten it yet. He's perfectly rational.

One doesn't need to run to mental illness to explain monstrosity. We do that a lot, which is terribly... I don't know a word for it, but it's effectively racism/sexism towards the non neurologically standard, and I dislike that. Most "crazy" people are not violent. Like, 99% of them.

Makabit said...

If I'm giving the impression that I think that Bjurman is 'crazy' or 'insane' or 'not rational', or 'mentally disabled', I'm giving the wrong impression. A court would find him responsible for his actions, by the sound of the character. I just don't find the pattern of behavior being described very realistic, based on what can be inferred about him from his behavior. As I've said, perhaps in the context of the novel it flows more naturally.

Patrick Pricken said...

After I finished my own Twilight deconstruction, I have turned to A Game of Thrones now. Your series of posts is really playing into the discussions going on at my blog (since George RR Martin is not shy about using sexualized violence), so thank you for those thoughts. Also, perhaps relatedly, here's an article about How to be a fan of problematic things.

Kit Whitfield said...

A more apt phrase than "child porn"? Sorry, should probably have thought of that first.

How do you feel about the phrase 'paedophilic porn'? That at least puts the focus on the offence...


TW: partner abuse

I'm not going to say that the experimenting with consensual powerplay with his wife and sex workers makes no sense, but I can't see him trying it more than a couple of times without pushing it too far. Consent would not hold any possible interest for him. But carrying out extended torture in your own home is not a beginner's crime.

Which brings to mind something I find implausible about it:

The guy's a sadist who hates women, right?

And yet he doesn't abuse his wife?

If Larsson thought that a man wouldn't abuse his wife because it would be too hard to get away with, then I have to question his understanding of misogyny, privilege and the way society stacks against women. The perfect victim for most men is the one you're married to. All you have to do is escalate the abuse gradually, wear down her self-esteem and energy to undermine the chances of her looking for help outside the relationship, and then punish her every time she stands up to you, so that when you want to do whatever you want to do to her, you can bully her into nominally 'consenting' in a way that'll make it very hard for her to prove charges of rape even if the laws allow for the possibility that men can rape their wives.

A vulnerable outsider is the perfect victim for a hit-and-run crime. But a middle-aged man who wants, in effect, a slave to abuse ... and it didn't occur to him to marry a vulnerable woman?

I don't buy it.

And the fact that Larsson didn't think that way is part of my problem with his presentation of abuse.

Yes, Lisbeth is vulnerable to abuse and so gets abused a lot. But along with 'only really violent rapists are rapists', there's also - to me, at least - an unpleasant hint of 'only obviously vulnerable and abused women are exploited and raped.' So much abuse lands on Lisbeth that it starts looking as if the rape statistics are so high because almost all of it happens to a few people. And that's no more true than 'all rapes involve battery.'

Loquat said...

It also occurs to me that this is another area where the film can leave you with a drastically different interpretation than the book does; the film doesn't bother going into Bjurman's head and only shows you the way he treats Salandar, and the way it's played came off, to me at least, like he'd had practice doing this. And using his control over her finances to extort sexual favors, as he does to Salandar at first, is very much the sort of thing abusive men often do to dependent wives, and I'm amazed that we're expected to believe he never tried to abuse that financial control with his previous wards.

mmy said...

Given the length of the book (Larsson was obviously not going for a quick read) I saw no reason why he could not have presented the Bjurman's treatment of Lisbeth as something that ramped up to what most outsiders would perceive as "really" rape only after quite a long period of interactions that Lisbeth experienced as rape but which would be almost impossible to use as the basis to lay criminal charges.

If Larsson wanted to include the horrific physical torture in order to show how far Bjurman was willing to go he could have presented it as "ironically, now Bjurman had done something that an outsider would recognize as rape there was a chance that LIsbeth could get back at him legally."


Believe it or not (given its general penchant for white, blonde women who are sexually tortured before being killed) the American show Criminal Minds ("The Crossing") in which two members of the Behaviorism Analysis Team are consulted by a DA who wants them to debunk the ' "battered spouse syndrome" defense of a woman who shot her husband in his sleep. The DA is completely unsympathetic to the plea since there is "no sign" of any abuse in the tradition sense. The dead husband had never laid a hand on his wife, she had never gone to the hospital for anything other than to give birth. Their home was beautiful, their children well groomed and well educated. Slowly things begin to emerge -- the woman has no driver's license, no bank account, no friends or contacts outside her home. Her children (who have internalized their father's attitude to their mother) see this perfectly ordinary looking woman who maintains a lovely looking home, who dresses well and speaks very standard middle-class, middle-American English as "stupid" "lazy" "ugly" and "worthless."

By the end of the episode the show writers (and actors, I give them credit) manage to communicate the idea that without ever hitting his wife or doing anything that an outsider would recognize as abuse the dead husband had brutalized her psychologically. She is a broken shell of a woman and the DA's last words are to the effect "we'll just sentence her to time served waiting for trial -- she has already been living in hell for years."

If an American police procedural can paint a vivid, believable and gut-wrenching example of partner abuse can take place without ever showing a hand raised or a voice lifted then it seems to me that Larsson could have treated Bjurman's treatment of LIsbeth in a way that didn't pander to the voyeurs in the audience and/or stereotyped conceptions of how "men hate women."

Ana Mardoll said...

The reason that the "Not My Nigel" trope exists is because sometimes men do treat their wives well while abusing other women. And now I'm going to share a personal story.

[TW: Rape, Abuse, TMI Sex]

My first marriage was to a man who was emotional abusive, and sometimes physically abusive, but he never raped me. In fact, a major problem in our marriage was that he never wanted to have sex with me; I have a high sex drive and he never seemed interested in being with me, even the the point of frequently losing 'interest' during the few times we'd have sex.

One day, he came home from work early and told me that a co-worker had accused him of raping her. I thought that was almost laughable, given his disinterest in sex. I did not, at the time, understand that rape and sex were not the same things. The charge was confusingly worded, strangely-timed, and ultimately not provable one way or the other, and so the young woman retracted her statement. At the time, I thought she was a liar. Now, I really honestly do not know.

Men marry for a lot of reasons. My husband married me for financial reasons. We don't know if Bjurman married his wife for financial reasons or political connections, but there may well have been several good reasons why he married a woman he couldn't terrorize and why he didn't feel safe fully terrorizing her once they were married. To ignore those real life factors and say that it's not likely Bjurman wouldn't abuse his wife, well, to me that undermines the case of ANY rape victim if a wife steps forward and says "well, he's never raped ME." I cannot, in fact, think of a high-profile celebrity/politician rape/harassment case where the accused *wasn't* married.

I have been raped by a man whose previous girlfriends never experienced any sexual violence from him (that they were willing to confide in me). I have had my boundaries pushed by a man who had been happily married for years prior to meeting me.

As for the portrayal in the book. Bjurman does work up to abusing Lisbeth. First he removes her bank account. Second he verbally abuses her. Third he orally rapes her. Then, and only then, he rapes her in his apartment.

I feel like Larsson was going to be damned whatever he did. If he'd thrown in a few more "training rapes" of Lisbeth, then he'd be accused of drawing it all out and writing a violently pornographic novel. If he didn't write 4-5 extra Bjurman rapes, then it's unrealistic for Bjurman to behave the way he does. Since he wanted to get on with the story, I think he chose the latter, but we can never really know.

One final thought. The books do say that Bjurman has been practicing on sex workers but that it's not "real enough" for him. There's a lot of hand-waving wiggle room there, if the psychological profile is that important to the reader. Many a man has wrongly assumed that the mere act of taking money means that a prostitute consented to everything he then did to her.

Will Wildman said...

The guy's a sadist who hates women, right?

And yet he doesn't abuse his wife?

This is what I get stuck on as well here. Rape is about power; if he's supposed to be a realistic misogynist, then it's not going to be confined to this one tiny area of activities - there are plenty of ways to torture and subjugate without needing to get sexual. And within the sexual realm, he talks about how his apparent attempts to 'dominate' his wife were sufficiently mild that she took it for a standard part of their roleplay. I just can't imagine how that works. If he does something with intent to abuse and his wife doesn't feel abused, I seriously doubt he's going to stop there - isn't he going to keep going until he finds something that she doesn't want to do, and then do it just to prove he can? It seems like Bjurman is being presented as only comfortable with a certain kind of potentially-abusive activity, and his 'perfect victim' is someone who will feel abused in those circumstance without him having to push further. (And this is without getting into his apparently-amiable interactions with sex workers, as if they aren't also extremely vulnerable and thus often seen as 'ideal victims'.)

Ana Mardoll said...

I should add something else.

The villain in TGWTDT, who I think Bjurman is meant to be an ironic echo of, is in my opinion deliberately modeled off the Austrian man who kept his daughter and her children locked in his basement for a decade.

And since there have been a couple of European cases to that effect, iirc, Larsson had more than one man to choose as a model.

In the case I'm most familiar with, the man did have a history of stalking, but that history had been purged from public record because Austrian laws reflected the idea that rapists rehabilitate.

And while he did emotionally abuse his wife, there's no question that he did not keep her locked in a basement for a decade.

So sometimes married men do pick a victim for a sudden escalation in violence, at least in real life. Possibly in fiction it is more jarring to the reader.

Kit Whitfield said...

To ignore those real life factors and say that it's not likely Bjurman wouldn't abuse his wife, well, to me that undermines the case of ANY rape victim if a wife steps forward and says "well, he's never raped ME."

I stand corrected, and I apologise.

Ana Mardoll said...

Thank you, and I'm sorry too. I suddenly feel like I'm doing some kind of knee-jerk NUH-UH SOME MEN ARE SECRET RAPISTS OF VULNERABLE STRANGERS, and I have nothing to back that up except my own personal experience. Possibly the "secret rapists of strangers whilst happily married" subset is vanishingly low and it just *seems* high to me. :(

(I also wonder if a lot of this conversation isn't so much "That's not how it happens in Real Life" -- because, yes, seemingly random and strange things happen in real life all the time -- and more "As a reader, I demand justifiable explanations for why things happen". I'm not at all convinced that's not a perfectly reasonable stance to take, so it again seems wrong for me to criticize it.)

I must go do some thinking now. Thank you, everyone.

Will Wildman said...

I apologise as well for any minimisation or dismissal that was implied in my post. I am still quite confused by the idea that Bjurman has actively tried to abuse women in the past and then given up rather than ever escalating.

Launcifer said...

I think, having read all the responses since I wandered off last night, that the issue I'm having here is not so much that I don't buy into Bjurman's behaviour: it's that it feels like there are elements missing from his progression. Now, it might be that Lizbeth can't find them, for whatever reason. It might be that she's deliberately kept elements from our dummy protagonist for unspoken reasons of her own (and therefore from us), because I certainly would in circumstances one might call comparable. It might even be that there are no other elements in play and what's causing me the problem is that my own personal experiences or "best guesswork" concerning how things might progress in such a situation don't chime with what happens.

They're all perfectly valid possibilities but it does leave me wondering if Larsson deliberately chose to remove certain elements of Bjurman's progression and why. That might well be for some of the reasons you mentioned when you suggested he was on a bit of a hiding to nothing, though. Equally, there might be nothing else to see and I'm simply used to seeing more in the media and whatnot.

@Kit: I think that "paedophilic porn" brings with it a different set of issues concerning usage but it's certainly much closer to what's actually going on and probably more accurate full stop.

Launcifer said...

I'd also like to apologise if if comes across as if I'm reducing or ignoring actual behaviour in order to make it fit my own preconceived notions. That certainly wasn't my intention.

Bayley G said...

You know, it occurs to me that the man's prior wards had been children who aged out of the system, capable of taking care of themselves. Lisbeth is, as far as he knows, a lifer in the system and a grown adult. So this is his first adult ward, even though it's not his first ward in general. Maybe he doesn't want power over children so much as power over another adult? Maybe he worries about someone reporting him years down the line?

Ana Mardoll said...

Hey, that's alright. It's a free discussion board, and it's me who got touchy. I apologize for that, both to you and Kit and everyone else. Sorry. :)

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, that would make some sense, actually. I think the kids age out and are tested as competent at, like, 18 or something similar. Lisbeth is older than that and will never test out. (Because she refuses to talk to the psychiatrists who administer the test.)

Kit Whitfield said...

Possibly the "secret rapists of strangers whilst happily married" subset is vanishingly low and it just *seems* high to me. :(

I have the sad suspicion that it's probably not as low as all that.

I think, if you don't mind me trying to adjust what I said, that in the case of this character and what he specifically wants, the idea that he spins his wheels doing nothing for most of his life feels implausible. It takes quite a lot of effort to torture someone in your own home; if you only want to do it mildly enough that you can hold off for thirty-odd years of sexual maturity, would you really bother to do it at all?

It also feels implausible to me that a man who wanted a long-term victim, which is what he supposedly wants, wouldn't see marriage as a better opportunity than hoping the right victim will come along one day. I may need correcting again, but do the men who treat their partners reasonably pursue long-term campaigns of abuse against their victims? Or are they more likely to be opportunists who regularly move on to new victims?

I really don't know. All I can say is that I just don't find the characterisation very convincing; it feels more like a writer trying to simplify backstory for the sake of plot convenience - or perhaps for keeping Lisbeth 'special', by playing up her 'perfect innocent victim' status by suggesting that nobody else this man's ever encountered in a lifetime is as vulnerable as her ... which again feels rather like he's minimising the very misogyny he's trying to lambast.

But like I say, I may need correcting.

mmy said...

As for the portrayal in the book. Bjurman does work up to abusing Lisbeth. First he removes her bank account. Second he verbally abuses her. Third he orally rapes her. Then, and only then, he rapes her in his apartment.

Perhaps this just arises from a different reading of the book but I didn't feel that it adequately conveyed the idea that those actions were in and of themselves horrific and abusive as much as they were signals that "the real scary stuff is about to come."

Ana Mardoll said...

Oh! When you say it that way, Kit, it makes sense and now I feel silly for not understanding earlier. And I understand the previous comment about the change in behavior. The idea is that he has both perfect impulse control in not abusing his wife and yet not so much impulse control as to test the waters with Lisbeth more thoroughly? Now I can see it, thank you. :)

Kit Whitfield said...

and yet not so much impulse control as to test the waters with Lisbeth more thoroughly?

Or, indeed, to decide that the actual practical details of acting out his fantasy are more trouble than they're worth and to keep them as just that, a fantasy.

Fluffy_goddess said...

I'm coming rather late to this thread, and haven't read the novels yet, but I wonder: how much of how their marriage ended to we actually hear from the wife? If it's purely what Lisbeth digs up from the paper-trail + what Bjurman thinks happened, I think that goes a long way to explaining how both aspects of his characterisation mesh.

I'm hoping I can phrase this without dragging on forever, but: an arrogant, abusive man who felt he had good reason not to abuse a specific woman could, in my mind, easily spend a few years pushing her boundaries, decide there's no potential for change there, and then take a few years extricating himself because he wants to make sure his divorce leaves them both looking like good people afterwards. Which he would want to do -- he gets a lot of power from his social position, which would be threatened by an antagonistic divorce even if his ex-wife came off as the villain to their mutual friends, and an amicable divorce is a lot cheaper. Also, it means he has her as a potential character-witness, whereas if he unleashes his temper and desires, she's going to be his enemy.

Just because he hates/looks down on women doesn't mean he can't channel that in different ways with different women. And if most of what we learn about this marriage is channeled through highly restricted sources, we could be missing a lot. Maybe what he thought of as mild consent play with his wife, easily abandoned because it wasn't satisfying, was actually quite a lot further than she wanted to let it go, but she decided not to make a big deal about it because hey, he's a pillar of the community, who'd believe her, it wasn't that big of a deal, he stopped doing it, etc. Even if pushed and even to herself, she probably wouldn't admit how bad it had gotten, because saying "I married him and he hurt me" is not exactly an easy thing to do, and the more private the hurt the harder it is to admit it happened.

So then we have a villain who takes the necessary steps to protect himself, and is probably growing increasingly frustrated by how long it's taking to find a truly satisfying outlet, so pushes faster than he should when he does. If the other people in his past all thought they were dealing with a good, upstanding man, they wouldn't have been getting together and comparing notes on the places where that persona cracks -- they'd have been helping reinforce it. People don't want to admit that someone they thought was a good guy might not be; it's the best disguise possible because it's self-reinforcing.

Fluffy_goddess said...

Also, assaulting someone in your own home gives you a huge amount of control over the environment. I'd take it as the choice of a controlling individual, not a sign he's spiralling out of control.

Ana Mardoll said...

On the go right now, but I can absolutely confirm that the only thing we see of his wife is Lisbeth's research and his POV.

Karen N said...

I haven't actually read this series--I've tried to start TGWTDT several times but keep finding the writing too dry for my taste in fiction. However, your fascinating discussion of Bjurman's character reminds me a composite case study the highly successful businessman "Skip" in Dr. Martha Stout's excellent non-fiction book The Sociopath Next Door. Here's a quote from page 43: "No, Skip was not consigned to the edges of society, he does not drool, and he is not (yet) in prison. In fact, he is rich, and, in many circles, respected--or at least feared, which masquerades brilliantly as respect . . . his employees are there to be manipulated and used, as his friends have always been. His wife and even his children are meant for the eyes of the world. They are camouflage . . . by far his most impressive talent is his ability to conceal from nearly everyone the true emptiness of his heart--and to command the passive silence of those few who do know."

Skip tries to rape one of his administrative assistants and ends up breaking her arm, but that is the only physical violence (aside from tormenting frogs and other hapless creatures when he is a child) that he demonstrates. Otherwise his prosecutable crimes are the hands-off crimes of finance--fraud, etc. He's a serial philanderer, and although Stout doesn't emphasize this aspect of his character, I'm sure that given his manipulative tendencies and ability to lie and flatter, that he has left many women abused in the psychological sense when they discover there is no conscience behind his fine words and charming mask. Skip doesn't need physical violence to get his jollies for the most part except when someone physically resists him, as the assistant did. Most of his crimes are not prosecutable (serial adultery, the emotional abuse inherent in deliberate manipulation), but that doesn't mean they don't leave just as much if not more devastation in their wake than his financial crimes do.

Most sociopathic behaviors are not crimes in the legal sense. All of us have met someone, whether we realize it or not, who is a sociopath and has no conscience. Statistically, it would be impossible not to do so (unless we've lived under a rock our whole lives), as one in 25 people can be classified as having no conscience. Our tendency when we think of someone with no conscience is to imagine a Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy--it feels far safer that way, as we can look at these cases as sensational and out of the ordinary, not someone close to us, someone perhaps even in our own family. This kind of magical thinking doesn't protect anyone and in fact, is a grave disservice to victims of subtler crimes such as manipulation, emotional abuse, and breaches of trust. For instance, which crime do you think will have more long-lasting, psychologically deleterious effects on its victim: one instance of violent rape at the hands of a casual acquaintance or hundreds of instances of psychological abuse at the hands of a trusted family member? The rape, if reported, may be difficult to prosecute because of our culture's tragic inability to accept the prevalence of this crime. However, it's still possible that the rape victim can face his or her assaliant in court and that the rapist may even serve prison time. However, the years of psychological abuse, which probably resulted in instances of coerced sex, etc, and other boundary violations? The victim may not even see herself or himself as a victim of abuse because society is for the most part blind to these types of crimes.

Having not read TGWTDT, I can't comment directly on Bjurman. But I did want to contribute. And I highly recommend The Sociopath Next Door as well as Stout's other book about dissociation and trauma, entitled The Myth of Sanity.

Ana Mardoll said...

And that’s *probably* the symbolism that Larsson was trying to use. Or at least, as far as I can see.

I think so too, and as you said that's where it becomes hard to understand if he was speaking to society at large or a feminist Rape-Culture-savvy society. Because those two groups are going to experience the same narrative very differently, in the same way that, say, a Victim-Blaming 101 post may be too hard for some newbies but not harsh enough for experienced veterans who can poke holes at the weak points.

Amarie said...

*whew* Oh, thank GOD I didn’t offend/anger anyone!! D:

I tell you, Ana, I am *very* ignorant towards Rape Culture and Victim Blaming in general. At least, in comparison to everyone else. So what I wrote was…difficult for to put down in both a thoughtful and sensitive manner.

And…I guess that’s why I’m willing to cut a *little* slack for people that are ignorant about the things that TGWTDT talk about; I wasn’t all that intelligent in these kinds of things until I started blogging with you guys. I *still* feel like I’m learning more and more about Rape Culture in general. And, frankly, even if my youth *could* be a factor, I don’t consider that an excuse for my ignorance.

But it really is interesting how so many things can be Rorschach Puzzles…

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