The Adopted Baby As A Blank Slate: Thoughts On The Nature vs Nurture Debate In Adoption With Lesli Johnson Transcript


Episode 11 Podcast > Full Transcript


Lori Holden, Greeting:
Today's guest, who consulted about adoption themes for the Hulu series, Little Fires Everywhere, wrote an article many years ago that goes viral just about every year. The article is called 10 Things Adoptees Want You to Know. And within it, Lesli Johnson, adoptee and therapist, hits at so many of the things we adoptive parents need to, well, know.

Lesli and I explore two concepts in infant adoption: (1) the newborn as a “blank slate,” and (2) the nature vs nurture debate.

Lori Holden, Intro:
Adoption: The Long View is a podcast brought to you by Adopting.com. Our focus is more on the marriage than the wedding. Once you fill the crib and are legally joined to your beloved and child, your journey is not over; it's just beginning. We cover things you need to know now; perspectives you need to hear now.

I'm your host, Lori Holden, author of The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption and longtime blogger at lavanderluz.com. I'm a mom through infant adoption to a daughter and a son, now in their late teens. And it's been a ride.

Think of any road trip you've taken; there and there are downs and it's always an adventure. You're always glad for the trip, but afterward and during, you might end up thinking, “If only I knew then what I know now.”

So, here we go.

Lori:
With me today is Lesli Johnson, MFT. Lesli is a licensed marriage and family therapist and coach specializing in adoption and related issues. Her clients include all members of the adoption and foster care community; adoptees, adoptive parents waiting parents, birth-first parents, foster parents and families.

An adoptee herself, Lesli's personal experience enables her to connect with this community in a unique way. Lesli is a certified MDR therapist and trained in brain spotting and the trauma resiliency model.

In addition to her work in private practice, Lesli provides coaching services both in-office and virtually to adoptee's adoptive parents and birth parents worldwide. She facilitates virtual healing courses and adoption support groups and conducts adoption awareness and education workshops in schools, universities and mental health settings. And I've had the privilege of attending several of those. Lesli also consults on film, television and creative projects that have adoption related things.

Lesli, welcome.

Lesli:
Thanks, Laura. It's nice to be here.

Lori:
Great to have you. Can you tell us briefly your story of becoming an adoptee? The thing that happened to you.

Lesli:
Becoming an adoptee; that's a great way to word that question. I was born a long time ago. And my birth mother, Candace, she was part of the Baby Scoop era. So, she got pregnant when she was 19. She hid her pregnancy from her parents and her family. And when she was about eight months pregnant, when they found out she was pregnant, she was sent away to have me.

Lori:
Let me just interject here; Baby Scoop era has those elements that you're talking about.

Lesli:
Right.

Lori:
It was in the 50s, 60s, 70s-ish?

Lesli:
Yes, I was born in 1967. Yeah.

Lori:
And it involved women in unintended pregnancies facing a lot of societal shame and secrecy, not a lot of choice and being whisked away to not bring further shame on the family. Is that a way to…?

Lesli:
Correct.

Lori:
Okay.

Lesli:
Yeah.

Lori:
All right. Go ahead.

Lesli:
So, she was sent away to finish out her pregnancy. She had me. She wanted to figure out a way to keep me, but both her family, her parents and also my biological father's family made the decision that that wasn't going to happen. So, I was put in foster care. And when I was about three and a half months old, my adoptive parents adopted me. So, that's how I came to be an adoptee.

Lori:
And did you experience search and reunion?

Lesli:
I did. So, in my 20s, I contacted the Department of Children and Family Services to see if I could get information about my birth parents. And California, the state that I was born in, has closed records. They're still closed, which means that when records are closed or sealed, adoptees have no access to their original birth certificate.

So, I did get some general information then. I was also told that there were letters that my birth mother had been sending, since I had turned 16, that were in my file. But again, I couldn't have access to that. So, I didn't search for my birth mother, but she searched for me. And we have been in reunion since I was about 26 years old.

Lori:
And how about birth father?

Lesli:
She helped me find my birth father, probably about 15 years ago, and we found that he had died when he was really young. So, I have contacted some of his family members. He was one of six siblings, but I wasn't able to meet him because when I found that information, he had already died.

Lori:
That's one of the issues that comes up when things are closed down and sealed away from you for so long.

Lesli:
Yeah. Yes. It's certainly something that happens when a lot of clients that I work with, they're so concerned about hurting their adoptive parents by searching, even if their parents have said, “We'll help you. We're okay with this”, there's still some residual guilt around searching. And so oftentimes, adoptees will wait until their adoptive parents have died to begin the search. And unfortunately, what happens is oftentimes, they'll find that their biological parents have also died. So, then there's like more grief and loss.

Lori:
Right.

Let's talk about that article that you wrote on the Huffington Post many years ago. It was called the 10 Things Adoptees Want You to Know. And it's so funny because this tends to come up on my radar every once in a while. It went viral then, but several times then as well. Every once in a while, it'll just keep showing up in my social media streams. And people are finding it for the first time and sharing and sharing and sharing.

So, of those 10 things, would you pick a few of those and tell us what they are? And also maybe tell us why do you think it keeps going viral? What's so evergreen about it?

Lesli:
Well, I think it's kind of basic information that I think most adoptees would like, not only their adoptive parents to know, but also society in general. I think it's, I don't know, kind of common sense, I think, among the adoptee community. And I think over the last several years, people are beginning to choose to listen to adoptee voices around matters of separation and adoption-related issues that the person who has lived that experience. That's certainly one of my goals is to really elevate the adoptee voice.

But I think that maybe one of the reasons that it was popular and sometimes still is shared is just that it's some really common themes that adoptees want people to know.

Lori:
Can you pick a couple of those? It's hard to pick a favorite or something when you have 10 of them. Probably, all are very meaningful to you.

But what has been, perhaps, the most helpful with your clients?

Lesli:
I think, probably, the idea around, not idea, but the fact that adoption, there's trauma involved. There's trauma involved in separating a child from their biology. And I think that there's a term that we use; adoptees use it, but I think it can be applied to all members of the adoption community. So, adoptive parents, first parents and adoptees. But this idea of coming out of the fog.

And to come out of the fog is to recognize that separating each; there's grief and loss that's inherent in separating one from their biology and that this grief and loss can be exacerbated if you're also separating someone from their birth country, their birth language, their culture. So, I think that's a really important point that the article addresses.

Lori:
And I think there was the idea that because the separation was preverbal, that it didn't get encoded as a thought into the brain. But in the work that I've done in hospitals, we can see that when everything about the environment changes, at that moment of placement, the gait of the mom, the sounds of the mom, the heartbeat of the mom, the sense of the mom, all the sensory input changes. That is encoded as a memory, maybe not a thought, but a memory.

Lori:
Right. Right. So, if we think about, you know, like you said, baby knows, in utero, baby knows the sound of mom's voice, the gait of her walk, the external sounds of the environment. And when baby is born, baby needs familiar mom to soothe him or her. And when that separation occurs, it feels dangerous for the baby. So, the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, increase. And again, baby needs familiar moms to act as that soothing agent.

And because there is no language, the language centers of the brain haven't developed, there are no words to describe that event, but it is encoded in the nervous system and we call it an implicit memory.

So, a lot of times, my clients will come in and – So, an implicit memory is, there are no words to describe it. Again, if the separation happened before the language centers of the brain are around three, it's encoded just sensory-only.

And so, clients will come in and they'll say, “Gosh, I just have these feelings and I can't exactly put words to them.” So, a lot of times I'll say, “That could just be information that is stemming from something that happened before you had words.”

So, in terms of therapy, that's one of the reasons why I became trained in EMDR and brain spotting, because those are excellent therapies to work with implicit memory. So, they were able to access the part of the brain, the subcortical region of the brain, where trauma is stored with EMDR or brain spotting and talk therapy can't access that area.

Lori:
Fascinating, I've heard such remarkable stories of clearing and healing with brain spotting and EMDR around preverbal trauma.

Lesli:
Yeah.

Lori:
So, that kind of leads into this idea that we once had, probably in the Baby Scoop era, about the baby as a “blank slate.” And if we just catch him early enough and make the switch, they won't have any after effects about it. Where do you think that idea came from? Well, I have three questions about this. So, where do you think that idea came from?

Lesli:
Well, that's a good question. I think probably that idea, not that it came from anywhere, but it was just before we had all of the information and neuroscience and neurobiology. We have so much more information about the brain and the nervous system now than we did when that was considered true. Bring baby home, tell as few people as possible and they'll never know.

We know that's just not true. I mean, even working with late discovery adoptees. So, adoptees that find out their adoption status later in life, they'll say, “I knew. I knew something was different. I knew I didn't belong in this family. I just felt like something was different.” So, we just know that the “blank slate” idea is false.

Lori:
And it sounds like a case of now that we know better, we need to do better with that new information on brain science and development.

Lesli:
Yeah.

Lori:
So, we had this idea. It was it was misguided; it was wrong. But then nobody had bad intentions of using this policy or using that notion. But what policies did the blank slate baby lead to?

Lesli:
What policies did the blank slate baby lead to?

Lori:
Yeah, this baby is a blank slate, so we're going to handle adoption in these certain ways.

Lesli:
We're going to pretend it didn't happen. We're going to pretend that our family began when this baby came through our family rather than when this baby was born. We're going to pretend this baby looks like us. We're going to pretend this child has the same genetic makeup; the same medical history. It really erases the identity, in some respects, of the child when there's the blank slate idea. We're going to put all of our hopes and dreams and wishes for what we wanted in a child onto this blank slate.

Is that kind of what it is you asked?

Lori:
Exactly. Exactly, yeah.

And all that pretending for all people involved in this; for the mother who placed, the father who placed, and for the child, and for the adoptive parents, there's a lot of pretending going on. And when you're pretending, you're not dealing with what actually is going on.

Lesli:
Exactly.

Lori:
And when hard, big emotions do come up, you're not very well equipped to allow them to flow and deal with them and process them and incorporate them. And so, it kind of creates what I call like trauma bubbles.

Lesli:
Sure.

Lori:
You know, just things over time become calcified and harder and harder to deal with if you're not dealing with them as they come up.

Lesli:
Right. Right.

Lori:
Yeah.

Lesli:
And thankfully, I mean, I guess when you asked that question, the reason I pause is I am such an advocate for openness in adoption when it's safe for the child and such an advocate of truth and transparency around adoption-related issues.

So, when you asked me that question, I just was caught off guard that, you know, I know that there are still families that don't talk to their children about adoption and try to keep that information. But I guess the work that I do, it's very, very, very infrequent. And thankfully.

Lori:
That's good to hear. That means that we're knowing better and doing better.

Lesli:
Yeah.

Lori:
And I think we've answered my third question about the blank slate baby; do we think it's accurate? And we now know it's not accurate.

Lesli:
No.

Lori:
And it kind of leads into my next question, which is about nature vs nurture; that whole debate that has been going on further for years, decades. And I've been surprised on my own road of the many nature traits that show up seemingly out of nowhere in my children; like their speech mannerism or a gesture or a strong preference or an aversion that can't be explained by anything other than it's in the genes.

And when I started out on this journey, I held the belief that nurture, which would come from my husband and me, this would be a really big part of who my children turned out to be. And I've since found out that I was mistaken on that. And that's not to say that nurture is nothing, but it's just to say that I had dramatically underestimated nature.

What do you think about the interplay between nature and nurture for an adoptee? Is there a way to measure and compare the influence of the two sets of parents? And should we even try to do so?

Lesli:
Yeah, that's a good point. I'm not sure if there is a measure; I think it's a combination of both. But I've certainly found, both personally and professionally, that when adoptees are in Reunion and they meet someone that's biologically related to them, maybe looks like them, they do begin to notice like, “Oh, gosh, that's where I got this.” or “You like that? I like that.” And it can be really validating. It's a form of mirroring, but it can be really validating and help an adopted person kind of put more of the pieces of their puzzle together. And so, I guess to answer, I think it's a little bit of both.

And I think as the adopted child grows up and they – nature, nurture, you know, how do they want to integrate the two in further forming their identity?

Lori:
What would you say to adoptive parents who are working with you and they have feelings about all that nature, and it makes them feel maybe diminished? What would you say about that?

Lesli:
Well, I guess that speaks to – and I'm curious when you say diminished. I guess it speaks to one thing that I really encourage is adoptive parents really doing their own work. Doing their homework before they adopt and continuing to do their own work and educating themselves around adoption-related issues throughout the process, and keeping themselves educated as their child grows up.

So, that might be what I would talk about. I would want to explore the hows and the whys of their feelings around their child's biology.

Lori:
Bring it out into the open, right?

Lesli:
Yeah.

Lori:
Which is open adoption means so much more than just the contact.

Lesli:
Yes.

Lori:
It means being willing to bring things out into the open when they come up.

Lesli:
Absolutely. And your book is one that I recommend all the time, because I think it explains so beautifully the varying degrees of openness. Because I think sometimes parents think, “Oh, my gosh, open adoption means, you know, there are two extremes. We send a picture a year or we're having holidays together.” And there's so many, you know, I don't have to tell you; you wrote about it. But there's it's so helpful to make it known that there's so many places in between.

Lori:
And even if you don't have contact, for whatever reason, temporarily or permanent, you can still have openness with your child. And that's really the deeper goal than having contact with birth parents.

Lesli:
Exactly.

And it's so, so, so important because kids are thinking about their biology. They're thinking about their birth parents. They're wondering if they have siblings. I mean, they are. They absolutely are.

Lori:
Yeah. You wrote an article once called Adoptees Are in Reunion, Whether They're Searching or Not. What do you mean by this and how can that be?

Lesli:
Well, what I mean is I think parents will sometimes say, “We told our child they were adopted and we told them if they ever have any questions, they can come to us and we'll be happy to ask.” But what I always say is, “Kids aren't going to come to you. Your kids aren't going to come and ask you questions unless they're really sure that you're comfortable with the topic.”

So, I encourage parents to bring up. You know, “Oh, my gosh, you're so good at baseball. You know, Dad and I are terrible at sports. So, you know, Sally, your birth mom must have been good at baseball or maybe your birth father, Ron, was good at baseball.” So, you're bringing it up, just so they know that it's on your radar.

But to that point, what I mean by adoptees are in reunion, whether they're searching or not, is kids especially are thinking about it. They're wondering if they're in the supermarket with their birth – If their birth mother ran into them, would she recognize them? Do they have siblings? Are their parents alive?

So, I was working with a client once – And I have permission to tell the story – but he was having trouble in school. He was eight years old. He was having trouble in school. And his parents wanted me to work with him. And he was adopted. And so, I always see parents first to get a good history. And I asked them how they talked to him about adoption.

And the dad said, “Oh, this has nothing to do with adoption. This is he's just not paying attention in school.” Which, you know, I kind of shook my head, but he didn't really believe that.

So, I got some more information in the next week they brought their son in with them. And he sat down and I said, “Well, tell me; do you know why you're here?” And he said, “Well, yeah, my mom said that you were adopted too.” So, I do disclose that I was adopted. And he said, “You know, my mom said you were adopted, too.” And I said, “Yes, I was adopted. Tell me about that. Tell me about that.” That's all I said.

He said, “Well, I think about her when I wake up in the morning and I think about her sometimes when I'm getting ready for school. I don't really have time to think about her at school. I think about her when I get home and I always think about her before I go to bed.”

So, his parents were, you know, they were so surprised. I wasn't surprised, but I didn't ask him, “Tell me about your birth mother.” I said, “Just tell me about that.”

And he went on to talk about wondering if he had siblings, how many; he had developed this whole fantasy of when he would meet his birth mother, where they would go for ice cream. So, he was in reunion.

So, we talked more about it and his parents were able to give him some information that they hadn't given him. They were able to share a picture of her. And, you know, no surprise, he was able to focus better at school.

So, there was a direct relationship, because I'm guessing he was thinking about this at school, too.

Lori:
That mind chatter based on that forbidden thing that wasn't accessible to him.

Lesli:
Right. Right.

Lori:
I've heard a name for that technique that you mentioned to sometimes try to bring up adoption in a very non-threatening way. I've heard it called “dropping pebbles”.

Lesli:
Oh, that's nice.

Lori:
I think a woman named Holly Golden came up with that. And so, adoptive parents, just once in a while, say something like you were saying, like, “Oh, I wonder if your birth mom is good at this” or “I wonder if your birth dad has this trait, too” or “Oh, look, we're driving by the hospital where you were born.”

And sometimes, that just gives them a chance to pick up the rope and engage with you in a non-threatening way, if they want to. And just because if they don't, it doesn't mean you stop doing it. You keep doing it once in a while.

Lesli:
Right. Right.

And kids eventually will say – They'll either say nothing or they'll engage or they'll say, “Stop talking about that.” But whatever the response or non-response isn't a cue to stop bringing it up.

Lori:
And what can parents do to feel safe to the child; to feel safer? I mean, everybody wants to feel safe to their child, but what are some of the things that we adoptive parents sometimes do that can shut our kids down when they may want to open up about something?

Lesli:
Well, that's a great question, and I think part of it is, again, doing their own work so that they are – And this is hard – that they don't get their feelings hurt.

So, every adoptive parent is going to hear, “You're not my real mom.” “You're not my real dad.” Everyone. I can't think of one parent that I've worked with who, and even parents that I have. I mean, my own mother heard that. So, I've heard it.

Lori:
Yeah.

Lesli:
And it's, you know, your feelings are going to get hurt or you're going to be upset, but go work that out with a therapist or talk to your partner or talk to a friend. Don't let your reaction show to your child. So, that's one way.

Being open when they ask questions. Being open about, again, setting the stage where you let your kids know that they can talk with you about anything; adoption related and anything.

There are different ways of working with behavior. So, I know time outs are kind of one way parents discipline kids or, you know, sending them to the room or you're taking a time out.

I always encourage adoptive parents to – And I probably would encourage any parent, but especially adoptive parents, to do a time in. So, this is a child that's experienced separation, loss, maybe multiple separations, if they were in foster care; different placements. You don't want to send them away. You want to encourage them. You know, just, “You're going to sit here. Mommy is going to sit here with you and we're going to have five minutes of quiet.” Those are some of the things.

Lori:
And earlier, when you were talking about adoptees who wait until their adoptive parents have passed before they'll search for their birth parents, even though their parents have said, “We'll be alongside you. We'll walk with you.” There may have been – What I what I found in my own journey is there may have been hints. Besides, the words, “We’ll be with you”, but there may have been other cues that adoptees are sometimes very adept at intuiting and picking up. Cues that they're not totally okay with that search. And so, that divided loyalty that the adoptee is fearful of having, they sense that somehow.

Lesli:
Yes, that's certainly true.

And then just even thinking about when something traumatic happens, I'm referring to, you know, again, separation from one's biology. It really changes the way people view themselves in the world. So, common themes and common beliefs adoptees have are, “You know, it's not safe to trust. I'm not lovable. People leave. I'm not worthy. I'll be whatever you need me to be.”

So, these themes that happen. And again, it's what has happened is really important. But again, when trauma occurs, a person does generally develop certain beliefs about themselves in the world.

So, if any of those beliefs are reinforced by a parent's reaction or something they say, it certainly will prevent them from searching and prevent them from feeling safe.

Lori:
And I think it's normal from the – I mean, it's understandable from the construct that we've had about adoption in our culture or mindset that I talk about in the book, when we think that you can have one set of parents, but you really have two. So, we have to kind of do something to get rid of that other one. Because you can only have one mom. You can only love one mom. You can only claim one mom and dad.

If we have that subtle thought in our collective consciousness, then even if the adoptee isn't picking that up from their parents, they're picking that up from the culture of, “I really can't look…” Because the first question anybody says about if you're looking for your birth parents is, “What do your adoptive parents think about that? What's the effect on your adoptive parents? And weren't they good enough for you? Why do you need more?” So, that all of those are in line with that either/or construct.

And so, I think what's needed, both on the micro level of parents and the macro level of society, is the shift to a both end.

Lesli:
Yes.

And I use that. I use that all the time. There's so many in the concept of reunion and also just in the concept of adoption in general. So, society tells adoptees that they should be grateful, that they're lucky, that adoption is such a wonderful thing.

So, it can be. And I always say, I can say as an adopted person that I actually am grateful that I was adopted. I know my birth family. I know my adoptive family. I do have gratitude. And I've also struggled with issues that a lot of adoptees have struggled with; anxiety, depression. And I use your both ends all of the time, because there are so many that that apply to adoption.

Lori:
And I see so many adoptive parents now out there trying to change the rest of the culture with this both end perspective and becoming kind of ambassadors for this new way of looking at adoption.

I mean, just in the course of our conversation, we've covered so many parts of the Baby Scoop era that have served to hurt adoptees and adoptive families and first parents.

Lesli:
Right.

Lori:
And once you know all that, it makes no sense to continue on with that outlook. We need a different paradigm for this.

Lesli:
Yes, definitely. Definitely.

Lori:
What kind of projects are you working on these days, Lesli?

Lesli:
I am working on a few different projects, but the one that's currently just happened is I developed a healing course for adults who were adopted. So, it's a six-week virtual course and we are in our fifth week. So, I'll launch that again in January. But that's just been a really, really great experience.

And just to witness, I was telling you before the call, just to witness the community aspect. I think that it's, you know, adoptive parents, first parents, adoptees, when you can find another person or a group of people that have a similar experience and develop that community, it can just be so healing.

Lori:
Yeah.

And one of the good things that's come out of this Covid era is this new way and willingness to connect with people, despite geography.

Lesli:
Right.

Yeah, I have a teen group; a group for teens who were adopted. And we used to meet in person. And when the lockdown or shutdown, whatever you want to call it, began, we opened that group up to everyone. So, we now meet weekly and we have kids from all over the world actually. And it's remarkable. Again, that sense of community. And, “You get me” and it's wonderful.

I think of how my life would have been or how my teen years would have been different had I had a group of other teens who were adopted to sit and talk about music with. And we’re not always talking about adoption. We're just sitting in there talking.

Lori:
Just building connections.

Lesli:
Yes, yeah.

Lori:
So, I'm reflecting on some of the things we've talked about today. And I am thinking that there are some really tough things for adoptive parents to hear because nobody, no parents go into adoption wanting to have contributed to the trauma and separation of a child. And I'm thinking that there may be some people who would rather stay in the dark about this and have the covers over their head than know this really tough stuff about how our children start out with this kind of tough thing.

What would you say, as a therapist and as an adoptee, to adoptive parents; how do we incorporate that tough information into our parenting, into our existence with our child, knowing that these hard truths exist?

Lesli:
That's a great question, and I think you're absolutely right. Sometimes it feels like it might be easier to deny or wait. We'll wait to talk about that. And what I encourage parents to do is with the notion that I believe parents are their child's best advocate.

So, get comfortable with all parts of the story and get part get comfortable with this; your family started with this incident that was separation. And there is going to be grief and loss that that are inherent in that.

And when I say get comfortable, I don't mean get comfortable like that it's okay. But get comfortable talking about it.

And if you're not, find a group or find a therapist that can help you with the language. Because the earlier parents start talking about it, the better, because you're letting your child know then that you are a safe place, that you can handle whatever they bring to you and you're helping them begin to form an identity; their identity.

Lori:
And I think that talking is so important on two different levels: (1) because they're hearing it from you, and (2) because you're saying it. And the more we say it, kind of like a stone getting polished, it gets smoother and smoother, the more we are working it, kind of.

Lesli:
Right. Right. It's a great analogy.

Lori:
Yeah.

So, you're basically saying that adoptive parents have to do the work that we're asking adoptees to do in their life, too, which is to incorporate the happy parts and the sad parts and not deny either and not outsize or minimize either, but put them into proportion with each other and become whole in that way.

Lesli:
Exactly.

Lori:
Both sides or something.

Lesli:
Exactly.

Lori:
Yeah, back to the both end. Both the happy and the sad.

Lesli:
Right.

Lori:
So, this is a question that I asked of all of our guests. Can you boil things down to your best piece of advice for adoptive parents about the long view of adoptive parenting?

Lesli:
Well, I think you just said it best. I think that the adoptive family works best when adoptive parents have done their work and continue to do their work. I think that's my number one recommendation for adoptive parents.

Lori:
And one of my earlier guests said something like, “Get comfortable with the discomfort.”

Lesli:
Yeah, perfect.

Lori:
Don't run from it. Don't squash it down.

Lesli:
Yeah.

Lori:
Acknowledge that it exists and deal with it.

Lesli:
Right.

Lori:
Deal with your stuff, which is what another guest has said.

Lesli:
Right. Right.

Lori:
So, there's a common theme running.

Lesli:
Yeah.

Lori:
Well, I really appreciate your being here with us today, Lesli, and sharing all of your insights and wisdom about adoptee-related issues, adoptive parenting and all of that. So, thank you for joining us.

Lesli:
Thank you for having me, Lori. It's great to talk to you.

Lori:
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