Augusten Burroughs’s memoirs and books of essays are really popular. Probably. Right? I think that’s true. People buy them and they are best-sellers, and then they get turned into movies, or whatever. So, congratulations to him. I have never read any of his books, although I tried one time. I read the first essay of one of his books (not Running with Scissors) and I found the whole thing so phony that I threw the book out the window. That’s not true! I simply stopped reading it, and probably placed the book back on the bookshelf. But saying that you got so fed up with a book that you threw it out the window is exactly the kind of phoniness that I found throughout his writing, in the one short thing I read. People don’t really throw books out of windows when they’re fed up with them, they just put them away. I did throw a garbage can out a window one time, but that’s because it had a live bat in it and I was scared and it’s a whole other story anyway. Augusten Burroughs got famous on the David Sedaris wave of not really very funny at all people who threw bad jokes into over-exaggerated stories about their childhood and read them on NPR a lot. Remember that wave? It took place from, like, 1994 until yesterday, and it was terrible. At least David Sedaris was genuinely funny (before he started writing thin allegories about, like, turtles smoking cigarettes or whatever he does now). The whole memoir thing seemed to kind of track with the whole reality TV thing, as if our garbage television necessitated that we now read garbage books. This ended with the James Frey implosion, which is not to say that memoirs are not still big business, or that people are not still reading terrible books, but, you know, A Million Little Pieces are our generation’s literary 9/11. (GOOD ANALOGY.) The point is: I wasn’t a fan of Augusten Burroughs BEFORE seeing this movie, and this movie sure didn’t change that.

Running with Scissors is based on the Augusten Burroughs memoir of the same name, and is about a young man named, wait for it, Augusten Burroughs, coming of age in the late 1970s. His mom (Annette Bening) is a delusional, narcissistic, would-be poet and his dad is Alec Baldwin.

Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin fight all the time, which is hard for young Augusten, because he just wants to be a hairdresser. One night (really? night?) a doctor (Brian Cox) comes to the house to examine Augusten’s mother. He starts giving her valium. Sure. Then he basically, like, forces her and Alec Baldwin to get a divorce. Oh, he is a real character, by the way. Then he makes Augusten’s mom move into a motel. Meanwhile, Augusten is forced to move into his weird house with his weird family. Eventually, the doctor legally adopts him, and Augusten’s mom becomes a lesbian, and Augusten is gay now with a guy with a handlebar moustache, and he also fakes his own suicide to drop out of high school on the doctor’s recommendation. The movie ends with him saying goodbye to his mess of a mom, and the weird, down-trodden, dog-food-eating wife of the doctor giving him a tin can full of money and him getting on a bus to New York City to become a writer. Fine.

Let’s back up a second.

The story of a young man being abandoned by his mother into the mildly eccentric family of a psychiatrist right as he is coming into his own is an interesting story! It makes sense that Augusten Burroughs would write a memoir about something like that and that it would be successful. It follows that Hollywood would then adapt that memoir into a movie. Got it. We’re all on the same page here. The problem is that the story is so intense and outlandish on its own, that all of the “quirky” embellishments come off as patently false and very annoying. Like, when the doctor first comes over to the house, Annette Bening asks him if she can get him anything, coffee or tea? He says “I would like some cold bologna slices with a side of horseradish.”


Look, I’m sorry, I know that people come in all shapes and sizes and that real life is crazier than any fiction we could ever come up with, but you’re not going to convince me that a doctor came over to a house in the middle of the night no less and when confronted with the offer of coffee or tea he said that he wanted “cold bologna slices with a side of horseradish.” BOLOGNA IS RIGHT! That NEVER HAPPENED. Even if it happened, it never happened, if you catch my meaning. Like, sometimes there are things that happen in this life that don’t actually make for good stories because they are too weird and unlikely. But also that didn’t actually happen. Come on. (It is worth noting that I watched very carefully during the following scene to see if he actually ate the cold bologna slices with a side of horseradish–which she of course just had and gave to him no questions asked?–and he did not touch them. I HATE IT.)

The rest of the movie is more of the same: one “weird” moment to the next, constantly testing your willful suspension of disbelief, which happens in lots of movies, but is particularly weird for a movie that is supposedly based on real life. The story itself is believable enough: sure, it’s not every day that a son is unceremoniously passed off on an eccentric family because the mother is too drugged up and self-obsessed to care, but I can certainly believe that has happened at least this once. It’s all the other details that ring false. They’re constantly throwing the book out the window when they could simply stop reading it and place it on the shelf.

Most of the “movie” parts of the movie are fine! All of the acting is pretty decent, even Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays the older, eccentric daughter of the eccentric doctor. The tone and pacing and cinematography are all done in the completely unoriginal but compelling enough style of post-Wes Anderson, post-Spike Jonze, post-Guy Ritchie cinema. Plenty of decently constructed “indie-quirk” moments. The movie was directed by Ryan Murphy, who created Glee and who also directed Eat, Pray, Love. This guy really needs a Source Material Choosing Coach to teach him how to choose better source material! Although, there is the pre-requisite movie that discusses mental health in any way screaming scene:

And overstuffed medicine cabinet scene:

But, the movie’s fundamental problems come from, one must assume, Augusten Burroughs himself. It’s worth noting that after the book came out, he was sued by the family for defamation. They settled out of court, and the book was recategorized from a memoir to a “book.” (Haha. “A book.”) The thing is, even in the movie’s depiction of a Hoarders house full of lunatics, it is still quite clear that people in the fictionalized version of the family genuinely cared about Augusten. You will remember that the movie ends with the other mom, who did more for him as a mother than his real mother did, giving him her life savings so that he could pursue his dream. The family accepted and encouraged his homosexuality, the children took him in as a brother, every indulgence and allowance was made. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t still feel some sort of alienation from a family that was not his own, but to turn around and describe them all as such intense weirdos and creeps certainly suggests a lack of appreciation and basic respect. Kind of a dick move! There’s also the part where Augusten Burroughs changed his name to Augusten Burroughs (nee Christopher Robison), which is not included in the movie, but is the type of thing where if someone is so intense about self-creation and the rewriting of the past as to legally change their name, who knows where the line between truth and fiction lies. (In the movie, his mom’s name is Deirdre, but in real life his mom’s name is Margaret. Why? What is this, then?)

In the Wikipedia description of the memoir, which again, I fully admit to not having read, there is stuff about the doctor maybe raping Augusten’s mother, and also the suggestion which is only loosely alluded to in the movie of Augusten being molested and forced into a sexual relationship before he’s ready. These are very dark and intense revelations/accusations/whatever you want to call them. The fact that they were mostly scrubbed from the movie in order to make the movie more appealing to a general audience makes you kind of wonder what the point of the movie is in the first place. If a memoir is a loose remembering and subjective reinterpretation of actual events, then what is a sanitized and fictionalized movie adaptation of that memoir? I will tell you: A MESS.

Next week: Spread. As always, please leave your suggestions in the comments or in an email. And if you haven’t done so already, please consult the Official Rules.

Comments (90)
  1. “The movie was directed by Ryan Murphy, who created Glee and who also directed Eat, Pray, Love.”

    Huh. Well, here I’ve been hating on Gwyneth Paltrow, while the face of my true tormentor has been staring back at me the whole time. You’ve made a powerful enemy today, Mr. Murphy. A powerful enemy.

    • And let’s not forget Murphy also created Nip/Tuck. So, you know, hate on that too.

    • Speaking of ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ I have also never thrown a book out the window in disgust, but I DID throw one in the garbage can in disgust, and it was ‘Committed,’ Elizabeth Gilbert’s sequel to ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ which someone bought me as a gift. LOUSY GIFT.

  2. Seventeen bottles of pills is too many bottles of pills. I can’t even name seventeen different things that could be wrong with a person, let alone believe that a doctor would prescribe more pills once they found out the person was on, like, seven.

    “You’re already on seven kinds of medication? Do you have any serious illness? No? Go fuck yourself.” – Me, if I was a doctor.

    • “Your bedside manner leaves a little to be desired Dr Lawblog!” – Me, if you were a doctor.

      • “I’m sorry, Hey Now!, I’ve been under a lot of stress. Nobody told me how hard it was to be a doctor. I thought I just had to know seventeen different things that could be wrong with a person.” -Me, if I was a doctor and you were my patient commenting on my bedside manner.

        • Or maybe people take more than one kind of medication to treat…I don’t know…like every chronic disease ever. No wonder your medical license is on probation, Doctor.

    • Okay so I felt like 17 wasn’t THAT crazy a number of different meds to take, and so I decided to try to get to 17 for one nervous lady off the top of my head:

      First antidepressants — since they’re so hard to go off, if one stops working or doesn’t work in the first place, it’s pretty common to just keeping adding more and more. It’s not that uncommon for a chronically depressed person to be on four or five. Then she has an anxiolitic, Klonopin, or Xanax, or both (one for daily use, one for panic attacks). Ambien to help her sleep, and maybe ritalin or something to help her “focus” (IT’S SPEED). I don’t know if Provigil was around when the movie was set, but I bet she could claim to have “daytime sleepiness disorder” and score some of that too. So now we’re at 10 scrips and I’ve only done psychiatric meds.

      Because she probably also has physical complaints — digestive issues, headaches, unexplained joint pain, problems with menstruation — that could entirely plausibly be four or five more pills. In addition she probably takes prophylactic medications like Boniva and Lipitor and blood pressure pills . And doubtless she has some pain pills — demerol, percocet, whatever — either “left over from surgery” or obtained from a compliant doctor when she complained of attacks of pain which seemed to have no physical cause.

      So by my calculation that’s *at least* 17 different pill bottles in the semiotically and metaphorically charged medicine cabinet. Not implausible!

  3. I always wonder how much of a memoir is fiction or not. Are they considered half-fiction? Because I’ve found the recent popular trend of memoirs as lazy half-fiction. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t good ones (there are great ones!), but that a lot of them come off as just stories the people have repeated ad nauseum and assume people like when really they’re like “Ugh, this one again Janus? Shut it. Please. No one cares about high school, that was years ago.” Then they wrote them down.

    Or something. I don’t know where this is going. I’m going back to reading Infinite Jest.


    It’s great!

    • I just started reading Infinite Jest yesterday! It is already hilarious and super bizarre. Only 1,020 pages left!

    • A true memoir — by my humble definition — should be a good faith rendering of one’s memories, free of fictional accoutrements. A true memoir — according to the publishing industry — is essentially indistinguishable from an autobiographical novel, except that its premise of “realness” or “actuality” excuses certain soft/dull/absurd/unrealistic areas in the narrative or action. To understand the evolution of the genre, one need only compare the relentlessly autobiographical Speak Memory to a piece of fictive nonsense like Drink or Running with Scissors.

    • I always take factual accuracy of a memoir with a grain of salt. My criteria for judging it is: Would this work as well if it were published as Fiction? Running With Scissors I would argue does. Million Little Pieces (and for that matter, other Augusten Burroughs work) doesn’t.

    • How much of the memoir is fiction directly correlates to the percentage of the author that is filled with actual human excrement. In the case of James Frey, for instance, the answer is 100%.

    • isn’t everything fiction? I mean, maybe not repair manuals or math books, but truth can be pretty relative: memories are hazy and poorly recollected, colored by our past, our perceptions, our glasses which we view the world. Stories get embellished and mutate so much over the years so that you can’t even remember how much is made up… I mean, it is true to you. …eh. I don’t know.

      • To some extent, thats true. It goes beyond fiction and into dishonesty when your “memoir” hinges on people who never existed or on events that never happened, especially when you then use that memoir and to pitch yourself as a role model for others.

      • That’s fine, but I think the conceit of a biography or an autobiography is the intention of setting out to tell past events related to myself (or in a biography’s case, some other) as honestly or truthfully as possible. Whereas memoirs have always struck me as having the intention of telling a story related to the author. That’s okay, too. The genre, however, seemed to transform beyond just Big Fish (Brian Cox combo!!) elaborations to making up things completely and then packaging them as something else. Frey is a worn–but because it is such a particularly good example–of fiction masquerading as fact, and the author seizing the opportunity to engage his audience on a (faux) personal level. This is where I lose memoirs. To me, they become too easily a breeding ground for a cynically-marketed fiction: one that realizes mass audiences tend to connect more with “personal” stories. I can write a story about someone triumphing over substance abuse, and it can be moving and beautiful. However, if I can tell people that I, personally, triumphed over the abuse and then managed to write this beautiful novel about it, well that’s a story within a story and you can guarantee other media outlets will eat that up.

        Granted, this is an extreme example, and perhaps the proliferation of a falsely marketed half-truth is as much a result of declining recreational reading as it is that of marketing and advertising. Then I’m left with the question of “What’s the point?”

      • If everything is fiction, nothing is fiction. #ijusttotesblewyourmind

    • Supposedly, in the case of James Frey he took his novel manuscript of “A Million Tiny Pieces” to a bunch of different publishers with no luck until the final publisher said they would only publish it if they could call it a memoir, so he went with it because it meant getting published.

      Not that James Frey is thus irresponsible for the fallout of the whole James Frey incident.

      Tim O’Brien had an interesting line in The Things They Carried (which is both a work of fiction as stated in the book but also based on his experiences) that said that it wasn’t so much whether a story was true or not but if it conveyed truth (I am heavily paraphrasing), which I think in some cases can validate memoirs and in other cases (like Burroughs) that may invalidate them.

      There’s a line there, and it’s hard to know when it’s crossed, but I think it’s on the viewer/reader to decide for themselves what they choose to believe in those types of circumstances.

      • I’ve heard that, regarding James Frey (if I recall, South Park had an awful episode based off of it). The other things I’ve read about Frey though still have me doubtful.

        While I can’t vouch for how much of it is true, NYMag ran a piece on Frey’s Full Fathom Five workshop type thing which, if even remotely true, is depressing in its extremely cynical take on literature:

        • Nobody forced James Frey to pretend that Million Little Pieces was true. Even if he tried to get it published as fiction first, its not like someone was threatening to detonate a bomb if he couldn’t get it published. It was about greed and wanting attention without giving a shit about the consequences might be.

          Frey’s “overcoming addiction” story was not just bullshit, but it was dangerous bullshit. It sold addicts the line that all they need to overcome addiction is willpower. Not treatment, or a 12 step program, or support from loved ones. Just willpower. When an ACTUAL addict reads that, believes it, trys it, and then inevitably FAILS the conclusion they can easily draw is, “I failed not because of the method, but because I’m not strong enough, and should be even more ashamed of myself than I already am.”

          James Frey is a deeply, deeply awful person.

          • I never finished Million Little Pieces. I had picked it up in high school during the controversy to see what all the fuss was about, but what you said is exactly why I stopped reading. Perhaps it could be construed as “inspirational” when everyone was under the guise it was truth, but the immature reading of a disease as something you need to just “tough the fuck up and get over” was incredibly appalling. It’s certainly telling of the amount of experience behind the text, again to me at least, when you compare Frey’s “bootstraps” understanding of addiction recovery to other works, notably–due to what I’m currently reading, of course–Infinite Jest, where addiction is openly acknowledged as something that permanently becomes you and cannot be simply bested by oneself; it’s something that practically requires a community to overcome. It’s clear Frey didn’t understand this and didn’t care about the ramifications of his writing beyond $.

        • Wow, thanks. That was a great read even if I don’t know how to feel about it now.

      • I would just like to derail this conversation from James Fray for a moment to point out how much I love Tim O’Brien and his books. They are so great!

  4. They also got rid of his brother who has Aspergers, though that’s probably a good thing since Ryan Murphy would probably have made him “quirky” too

  5. I nominate:

    Bob Roberts
    You, Me, and Everyone We Know
    What the Bleep Do We Know

  6. This is a Mom Movie. How do I know this?

    My mom got all excited about the “sequel” to the “memoir”/book(OF LIES) that was written by Augustus’ mother. “It’s the rebuttal! It’s her side of the story!” “But wasn’t she basically crazy and a wholly terrible person, period? Why would I want to read her ‘side’ of what basically amounted to child abuse?” “…Well, your aunt said she heard about it on Oprah. You should read it.”

    Oprah –> Mom Books –> Mom Movies

  7. It was super uncomfortable taking a friend to see this movie because I remembered actually liking to the book. First rule of adaptation: some things seem less alarming in writing than they do when actually acted out by people. For example, poop stuff. Now I know!

  8. I’m willing to bet Gabe doesn’t make it all the way through Spread.

  9. The only thing worse than stoner movies are movies heavily reliant on some form of pharmaceutical abuse. #seealsogardenstate #fightclub #charliebartlett #factorygirl

  10. Your link to David Edelstein’s review of the Funny Games remake made me think how great it would be to have Gabe review a Michael Haneke movie. I personally like most of Haneke’s work, but it is very controversial and usually generates some great discussions.

    Therefore, I would like to nominate the Funny Games remake (2007 with Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt) as I believe it is the only one of Haneke’s movies that would qualify based on the Hunt rules.

  11. I feel personally satisfied because I steadfastly kept suggesting this movie every time their were nominations.

    The book, although far from perfect, did include some emotion and character narrative that seemed genuine. The movie just seemed to be a parade of the bizarre moments like “LOOK! ANOTHER CRAZY SCENE! ISN’T THIS STORY CRAZY?” to the point where it actually became boring. Like, at the end, Gwyneth paltrow’s character cooked the pet catfor dinner, and by then the viewer didn’t even give a shit.

    And the whole thing about his relationship with the older man? Um, rape much? It wasn’t presented as an actual, life-altering experience, but yet another WEIRD SCENE.* The most infuriating part was, at the end, for the “what happened to the characters” part, Augusten Burroughs, the author himself, appears alonside the Augusten actor. Like, he couldn’t stand NOT being in the movie.

    Also: fuck Ryan Murphy.

    *Joseph Fiennes, despite being a fantastic actor, seems to choose the shittiest projects ever. it went downhill since Shakespeare in Love. Enemy at the Gates, The Darwin Awards, that soft-core with Heather Graham, The Very Thought of You…

  12. I haven’t seen the movie, but I did read the book. So Bizzarro Gabe, essentially.

    Anyways, I have to take issue with something Gabe said here. He suggested that throwing the book out the window would be somehow inappropriate. This is false. If anything, flying out the window and out into the street below is too good a fate for that piece of pretentious, phony trash.

  13. This is by the same guy who wrote Naked Lunch, right?

  14. Well at least now the actor who played Augusten can be known as “that guy who played Alec Baldwin’s son in that movie no one saw” instead of “that kid whose dad turned into a snowman.”

  15. There is only one book I have ever thrown in disgust, and that was book 5 of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series.

    • Mine was “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”

      • that was mine too! (now I’m serving time for manslaughter because eggers’s precious tome struck a 20 year old guy smoking a pipe on a coffee shop porch in the head and he died…i’m currently writing a creative memoir about it and hoping its release coincides with mine)

      • Man, I wish you were my friend. Every time I go off about how much I loathe this book, there are people around to tell me it’s genius and I just don’t get it. Please help me beat up these people.

    • I threw the ‘American Psycho’ book in the garbage because just looking at it reminded me of all the terrible nightmares it gave me. And I liked the book!

      • I threw Firefly by Piers Anthony in the garbage. I’d been to a book sale where you pay $2 for a paper bag and fill it with all the old donated books you want. I ran out of things I really thought looked good and just started throwing in old sci-fi and horror books that looked cheesily amusing, but Firefly was creepy and very pedo. I felt like I had to throw it away just to make sure it’s one less copy that someone would possibly read someday because gross, I wish I hadn’t.

    • My throw-out-a-window book is “A God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. God that book sucked (well the first 15 pages I read)…plus it spawned a legion of people giving the non-asshole atheists a bad name.

    • Atlas Shrugged, several times. I also threw it against the wall and used it to kill centipedes. Then I threw it away because, ew. Centipede guts.

    • My old roommate almost injured me when she actually threw that Jodi Picoult book about the dying sisters (maybe?) across the room. Then my other roommate read it and was furious at the end of it. Luckily I had already decided to never ever read any Jodi Picoult book, so I remain footloose and fancy free!

    • I actually burned the novel Running with Scissors because it was so fucking terrible. It was so dependent on shock-value and sensationalism that it was sickening. To date, the worst book I have ever had the misfortune of reading, and on top of all of that, I was graded on my comprehension and analysis of it.

      Here’s my analysis: “This book fucking sucks!”

  16. I read the book in high school, and I liked it because I thought it made me cool and edgy. “Masturbating with poop? No big deal. You can’t shock me!” High school, right! I’m sure I’d hate it now, though.

    I didn’t like the movie when I saw it several years later, but I did buy the soundtrack immediately afterwards. Good soundtrack.

  17. I’m just glad this movie finally ended the career of the horrible Ryan Murphy. Yup, looks like he’ll never torment us with one of his works ever again.


  18. Please please please do VALENTINE’S DAY at some point during this godforsaken hunt:

    You will hate it so much you’ll actually throw it out the window, I’m sure of it.

  19. Everything Gabe says about this book he hasn’t read is true. Perfectly, completely, horrifyingly true. It too is A MESS.

    But you should read his other memoir, Dry. It is somehow less abominable. Also, if you read it within a year of someone you love dying, you may get the bonus of weeping on public transportation.

  20. I started listening to the audio book once upon a time. I quickly threw it out the car window (i.e. hit the eject button).

    On an unrelated note, I sure hope “Primer” never finds its way into The Hunt because I think it’s a pretty neat movie and I wish more people would see it.

  21. I think all these semi-fictionalized memoirs like this come from how people say, “You know how truth is stranger than fiction?” Which, duh, no it’s not.

    TRUTH: Winston Churchill’s mom had a tattoo on her wrist that she covered up with a snake bracelet.

    FICTION: Winston Churchill’s mom was a space vampire.

    Truth is only strange because it’s true. So, when you call your book a memoir, it completely lowers our threshold for strangeness. When the doctor comes in and wants cold bologna with horseradish, that’s pretty crazy, but only if he really did it. If this were fiction, you’d say, “What? Dumb. This is fiction, son, you’ll have to do better than that! ‘I’d like horseradish with some cold slices of SPACE VAMPIRE.”

    Calling your weird, lightly-autobiographical and kind of quirky novel a “memoir” is just an excuse to put random, kind of weird things into it and everyone will love it because 1) the pretense that this REALLY HAPPENED makes them seem strange, and not like some dumb thing you made up, and 2) the pretense that this REALLY HAPPENED means that they don’t have to be connected or meaningful or proceed logically from anything else in the story, because life is a confusing and complicated mess and sometimes weird things happen.

    In summation: “memoir” means “I thought of some weird things that I can’t fit anywhere else, pretend that they happened to me and that will make them interesting.”

  22. i will continue to nominate the core based mostly on the performances of dj qualls and hilary swank

  23. Oh Gosh, I don’t have time to read this because I have work to do and time doesn’t grow on money or whatever, but I just wanted to say SCREW THIS MOVIE and KUDOS to you, Hard Gabe, for zinging this dumb crappy movie that I hated whilst my friends liked it. Ugh. I hate that I saw this movie.

    Medium Viscosity Gabe

  24. “Augusten Burroughs got famous on the David Sedaris wave of not really very funny at all people who threw bad jokes into over-exaggerated stories about their childhood and read them on NPR a lot.”

    YES! YES! YES! I do not find David Sedaris’ writing very funny at all. It all sounds embellished and his sister is way funnier. There, I said it.

  25. I’d like to nominate the religious action thriller Legion for Worst Movie of All Time. I hope one of the requirements of the search isn’t that the movie has to be painful to watch because it was an absolute JOY, let me tell you. But still, this movie only barely qualifies as a movie because it is so absurd and ridiculous and all those words that mean those exact words in a derogatory sense. I love Paul Bettany, and as a Paul Bettany fan one must also love terrible films wherein he plays some sort of religious figure who is also an action hero out to kick some demon/vampire/atheist ass, but even I had to draw the line somewhere- and that line was drawn at Legion. It went from being okay bad, like The Rite bad, or Priest bad, to cult film bad within the first 5 minutes and it was still all downhill from there. Please review!

    • I totally second, and if possible, third, fourth and fifth this. Even though the old lady on the ceiling was awesome!

      Also “Priest”!

  26. I haven’t seen this movie, read the book though. And, based on this article, they changed a bunch of stuff. Which I hate. Like, I thought the ending was that he left or ran away or whatever, and he was a waiter, saved some money, then went to New York to go into advertisement. I know his job was advertisement in Dry, which was maybe more believable than Running with Scissors. I don’t know. I have bad memory, and I’m too lazy to pick up Running with Scissors… Good thing I got both books free.

  27. Dear god I hate this movie.

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