Rape Victims Applaud Power of Stieg Larsson Films to Educate

Girl With Dragon Tattoo used as educational tool in crisis centers, colleges

August 26, 2010, 5:30 PM

Aug. 27, 2010— -- At the age of 13 while awaiting a school bus, Amanda Sandberg was kidnapped by a man in a white van who covered her head in a beanie and bound her mouth with duct tape, repeatedly raping her, at times with broken bottles.

The rapist even returned her to her empty Seattle home and tortured and sexually assaulted her again, leaving her bloody and unconscious in the bathtub.

It took three years to apprehend the man, and in 2004, just days before Sandberg enrolled in college, he was convicted through a cold DNA match and sentenced to 38 years without parole.

Now, 11 years later, Sandberg speaks out about the lifelong trauma of sexual assault and is an unlikely fan of Stieg Larsson, the Swedish crime author whose heroines are the victims of horrific rape and incest.

Like Larsson's young heroine Lisbeth Salander, the victim of a ritualistic rape, Sandberg is angry, distrustful of others and "fiercely independent."

"It was very cathartic reading the books and when I watched the first movie I was blown away," said Sandberg, 24, now living in Washington, D.C. "It was the first active and aggressive depiction of a survivor I have ever seen."

Just this week, Music Box Films, U.S. distributors for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" are sending the Swedish movie to rape crisis centers and college groups who will show it to support victims of sexual assault.

So far, 125 have signed up, and they are prepared to give away thousands of DVD's for free.

The company has partnered with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) to use the films as part of an educational program to advocate for trauma victims and bring attention to assault prevention.

It carries a warning for survivors that they mayface challenges dealing with the graphic rape scenes and experience flashbacks.

Larsson, who died of a heart attack just after handing over the manuscripts to the publisher in 2004, was a champion of women's rights and a crusader against sex trafficking, the central theme in the millennium trilogy.

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," now available on DVD, is the highest grossing film in Sweden's history and the most profitable European production in 2009. "The Girl Who Played With Fire" was released to U.S. audiences this summer and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," will premiere Oct. 29.

An American version of the first film starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig will soon begin production.

The films illustrate the real life effects of sexual violence on victims and survivors, emphasizing the importance of getting help.

According to statistics from RAINN, an estimated 248,300 Americans were assaulted in the 2007 and 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. College students are more than four times likely to be victims.

The organization is determined to get the films screened and discussed at as many colleges and crisis centers as possible to educate students about sexual assault and to provoke a discussion about how the fictional crimes were portrayed and how those assaults affected the mental health of victims for a lifetime.

Sexual assault survivors are more likely to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse alcohol and drugs and to contemplate suicide, much like Larsson's fictional characters Salander and Vanger.

Previews in some of RAINN's crisis centers have already triggered a backlash from some viewers because of the graphic violence. But Sandberg said the heroines, Salander and Vanger are realistic -- and neither are passive victims.

Lisbeth Salander Responds Like Real-Life Survivors

Salander, 24, is raped by her legal guardian who had control of her finances and the authority to report her as mentally unstable. He assaulted her sadistically for two hours using a gag and a rope and physically beat her.

Vanger is raped by her father and mother from the ages of 13 to 15, fakes her own murder, and runs away for several decades.

Salander avenges her own father -- a sex trafficker -- for the beatings of her mother and mutilates the body of her guardian in retaliation for his assault.

The genesis of the project was from Music Box Films, which wanted to "capitalize" on its young fans in a grassroots campaign that showed some "social responsibility," according to its marketing consultant Nevette Previd.

"Fans are of a certain demographic, and they read the book first. Then it has a trickle down effect," she said. "We are trying to market foreign films to an audience that doesn't necessarily see foreign films."

"We came up with a program that was mutually beneficial," she said of the partnership with RAINN. "They can educate, and we can get the 20-somethings, so it's a win-win for both of us."

Previd admits the rape scenes are horrifying. "I think that from a movie point of view it was essential to put it in," she said. "This is a foreign film version of the book, not Hollywood. But it wasn't sensationalizing. It's real life."

Both groups are hoping that up to 1,000 colleges get the free film and discussion guide, which will be presented sometimes on or about Sept. 23, the organization's RAINN Day.

"The most wonderful thing to come out of the film is people are having a dialogue about sexual violence," said Jen Marsh, RAINN's hotline and affiliate services director. "When people start having a conversation, whether they liked or disliked the books is relevant."

Lisbeth Salander and Harriet Vanger illustrate two different, but typical responses to rape.

"It varies from survivor to survivor, but Lisbeth exemplifies a common reaction: distrust of people, anger and sometimes a desire for revenge," she said. "Victims discuss fantasies, but not acting on it, just thinking about the aggressor."

"Isolation is also a big one and Lisbeth is a good example of that," said Marsh. "It ties into the distrust."

Like Vanger, who who moved to Australia after being raped by her brother, "some victims cope and deal with abuse by kind of starting over, something as small as changing one's appearance or separating from anything that reminds them of the assault."

Such was the case with Sandberg, who said recovery after sexual assault is a "tough road."

'It truly lasts a lifetime," she said. "It's not that you ever get over what happens, but you learn to live with it."

The day she was assaulted, her walking partner was sick and Sandberg, at the time only an eighth grader, stood alone at the bus stop on a busy street corner when the windowless industrial van pulled up.

"He had a gun in his hand and a knife in the other and before I knew it the gun was at my head and the knife was at my throat," she said. "He threw me in the back."

After driving off road, he assaulted her multiple times, sending her in and out of consciousness. Afterward, the rapist cleverly called her school to say he was an uncle and she was sick that day. Then he drove to her home while Sandberg's mother was at work, and locked her in a bedroom closet.

"He put furniture against the closet door and in the process stole everything, including my mother's blank checks and heirloom jewelry and some furniture," she said.

Scream Mask and White Vans Trigger Flashbacks

It was October, and the rapist picked up a pink Halloween mask from the movie "Scream" and put it on his face.

"By the time he opened the door, I had managed to get the beanie off my head and he dragged me into my mother's room and assaulted me again on her bed and then dragged me into the bathroom tub. He turned on the shower and I was bleeding and he said, 'I will come and kill you if you ever tell anyone,' and left."

Sandberg dragged herself to a phone and called 911. She had so many cut wounds that she needed blood transfusions and had two black eyes for a month. Sandberg also had surgery on her genitals to repair the damage caused by the broken bottles.

The man stalked the family for months afterward and was not identified for three years. She also endured a humiliating two-year trial. As a result, today Sandberg cannot watch horror movies or look at masks and white vans give her flashbacks.

"The recovery has been long and I could not have read this book in high school," said Sandberg. "I had anxiety, depression and suicide attempts, but eventually I started to adjust to some sort of normal life," she said.

"I didn't receive justice in the court system, and I was an angry person," she said. "In my victim statement, I said they were no better than the criminals themselves."

Some call Lisbeth the "Hannibal Lecter of crime literature," but Sandberg said she identifies with that anger and a society that pays little attention to the trauma of survivors.

"I felt closest to Lisbeth Salander," she said. "She shows the impact of recovery can be lifelong and shape everything we do in the future and relationships. It's her mode of survival. She had no choice."

"She has a hesitation toward males and relates better with females," said Sandberg. "She is an angry person and even those who she cares about, she still is hesitant with them. And she need alone time."

Sandberg began her activism as a freshman at Georgetown University right after her assailant's conviction in 2004, speaking out a student rallies and advocating for campus policies.

Today Sandberg is a speaker for RAINN and serves as a volunteer on its rape hotline. She admits she has a spot of jealousy for the way in which Salander seeks revenge.

"Most survivors can't do that without legal repercussions," said Sandberg. "I don't think I would have had that feeling if I had had justice in the courtroom.

"When you have a fall-out of support and society doesn't understand where you are coming from and there's victim blaming, you feel really angry and fiercely independent and lash out."

Sandberg said the film, especially the "in your face" rape scene, is an eye opener giving view no choice but to see what the real experience is like.

One male friend previewed "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" with Sandberg and later became "enthralled in the idea of activism," she said.

Sandberg hopes that others will see the importance of supporting and providing resources for rape survivors and will work toward better state and federal policies.

"These are the things that come out of the movie," she said.

"It forces people to see what they aren't willing to accept," said Sandberg. "People don't want to see it happen or think it will happen to them. But it's the true, nitty gritty aspect of what some have survived. It's ugly, graphic and gross."

Join the fight against sexual assault on your campus on RAINN Day.

For help, call 800.656.HOPE or go online to the National Sexual Assault Hotlines.

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