Why We Love to Hate ‘Trainwreck’ Women

Many thanks to Sirin Kale and BROADLY for publishing my conversation with Sady Doyle about society’s punitive impulse, morality dramas, and impossible standards of femininity.

Why We Love to Hate ‘Trainwreck’ Women: In honor of the reissue of Sady Doyle’s “Trainwreck,” Knox talks with Doyle about why we “wreck people because they are women.”

The same habit of mind that seeks to punish derailed celebrities and project evil onto political opponents and public figures also leads to wrongful convictions like mine. It encourages judgment by projection and popularity, and it obstructs our ability to evaluate context and objective evidence.

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More on Michelle Carter

Many media outlets have reached out to me for further comment on Michelle Carter’s verdict and sentencing in response to my op-ed published in the L.A. Times . I have declined these invitations, because I do not want to make this about me, but I do think it is worthwhile to respond to some of the critical commentary I’ve received, particularly on Twitter. This commentary can be roughly divided into six types:

1. Michelle Carter doesn’t deserve our sympathy. If she had been black, she would have received a harsher sentence.

It’s true that black people very often receive harsher sentences than white people for the same crimes. This incredible injustice is also reflected in wrongful convictions. The majority of wrongfully convicted people in this country are black men.

But you don’t solve injustice by replicating it. The proper response is to bring the downtrodden up, not to push the privileged down. Advocating a harsh sentence for Michelle Carter does nothing to alleviate the harsh sentences handed down to black people.

2. Michelle Carter doesn’t deserve our sympathy. Conrad Roy III would be alive today were it not for her. Her words killed him. She is a criminal and deserved to receive a harsher sentence.

I agree that what Carter did was wrong. I do not dismiss or condone her actions. However, I do caution against conflating wrongdoing with criminal wrongdoing. One is a moral concern, the other is a legal concern. The ACLU argues that finding Carter guilty of manslaughter sets a dangerous legal precedent threatening our freedom of speech. Carter’s influence may have aggravated Roy’s mental illness, but her words did not literally kill him. The only thing that literally killed Roy were his own actions. He was sick, he was vulnerable, but he was never without agency.

3. Michelle Carter is evil. Fuck her and her eyebrows.

What first caught my attention about Carter’s case was the fact that the prosecution, media, and public were portraying her as a selfish, attention-seeking femme fatale who used her Circe-like powers to force her male companion to commit a terrible act he otherwise wouldn’t have committed. Having been wrongly accused of the very same thing, alarm bells went off.

Evil is the easiest scapegoat. It’s also not real. If we hope to understand Carter (and Roy’s) motivations, we need to refrain from boxing them into unreal, subhuman stereotypes (mind controller and mental slave). And even if Carter were as two-dimensionally “evil” as they say, we, as decent, civilized people, should check ourselves when we find that we are mobbing and crying out for blood. It’s in this spirit that wrongful convictions are born.

And one more thing: the many throw-away, tongue-in-cheeks remarks trolling Carter for aspects of her appearance (“She deserves another two years just for her eyebrows!”) do nothing but perpetuate the idea that a woman’s worth is in what she looks like. Wanting to punish Carter doesn’t give you permission to be a misogynist.

4. What Michelle Carter did was wrong. Even if she shouldn’t have been found legally culpable, she deserves punishment.

I’m going to go out on a limb now, but…maybe nobody deserves punishment. Not even the worst criminals. Everyone in society deserves to be safe from wrongdoing. Victims deserve to have their wounds cared for and acknowledged.

What do criminals deserve? As broken members of society, maybe they deserve our help. As the criminal justice and anti-death penalty advocate Bryan Stevenson says, “Each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Help may require custody, supervision, or even incarceration—all things that impinge upon a person’s individual freedom—but punishment beyond these measures may not be necessary.

Punishing a criminal doesn’t undo the crime. And if the standard forms of punishment in the U.S. do a poor job of rehabilitation (and there’s good reason to think that’s true), and if the severity of a punishment does little to deter crime , then the only reason to punish is vengeance. And vengeance makes us barbaric. I bet most of the people crying out, “Lock her up!” have never actually been to prison and have no idea what it does to you.

In an ideal society, we wouldn’t use punishment to alleviate our outrage and pain. These are legitimate feelings, and addressing them is a legitimate social task, but there are healthier ways to deal with pain than inflicting pain on others.

5. I thought you were innocent, but now I believe you are guilty.

Thinking that my moral and legal position on Michelle Carter’s case has any bearing whatsoever on the objective evidence which determined my exoneration is exactly the kind of thinking that leads to wrongful convictions. Your gut reactions to another person have no bearing on the factual evidence that determines that person’s guilt or innocence. Gut reactions do provide useful information, but only about yourself.

6. This whole story is sad and confusing. We have to draw a line somewhere, but where? I feel bad for everyone involved and don’t know what to think. Can I feel sympathy for Carter and Roy (and Roy’s family) at the same time?

Believe it or not, yes.

From my own experience, I find that people often succumb to the single-victim fallacy—the idea that, in tragic situations like these, there are good guys and bad guys on opposite sides, and no crossover, nothing in between. People convinced by this fallacy argue that any acknowledgement of my victimization necessarily diminishes the acknowledgement of Meredith Kercher’s. And people convinced by this fallacy argue that any compassion for Carter’s flawed humanity necessarily diminishes the gravity of her actions and the tragedy of Roy’s death.

But they are wrong.

My goal in writing the op-ed was to point out that there is another valid response to tragedy: compassion. I’ve had to work hard through my own outrage over the injustice I suffered in order to empathize with my prosecutor, the Perugian police, and all those who spew hatred at me daily. I worked hard because I didn’t just want to feel righteous anger, I wanted to understand. And I’ve discovered that the key to my understanding is compassion. Compassion is practical—it makes us more effective, clear-eyed truth-seekers. Compassion is empowering—it opens the doors to reconciliation. And compassion is just—we only compound injustice when the worst of someone else brings out the worst in us.

Published by the Westside Seattle 08/05/17.

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California farewell

(It’s worth noting that Chris and I had just spent two nights in a hot pink Bavarian hotel. The first night we slept in a turquoise room under the placid gaze of a swarm of golden cherubs and their electric candelabra. The second night we slept in a cave, complete with waterfalls and stained glass windows depicting a cartoonish blond woman from the 50s transported to the caveman era. It was magically, shamelessly gaudy. Oma would love it here! I thought. Alas, the hotel doesn’t allow pets, and Oma won’t be parted from Andy—her fat, old, co-dependent dachshund.)

I could barely keep my eyes open the entire four-hour drive back from San Luis Obispo to the San Francisco airport. My face felt swollen, like I had just wept for hours or was having an allergic reaction. I’m usually good for a car trip, especially if there’s an audiobook on, but now I was zombie-like, nauseated and cranky. Chris patiently blasted freezing air into my face and, when that wasn’t enough, pulled off the highway to let me take deep breaths in an abandoned parking lot.

I felt myself pulling back together as we rolled into the Payless Rental Car parking lot. This was a relief, because I had been dreading imminent plane sickness, the only thing worse than car sickness. I smiled extra-earnestly and kissed Chris on the cheek as we stood waiting for the shuttle to arrive and take us the final ten minutes to the airport. I wanted to make it up to him for carrying our combined existential weight for much of the day. He grinned back indulgently.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been my best self,” I murmured.

“That’s OK. Sometimes you aren’t your best self. I love you anyway,” Chris said, magnificently.

I nuzzled my forehead gratefully into his deltoid, and at the same time, I was stricken by a thought: I hope I’m my best self often enough. There’s an acceptable ratio of best-self : not-best-self, and I don’t know what that ratio is, but everything depends upon it.

At first, I mistook the shuttle driver for another passenger. He wore a black and navy-blue suit, a matching fedora, and large, faux-diamond studs in his ears. His nails were clean and filed. He did not resemble the driver who, days before, had driven us the opposite way between the airport and car lot wearing a polo shirt with the Payless Rental Car logo.

“Hurry up! Hurry up! There’s only one of me!” he shouted as he waved Chris and I and a small group of stragglers into the shuttle van. As soon he started the engine, the radio blasted the commentary of a basketball game. He pressed the gas pedal, wriggled joyfully in his chair, and turned the volume up another notch.

Someone scored. The driver laughed. We stopped at a red light and he clapped his hands over his head. “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him! He’s not the king today!” I think he was talking about Lebron James?

The light changed and the driver hit the gas again. We swerved left through an intersection, and I heard a suitcase tumble in the back. Someone scored. The driver laughed again and pumped his fists in the air as we caught another red light.

A white convertible pulled up next to us. Without a moment’s hesitation, our driver rolled down his window and shouted, “Hey, playboy! Looking good, baby!” Green light. Gas.

Chris and I caught each other’s eyes. Chris was grinning, and his wide eyes and raised eyebrows seemed to say, “Why not? Weeee!”

I thought that was how I felt, too, until I caught a glimpse of myself in the side mirror. My expression was really a weird, manic grimace of incredulity and glee, like a little kid on the teacup ride who is caught between having the time of their life and throwing up.

We arrived. The driver flung himself out of the van and opened up the back doors. He swung our luggage out onto the curb in a heap. Suitcases toppled over. Some passengers frantically snatched up their luggage and scurried away.

“Man! Nobody tips anymore! Nobody tips anymore!” he huffed. Chris handed him some loose ones—not for the new dent in my luggage casing, but for the unexpected, whirlwind California farewell.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 06/12/2017.

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Colosseum and memoriam

Approaching Century Link Field in a throng of green-and-blue people, flanked by an ecstatic marching band, I couldn’t help but think about the Roman Colosseum, and how sporting events have been experienced by humans in the exact same way for as long as civilization has existed. The same spirit of adrenaline-spiked tribalism that motivates Seattlites to show up in droves to watch grown men skillfully kick a ball around motivated the Romans to show up in droves to observe the clashing of gladiator against gladiator, Christian slave against starved lion.

We are the same. As Tim Urban wrote recently on Wait But Why, if you were to swap a newborn from a Medieval farming village with a newborn New Yorker today, no one would know the difference. That’s because the modern human brain hasn’t evolved in over 10,000 years. Some evolutionary psychologists think our brains are the same as those belonging to humans from as far back as 50,000 years. For context, that’s the stone age, around about the time humans invented the needle.

It’s not often that I’m reminded of this fact. At the game, what triggered me were the rules and the rituals, the pomp and performance. Not being a regular sports viewer, I felt like a foreigner. The real Sounders fans knew how and when to hold up their scarves as banners, to call out the players’ last names during announcements, to call back during the marching band’s chants. I gawked at the parade of flag bearers followed by the parade of uniformed children escorting the players onto the field, at the fireworks which punctuated the beginning and end of each half, and at the Mad-Max-style flame-throwers blasting out of the tops of the goal posts. I thought: the only difference between us and the Mesoamericans from 2000 B.C. is that we don’t decapitate the losing team at the end of the ballgame. But we are totally those people. We live for the show.

This week, Chris and I had to say goodbye to our pet rats, Ruthie and Yoyo. They were both over two years old and had developed tumors, as rats do. Ruthie in particular was acting sluggish and her fur was standing on end—from pain, we guessed. On our way out to Kent (to one of the few remaining veterinary hospitals which accept non-cat-or-dog patients), we mentally prepared ourselves to accept that Ruthie and Yoyo’s time had come.

It didn’t come as a surprise, then, when the vet recommended euthanasia. What did come as a surprise was how casual and routine the whole visit was. How, when the vet picked up our babies’ cage to take them away, it didn’t feel like we weren’t going to get them back. When the vet asked if she could keep Ruthie and Yoyo’s cage for a litter of newborn weasels, Chris and I didn’t expect to feel so…empty.

We speculated about this on the way home. Was it because Ruthie and Yoyo were just rats, which, like fish, don’t ping our attachment instincts as much as cats and dogs do? But that didn’t sound right to me. I thought of how, back in the early 2000s, people used to cry out, “Wilson!” making fun of that scene from Cast Away. Except, I’d bet many of those same people, viewing that scene within the context of the film, would have bawled their eyes out, just like I did. Humans are attachment machines, whether or not the object of our attachment is sentient or cute or even alive. Chris and I loved our rats.

Only when thinking back to the Sounders Colosseum did it occur to me what was missing when we had to tell Ruthie and Yoyo goodbye: The process was unceremonious. Without even the smallest gesture of ceremony, it didn’t feel like saying goodbye.

It didn’t feel like saying goodbye until Chris tweeted their epitaph. He wrote: “2 years ago, I bought some rats for my book launch party. I made them a house out of copies of my book, ripped up pages as the bedding. When the paperback came out, Ruthie (full name: Notorious RBG) helped me navigate the maze of anxiety to find the Coors Light of peace. Yoyo (full name: Yolandi Vi$$er) chewed through my stereo cables, my cell phone charger, and my heart strings. Never thought I’d own rats. A lark became an unexpected joy. Today, I said goodbye. They’re still close to my heart. RIP Ruthie & Yoyo.”

And it was a relief to feel tears in my eyes.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 05/03/2017.

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Sibling rivalry

In my pre-teens, I chose to ignore the sour tang that had crept into my relationship with my little sister Deanna. I dismissed her suddenly miserable, disdainful attitude towards me like it was nothing more than one of her frequent bouts of carsickness. She’d get over it.

It’s not like I had done something. In fact, from the way she seemed to be angry with me about everything, I deduced that her frustration wasn’t really directed at what I did, but at me. Me personally. And it was baffling. What happened to the kid who crawled into my bed whenever she had a nightmare? The little girl who counted on me to look after her on the playground, and be her voice when she was too shy to speak? Why didn’t she like me anymore?

The answer was obvious to everyone else. “It’s just sibling rivalry,” the adults said. “Don’t take it personally.” But it felt personal, and I was at turns skeptical and angry. I wasn’t competing with my sister, so why should she compete with me?

Now, nearly two decades later and in the thick of Deanna’s wedding planning, we texted the following exchange:

Deanna: Get pregnant! Tell Chris I want to be an aunt! It’s 7 months till my wedding so you will be a cute pregnant belly

Me: We don’t have the means yet. Why do you want me to get prego?

Deanna: So there can be a baby and I can be an auntie! Total selfish reasons!

Me: OK, well, I get that. Totally not prego yet, though.

Deanna: Damn!

It was a light-hearted exchange, but still, my sibling senses tingled. Though Deanna’s and my relationship has smoothed out since our adolescence, I’m still sensitive to signs of that dreaded, unconquerable obstacle—sibling rivalry. Was this a sign? Did Deanna feel weird about getting married before me, and was she trying to compensate for that by encouraging me to have children before her? Was this in unspoken reference to her anger towards me from so long ago?

I decided to give her a call to finally get to the bottom of it. This is what she told me:

“I remember a very distinct moment when it all started. You had just graduated from eighth grade and had received that special award for being an exceptional person. And because you were the first student to ever receive that award, it seemed like it was specially made for you. I was in sixth grade at the time, at the same school, and I remember thinking, ‘My sister is such a bad ass.’ But then, when school started back up in September and I went into 7th grade, I was called into the office. At first I thought I was in trouble, but then the teachers said, ‘We want to make sure that you don’t feel like you have to live up to your sister.’ I know they were trying to be supportive, but what they said had the opposite effect on me. It was at that moment that I realized that other people were comparing me to you.

“After that, I constantly compared myself to you. You got better grades in school than me. You were better at soccer. And it made me angry. I felt like, because you were better than me at these kinds of things, people loved you more.

“I felt that way all the way through high school. I felt it right up to when you were imprisoned. On top of everything, you became famous, and I thought, ‘I’m going to be defined as your little sister forever.’ Meanwhile, my whole support system fell apart. Mom and Dad were freaked out and focused on saving you.

“There was too much going on. I had an identity crisis. Deep down, I knew that my insecurities were coming from within me. I had to figure myself out, or else fall into a bad place. I had to make a decision.

“So I did. I thought, ‘No. I’m not just Amanda Knox’s little sister. I’m Deanna Knox.’ And it was such a relief, not to compare myself anymore.”

So why all the baby talk? I asked.

“Well, I realized that a lot of the attention you’ve received hasn’t been good. I want you to have big, positive moments in your life too. And besides that, you and Chris are great together and I can’t wait to be an auntie.”

Thank you, Deanna. I love you too.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 04/10/2017.

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Mask-making

In my experience, conferences can make you feel high. Between the panels, plenaries, and a sea of old and new faces, you end up inevitably spread thin, over-stimulated, and under-slept. And it’s great, because during those few days packed with professional, social, intellectual, and emotional activity, you’re swept up by a frantic, inspired joy that’s supposed to carry you through another year.

So it was at this year’s Innocence Network Conference. Giddy and exhausted, Chris and I rode the elevator up to the fifth floor of the hotel towards an out-of-the-way conference room, purposefully set apart for a therapeutic session lead by a foundation called Healing Justice. As we stepped inside, I felt more than I heard the soft instrumental music sweep over me. It was so different from the exciting and incessant chatter of the rest of the conference rooms below. The leaders of the session, Jennifer Thompson and Britt Stone, explained in whispers that this session was about the masks we wear to hide our emotional scars: only by first acknowledging the cover can we reveal and address the trauma beneath. They steered Chris and I in front of individual prepared work stations equipped with paints, markers, glue, stationary, newsprint, and our canvas: a plain, white mask. Quietly, we set to work.

The Innocence Network Conference is perhaps even more overwhelming than most conferences. Just this year, over 750 people attended, 190 of which were exonerees like me. Altogether, we had served 2,953 years of wrongful imprisonment, 222 on death row. 42 of us were newly exonerated within the past year, most after decades in prison. This was Chris’s first time at the conference, the fourth for me and my mom. As usual, Mom blossomed with boundless energy; she stayed out late and was immensely popular with exonerees, family members, and lawyers alike. Chris was particularly inspired by the measurable difference these lawyers and scientists had in real people’s lives, and by how the Innocence Movement was founded above all upon inclusive, honest, critical thought. As for me, I return to the conference every year to reconnect with my tribe, with that profound sense of purpose and community.

As I dabbed at globs of paint, I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing with my mask. Though I used to be pretty good at drawing when I was a kid, I don’t consider myself a very visually creative person. I thought about the prompt—What is the mask I wear to hide from the world?—and I felt a jolt of anxiety. I didn’t know. For all my introspection, this question stumped me. I didn’t feel disconnected from the way I presented myself to others, but surely I felt shame and fear and inadequacy that I didn’t like to advertise. My ever-simmering anxiety came to mind, that vague pressure to prove myself socially fit and emotionally whole. It was complex, contradictory; it made me feel disfigured and dysfunctional, but also strong. Could something cripple you and empower you at the same time?

I was asked to present my mask at the final plenary, and going up to the stage, I barely knew what I would say. So I said this:

“Hi, I’m Amanda Knox. I was imprisoned in Italy for four years for a murder I didn’t commit. This is my mask. It’s ugly. What it says up here is “SMILE SAD GIRL” and it has this gruesome smile that is contrasting with a lot of darkness and depth. You can interpret that however you like. The thing that I want to say is—and it was really hard to make this, surprisingly—I wanted to tell a story to explain it. After I was convicted, that was this huge, devastating, existential blow, because I knew that I was going to be found innocent when it all came down to it and it didn’t happen. So that’s when I realized that your innocence doesn’t necessarily mean that you are freed. I had to wrap my mind around the idea that I was never going to leave again and that was my life. My mom noticed that the tone in my letters changed, that I was suddenly taking on this tone of, “How do I make meaning out my new life that is here inside prison?” And she kept telling me, “You can’t lose your optimism. You can’t lose who you are. You’re the smiley, cheerful girl. You need to smile.” But I didn’t have a smile. I didn’t. And that was the truth. That was the truth, and that’s what mattered. I’m not trying to call my mom out for saying, “Smile, damn it!” but it was a little bit like that. I’m just trying to say that smiling brings back the light in your life. You should smile through the stuff that hurts. But you also have to know that it wounds.”

Published by the West Seattle Herald 04/03/2017.

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Back-breaking, heavy-lifting

I’ve never liked being in a rush. I forget things: my coat, my wallet, my keys. I bump into doors and doorways and stumble over cracked pavement. Or, as was recently the case, I back out of my mom’s driveway and accidentally knock over her mailbox.

Oh, don’t worry—the thing’s a tank. It’s a security box made of seamless steel, including a post sheath. When the back of my Subaru Forrester drove into the mailbox, what gave way was the twelve-inch stretch of exposed 4X4 between the bottom of the sheath and the ground, where the post was secure inside an 80lbs lump of concrete. Chris and I cut the engine, rushed out of the car, and found the mailbox lying in the grass, impermeable, scratch-less even. Meanwhile, there was now a hole in the back of my car, just below the rearview window. A quick Google search on Chris’s phone revealed that the punctured part was called the “garnish,” and replacing it would cost about $500. Ugh.

With the sun going down and our tails between our legs, Chris and I vowed to return the next day. On the way home, we stopped by the Home Depot, wandered around lost and confused (Is concrete the same thing as cement?), and eventually picked up an 8ft weather-treated 4X4 and three 60lbs bags of concrete, just in case. Somehow, lugging those back to the car, we still didn’t realize the magnitude of our imminent endeavor. We were young, healthy. We had all the materials. How hard could it be?

At eight o’clock the next morning, we woke up to the alarm as usual, but instead of spending the next hour in our pajamas, making breakfast and listening to NPR, we bundled up in work clothes, drove out to West Seattle and stepped out into a light, but frigid rain. With heavy hearts, we set to work dismantling the garden patch around the splintered remains of the mailbox post. This involved removing three layers of cement garden blocks (heavy and covered in moss), uprooting tender flower shoots, and shoveling away the soft mound of dark topsoil.

That part was all fine and well. The trouble began when we hit actual ground. Tough and stony, we had to chip away at the dirt rather than shovel it. Chris hammered away, and I wandered around my mom’s backyard until I found a second shovel to help. My short-handled, pointy-headed one was a better fit for the job than Chris’s, but even so, I made only an inch of headway at a time. Worse, I often struck against rock (or dirt so compacted with rock that it might as well be rock), and bounced off, the reverberation stinging my wrist like being hit on the funny bone.

By the time we had finally unearthed the splintered stump and the two top inches of the cement, our hands were numb from fatigue and cold and we were tempted to try tying the rope around it somehow, and wrest the rest from the un-giving ground with the car. But then we remembered my Subaru doesn’t have a hitch post.

We got back to digging, hinging further and further at the hips as the hole got deeper, and eventually the cement lump began to wiggle. Chris and I tooks turns wedging our shovels beneath the lump and leveraging our weight against it. Once one of our shovels finally found purchase from beneath, Chris hulked the lump out and threw it aside. Panting, he cried, “Why don’t we have robots to do this yet?!”

Our reward for exposing the hole and getting half the job done was a half-hour break to consume coffee and Quiche Lorraine. Meanwhile, the light rain picked up.

When we returned to our hole, it was partially-filled with rain and groundwater. I grabbed an empty flower pot from the front porch, and Chris bailed most of the muddy water out. Then, as I held the new post level, Chris cut open the first bag of concrete and poured a little into the hole. As he stirred with a length of broken 2X4, the grey powder was absorbed by the accumulating groundwater. We poured, stirred, poured, stirred. We took turns on our hands and knees, dragging the stick through the gluey muck. The attendant at Home Depot had recommended using just one 60lbs bag of concrete, but the bag said to avoid a “soupy” texture, and we couldn’t keep up with the groundwater seeping in. All three 60lbs bags wound up in the hole to get the texture right, and we hustled to shovel the rock-dirt on top. Finally, there was nothing more we could do except cover the lot with cardboard and plastic garbage bags. We had to wait for the concrete to set.

We returned bright and early the next morning. Sleepily, almost mechanically, we went through the remaining motions: we carefully slid the mailbox sheath onto the new post and screwed it in; we set the cement garden stones back around the hole, shoveled the topsoil back into place, replanted the flowers, threw away the garbage, called it good as new. Chris took a picture of me posing in triumph, but really, we were both just sore all over, and grateful to return to our privileged normalcy, where the only back-breaking, heavy-lifting we do is done with our minds.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 03/21/2017.

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