International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 4 Number 7

December 20, 2003

Contested Positions:
How Fiction Informs Empathic Research

Elizabeth de Freitas
University of Prince Edward Island

Citation: de Freitas, E. (2003, December 20). Contested positions: How fiction informs empathic research, International Journal of Education and the Arts, 4(7). Retrieved [Date] from

This article uses fiction and critical theory to explore the concept of empathy. Empathy has become one of the most contested concepts in the postmodern revisioning of the social sciences (Simon, 2000). Empathy assumes that we can profoundly understand the experiences of the Other, despite the radical cultural differences that divide us. I present two fictional narratives in which an educational researcher named Martha West examines both the promise and peril of research informed by empathy.

This article contains two research stories, both of which are works of fiction. The stories are not based on traditional “data” in the qualitative sense. As a fiction writer, I am always already writing; there is no collecting data before my act of interpretation. There is no temporal lag between event and story. My life experiences as a teacher and a researcher inform my writing, but they are not the “indubitable facts” to which my narrative must correspond. Experience is always already narrated and cannot be broken off from the storying habits of our minds (Eisner, 1993). My imagination is immediately engaged in the co-construction of our shared reality, and my attempt in this article is to honour the ways in which my imagination might furnish a form of rigorous research.

The narrative follows Martha West, an educational researcher hired at a fictional school, Charlton Academy, to write a lauding school portrait. The book is to be published as part of the massive fund-raising event planned for the school’s centennial celebration. In the two sections, entitled “empathic research” and “censored signature”, Martha reflects on her own motives, recounting personal moments when her empathy as an outsider was in question. Empathy has become one of the most contested concepts in the postmodern revisioning of the social sciences (Simon, 2000). Empathy assumes that we can profoundly understand the experiences of the Other, despite the radical cultural differences that divide us. Art often represents the possibility of transformative empathic engagement, and fiction often aims to elicit empathy from the reader. Because of its central role in assessing creative work, empathy must be interrogated from many divergent perspectives. The story of Martha West is offered as a sustained study of the desire for communion that is often the ground for empathic engagement.

Martha West is a fictional character constructed during the last two years as a vehicle for my exploration of educational research issues. She was formed during an arts-informed graduate research course so as to address both thematic and plot-based problems in the telling of research stories. Her name signifies her intrinsically western perspective, as well as being a tribute to Martha Quest, the self-scrutinizing protagonist of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, and a character with whom I empathized during my years of adolescence.

A disembodied third-person voice narrates the story of Martha West whose interior ruminations break through the detached discourse of her life history. The story is about a researcher grappling with the possibility of empathy. But the story is simultaneously about the logic of distinct persons. Martha warns the third-person narrator that stories impose smothering linear models on the singularities of lived experience. She warns the reader that her story always already intrudes on her telling of another. Her voice trespasses across the border between story and discourse, demanding on the one hand that the narrator should not be trusted, that the disembodied third-person voice occupies, ironically, an unreliable position, and on the other hand that she herself may not have a right to speak from a personally invested perspective within the school. The reader learns about Martha through the descriptive and specular vantage of third-person, but the reader also learns that this same detached voyeurism is at the heart of the character’s dilemma.

Empathic Research

The promise of empathy hunkered down in Martha’s heart. She failed to recollect a single moment devoid of that promise. Her earliest memories were saturated in the perpetual steam of the imagined and embodied other. Subtle, unpredictable acts of engagement marked her day-to-day learning. She soaked every inch of her first childhood drawings in glue, captivated by the suave glossy effect and the incredible stickiness. Beneath the opaque gummy surface lay her original crayoned picture. When the kindergarten teacher asked the children to paste their pictures onto their easels, she carefully pressed the slick sticky drawing to the board, as though the image were meant to face the frame and not the viewer. She assumed a bond between her created work and the world. She assumed she was meant to join the easel, face to face, rather than employ it as a vehicle. When she noticed the other easels displayed the colourful, crayoned representations right side up, she quickly tore her paper from the board and reversed it. Fragments of the drawing remained fixed and hidden beneath her now backward image. Segments of the sticky picture had been torn off, leaving white, textured splotches throughout her drawing.

The location of an interface remained a troubling question. Defining borders between herself and the world seemed improbable. Empathic movement from her fledgling intimate self to another, be it person, place or thing, was as immediate as consciousness itself. Her sense of involvement was prior to any concept of compassion. She was unaware of the politics of difference, insensitive to the issues around borders. She never doubted her indissoluble bond with the world. Her elder sister seemed embarrassed by such a naive embracing of the universe. But the embrace was never naive, never obtuse, never blanketed; she felt the dirt in her palm, the water across her back, the air in her blood. She devoted herself without pomp and ceremony to the details of encounters, and she embraced the minutiae of experience, attending to the existence of the supposed peripheral and marginal. But the details on which she focused were never part of the lexicon of received information. They were always obscure empirical junctures, peripheral to all perspectives. They were dangling, unnamed events that no position had yet claimed and politicized. She surrendered to these brief, self-governed encounters and believed they were moments of pure freedom.

Throughout high school, she was unable to witness any sort of live performance. She simply could not bear to watch people performing on stage. School plays and talent contests induced anxiety attacks. It was not that she harboured disbelief or found the performance unconvincing. It was not a matter of intellectual suspicion. Her somatic anxiety was prior to all cerebral judgment concerning the value of the work. It was rather the gulf between her role and their role, the divided space, the precipitous chasm, the distance that was demanded if audience and performer were to play the game correctly. She preferred to believe the world was profoundly holistic. There was no spectacle, no performance, despite our all being performers. Mind and culture were fused. It was a joining that annulled the discrete status of both, liquefying one and the other. Live performances always sundered her dissolved world and petitioned a disjunct mind. She watched and listened for as long as she could, but the presence of body and voice lay claim to her passions. She hurled herself towards the promise of an intimate, immediate bond, and aimed for the dissolution of all distinct participants. Her engagement always ran counter to the depicted narrative on stage.

When she arrived at University, she searched for a discipline that fused empiricism with empathy. Unsure of what that might look like, she tried everything from optics and dead languages to history and urban geography. But although each subject contained a latent humanist agenda, none deployed the appropriate mix. The doctrine of all academic fields posited empathy and empiricism as mutually exclusive forms of encountering. She was drawn to art because so much of it seemed to function as an engaged and morally sensitive witness to history. Paintings in particular, and large paintings especially, bridged the chasm between emotion and civic mindedness. An eight foot poster of Guernica lined the hallway between her bedroom and the kitchen. One evening, not long before she graduated with a communications degree, she spent hours re-painting the poster in bright acrylic colours. Her intention was not to improve the painting, nor erase the original, but to join the image with her own contribution, a joining that had more to do with the process of putting her paint brush to an already mainstream piece of political art than with the unexpected effect, which was shockingly beautiful.

Six months later, she moved to Madrid and taught English as a second language. She often visited the massive Guernica, housed in its own room and encased in glass. An oxygen mix was pumped into the glass case and circulated across the canvas, creating a rhythmic breathing sound, as though the image were exhaling. She spent two years in the city, acting as a linguistic envoy, initially insensitive to the political facets of her role. Her language, the English language, was the language of global commerce, the currency of international trade. She gradually realized that she was a delegate for corporate America, and that her coffee shop lessons on English conversation were deeds of acquisition. The chit chat about nothing was in fact about everything. She sat sipping coffee, paid by the hour, portraying the glib insidious presence of her language.

One afternoon in the coffee shop, the entire glass facade shattered, and she and her pupil screamed—he in Spanish and she in English—frantically scrambling away from the window. The car bomb, intended for a local military figure, had detonated a full block away, but the damage spread in all directions. Martha remembered the incident in her own terms: the broken glass in her knee, the trembling hand she offered, and the sound of pulsing sirens. She lay in bed for days, tormented by shock. The bomb demolished her childlike trust in the intimacy of communication. She left Spain, still knowing very little about the Basque separatists, angry at herself for her ignorance and her complicity in not having recognized their distinct cause. She suddenly saw how her liquid life had melted all the particular, political, and lived experiences of alterity. She saw how she had refused to recognize difference in the hope of a potentially universal affirmation of togetherness. Her tolerance was colour-blind, unaware of the asymmetries of existence, until the disenfranchised were just that and nothing more. She realized she had emptied them of personal signature. Her empathy reached out and obliterated their individuality. She threw herself on the up-down ladder and saw nothing but feet and hands. She made the other an abstraction, and then was saddened when she recognized the stranger in herself.

She returned to Ottawa and completed her doctorate in cultural anthropology. Her narrative research examined bullying strategies, primarily in schools. She tried to keep the multiplicity of stories alive, nursing the distinctness of each incident, and mollifying her overzealous compassion. She tried to make room for the specific voices of the students without lumping them all under one piteous banner. But readers agreed that the margins of her work were still dense with the promise of empathy. She had shoved her own voice aside, but its trace remained. The conflict between her hope for a holistic embrace and her slow reckoning with difference was evident throughout the thesis. She invested more and more effort into writing, convinced that eventually she would uncover a form that would either resolve the conflict or reveal its derivation.

She was hired at Charlton Academy to write a coffee table book about school tradition and alumnae achievements. The interviews and the archives generated volumes of fragmented reflections, but nothing else. She wondered where the educative power of all these little pieces lay. How would such a collection convey the internal axiomatics of class apartheid operating within the context? How to produce a perpetually critical account that evades being gentrified by narrative? How to write a narrative without being coercive, no matter how benevolent her intentions? She wanted to tell the right stories, the stories that revealed the manifold experience at Charlton Academy, the stories that recognized the multiplicity of distinct perspectives. She worried that she might tell only one story.

Corollary One

The fictionalized life-history of Martha West creates an emotional map of research motives. The story dwells on the intrinsic complexity of empathy and the many ways in which the researcher mis-recognizes the Other. Martha is particularly concerned that she will impose singular meaning onto the diversity of the given context. And yet the power of empathy to engage an inquirer and facilitate understanding is grounded in the profound feeling that contingent singularities can be shared across the many differences that divide us. Empathy operates in a contradictory realm where the individuality of experience is perceived to be part of a more general phenomenon. It must draw on the imagination in order to bring together self and other, and in doing so it creates a space of difference, a “liminal space”(Iser, 2000), that belongs to neither the researcher nor the researched.

Fiction is uniquely suited to engender empathy on behalf of the reader. The many interpretive gaps that are frequently deliberately inserted in fictional narratives, and the specific reading practices associated with fiction, allow the reader to construct a highly intimate relationship with the imagined other. Dorrit Cohn argues that third-person fiction is recognizable as fiction when it deploys the focalizing technique so as to “know what cannot be known,” (Cohn, 1999: 16) of the inner life of characters. The danger of false identification with a character, and the accompanying cultural appropriation, can be countered through the use of specific fictionalizing strategies. The research fictions of Peter Clough, for instance, are deeply reflexive inventions that dwell on the power differential that frames educational research (Clough, 2002). The reader is reminded time after time of the contested authority of the narrative. In the case of Martha West, the strategy of the unreliable narrator is employed to trouble an all-too easy trust in her story. By embedding conflict between the focalized voice of Martha West and the evaluative judgments of the narrator, the story plays with the very same problem that plagues the character: how and why do we trust the storyteller? In the next excerpt, Martha is at Charlton Academy attempting to interview a participant named Elizabeth Bain. Martha contemplates her own vested interest in constructing a story that serves her research needs while negotiating the voice of an administrator whose intentions she finds suspect.

Censored Signature

The office door is shut. The walls are creamy soft white. Above the couch hangs a framed poster from a touring musical production. The sound of the two women breathing is lost to the noise of air pumped and circulated through the ceiling vents. The scent of Elizabeth Bain is expensive and exhaustive, her entire surface emitting the fragrance of olfactory privilege. The pores of her skin are tightly shut and indiscernible, as though she is made of plaster. Her eyes survey the borders around her seated body. Martha West readjusts herself, inching away from this elaborately invented creature. She presses her thigh against the arm of the linen-covered couch, and imagines herself tucked in behind the pillow, like a crumb. Lint clings statically to her black clothes, in striking contrast to the magnetic-free Elizabeth.

“I often miss teaching,” says Elizabeth Bain, having rewritten her own story, “I’m always dreaming up ways to visit classrooms and to feel that warmth again.” She smiles and glances at the blipping red light on her phone. Martha West scribbles away as Elizabeth continues. “Teaching is such a...fulfilling vocation. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a part of the support staff.” She rises, walks to the phone, reads the call display, and shunts the caller into her voice-box. Martha nods as she attempts to transcribe Elizabeth’s words. She is using her own personal shorthand, which often degenerates into chaos, especially when the speaker is obviously lying, as Elizabeth is now. There is something in Elizabeth’s voice that makes her deceit self-evident to Martha, whose hand censors itself, and refuses, as though by its own accord, to reproduce the lies. The page on her lap is blotted with odd ink insignia meaningful only in Martha’s unconsciousness. She is listening intently, as she always does, but she hears so much noise within Elizabeth’s spoken words and so much scarring around the meaning of those words, that transcribing them becomes too problematic. Her pen traces arcs and dotted spirals in an attempt to capture the meaning of her phrases. She is not sure herself what the script denotes. There seems to be no decoding key that might unlock the cryptographs. Her desk is covered in similarly cyphered pages, all of which begin in standard English but quickly lapse into something else. Her intention to accurately portray Elizabeth and the others leads always to this difficult terrain where direction is obscured. Their spoken words never gel into seamless positions, their voices in conflict with the words they use. Martha finds that every response obscures its own meaning. There is a kind of seamlessness to this, the way the ocean is both one body and an unbound system of tumult and friction, but this is not the sort she is there to document. Martha is supposed to tell their story the way they want it told. Implicit in her research is the assumption that she will respect their desire to be portrayed in a positive light. Contracts have been signed ensuring everyone’s good intentions on this account.

Martha must produce a manuscript in time for the school’s centenary celebration. The school board wants a book that will sell the school to potential customers, and remind alumnae that endowments are welcome. They chose Martha West upon the recommendation of Vice-Principal Elizabeth Bain, who knew her sister at Cambridge, and owed her a longstanding favour. Martha has no qualifications for the assignment, and no experience writing popular history, but she does have experience working as an educational researcher for a private management organization. She quit the job six months ago, unable to stomach the flow charts and consumer targets. She was tired of stuffing people into envelopes, tired of the formulaic diagnoses, and tired of cognitive theories that left her cold. She published a slim volume on school bullying which is considered an excellent source for detailed case studies. But looking back at her efforts she feels disappointed at how overly descriptive and prescriptive the portraits seem. She left her job suddenly, after a Christmas staff party. She is still surprised that the upper-crust Charlton Academy was willing to hire her. Perhaps it was her low fee. Her sister said she had no recollection of the supposed longstanding favour.

Favours are common currency amongst associates and alumnae at Charlton. They are never offered in the spirit of generosity, but with the understanding that an eventual payback is expected. Martha hasn’t yet asked for any favours but as she sits with Elizabeth in her office she cannot help but imagine Elizabeth’s merciless extraction of paybacks. She imagines her doling out favours and documenting the names and whereabouts of all the grateful. She tries to stamp out the cynicism and listen to Elizabeth, but her need to imagine the moment differently, her need to re-create the so-called facts, is precisely what now defines Martha as a writer. She watches the world from an invisible vanishing point, investigating the minor incidents she witnesses as though she were privy to the personal lives of others. She engages the world only insofar as she is able to recreate it. Every mundane experience is given an altered life through her retelling, every moment is invested with meaning and made bearable. Her creative impulse imposes difference on what she observes, difference from her own self so as to justify the retelling. Elizabeth and she are as different as night and day. The way the one puts an end to the other is the way her mind is mindful of Elizabeth. As much as she needs to write the commissioned book, she cannot yet find a syntax that will accommodate both Elizabeth and herself.

But to tell the story is to tell it differently. Each person makes each story her own distinct odyssey. She remembers as a teenager learning that there were only seven plots possible, most of which involved a boy meeting a girl. She remembers contemplating the moral consequences around such a categorical statement, remembers her decision that plot would play a minor role in all her stories. Causal connections became a weak point in all her thinking. She excelled at lateral associations and obscure references but often failed to make the most rudimentary deductions. Her arguments developed into beautifully circular associations, too slippery for judgments and conclusions to be drawn. She had strong opinions, each of which rested on a complex network of reasons, but none fit the rhetorical mold for logical justification. She could never succeed at representing her thoughts within the linear confines of traditional academic writing. In high school she always chose to write stories instead of essays, and what history she knew came from novels and poetry. In university she developed anorexia while training her mind to write introductory paragraphs and footnotes. It always felt hugely unnatural to write herself out of her own essays, but the institution demanded she express herself in this anonymous form. She learned to heel her intellect like a dog, to keep it on a tight leash, nose to the ground, an obedient and loyal companion. Her words achieved validity through their anonymity, like folk tales and moral claims and all the master narratives of science and culture. Her articles gained a certain lawfulness amongst designated readers. Her writing became void of authenticity as she aped after the objective judgment, stumbled after the verifiable facts, and choked herself dry in a vacuum. She longed to dip the page in water so as to blur her argument and make visible the invisible ink signature, that rolling and playfully extravagant signature that announced her authorship. She knew it was deeply wrong to write in such a censored form, a form that had become so ossified it could barely function as a medium for communication, and she knew that someday her hand would become so stiff she would be unable to write. The interviews at Charlton Academy and the strange notes on her desk were proof enough.

The true story is another issue altogether. She imagines it lurking behind the inoffensive facts and assertions, ready at a moments notice to sabotage reality’s surface and then slink away despite all of her attempts to substantiate it. Martha believes that truth itself is playful, that a willful trickster embodies all validity and that no individual can both grasp and communicate its content. She sometimes glimpses the shameless double-dealer grinning behind some spurious scenario that the rest mistake as dormant fact. Elizabeth’s highly contrived persona is almost an antidote to Martha’s assumptions. For if nothing else, the synthetic Elizabeth proves that deception is the premise of all signification. In the midst of Elizabeth’s interview Martha finds herself scribbling a quote from Shakespeare, “The truest poetry is the most feigned.” Perhaps this nonsense she has been writing for days is a kind of poetry capable of weaving her and Elizabeth together as no other form could. Perhaps there is no authentic voice for this encounter save the soundless unknown alphabet that emerges on the page like automatic writing. She wonders if her notes would qualify as images instead of words as they have no spoken equivalent and no defined meaning. Truth would then be subtended by aesthetic criteria and audiences would judge the beauty of her words. Her eyes rest on the only readable line on the page, “The truest poetry is the most feigned.” The expression confirms all her suspicions. To feign is to be deceptive, deceitful, and counterfeit, and in the very least, invented. Perhaps Elizabeth’s lies are all that matters. Perhaps her words are all in code. Euphemisms seem to spread across the school like a thin layer of marmalade on toast. Every comment is layered with coded meaning. Martha looks down at her red running shoes, remembers her credit debt and how badly she needs the commission.

“Do the school archives contain all previous principals’ papers?” she asks. Elizabeth pauses longer than usual. She rubs the thumb of one hand into the palm of the other and then touches the band of her diamond ring. Her hands move with dry precision, as though everything she touched turned to rank and ordered custom. She begins to reply, and then stops herself. Martha is shocked by what appears to be an authentic faltering. Could it be that Elizabeth has pushed aside the pat answer and is about to say something real? Martha chastises herself for imposing her own ranking of reality. Just because her own benchmarks are physiological necessities such as food and shelter doesn’t exclude others from having far more cultivated frames of reference. She is being too judgmental of Elizabeth. She smiles and waits patiently for her response.

Corollary Two

The focalized voice of Martha West dominates the scene. The interviewee is barely allowed to speak. Martha transposes her words into gibberish on the page, refusing to transcribe what she surmises to be inauthentic. She is lost in her own fantasy of creative interpretation, unable to grant the officious administrator the same right. Martha has encountered an incommensurable Other, and she “cannot yet find a syntax that will accommodate both herself and Elizabeth.” She turns to an aesthetic ambiguity or “feigned poetry” in the hope that the two women might be capable of sharing such a domain. The fiction is hyper-reflexive, pointing to its own possible construction, while addressing the postmodern crisis in representation. This “cyborg writing”(Haraway, 2003) is distinct from the arts-based work of Tom Barone because of its relentless attention to the problem of voice, and its emphasis on fronting methodological issues within the text (Barone, 2000). Martha West forces the reader to reflect on the privilege of the storytelling voice. Her interior rumination allows the reader to observe the discursive construction of the narrative. It problematizes the tacit assumptions that underpin our storytelling practices. The traditional distinction between story and discourse (in which story is cast as the more organic or natural of the two while discourse is the technical framing of the story) has led to what Jerome Bruner has named, “the ontological fallacy” of assuming that the story exists “out there” somewhere to be discovered (Bruner, 1996). In contrast, Martha’s story is precisely about storying. The work of fiction presented here is intended as an example of writing that turns the aesthetic lens inward onto the many methodological assumptions that undergird an arts-informed approach to research. Martha tentatively begins to tell a story, but she foregrounds the many discursive habits that frame her telling. Empathy is Martha’s illusive aim, and she comes closer and closer to apprehending the complexity of such a profoundly interpersonal understanding through the relentless reflexive dialogue that occurs between her motives and her narrator. The descriptive language of the third person narrator, who interjects evaluative comments throughout Martha’s inner reflections, creates a tension that could never be achieved through the all-too trusting immediacy of first person narrative voice.


Storying in the social sciences is too often associated with ethnographic research in which the premise of insider/outsider positioning commits the work to a positivist paradigm of representation. Auto-ethnographic studies represent a more reflexive medium, but many of these fail to contest the authority of their first-person voice, assuming instead that personal voice sufficiently fronts the partial or tentative nature of their understanding. Recent arts-informed research into education has called for new forms of inquiry that employ fictional narratives in order to further subjunctify the narrator’s voice ( Cole & Knowles, 2003; Barone, 1997; Eisner, 1997; Kilbourne, 1999; Diamond & Mullen, 1999; Clough, 2002).

As a method of inquiry, fictional storying underscores the complex hermeneutic inscription of self and other onto and through the writing process (Richardson, 1994). Fiction reconfigures the possible into the real, constructing an “as if” context that is neither completely absent nor fully present to the reader. Fiction multiplies the possible interpretations without privileging one dominant reading. Through its “double-voiced discourse” (Iser, 1997) fiction is always dialogic, its every utterance part of an intra-textual semantic field. The proliferation of possible meaning ensures that others can bring oppositional readings to the work without being marginalized. Dorrit Cohn defines fiction as a reading practice that searches for ambiguity in non-referential narratives and then constructs relevant interpretations (Cohn, 1999). Fiction is a sort of “experimental epistemology”(Fluck, 2003) that is capable of articulating imaginary elements that cannot yet be articulated in any other way.

The freedom of fiction to enter into dialogue with the given context in such a way as to underscore the play of interpretation (that movement to-and-fro between self and other) is at once necessary and extremely dangerous. Fiction is never innocent. The imagination is never disembodied. But that is precisely why fiction-as-research possesses huge potential for engendering agency. The grounded, emotional particularity of fiction is capable of transforming the reader. Fiction permits border crossing and defamiliarization, which are both essential for diacritical empathy (Kearney, 2003). And yet empathy will always be tainted by its possible blind spots. Border crossing, unfortunately, is usually asymmetric, and defamiliarization is often another means of appropriation. Empathy remains a highly contested movement towards understanding the other. There is always the risk that cultural projection may blind the inquirer to the radical difference at hand. By confronting these issues within my story, I hope to have generated a recursive reflexivity that pivots around the contested authority of my own position. The misrecognition and wrongful identification that plague many research narratives are treated discursively within the story; hence the text displays an increased, although always emergent, sense of transparency.

Aside from what I have offered thus far, I am reluctant to impose any limits to interpretation, and yet I am aware that the reader may wish for more guidance in assessing the work, especially a reader accustomed to more traditional forms of scholarship. In refraining from over-explaining the story, I hope to have created a space for possible readings that might range from seeing the work as an ironic commentary on educational research to conceiving it as a complex portrait of a researcher devoted to empathic engagement. In the process of constructing a relevant interpretation, the reader will be forced to debate the concept of empathy, thereby confronting one of the crucial facets of narrative understanding. By returning again and again to the very possibility of empathy, and the possibility of coming to know either oneself or the other, the story of Martha resists the all too easy centering habits sanctioned by the built-in expectations of narrative. Through the fictive focalizing technique of interior voice and the intrusive judgments of the unreliable narrator we are able to both construct and contest our personalized portrait of the educational researcher.


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About the Author

Elizabeth de Freitas teaches in the Education Faculty at the University of Prince Edward Island. She is the author of the novel Keel Kissing Bottom.

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