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Alone in the Dark: Sady Doyle on Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers

Essayist, social critic, and culture buff Sady Doyle is a public intellectual of the most valuable kind. She doesn’t just scrutinize and provoke the society she critiques. She brings readers along for the ride, explaining complex concepts in a breezy, at times raucously funny way. Her first book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why, looked at the tradition of societies ostracizing, silencing, and punishing women who defied the roles that had been assigned to them. Her latest book, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, is a history of patriarchy that covers everything from literature and cinema to mythology, religion, history and current events.

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From “Psycho” and “Godzilla” to “Frankenstein,” “Carrie,” Donald Trump and the incel underground, Doyle weaves together a dizzying array of sources and arguments. And she never loses the central thread of how men relate to, and try to control, women, labeling them monsters when they resist, or when they remind them of their own worst selves.

Where does this book come from?

It comes from the shift into a much darker and less optimistic version of gender politics that we were facing. Trainwreck, my first book, is very much a product of the aughts feminist boom, and it is about media. And it’s a fairly dark book: it’s about mental illness and addiction and trauma and death, which my writings tend to be about. But it was written with this optimistic sense of “Well, maybe now it’s all finally over and women can just be themselves in public.” Those were the stakes at the time.

With Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, I had just gotten married, I was pregnant, and while I was writing the book proposal, Trump won the presidency, and all of a sudden we were skidding into a narrative that was not about progress at all, that was very much about the fact that we were probably going to lose Roe v. Wade in the near future. The #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein story broke about two months after I started writing this book, but already there was a lot of darkness and trauma in the air that then exploded and became a huge part of the narrative around what being a woman was about.

It just came to seem to me that if we wanted to talk about what being a woman was, then it was maybe time to start digging into those darker feelings of powerlessness and helplessness and living inside an extremely stigmatized and vulnerable body, and that’s why, whenever I have to talk about this book, I have to talk about bodies.

And I don’t ever want to say that there is only one female body, there are so many different women and cis women and trans women both live in deeply stigmatized bodies. But the book definitely came out of that sense that we were up against a wall, and things had gotten incredibly ugly, and it did not any longer make sense to write a book about the arc of history bending towards justice; it made sense to write about being lost in the dark.

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Can you talk a little bit about this very granular idea of working through patriarchy, which forms the scaffolding for the entire book?

This book is so big, 350 pages. It’s not that big in terms of the amount of space it takes up or the amount of time it’s going to take you to read it, but it does kind of try to take you through a prototypical woman’s arc from puberty to old age while also trying to explain 20th century horror. It tries to do a lot. So I wanted to ground this in the idea that there’s a specific structure mandating all this violence.

Then let’s talk about the structure.

When we talk about feminism, often it rewards a really specific angle. You’ve got some people over here talking about reproductive rights. You’ve got some people over here talking about rape culture. You’ve got some people over here talking about gender identity and transphobia, and the ways that we impose a biologically essentialist binary on bodies that don’t obey those rules in life. You’ve got people talking about the stigmatization of female sexuality.

All of those things exist because of a particular structure and social order. And patriarchy is the best word we have so far for it.

What’s the simplest way to explain the concept of patriarchy?

Patriarchy is a very specific patrilineal arrangement that begins on the intimate level with the idea that a man will appropriate a woman to himself and use that woman’s body to create children, who then go on to create his family life, his little mini-empire.

This is replicated on a larger scale with the idea of cultural patriarchs—our judges or our CEOs or our kings or, on the mythic level, our gods. And the idea of society being founded on the idea that every man gets at least one woman as a subject, and that the more of a man you are, the more men and women you get to have as your own subjects.

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But ultimately all the power is headed upward, and it’s all headed towards a man—or, if you want to get cosmic, a male deity at the very top of the pyramid.

Like the final boss in a videogame?

Final boss, yeah! God is the final boss of patriarchy. So it’s just like, if we take everything back down to that structure, if we look at how that manifests as an imperative to do sexual violence, like, I mean it absolutely personifies and necessitates violence – and I’m just paraphrasing the intro here, but it’s not, that violence is not all that patriarchy is. You don’t just want to look at the gun pointed at you, you want to look at the guy behind the gun and what he wants, what cash register he’s supposed to open today.

I thought that it would be useful to start there, even though patriarchy is not the only oppressive structure in the world, and even though we could just as easily do a deep dive framed around white supremacy, or around economic exploitation. All of those things co-exist and intermingle in complicated ways.

So we start with the understanding of “this is the system we’re exploring, because this system has always been presented to us as a fact of nature we normally don’t see it working, but let’s try to look at the specific ways that it might inflect on your life, the specific moments where you’re going to come into contact with patriarchy and you’re like a pinball hitting off the sides of a machine. This is the point where you hit, and it directs you in a new way that you might not have gone on your own."

Does that make sense?

It does, yeah. And now I wanted to go back that phrase of yours “alone in the dark.” What do you find in the dark? Monsters. And one of the paragraphs from your book that jumped out at me was, “Women have always been monsters too in the minds of great men. In philosophy, medicine, and psychology the inherent freakishness in women has always been a baseline assumption.”

That came up while writing the book because again, it was two things: the election, and it was also me being pregnant and being very medicalized and having a lot of attention on my body at that time.

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As I dug into it, this idea of monstrosity, I wasn’t 100% sure of where it was going to take me.

It turns out that it’s not necessarily a metaphor.

What’s not a metaphor? The idea of woman-as-monster?

Right. What happens when you have a bunch of people who have the same perspective on the world trying to write about everyone else in the world? You get these very strange, early church texts and early philosophical and medical texts that are just like, “Not everyone has a penis! What’s up with that?”

The way you write about the concept of castration anxiety and penis envy is fascinating. It makes me think about another psychoanalytic term, which is projection. I always felt like if you take that Freudian idea of penis envy less than literally, you start to see that it’s a form of projection—like a weird, backwards way for men to acknowledge the relative social powerlessness of women, and somehow make women feel bad about it.

Right. I think in some ways castration anxiety is a very direct and very literal reading of what a lot of men fear about women, which is, “This person is a walking wound. Something bad has been done to them, some power has been taken away from them, and whenever I look at them I am confronted by their woundedness, and that freaks me out.”

Like, I don't think that it is the case that a penis is an automatic stand-in for power. But I think that somehow, in some weird, sideways way, that idea that the penis equals power is getting at a truth of what scares us about women. And it’s getting at a truth of what scares us about our mothers, which is that these are people who are at once very powerful in our lives, and often, in ways we don’t realize until we grow up, they’re often very powerless, too. We are sort of growing up looking at our mother’s wounds, and it often takes us a long time to come to terms with that, to come to terms with what we see. And the ugliness and the rawness of it does scare us.

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One of my favorite sections of this book is when you’re writing about the larger cultural meaning of Mary Shelley, the mother of "Frankenstein," and her story. I was wondering if you could talk about her, and relate her work to Norman Bates, the incels, Godzilla, and everything else in your book.  

Absolutely. I love Shelley’s work. I think Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is also really threaded through this book heavily. But Shelley was writing from a position that, you know, was sort of unsaid, and unsayable. She was a pregnant teenager who had…Well, pretty much every way in which a family could be messed up, hers was messed up. Her sister was illegitimate —not just illegitimate, but famously illegitimate, because Shelley’s biological father had published her mother’s papers and told the world that Mary Wollstonecraft had sex before marriage and had a baby before marriage. Fanny Inlay was just a ghost in that family, had no allies, nobody ever standing up for her, and killed herself.

Shelley herself had a terrible experience of motherhood. She lost one baby who was born very prematurely, like maybe as early as her second trimester she went into labor, and the baby just…they didn’t even give it a name, because they knew it would die. And it did die. And that was her first child, and Shelley never got over it. She was repeatedly haunted by nightmares of this baby somehow coming back to life. She then had two more children. She raised a toddler while writing "Frankenstein" and gave birth to another little girl about seven months before the book was finally published. Both of them died two years after publication. And her own mother had died as a result of giving birth to Mary, because the doctor didn’t wash his hands between operations. Every single way reproduction could go wrong in this woman’s life, it had already gone badly wrong.

And yet, when she starts to write about reproduction, she puts these really stigmatized, female, feminine experiences of motherhood into the mouths of male characters. Victor Frankenstein often describes himself in terms that, it’s not just like he’s a creator, he’s not just like a mad science dude. He’s like, “I lay awake at night! I find myself feeling very hormonal and sleepless, and sometimes I think of myself as the benefactor of this new human being who will love me! And at other times I’m terrified!” Victor Frankenstein sounds like a pregnant lady for a lot of this book.

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Another aspect of "Frankenstein" that’s fascinating to me is this idea that this is the ultimate #MeToo story. It’s the story of a guy who won’t take “no” for an answer when faced with cosmic truths. Can a man have a baby? No. Is death reversible? No. And Victor Frankenstein is like, “Whatever! I’m going to bring a body back from the dead and usurp the role of the mother.” And the result is an obscenity that that ruins his life and tries to murder him.

Yeah, but that’s the thing. Shelley is pretty clear that this monster is an eight-foot-tall newborn. It just wants someone to hug it. Frankenstein tries to apply this perfect, patriarchal ethos to reproduction, and that’s where I think of Barbara Katz Rothman. The idea is not just that he needs to have a child; the idea is that he needs to have a perfect child, a child he can recognize, a child that is beautiful and wonderful and that he can control. And when he has to wake up and deal with an actual living being that doesn’t 100% reflect his specifications, he turns against it. He tries to destroy it, he tries to abandon it, and that’s what sets into motion all this chaos and horror.

I think about the story of Frankenstein whenever I read news coverage of incel creepiness, because of that part where the creature blackmails Frankenstein into creating a mate for him, and the doctor agrees, but then destroys it.

Yeah, he unmakes it. And it’s right before he’s supposed to wake her up. He looks at her, and it’s a really interesting passage because he’s like, “what if she became 10 times more abominable than he is, and outdid him in every vileness?” The idea is that if you give femininity to these monsters you created, that’s even more destructive and even more terrifying.

I think I see where you’re coming from with the incel thing, because they keep saying, “Well if I only had a girlfriend…” They need to have this really specific hetero white porn fantasy of a woman who’s blonde and has a really specific body type, and I don't know how to describe the misogynist character of a woman they’ve created without sounding misogynist myself, but they only want that woman, and at the same time that woman above all is vile and must be destroyed because they’re not having sex with her right now.

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The interplay of the stories that we tell ourselves and the images we look at and the thoughts we have and the way that all shapes our culture – I can’t even imagine trying to grapple with all of that like you did. it just seems too daunting.

Yeah. The first draft of this book was movie reviews all the way through. My editor was like “You can’t hand this in. What’s wrong with you?”

But as I went along, there were different layers. There were layers where it was just about, “Let’s go through pop culture and try and identify the archetypes we’re working with here.” “Okay, let’s go back through true crime and history and find places where we have similar stories.” And in the end I think we end up with a feedback loop. You have The Exorcist, which is obviously this gigantic, monolithic horror.

That’s just an incredibly rich film, and not just its view of puberty as this monstrous thing. You pair it up with Carrie, which is also kind of about the counterculture. The mom in “The Exorcist” calls on the church to get the devil out of her daughter. The mom in “Carrie” thinks the devil lives in her daughter and tries to kill her when she believes she’s been proved right. These godless, hideous children don’t listen to authority, and now they’re turning ugly and levitating. At the beginning of “The Exorcist,” Ellen Burstyn’s playing a woman in some kind of film about the counterculture, and she’s leading a protest of some kind, right?

Yes, yes, exactly. She’s telling the children to work within the system, you know? That they would be so much more powerful if they would just do that.

She eventually has to bring in a couple of Catholic priests to deal with the hippie problem.

One-hundred percent. I mean, this was a book that was written just to scare hippies back into church. And it kind of worked!

Didn’t it also cause a spike in reports of demonic possession?

Yes. There were so many reported demon investigations after that movie came out. And then like, in Germany a couple of years later, you have a young woman with a disability and very likely schizophrenia who kills herself because she believes she’s possessed. She is enabled in killing herself by her mother who believes she’s possessed, by her father, and by the Catholic priest sent to work on her case.

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That’s an example of the feedback loop that the book covers: “Here’s the story, and here’s the person and here’s how the story operates on the person and changes their life, and here’s how the person then goes back into the story.” Annalise Michelle is the basis for The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is one of the top-grossing horror movies of this century that we’re in, and is massively popular in its own right. She went from being a girl who was really clearly doing an impression of Mercedes McCambridge in her room to being the creature that other monsters are modeled on, and that cyclical relationship terrifies me. We are trapped in the stories we’re telling.

You insist throughout the book that monstrosity as a fluid concept. I wanted to talk to you about two of the specific examples that you take from popular culture in this phrase: “‘He’s a monster’ could mean a 50-ft. Godzilla lizard or Norman Bates.”

What’s interesting to me about those examples is that both of those are about motherhood. Norman Bates is dominated by the memory of his mother, and when he kills a woman, it’s like he’s symbolically murdering his own mother again. And of course there’s a ton of other mother-related psychic action happening there, too.

Godzilla is, in a very roundabout way, also about motherhood. It’s related to  "Frankenstein," which is partly a warning against men trying to usurp the ability of women to create life. The creature called Godzilla is the a result of the atomic bomb, a story that sort of takes "Frankenstein" up one level in irony: man can’t give birth to life, so he gives birth to death, the bomb. And the bomb, in turn, creates life.

That’s right! Also, Norman Bates and Godzilla are both monsters that are about gender fluidity. Godzilla in Japan has a gender-neutral pronoun. The American translators originally translated it as “he” because “he” is generic, But then at some point in the Japanese series Godzilla starts having babies, and it really screwed up the translation. Nobody could figure out what pronoun they were supposed to use for Godzilla.

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Yes. Godzilla gets a son or a nephew in a couple of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s films. We never met Godzilla’s girlfriend. Or boyfriend.

And then in the 1998 version, Godzilla’s pregnant!

Oh, right—I remember that. Reproducing asexually, like the T-Rexes in Jurassic Park!

Yeah! So Godzilla is definitely a monster that has connotations of motherhood. It’s sort of pent up in their way of being. And Norman Bates is a 1950s idea of what a trans woman is, basically. The idea is, and it’s just real, real bad, is…Robert Bloch maybe sort of half-read Sigmund Freud once and went “Now I get it! I get it 100%!” But it’s not just that Norman is murdering his mother because he’s against Marion, it’s also really specifically this sort of 1950s idea of how men became queer, which is that they loved their moms too much to ever love another woman, and therefore, if another woman ever came into their lives, once they became attracted to her, they would necessarily need to dress up in women’s clothing and kill that woman in the shower.

That image of Norman in his mother’s dress and wig reminds me of a scene from a few years earlier, in Rebel Without a Cause. One of the big causes of Jim Stark’s neuroses is the fact that he lacks a strong male role model, because his father has been psychologically castrated by his mother. We see this illustrated when Jim attempts a meaningful conversation with his dad, and his dad’s wearing an apron. 

Yes. Another fun thing to do is to look at "Psycho," the film and Robert Bloch’s book, and then compare them with the inspiration for Norman Bates, the serial killer Ed Gein.

Let’s do it.

Ed Gein was the product of an abusive home, certainly. His father was a real far gone alcoholic, he beat his mother, he beat the two boys very badly. And Ed Gein’s mom Augusta was by all accounts, not a happy woman, not an easy woman to be around, but she was about as easy as you would be to be around if you got beaten up a whole lot and you were solely responsible for earning enough money to support a husband who was too far gone into his alcoholism to be able to work, plus two small boys. But we have never gotten any indication that she was violent or abusive to her son. In Ed Gein’s own estimation of how that family worked, his father was violent, his father was scary, his father was a threat to himself and his mother, and his mother was the only stable or reliable or loving presence in his life.

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That then, through the lens of 1950s psychoanalysis, became “Yeah, he turned out screwed up, and we know it has to be his mom that did it, and we know that men who love their mothers are queer, so therefore he’s got to have some sort of sexual hang-up.” Ed Gein’s father, his violence, his childhood abuse and domestic abuse of his wife all that got written out of the story, to the point that when you come to "Psycho," which is our fictionalization of this case, Norman Bates is very clearly coded as queer or trans in some way, and he’s also the product of a single-mother household, because that’s what Freud thought created queer men and trans women: single-mother households, or households where the father was weak or absent. Where he might as well be wearing a dress.

So Norman’s household has been translated from the original Gein. The original meanings were abandoned. The new version is more in line with what mid-century Westerners are comfortable hearing.

Exactly. The Ed Gein figure in “Psycho” has been left alone to be raised by a woman. This woman has usurped the rights of the father to run the household and to give her name to the family line. Her name’s Norma, his name is Norman. She knows she’s 100% handing down her own name like an old-timey king or something.

Norman, meanwhile, is absolutely presented as the person who, to use the time-honored expression, wears the pants—but he’s just this wimp who gets pushed around and told what to do, and he has to clean up whenever “she” murders somebody.  It’s that fear of an adult woman exercising power within the home: even though we’ve told women that the home is the only place where they’re allowed to have any authority whatsoever, it’s still fundamentally terrifying to us that they might actually have some control and exercise it.

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You also write about this idea of a woman’s body becoming “a dangerous host for a man’s perfect sperm, resulting in story after story in which a bad wife inflicts her own biological corruption on her husband’s family line.” Then you go on to quote Aristotle proclaiming “The female is, as it were, a mutilated male.” As a guy reading this book, it’s unnerving, because it seems as if the definition of a feminine monster is often a projection of male psychological issues.

Yeah, male vulnerability. Absolutely. There was a really interesting essay by Barbara Katz Rothman about how, within patriarchy, reproduction becomes almost like a technology. A woman’s body becomes a factory for men to build babies in. And there’s tremendous vulnerability because this is your legacy, this is your history, this is you continuing on down through the future, and it has to happen inside the body of someone else, someone that you can’t ever completely control.

And in fact, patrilineal reproduction being what it is, you can’t ever even be completely sure that that’s your kid unless you have a real firm grip on this woman’s life. So for men, there is a potent terror associated with the fact that your power in the world, and your position in the world, and your future, are all dependent on being able to control somebody that you can’t control, and being able to control a biological process that is A) fundamentally kind of ungovernable, and B) isn’t even really happening to you.

And I think that’s why we get so many viscerally sexual, maternalized images of female monstrosity: because it’s propaganda, right? A monster is something that needs to be killed or the system will collapse. A monster is the thing that you go hunt down at the end of the movie and you’re slaying the dragon, which is what a man is supposed to do. 

That’s what a hero does. If women are monsters, then whatever violence you inflict on them is justified because you are keeping the world from ending. You are keeping your life and your social order from crumbling around your ears. And that’s true, as it happens.

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Do you believe legalized abortion is endangered?

Not just abortion. Abortion and sex education and birth control, because it’s not going to stop at abortion. When we lose the legal right to abortion, birth control is going to be next. 

Is abortion the ultimate repudiation of male authority?

There’s a long history of abandoning or killing babies who were seen as burdensome or defective in some way. Disabled babies have often been treated pretty brutally, “Well, it came out wrong. Let’s kill it.” That was part of society, so has not ever been the case that every single time someone got pregnant and had a baby, that baby had a home and a happy life and parents that wanted to keep it alive. But when the person with the pregnant body is the one making those decisions, that is terrifying to patriachial society. That’s why there’s move toward reproductive coercion.

What is reproductive coercion?

Reproductive coercion can take a lot of forms. It can take the form of mandatory abortions for those who don’t want them, it can take the form of sterilizing targeted populations, which has happened many times over. Denying someone the right to have a child is just as intense a violation. In Japan, there’s a trans man who’s been suing his government for years on end just for the right to not have a hysterectomy. There’s a rule that all trans people have to be sterilized in Japan, and it’s brutally unjust. Abortion exists on that continuum.

Why would a woman’s right to elect to have an abortion be considered worse than the other forms of reproductive coercion that you just listed?

It’s not getting pregnant that’s subversive, and it’s not ending a pregnancy that’s subversive: it’s the idea that you, the person with the uterus who has been marked as a subject and a second-class citizen, might be the one making those life-or-death decisions.

How does that relate to this idea that, as you write in your book, “nearly every terrible thing about our sexual politics comes down to the fact that in patriarchy, patriarchs understand themselves to be inessential?”

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There’s the idea that ultimately we have this vast social order that we have convinced ourselves is natural, and that we certainly tell each other is natural, and it is the most janky, easily disrupted social order ever. The only way you can make this system work is to get someone with a uterus and lock her up in your house and basically not let her have any freedom whatsoever. That’s the only way you can continue an absolutely functioning patriarchy.

As long as women have some level of mobility, as long as gender diversity is even a little bit recognized or allowed to exist in your society at all, as long as female sexuality exists, it’s always going to be the case that patrilineal patriarchal reproduction is endangered, and it has become progressively more and more and more endangered as we move forward.

That is why I think you are seeing right now a really brutal, blunt enforcement of patriarchal laws and norms, the enforcement of really old-timey misogyny that women of my generation had grown up hearing that we were past. Like, our moms had done this for us, and now it was like you might have some minor social discomfort and you might not always know what to say, and certainly there was some sexual violence that still needed to be dealt with, but we were not going to go back to the age of just being baby-makers.

And yet here we are. Here’s Trump as this utterly retrogressive figure who represents the most crude, loud, over-the-top enforcement of a certain kind of sexual politics.

He’s President Biff Tannen.

Yes! And that’s what’s popular. That’s what works.

I mean, incels were something like – when I started writing about gender issues on the internet, we all knew that there were these crazy dudes who were into “men’s rights.” It had started sometime in the ‘90s, and they were all real upset about their divorces. But if you talked about how deranged some of these comments on message boards were – I mean, I tried talking about it, and the reaction I always got was, “Yeah, it’s weirdos on the internet. There’s always going to be weirdos on the internet. There’s going to be people swapping breast milk for sex. You can’t act like this is some big political problem. People aren’t like this; the internet is like this.”

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But now we’ve gotten to the point where these men are radicalized and mobilized, and they have Elliot Rodger. And Alek Minassian. I don't know that Connor Betts was actively in touch with these communities but the level of misogyny fueling him is alarming, and it’s become more and more standard in young men, because there are deep and embedded terrorist communities that are promoting it and spreading it, and using misogyny as a tool to hook men into more overt neo-Nazism and white nationalism. 

We are returning to a level of ugliness that, if you were born in the ‘80s, you were told was never going to be a problem for you.

I never thought it was going to get this bad again. I’m disappointed in the country right now. I know that makes me sound naïve.

Right, right. And I absolutely feel like a dope. Like, I should not have been able to write about misogyny and sexual violence every day for the past 10 years and still be surprised by how bad things are right now, but I am. And to see it take the form of this really intense brutal backlash is terrifying.

But I think also in some senses it’s clarifying. I think that this book is angry and is blunt about sexual violence in a way that I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be as a younger woman, because back then I was really insistent on being funny. I was a funny, cool feminist who liked sex and I’d also smoked a cigarette and had some beer in my life. I was performing that idea of “I’m feminist, but not scary! I’m still out to have fun!”

And now it’s like, “No, I don’t care if you’re freaked out.” We are in a bad spot, and it is maybe time for us to be scarier than we thought we could be. 

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