Q&A with Bret Easton Ellis: Psycho Analysis - Rolling Stone
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Bret Easton Ellis: Psycho Analysis

Even before it was published, ‘American Psycho’ had critics and feminists screaming bloody murder

Bret Easton EllisBret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis

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IT WAS MUCH LIVELIER than your ordinary literary blood bath.

The rumors started last spring, four months after Bret Easton Ellis submitted his final version of American Psycho to his publisher Simon and Schuster. A few women refused to work on the book, Ellis’s third novel, which describes in excruciating first-person detail the days and nights of a Wall Street-yuppie serial killer named Patrick Bateman. The book is so graphic in parts that the marketing division at S&S started questioning whether it should be published at all. Then George Corsillo, the artist who had designed the covers for Ellis’s first two books, refused to work on American Psycho.

Despite these early warnings, the book inched its way through the editorial corridors at S&S. It met with approval from the editorial board and the company’s lawyers, was typeset in galleys and distributed to a few reviewers. By the fall, photocopies of the galleys were making the rounds in New York and Los Angeles. Then the press swung into action.

On October 29th an excerpt from the most violent chapter — describing a woman’s being skinned alive — appeared in Time under the headline A REVOLTING DEVELOPMENT. In December, Spy ran a passage in which the narrator had oral sex with the decapitated head of one of his victims. Suddenly, the book had the attention of Richard E. Snyder, the chief executive officer of Simon and Schuster, and his boss, Martin Davis, the chairman of Paramount Communications, which owns S&S and produces all the Friday the 13th movies. Apparently unaware until then of the growing public-relations disaster on his hands, Snyder speed-read the 400 pages over a weekend. Early the next week — and less than a month before the scheduled shipping date — Snyder informed Ellis’s agent, Binky Urban, that he was rejecting American Psycho, thereby forfeiting the $300,000 advance that S&S had paid Ellis. On November 15th, Snyder made the formal announcement, explaining the decision was “a matter of taste.”

The cry went up immediately: Corporate censorship! Within forty-eight hours of Snyder’s announcement, however, Sonny Mehta of Alfred A. Knopf (a division of Random House) bought the book for his Vintage Contemporary paperback line. Mehta, who had published Ellis’s first two books in Great Britain under the Picador imprint, had tried to woo the young author away from Simon and Schuster when Mehta moved to Knopf in 1987. Mehta said he would give the book a light edit and polish and scheduled publication for March.

Enter the feminists, led by Tammy Bruce, the energetic president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Bruce, 28, started the drive for a national boycott of the book and initiated a local hot line on which callers could hear her read gruesome passages aloud. Originally, the NOW boycott included all Random House authors but was later narrowed to Knopf and Vintage titles. Bumper stickers that read, NO KNOPF in ’91, were printed for the boycott, which would last until December 31st or until the book was no longer being printed.

Now coast-to-coast Bret-bashing began in earnest. The New York Times Book Review ran a glib, smirking review by Life-magazine columnist Roger Rosenblatt titled “Snuff This Book!” An opaque Los Angeles Times editorial called “Worries About a Book” reached back and slammed Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero, which it said “sketchily — indeed, artlessly — described the lives of a nihilistic circle of college-age hedonists.” Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett and other leading feminists jumped on Bruce’s bandwagon and wrote to Random House owner S.I. Newhouse Jr. and other executives, supporting the NOW boycott and expressing their outrage at the book.

Even corporate America joined the fray. When American Express learned that Ellis’s narrator, a prodigious consumer, used his platinum card to pay for prostitutes and to lift cocaine to his nose, a phone call was placed to Vintage. And if a company was unaware of being mentioned in the book, Tammy Bruce and NOW informed it.

All along, the nagging question of literary merit kept muddying the issue of artistic freedom. The few people who actually read the book called it moronic and sophomoric. The author was called a “dangerously greedy brat.” But if such a disturbing book were a masterpiece, what then? Now the literary lions weighed in. In the March issue of Vanity Fair, Norman Mailer set out to take measure of the book. Is it art? he asked. Not enough, he concluded. “If the extracts of American Psycho are horrendous, therefore, when taken out of context, that is Ellis’s fault,” Mailer wrote. “They are … simply not written well enough.” Let it be published, Mailer concluded, but don’t ask me to defend it.

In the middle of all this, the soft-spoken Ellis, 27, has kept his own counsel. Until now.

Though they have usually waited until your books were published, the critics have never been very kind to you. Are you affected by published criticism?
The critics have never made any major impression on me. I remember the first review of Less Than Zero; someone from Simon and Schuster called me up at college. They said, “Oh, the first reviews came out.” And I was thrilled. I thought: “Oh, my God. I am being reviewed. I am going to pore over this review, I’m going to xerox it, I’m going to frame it, and I’m going to probably read it more than I’ve ever read anything else in my life.” I read it — it wasn’t a bad review — it was okay. And it was one of the most distinctly anti-climactic experiences I’ve ever had.

I had thought that the response of the critics — like the response from anybody — was really important. In the end I found that it’s really not so important. You write for yourself. It’s between you and the typewriter. There was nothing I learned from any of these critics. I mean, do most critics’ taste extend beyond the hopelessly middlebrow? If you’re a writer and you write because you hope the critics will be kind to you, then you’re demented.

I think a lot of writers in their twenties expect that. They desperately want to be liked. And you can sense it in their books. They don’t want to offend. They don’t want to write anything messy or crazy. They don’t want to deal with anything in a raw way, even if that means fumbling. A lot of writers I know want to write something that will be respected — that will play with the press. And most of their books, even the good ones, are just too concerned with appearances — with, for the lack of a better word, ass kissing. It’s very polite and charming. A lot of it is sensitive. There was a quote from a critic on the back of a book from someone my age that said, “As light and as airy as a soufflé.”

And you’ve obviously decided to cut against that grain.
And a lot of people would say that it’s not worth it. A lot of people would say prose must be pitch perfect. That novels must have traditional narrative structure — that characters must change. You would think that most writers in their twenties would want to fool around a little bit — would want to be a little experimental — would want to write something a little bit subversive, even if it means risking failure.

How long did it take you to write ‘American Psycho’?
I started the book in the fall of 1986, before I did the rewrite on Rules of Attraction. I finished what I thought was the final draft in December of 1989.

Did it change shape over that time?
The books I’ve written so far have been completely thought-out before the actual writing begins. I do an outline, which takes me three or four months, that incorporates every scene. I work that way because the books are basically conceptual. I don’t see them as novels in the proper sense. I get a character I want to write about; and I prefer, so far, to have these characters narrate. The character’s voice sets up the structure of the book, and it sets up the language of the book, and even the length of the book. And that holds true for American Psycho. I wanted to write a book from the viewpoint of someone who kills people. I wanted to set it in New York. Fine. From just that I knew what the language of the book was going to be like, what the structure of the book was going to be like and even, to a degree, what its length was going to be. When all those problems are solved within the outline, then I start writing.

Did you know from the outset that the book was going to be so graphically violent?
With American Psycho it was very clear to me when I started writing that this was going to be a character who was so obsessed with appearances that he was going to tell the reader in minute, numbing detail about everything he owns, everything he wears, everything he eats. And that sense of detail spilled over into the murders. It seemed to me dishonest not to present those sequences in the same fashion that the narrator, Patrick Bateman, would describe a plate of food at a restaurant, the interior of his apartment or the clothes everyone in a room is wearing. It seemed a logical extension of his voice.

So did this character take on a life of his own?
Well, every character takes on a life of its own. Especially if he’s narrating the book. You become the medium. They place themselves in your head, and you become their voice. Some writers may scoff at this idea, but I didn’t make a lot of the aesthetic choices in this book. With a character like Bateman, someone who’s very far away from my life, I believe that you become 100 percent that person when you’re writing. When I was writing this book, I became that man for hours at a time. I don’t see how else you can do it.

Were you ever surprised by the choices Bateman was making?
Oh, constantly, but I have to say that was also true about writing Less Than Zero — which is undeniably closer to my life than this book is. Yeah, one of the things that keeps you going is being surprised by what your characters say and do and how they decide to act. 

Your character displays an incredible vocabulary of barbarity and viciousness. How did you feel when you were writing the torture and murder scenes?
They were incredibly upsetting to write, the hardest scenes I’ve ever had to write — for obvious reasons. Yet at the same time, I knew they had to be there. I knew that it was correct to have them there. So that made it a little less difficult than, say, if I thought that maybe they didn’t need to be there or maybe they didn’t need to be this long. These scenes were probably more upsetting to write because I had to keep writing I all the time. I do this. I did that. That does a number on you psychologically that I can’t quite describe. I don’t think I could tell you how I felt after writing those scenes. I cried a few times. For some reason, I hate admitting that, but it’s true. I know I’m never going to write anything like that again. Not that it ever was in my system in the first place, but I probably got rid of those demons.

In his piece about American Psycho in Vanity Fair, Norman Mailer criticized you for just that: chasing demons from your soul, or what’s worse, using the reader for therapy.
I wouldn’t disagree. But he was commenting in a disapproving sense: that maybe this is not the way to go about it. I disagree with that. I think in some ways it was cathartic to write this book, and whether one likes to hear it or not, you can’t help but work out demons when you’re writing — even if you’re writing a light comedy, airy as a soufflé.

Were you working out some kind of rage against women?
No. I don’t think that played a part in it at all. And even the fact that I’d have to tell someone that no, I’m not a misogynist, is the kind of statement that automatically makes people perk their ears up and go, “Oh, really?”

But do you think there’s a natural animosity between men and women?
Actually, I do think that. But I’m much more sympathetic to the female side. I saw my parents go through a very long, torturous divorce — it went on for eight years – where it seemed to me that the woman does not have the upper hand, or even a hand that’s barely fair, in a case like that. And I’ve seen my sisters — I’ve got two younger sisters — I’ve seen both of them mistreated by various boyfriends at various times.

Since this book is, however, written from the point of view of the perpetrator, I think it would be hard for some women to believe you.
I would have to say I don’t care what some women think or feel about this book, and I would have to say I don’t care whether they find it offensive or not. That’s not my problem, and I don’t feel any responsibility toward women or the women’s movement or NOW to write what they consider a socially acceptable book. What I’m doing is not that political, and they’re turning it into something that is political. So my message to women who are offended by this book is: “Sorry, guys, read another book. Buy Alice Walker if it makes you feel better. Buy Amy Tan. I don’t care what you read.” But this book, for whatever reasons, should be allowed to be published, and people should have the choice of whether to read it or not to read it, to buy it or not to buy it, to like it or not to like it I’m not going to sit at my typewriter and compose something only so it will not offend a woman’s sensibility, and any writer who does that is a wimp. Who do they want me to be? Alan Alda?

Some of the scenes in the book are funny in a sly, dark and perverse way. The names of restaurants and the food they serve are grotesque and humorous. Bateman works for a firm called Pierce and Pierce. Do you feel that a lot of the people who are criticizing the book just don’t get it?
Most of them haven’t even read it, and those who have, I think, have missed it in a big way. The immense detail, the ridiculous minutiae, it gets to a point where it’s so over the top that — well, you can have either of two reactions. Either you find it so numbing you skip it, which I don’t think is a bad thing to do, or you find it funny. But at the same time, I wanted the violence to work on another level, to be upsetting, too. I don’t care if a lot of people find that mixture of gallows humor and real harsh violence interesting, but that is something that was conscious.

Bateman knows so much about clothing. A lot of his descriptions read like fashion credits from GQ.
Many of them are. GQ was inordinately helpful in costuming the characters in the book. They should have gotten credit.

Then there are the endless specifications on his electronics, as well.
From various stereo magazines.

Bateman seems to be made from magazines.
A mixture of GQ and Stereo Review and Fangoria … and Vanity Fair.

In the book, Patrick Bateman has a favorite movie, Brian De Palma’s Body Double, which he’s rented thirty-seven times. I’m assuming that you saw it. Were you shocked by its violence?
Yes, I was shocked. But I wasn’t offended. People like those in the NOW coalition can’t seem to divide the two things: being shocked and being offended. People seem to think that shock equals outrage — that if something shocks you, then you should be outraged by it. Being shocked by cultural, what’s the word, artifacts? — movies, poems, songs, photography — more often than not can be a healthy, liberating experience.

Do you think that you could say to a member of NOW that American Psycho is going to provide a healthy, liberating experience?
I am not saying that reading my book is going to be a healthy, liberating experience for anyone. That’s for a reader to decide. I’m saying that within our culture that when you are presented with material like that, more often than not, it widens your perceptions.

What NOW is about to perpetrate — this boycott of Random House — is harmful: It’s intolerance being masked by this new sensitivity. They’re treating people, and I think women especially, like infants by not giving them the choice to read this material on their own and make up their minds.

Are you shocked by the response the book has gotten even before it has been published?
I’m confused by it, but I think it’s basically a joke. To put it as simply as possible: The acts described in the book are truly, indisputably vile. The book itself is not. Patrick Bateman is a monster. I am not The outrage that has been expressed is totally disconnected from what this book is about. And if anything, it reflects the intolerance of our culture to deal with anything that falls outside the acceptable.

Did you read the piece in the New York Times Book Review by Roger Rosenblatt that was titled ‘Snuff This Book! Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away With Murder?’?
I think Roger Rosenblatt made a complete ass of himself. I remember Sonny Mehta reading parts of it over the phone to me and I was laughing hysterically. I mean, really — complaining about the grammar in a book that’s narrated by a madman is not only foolish, but it’s irresponsible.

You don’t have to read this book! This book is not being forced on anyone. Just like 2 Live Crew or any NC-17 movie — you don’t have to experience it. It’s not being pushed into anyone’s face, and you have a choice: Either you go and see the movie or you don’t.

What it comes down to is that it’s intolerance, and I think that is far more offensive than what the people in this book symbolize. Not that this book is a loving little thing, but I don’t think any book deserves this sort of advance negative scrutiny, no matter what the subject matter is. And I think the indignation and the hostility that the press expressed just seems far more intolerable than what this book is about.

This has obviously been a rough time. Have your friends and colleagues been supportive?
Actually, most people in publishing have been very supportive whether they’ve liked the book or not, so it has not been that rough a time. The worst aspect of this whole fiasco is that it puts the writer — it puts me — in the position of having to defend my work. A writer should never have to do that. I would never ask a writer or a songwriter or a poet why they wrote something. When people ask, “Why did you write this?” it automatically connotes a negative; that you’ve done something wrong or that you’ve been a bad boy. That’s what has upset me the most.

Some people have said that you deliberately set out to write something this controversial that your second book didn’t sell very well, and you needed to create a public tempest to revive your career.
Well, that’s a very complimentary suggestion — that I have the hindsight, plus the prowess, to actually do that. I started writing this book a year before Rules of Attraction was published. When my editor first saw the book and we talked about it, it was clear to us that this was a fairly dark, not very commercial novel.
I had never heard from my editor, from my agent or from anyone else that this was going to be a controversial novel. And I definitely had no idea that it would be attacked to the degree that it has been. So it’s very flattering for people to assume that I could carry this whole thing off: have my publisher cancel the book a month before publication and have the National Organization for Women threaten to boycott my new publisher.

Let me stand in the place of the feminist critics: “Fine, you’re an artist, you write for yourself. But did you have to go into such graphic detail, having Bateman put a rat up a woman’s vagina, cut off a victim’s breasts and cook them in the frying pan? The awfulness of those descriptions! Can you understand how women feel about reading that?” How do you respond to that?
I would respond with this question: “Would it be as upsetting to you, would you be as outraged by this book, if Patrick Bateman were a gay serial killer?” The fact that I even have to ask that question is offensive to me in the first place. But would it offend you if he committed the same actions on young men? If they were mutilated, tortured in the same manner, would you be boycotting this publisher? Well, Patrick Bateman is not gay. He attacks women — he has rage against women. His descriptions of the murders fit into his language — fit into how he narrates the book.

From my point of view, though, I don’t know if we’re that shocked or that upset by viewing murder or killing in this culture anymore. Perhaps we’ve witnessed so much of it that we’ve become numb to it, that when we do see it, it means little or it means nothing, and we turn the channel or get in line for the next movie, or we turn the page of the newspaper. It seemed to me that I had to really get the point across – if not to an audience, at least to myself while writing this book — that these murders are painful, that they’re terrible, that they’re messy, that they’re as ugly as possible. That seemed important to me to describe in the book.

When I was writing this book, the last thing that occurred to me was women would be protesting it. I thought maybe serial killers would protest the book, but I had no idea that women would be protesting it. What’s so offensive to me about NOW and about Tammy Bruce, who I think is getting on this little bandwagon for her own publicity reasons, is that there’s this sense, unspoken — well actually, not unspoken — that I advocate this type of behavior. That’s what this boycott and what this rage seems to indicate — that for some reason Bret Easton Ellis thinks that not only is this a good thing that Patrick Bateman is doing but he advocates it.

I saw Gloria Steinem on Larry King, and she was saying, “I hope Mr. Ellis realizes that when this book comes out and women are killed and tortured in the same fashion as is described in American Psycho, I hope he understands that he must take responsibility for this.” If for some reason a deranged mind gets hold of this book and reads it and does commit a terrible act of violence against a woman — or a man … how does that affect my role as a writer? Do we not express ourselves the way we want because a very small, tiny, minuscule percentage of people might get the wrong idea? I mean, then why don’t we start banning. Catcher in the Rye because Mark Chapman shot John Lennon?
You’re not the first novelist to write about serial killers. Today the movie The Silence of the Lambs opens in New York. Thomas Harris wrote the book that this movie is based on, as well as one called Red Dragon.
I’ve read both the books. 

Why do you think so much criticism, then, has been directed at you?
The obvious reason is that the violence in American Psycho is much more graphic than, say, the violence in Silence of the Lambs. I don’t remember sequences in that book where he describes killing or skinning the women a lot. See! Again it all comes back to… when I say a sentence like that, it makes me cringe. The fact that I have to comment on how much skinning goes on in one book as compared with how much goes on in another book is ridiculous. I think it’s because in this book it’s unflinchingly described and in the other books it’s alluded to.

So you made an artistic choice.
Yes, and now as a reader, you can reject that choice — and that’s fine. But I don’t think you should call for banning other people’s books because of it.

Let’s consider another point. Harris’s books seem to be situated in a universe of good and evil. There are cops vigorously working the side of good, an equal resistance to the twisted desires of the killers. In American Psycho, Pat Bateman is a devil working in a moral void. In the book, no one cares, no one even notices. You present this material as you did in Less Than Zero without anchoring it morally. There’s no resolution; we don’t get to understand Bateman or his rages.
If at the end of this book Patrick Bateman was caught, jailed and executed, would the outrage still be there? I don’t know. I can’t say that this book is autobiographical in any sense of the word — but it does in some way reflect my outlook on what the Eighties seemed to symbolize for me. It’s very basic The Eighties seemed to me to be a very ugly decade, and this was what I came away with. And it’s an ugly book.

Bateman works on Wall Street. It sounds like you’re making a specific point about the rampant consumerism and greed of the last decade.
Yeah, but that’s my outlook on these times. I know it’s kind of rigidly nihilistic. That question about good and evil and how people need to be soothed — it seems more than ever right now that people want that That. there’s this spiritual — for lack of a better word — malaise that people want coated with something. They don’t want to know…

That evil can go unpunished.
Yeah. In so many movies and books, evil does go punished. The bad guys almost certainly

Did you do a great deal of research on serial killers?
I did so much research on this book. I read criminology textbooks. I read every pulp and true-life crime book I could get my hands on. I read every book about Ted Bundy. Actually, it was a really lousy year for reading. It was terrible. I read about murders that no one’s ever heard of that are just completely appalling — what serial killers can and do inflict on their victims. I think it might have been an aesthetic choice of mine to up the ante a little bit in the book, but not by much.

The police reports about Gainesville [the Florida serial murders that remain unsolved] — a lot of that stuff is even creepier and more horrible than what Patrick Bateman does in this book. There is a level of human savagery and cruelty that is undeniable. If we can’t reflect it in our culture, if we’re intolerant of it, what does that mean? Does it mean that we don’t want to see it in art because there’s so much of it in real life? That we want entertainment instead? We want outcome, we want resolution. Do we want evil diminished in art because we don’t always get that in our everyday life?

Do you believe in God?
Are you asking me if I was raised in a religious family or if I go to church? I was raised an agnostic. I don’t know — I hate to fly, I have a fear of flying. That means either that I have no faith in air-traffic controllers or that I’ve done something really bad, and this is God’s way of getting at me. Maybe I’m caught in the middle… But no, I don’t believe in God. That’s such a strange thing to admit in an interview.

In Vanity Fair, Norman Mailer stated that his problem with the book was that you indeed upped the ante in terms of graphic descriptions of intimate violence in a work of art, but you didn’t bring back the interior life of Pat Bateman. He remains a cipher. Mailer wrote: “Ellis wants to break through steel walls. He will set out to shock the unshockable.” But in the end he couldn’t defend the book. In fact, he said he could not forgive you.
All I can say is that it was a choice that I thought was inappropriate for this book. I don’t think you can explain someone like Patrick Bateman — at least not within the context of a novel where the character is talking to you, narrating to you — without cheating. I didn’t want to — and I didn’t want Bateman to literally verbalize: “I was mistreated by my parents when I was younger, and that is why…. I was rejected by women when I was in my teens, and this is why I do this.” Maybe an unspoken explanation is maybe what Mailer was looking for. Again what you have here are two writers disagreeing on their takes on a novel. To me there is no reasoning. To me this creature just exists.

There’s a way of thinking about good writing that says if you’re going to take your reader through such a terrible experience, then you want to provide something that makes it comprehensible, that keeps it from being a joy ride.
That’s an interesting word. I don’t look at this book as a joy ride through evil. That’s hard for me to understand. But now, because of what the press has done with this book, maybe there are people who will buy it to experience a kind of sick thrill from those passages. While I was writing, it did not occur to me that the reader would hope for an epiphany that would explain it all away — that would make it “worthwhile.”

I agree with a lot of what Mailer wrote. I think it is, in many ways, an unendurable book. A lot of it is probably intolerable. It’s violent. It’s boring. I think some of it’s sick. But I also think, to me, it accurately reflects my take on that scene and that time.

Simon and Schuster dropped the book because it offended the taste of the CEO of the company. Within days, Sonny Mehta of Random House announced that he would publish it. Did you face further resistance at your new publisher?
Though it was the best of circumstances that Random House bought it, and I think they’re a publisher who deep down understands the book and who believes in it, I was also disheartened to find that they were a little frightened by it and that they expected cuts to be made that I wasn’t aware of when I accepted them as the publisher. That was very, very upsetting. I felt the book had already been edited and did not need — or would benefit from — second opinions.

Were you again asked to cut the violent scenes?

Did you?
No. There were maybe one or two trims that were made that were for purely aesthetic reasons and not political or moral reasons. The editing process at Random House, even though in the end I had pretty much free rein, still was a battle of sorts that I didn’t expect and I felt was kind of unwarranted.

The comments on some of the other sequences were on target and were actually helpful. What was so strange was that they were trying to use the same reasoning for the violent sequences. And I’m talking about three or four violent sequences that they not only wanted trimmed but they wanted excised from the manuscript.

I really believed that they had to stay in. And without them a lot of the book would have been meaningless. So, overall I’m grateful that Sonny’s my publisher, and I will probably stay with him. In fact, I know I’ll stay with him for the next book. But the editing process of this one was, to put it mildly, shaky. And I think that’s just because of the whole circus that followed this book into Vintage. I don’t think it was Vintage’s fault, I just think the reputation of the book had preceded it.

What shocks you these days?
I’m shocked that Vanilla Ice sells 7 million copies of a record. I’m shocked by it. It shocks me more than the fact that we’re in a war with Saddam Hussein right now, because the war that’s going on right now seemed predictable. It seemed like this was going to happen. I’ll end up sounding like such an old curmudgeon if I go on on this. What’s the thing that everyone complains about? The mediocrity of the culture — of popular culture and people’s blind acceptance of it. How can you not be shocked by the public’s overwhelming acceptance of a movie like Total Recall or Die Hard 2? The things that are accepted in popular culture constantly shock me. But then I’m stuck in this position: What do you do when you’re part of it?

Are you working on another novel?
Yes, I’m writing a book about a homeless man who finds the true meaning of Thanksgiving. I want to write the sequel to Watership Down. I want to write what a critic is going to call “a big, warm hug of a book.” I want to write a book that boils with love. I want to write a book about the environment. I want to write the most politically correct book I can think of.

In This Article: Bret Easton Ellis, Coverwall


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