Tag Archives: psychological fiction

Holden Caulfield would understand

 

Final day of 2016. Possibly the last time I will focus on my most recent novel, the one featuring my most cryptic of titles, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole.

“What the hell is a prairie vole?”, complained one reader, who further implied that he didn’t like obscure metaphors in popular art–that is, until I pointed out that his favorite book was Catcher In The Rye, and that his favorite film was To Kill A Mockingbird, and that his second favorite was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

“Fine, you’ve made your point,” he conceded, only to add, “But pretty please, so I don’t have to bother Wikipedia—what the fuck is a prairie vole?”

“Fine,” I replied. Fine, I think finally: I will explain more pointedly, more comprehensively than I have before, my oh-so-obscure metaphors. I guess I’ll start with the second one: a prairie vole is a monogamous rodent. I’ve written that before and left it at that, feeling cheekily evasive. But there’s more, of course. I learned about prairie voles a couple of years ago, from the book The Compass of Pleasure, a non-fiction about addictions, whose author, David Linden, wrote with similar cheek about creatures that didn’t fit the masculine stereotype of wanton promiscuity—hence a passage about prairie voles, who not only put a ring on it and devote themselves to one partner, they behave aggressively towards other females who impinge. How romantic. What real men prairie voles are.

The latter trait doesn’t necessarily pertain to psychologist Daniel Pierce, my recently widowed and ever faithful protagonist—at least, not until he meets Lira, a former prostitute antagonist, with whom he engages with tense debate, contesting her careless feminism, which underlies her effort to expose one of Daniel’s patients, who is accused of child abuse, among other things. Because of Daniel’s resistance to her, Lira presumes his solidarity with masculine license, and is only mildly convinced by his grief-stricken diffidence, and much less by his ethical stance on privacy. Still, over the course of the story his reluctant attraction to Lira becomes evident, adding to the air of sacrifice in his character.

Which leads me to the other metaphor, the less obscure term, Venus. No one has asked me about the meaning of this one, which is disappointing on the one hand, and mildly gratifying on the other. I guess that readers get the idea. I think. Anyway, though I believe most readers are aware that Venus is Roman mythology’s answer to Aphrodite, and means goddess of beauty and love, what may not be entirely clear is the term’s relevance to the story.

Well, firstly, and most sentimentally, Venus is a reference to Mary, Daniel’s recently deceased (from cancer) wife, who is “looking down” upon her ever faithful husband, lovingly. You’d think this alone might render Daniel likable, or at least sympathetic, and thus gird him from the wrath of readers who might (like Lira) upbraid him for not later doing the right thing, from an average point of view. Because the average view is that therapists and other mandated reporters can and should, if they have the information, violate their patients’ privacy if said information might help the investigation of child abuse and thus yield the protection of children.

Daniel rejects the simplicity of this argument and therefore represents, as my hero/anti-hero, what I imagine to be one of, if not the most unpopular position that any responsible adult might take in today’s society: the protection of a possible sex offender’s privacy. I was acutely aware when I was writing Venus of how this might affect a reader’s sympathy for my central character.

And as a male writer with a male protagonist, I position center stage the opinion of women, especially. What does Venus, the symbolic everywoman, think of Daniel? Would she think him a hero? Probably not. Merely decent? Maybe. Look down on him, so to speak? Would it be enough for Daniel, to be considered decent? Is being decent enough for men? For Women? It seems to me that many in our culture are reappraising heroism: what counts as heroism—who gets to be a hero. Women seem to feature in more traditionally heroic roles in cinema these days (note the deliberate effort in the Star Wars series, for example), so a millennial, unlike a traditionalist, might chide Daniel for being cowardly, but not rely upon him, necessarily. Lira, for instance, will pursue her cause with or without Daniel’s help. She might not need men anymore, though—and here’s my truly final (not to mention obscure) spoiler—she might join them.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Longing to matter

 

End of the year. These are the shortest days as time tumbles towards the new year, and in that compressed space it seems time to add a parting note or two about my last novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Written mostly in 2015, published in the shortest days of last year, I now feel it slipping from my mind, no longer living a constant, parallel life in my head. I imagine many writers, the successful and the (like me) unsuccessful, are like this. We are fickle. We skipped well upon rocks over water when kids, and are prone to moving on in certain areas of our lives, losing interest before others do, assuming that interest is there in the first place.

For myself, of the various intermingling themes in Venus, freedom and loneliness linger with the most purpose. From the outset of the novel, the freedom of therapist Daniel Pierce is not a happy one. Estranged from his son, and grieving over the death of his wife, he plods through a daily task which reflects a more mundane aspect of his isolation: he struggles to communicate with a representative of an insurance company, seeking to get paid for his services. Intended to satirize the managed care industry, this exchange is bookended at story’s end, and lives in light juxtaposition with the novel’s more serious plot. Yet it highlights an unpleasant side of Pierce’s outsider role, one in which complaints go unheard; acknowledgement, and sometimes reward, is delayed, or withheld indefinitely. The result is helplessness: a sense that he is alone, vulnerable, and—treated as dispensable by a governing machine—fated to lose.

The idea was to set him up (and the reader) for a winning comeback. Daniel Pierce, a stand-in for mental health professionals who are underpaid, who are poorly represented by their associations; for whom laws (like AB1775) are written without their proper consultation, gets to be difficult. He gets to show an arrogant if well-meaning interventionist that he won’t enact hers or mainstream society’s notions of heroism. He gets to show lawyers, even a judge, that he won’t be at their beckon call, and further, that he won’t betray the principles of his profession just because they think there is a greater cause. For anyone who might listen, he (like myself), will expose hypocrisy, tautologies, and—despite the will of a legal and professional system—fashion his own ending.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Side note: I enjoyed a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock recently in which Martin Scorsese enthused about Vertigo, one of my favorite films. He loved the way the film indulged fantasy, dodging that which is plausible for the sake of compelling drama. Amen, I say. And so, Venus is a statement of my fantasy: a longing to matter when isolated and (at least sometimes) unheard. The story is ironic for me in so far as I am largely happy in my relatively isolated, private practice. Yes, I have the occasional problem with managed care, but in Venus I put a little on it for the sake of compelling drama. And yes, I have been subpoenaed and otherwise called upon to break the confidentiality of clients by an importuning authority, but I have not grandstanded as Daniel Pierce does.

The story is ironic for Daniel Pierce in so far as he isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his wrongdoing client. His default advocacy for a man accused of molesting his child is a serendipitous event, and Pierce defends the privacy of their session (the professional one, plus those which symbolically take place away from the confines of an acceptable setting) not because he thinks the man innocent, but rather because he’s concerned with principle: preserving the confidentiality of the therapeutic space, for everyone. If you think that a precious or overreaching cause, especially in the context of child abuse, then consider what I’ve previously written in entries like “Why child abuse isn’t as important as you think”. Why are psychotherapists mandated reporters of child abuse while lawyers and clergy (in effect) are not? Is it because our service isn’t dovetailing with legal rights? Is it because we are secular in our mission?

To address a secondary theme, Pierce isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his misbehaving client base. Though not nearly as hateful as Lira, his women and children’s advocate antagonist, Pierce is often jaded by the sex offending or sexually addictive men that he sits with. Many of them are indeed entitled, or misogynistic, or plainly self-centered, while others are less offensively lost—underdogs of another kind. In some respects, Daniel is like most therapists: trying to be neutral, but nonetheless stumbling into an advocate’s role at times, holding different sides of individuals, including that which is objectionable. As weary with them as he is any oppressive system, Daniel weighs his dedication to those wayward men against a sometimes-I-wonder-why-I-bother-with-you attitude.

I have bothered considerably with the ideas contained with Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. I have, I think, one more aspect, or pair of ideas, to explain. Then it will be time to move on to another story, and perhaps another cause. On to lengthier days.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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And sharks do not eat gas tanks

 

It’s not as though suspension of disbelief isn’t a thing. In Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, the reader has to believe that three children, whose parents have both died of separate illnesses in quick succession, can live undetected by neighbors, schools, police or social services, for several weeks, even as corpses rot in their home’s basement. In Jaws, that trauma-inducing film of my youth, the viewer must accept (or not think too much about) if wanting an optimal thrill, that sharks might leap across boat decks or swallow gas tanks.

In my novel, Venus Looks Down On A Praise Vole, there are numerous events, plot points and situations that stagger credulity to one degree or another, though none are fantastical in nature. Somewhat mundanely, the reader is meant to believe that my protagonist, Dr. Daniel Pierce, a psychologist, can pursue a career while regularly drinking in between sessions; that he could spend several hours in the company of a transgendered individual (admittedly in a pre-op stage) and not notice the person’s transformation; that he could forget names and patient details, not maintain adequate records, stop listening to people, actively dislike some of his patients, and still be a practicing clinician.

Well, that’s why he’s taking a break from his practice. Daniel Pierce goes on hiatus. That’s the opening plot point: his recognition of his falling apart, his need to stop working and deal with issues, some bad habits, and some losses: the estrangement of his son, the recent passing of his wife. But before he’s even fashioned a plan of restful inaction, his working life pushes back, or rather pulls him back into a working stance, only it will be a much different day on the job, what happens next. It will suspend his disbelief, make him think before the adventure’s done that he’s being seduced, patronized, rescued, recruited, chased…scapegoated.

Perhaps the most difficult event to accept is Pierce’s meeting of a former client in a sober living home. Kirkus reviews made this complaint, thinking it unrealistic that a psychologist would drop out of society, drop into a rehab-like environment, and meet one of his former patients, and even have the man as a roommate. Even if I hadn’t given cursory hints that this might happen—indicating that my unnamed setting is a small town; a hackneyed statement that the world is small—I’d grumble about this critique. After all, what’s so hard to accept? That a mental health professional would have a drug or drinking problem, need treatment or a retreat? That he wouldn’t take special care to avoid contact with his client base? Perhaps my reviewer isn’t aware that certain professionals—doctors and airline pilots, for example—do require or demand segregated, occupation-specific services, precisely because of this concern. It’s actually quite strange that the accommodations that are afforded these professional groups aren’t made for psychologists and other professional counselors.

But for me, this rather ordinary discussion misses an important point: namely, that a strict adherence to what is orthodox or realistic isn’t the most important aspect of a fiction; hence the term fiction. I had Daniel Pierce leave the structure he was in, or the rut he was in, because in order to regain his vitality and sense of mission, he has to leave not only his comfort zone, but almost his entire frame of reference. That’s an equally important axiom of drama, surely. Therefore, he has to perform an impromptu therapy in the most unlikely of circumstances; he has to not conform, challenge authority in ways he never has before. He has to observe ugliness that he’d previously been sheltered from; rethink gender, justice, his oldest notions of fitting in. In being responsible, being anything close to a heroic figure, he must consider that he may be right or wrong about the judgments he ultimately makes, but make his decision anyway.

 

 

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As dark as it gets

 

“Around ten o’clock, Andrew revealed a surprise: he’d been in therapy before, as in before he’d ever called me. And not even therapy, but analysis: for two years. He left because he didn’t like what he started to feel, a parallel between his drug addiction and emerging sexual compulsion. Though tired, I perked up, sensing something coming. Andrew spoke theoretically, about chasing highs, going back to an original experience. It felt like a prefacing explanation, his talk of addiction, its bedrock principles. Then he told me about his first time, the predictable, clandestine grope with an older girl, when he was eleven, she fourteen. The dreams of that girl, and his lust for teenage girls in general had never gone away, but he wouldn’t tell me more, not while there were legal issues pending, files not yet written. With that stuff looming, I wondered why he’d tell me anything, but then, I am ever struck by the desire to be known, by someone. Andrew’s loneliness gripped my heart, even as he retreated from memory, back to theory. He had an idea about pedophilia, he said, lowering his voice. It related to that original experience, that primal desire to be a child, experience pleasure as a child—natural, he argued. Shortly thereafter, his face broke, as if the pain in his soul had just hit him: that unsolvable clash between ancient fantasy versus the demands of growth.”

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

Several points here, will touch on just a couple for starters. In this chapter, Daniel Pierce, my troubled protagonist and therapist, has serendipitously reunited with a patient he’d A.) thought he’d lost after a bad intake session, and B.) is the man whose privacy he is being pressured to violate by a rogue former prostitute and later, lawyers. Check out my novel and you’ll find out why.

The above conversation happens in the “privacy” of a shared room in a sober living environment–both men’s retreat. What Andrew (alias Derek) reveals here he would likely not have in the structured, orthodox forum of the therapist’s office. The thoughts Andrew shares are of a kind that few, in my opinion, share unless a near-profound alliance has been established. The reference to analysis, as distinguished from therapy, implies the depth divide between models of care, and further suggests what Daniel and Andrew tacitly have in common: they both tend to leave before the going gets tough.

 

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Sexual Narcissism

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“I’m in porn.” He’d said it quickly, in a clipped voice, while looking away, like he’d wanted the words off him, shooed away. I gave him a stilled look at which he grinned teasingly, masking unease. “Well, alright. I’m getting into porn, I should say. I’ve been in one clip so far.”

“Uh-huh. What film? What’s its title?” Rick laughed again, and shook his head. I felt like an idiot, stalling with questions to conceal my blushes.

“What film? I don’t know, man. Who cares…what film? Big dicks. It’s called ‘Big dicks’. There. I just gave it a title.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to—”

“Nah, it’s cool. I don’t know why I’m giving attitude, actually. I’ve got a name, if that means anything. Kane—Kane Able. How do you like it?”

“A play on…I suppose.”

“Sure.”

“That’s good,” I lied.

So I asked about plot. About the film with no name: I asked if his clip contained any plot, or acting, or even theme. Surprisingly, Rick, or Kane—was pretty sure I’d not make the shift on this one—said there was. Firefighting, he said, not surprisingly. His part, as in his role, was that of a firefighter who has entered a burning building to rescue a trapped woman, who is feebly crying out (I imagined the acting) until the hero arrives, ready to spare her. The room is very hot, about which the performers comment wittily, and then the room gets hotter, and soon they don’t care so much about the fire and…well, you get the picture.

“Any dialogue?” I asked. Rick looked at me as if I were reading from a book of stupid questions.

“I ad-libbed this one line as I came: ‘fire in the hole, baby’, I said.” This time I said nothing. “I know, don’t tell me,” Rick lamented. “Pretty dumb, huh?”

“Did she say anything, have any lines, ad lib or scripted?”

Rick shook his head, uttered a dismissive noise, like I’d asked whether the props spoke on set. I blew air through my teeth, and thought of Lira.

“That’s typical. It goes to show there just aren’t enough good roles for women these days.”

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

An example of parody in my mischief novel: the name Kane Abel is a play on words, of course, common to porn actors. My favorite from the real world of porn? Peter North. Subtle, right? Anyway, Kane is otherwise Rick, a young man whom Daniel Pierce meets while living at a sober living house, wherein he’s in retreat from a fraught personal and professional life. Rick’s day job is in a seafood restaurant, as a chef. There he causes trouble, disturbing his boss and Daniel’s temp boss, Jimbo, by stirring unrest, harassing female staff, flirting with nubile customers, doing very little cooking, it seems, while strutting his sex like a farmyard stud. Rick likely thinks his place in the service industry has layered meaning. He’s the kind of man who feels entitled to promiscuity, who feels offended, let down by another man’s diffidence, thinking that humankind benefits from the indiscriminate sharing of seed. He’ll try to re-ignite something in Daniel, provoke a libidinal return in the grieving, wilted psychologist. That last line, Daniel’s teasing of a feminist complaint, glides over Rick’s head, not so much because of stupidity, but rather self-absorption.

The role of women. What indeed is the role of women?

**image by Philip Lawson

 

 

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Venus and AB1775

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In August 2014, the California legislature passed bill AB1775, a law that redefines sexual exploitation for the purpose of mandated reporting guidelines. For the first time since the codification of child abuse reporting law in the early 1980s, the consuming of a product (such as the accessing or downloading of illegal pornography) must be reported by mental health professionals and other mandated reporters to authorities. For many in the field of mental health, this bill constitutes a threat to therapist-patient confidentiality, a bedrock principle in the treatment of mental health disorders. The bill was written by child advocacy groups in coordination with California police departments, and was promoted as “cracking down on child porn and child abuse” by assembly woman Melissa Melendez, though it was written by lawyers for the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, whose 30,000 deep membership mostly learned of the bill just weeks prior to its passing.

This controversial law serves as a real life backdrop to my novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole, a first person narrative about an alcoholic, widowed psychologist named Daniel Pierce who takes an impromptu hiatus from his practice, only to be stalked by a former prostitute and lawyer who wants information about and his intervention with a recent patient of his whom she says has perpetrated a child molestation. Pierce resists intervening or giving information, citing patient-therapist privilege, though he is intrigued by the woman’s ardent appeal, for professional and personal reasons: attracted to her, he is nonetheless unmoved by her insistence that he break the confidentiality of his patient as he finds her pretexts grounded more in prejudice than in substance. Aware of his patient’s substance abuse, predilection for prostitutes, and compulsive use of pornography, he doesn’t dismiss the possibility that a crime against a child has occurred, but he resists reporting information that will likely prejudice police, a criminal or family court, or a jury. Unknowingly dodging subpoenas, Pierce retreats to a sober living house to examine his grief, his conscience; even his role in society. However, in the small world of 12-step recovery, he meets the patient who is the object of so much fear and suspicion. The impromptu hiatus becomes an impromptu therapy between two men, neither of whom is a shining example of mental health.

The novel is a dramatic expression of social concern: about the role of the psychotherapist in society, which is a subset of society’s broader desire for heroes, sometimes at the expense of reason; about the need for privacy such that effective mental health treatment can transpire; about the relationship between pornography and sexual abuse; about the influence of feminism upon sexual mores, the process of family courts. As a psychotherapist who works with self-proclaimed sex addicts, state-identified sex offenders, I observe a degree of cynicism on all sides: within the minds of the offenders, or addicts, but also within the schemes of their critics and persecutors. In one sense, it’s no surprise that Daniel Pierce is a burn-out case. His personal drama illustrates what has previously fascinated readers of Irvin Yalom’s novels, or viewers of the HBO drama, In Treatment: that mental health professionals are also flawed, and vulnerable to addictions, if not anti-social behaviors. I think this unknown facet of the mental health professional intrigues members the public. As my protagonist states, they want “in the room” of psychotherapy, to find out what’s being said and done.

Sprinkled within this heavy drama is an equally heavy dose of satire. While excoriating the state’s intrusion upon mine and others’ professional space, I also poke fun at a few segments of society: at the subcultures of pornography and 12-step recovery in particular. Meanwhile, my text lampoons the social engineering that occurs in advertising, via the themes of TV commercials; the products that line the shelves of retail. I write with mischief about contemporary issues that subtly divide men and women, teasing feminists and paternalists alike. This commentary is intended as comic provocation, but is not comic relief or gratuitous soapboxing. These themes are the subtext of my protagonist’s alienation.

The result is a melancholic, if sometimes flippant (some say arrogant) story that is typical of my style. I’ve written four novels prior to this one, but despite better reviews for previous efforts, I think this novel my best. I like repeated themes, inside jokes, and metaphor that stirs the imagination of the reader. I like anti-heroes, difficult people who are not easy to understand, because real people are not easy to understand. Venus Looks Down On A Prairie is an obscure title, no doubt—but no more so than Catcher In The Rye or even Fifty Shades Of Grey—and its meaning should not elude an attentive, curious reader, whom I intend to engage in the deepest possible way.

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Coup De Grace

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Having some difficulty with the novel, The Situation. Some of you are reading it, for which I am grateful, but some of you are not getting it, about which I am…hmm…chagrinned, to put it politely. I know. I’m a whining, narcissistic author, starved of understanding. I should accept the partial appreciations I am receiving, the enjoyment some are having, taking what they like, as they say in 12-step programs, and–and the corollary is huge–leaving the rest.

To hell with that.

I wrote both CFTH and The Situation, for various reasons: 1.) to express myself creatively, 2.) to entertain, and 3.) to teach something important as an adjunct to my psychotherapy practice, which happens privately, behind closed doors, thus generating a need to venture outwards. There are in my novels several themes of note, and as my own process is sometimes unconscious, I can’t account for them all. Not that I don’t try, so here’s a rough list of succinctly-termed ideas present in the text and subtext: addiction, trauma, the tyranny of workplaces, of secrets within closed systems, like workplaces and families; about the ubiquity of dissociation, of impotence, and indifference; about the distance of friends, the lingering power of the absent, and the tense battles between lovers, for each self to fit in.

I guess that should be enough, but especially for The Situation–the follow-up and coup de grace–there needed to be something special (not to mention positive), something to make sense of, tie together the story as a whole. Empathy. That was the quality–the redemptive, sobriety-supporting (as one reader puts it) quality–that came to mind, as the point. And so, the novel delivers a climax with empathy as its thematic core, and everyone, author, characters and readers alike, should get the point and transport said point, somehow, back to our (or their) daily lives. And they seem to, those supportive few. But there are clues along the way–words unfortunately skipped, I suspect–that are getting missed; and it’s important. Why? Because you might notice something in relationships as in art: you shouldn’t miss the details.

Anyway, much misunderstanding centers around a contentious section of Situation, entitled “Nightmare”. Bryan “Weed” Tecco, my cardboard villain from CFTH, referenced only in his absence in that novel, is thereafter my protagonist, and he’s alive, contrary to the suppositions of my other characters, and in all likelihood, readers of CFTH. Emerging not-quite drowned from a lagoon in West Marin, he holes up at an old friend’s house in villagy Bolinas, then hitchhikes back to suburbia, only to be picked up and later drugged by a man, Dan Pritchard, with a sadistic streak and an apparent diaper fetish. Apart from recalling Chris Leavitt’s wayward new diaper invention from the first novel, the notion here is to have my character make a psychic return to helplessness: to a time when all needs are taken care of (and Dan Pritchard does take care); to a time when the body is uninhibited; to a time when the mind is bewildered, and possibly terrified. Weed is humiliated by Dan Pritchard, and though he appears to escape uninjured, there lingers the suggestion that Weed has been violated, while asleep no less.

Attentive readers, those who stuck with the various backstories of CFTH, may think this just desserts, this victimization. After all, according to Chris Leavitt, Weed introduced friends like Chris to not only a drug using lifestyle, but also a milieu in which prostitutes, sex, and consent for sex, moves freely (from one POV), or inchoately, dissociatively (from another). Regardless, I had plans for Bryan “Weed” Tecco–plans to make him an unlikely hero, back from the dead, but more importantly, back from infamy and indifference. In the chapters that follow “Nightmare”, Weed resolves not to talk about his ordeal with Dan Pritchard, but as many in my practice have discovered, not talking about something far from means that one is un-impacted. However, time is short in drama, and therefore serendipity: Weed meets Jill Evans, a shared “friend” of Chris Leavitt, and as she accompanies Weed on his road-trip search for his friend, she lets slip the clumsy near-rape Chris had attempted in CFTH. For the determined separatist, Weed, this presents an opportunity for his own suffering to quickly metabolize so that he might support another.

And later, as he finally connects with Jules Grotius, the creator of the subversive online game, ‘The Situation’–the self-styled guru of a new medium through which conscientious activism can be achieved–he listens, half-percolating the needs of his re-emerging self, half-reconciling current events with past traumas, while absorbing the heroic purpose he has unwittingly lived over the previous several days. Weed the drug dealer may live on. Weed the woman-distrusting bully may even persist with old habits. But Weed the game-fixated, insular enigma has been dealt a death blow.

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