Love as Disability in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium (Laura C. and Laura N.)

In Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, love is a disease that is to be avoided at all costs, and one that everyone above the age of eighteen is cured of through surgery. Those who show signs of falling in love, or are caught with an uncured member of the opposite sex are called infected, and are stigmatized. The general population fears love and avoids anyone who is or has been infected, creating a stigma attached to the disease. We argue that in Oliver’s Delirium, love is constructed as a disability through the medicalization and stigmatization it receives. This construct of disability impacts Lena’s life and her experience of girlhood through her relationships with her family, friends, and romantic partner.

Love in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium is constructed as a disability. Therefore, anyone who is infected with the disease of love is disabled, and forced to receive a ‘cure’. Utilizing Rosemarie Garland-Thompson’s concept of the misfit, we assert that in Oliver’s dystopic society, love is a disability and anyone infected with it is a misfit in their world. Garland-Thompson’s concept of the misfit is multifaceted; it says that disability is a social construction that heavily relies on the physical spaces inhabited by people with disabilities not fitting their needs. That is to say; if the physical spaces change to be accommodating to people with disabilities, they are no longer disabled in that environment.  The concept of a misfit works in parallel with the term “fit”, the two exist in a dichotomy, wherein “the discrepancy between body and world, between that which is expected and that which is, produces fits and misfits” (Garland-Thompson).  In Oliver’s Delirium, those who suffer from the affliction of love are the misfits, and those who have been cured are the fits. Lena works very hard to make sure it is known that she is a fit, even before she becomes infected. When preparing for her evaluation she memorizes her answers and practices her delivery of them, so that she can make it clear she is a fit. The moment when Lena says her favourite colour is gray in her first evaluation is a huge moment for Lena, because it is the first time she realizes she may not be a perfect fit in her society. To be a fit in Lena’s world is to be someone who follows the rules of the totalitarian government, receives the cure and has a healthy fear of those infected with the disease of love. Lena’s mother was a misfit in their society because the cure did not work for her, she still felt love for her husband and for her children. She had to work to hide her love by closing the windows when she cried or danced with her children, and pretending not to feel love for her children in public settings. The social space she inhabited were not made for her, and she had to change the ways she inhabited physical spaces so that people would not realize she was a misfit. The only place in Delirium where it is relatively safe to be a misfit, is the Wilds. The Wilds remove the social and physical constraints that construct the binary of fits vs. misfits, and create a space where those who misfit under government control can fit. The idea of fits and misfits inform girlhood, specifically they inform Lena’s girlhood by making her fear misfitting, and seek a place where she can fit.

In Delirium, Lena’s identity is greatly influenced by the intersections of various life factors; specifically, gender, age, and disability. In the context of Oliver’s Portland, the traits of love and emotion are tied to adolescence.  With the coming of age at 18, an individual receives the cure and enters into adulthood.  The marginalization of girls based on gender and age is “further compounded when disability intersects with their identity” (Pearce et al. 122).  Love is presented as a disability, a disease that must be cured in order to preserve a nation and community.  As a result of the stigmas attached to love, the ‘uncured’ are considered disabled and to have emotions is considered a mental illness. Lena’s narration presents the reader with a sense of fear surrounding mental illness and disability.  She describes experiences of bullying at school based around the label of ‘sympathizer’ as a result of her mother’s suicide.  Within a dystopian context, the exaggeration of modern day society is evident through the extreme fears and stigmas surrounding mental health and disability.  As Pearce et al. assert, “ [s]ocial noms related to disability are built around the stigmatization of people who look or behave in a way that is perceived as different, and misconceptions about the capacity of such individuals to make their own decisions and to contribute to communities” (Foster and Sandel in Pierce et al. 122). The intersections of age and disability are exhibited in this statement when the author describes the perception that individuals with a disability are unable to make decisions or contribute to civil society.  In Delirium, love as disability is tied to adolescence which is stigmatized with the inability to think for oneself and make positive contributions to society.  Lena explains that one of the many symptoms of amor deliria nervosa (love) is that “it affects your mind so that you cannot think clearly, or make rational decisions about your own well-being” (Oliver 3). This description can also be applied to stigmas surrounding adolescence, and more specifically girlhood.  Pearce et al. argue that “girls without disabilities are perceived as ‘symbols of purity’ [whereas] girls with disabilities are perceived largely as asexual and undesirable” (Pearce  et al. 122). Within the context of Delirium, girls who have received the cure are symbolic of purity, and perfection, whereas the uncured are seen as diseased and inherently imperfect.  Lena’s perception of girlhood is greatly shaped by her intersectional experiences as a result of her; age as an adolescent, gender as a girl, and disability as both experiencing and witnessing love.

It is impossible to define girlhood without taking an intersectional approach, and Lena’s girlhood is shaped by many things, including her experience of love as a disability. Her experiences with the disease and the stigmatization of the love she feels, together with the concept of fits and misfits, help to demonstrate that Lena’s girlhood is greatly impacted by the construction of love as a disability.

Discussion Questions:

Based upon Lena’s intersectional experiences of girlhood and disability, how does this inform the reader about the experiences of adolescent girls with disabilities today? Does the societal definition of the identity of girl shift based upon the specific intersections of gender, age and disability?

In Delirium, there are spaces where people who are construed as diseased or disabled do not fit, and are considered a misfit. What are some ways in which our society creates a misfit for people with mental illnesses?

Works Cited

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept.” Hypatia 26.3 (2011): 591-609. Web.

Oliver, Lauren. Delirium. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.

Pearce, Emma, Kathryn Paik, and Omar J. Robles. “Adolescent Girls with Disabilities in Humanitarian Settings: “I Am Not ‘Worthless'”I Am a Girl with a Lot to Share and Offer”.” Girlhood Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 2016., pp. 118-136doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/ghs.2016.090109.

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16 thoughts on “Love as Disability in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium (Laura C. and Laura N.)

  1. Firstly, I think this was a very interesting observation! The way disabilities and diseases are functioning in today’s society could definitely be linked to the way it is presented in Delirium, in my opinion. However, in the discussion question, you asked about the way mental illnesses are treated in modern day society, and I would like to comment on this. In Delirium, love is most definitely presented as a disease, or disability, and when Lena’s family found out she was infected, she was told many times that it was an ‘infection’. Jenny at one point even thought she could catch the disease just by being in the same room as Lena. In this case, the disease is definitely stated as the ’cause’, whereas this is not comparable to the way mental ilness is treated. For example, how many times do people say mental illnesses are ‘all in your head’? Although this is (in fact) true, the victim in this case is blamed for the disease. Mental illnesses are not taken as seriously as physical illnesses, and deliria is definitely treated as a physical disease in the novel. Therefore, I do not think Delirium makes any connection with the way mental disorders are treated in modern day society (although it would be very interesting if it would).

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    1. I partly agree with what you are saying. In the examples you pointed out it does suggest that the Deliria is presented more as a physical illness than mental, which I agree with. However, the treatment used to “cure” it is similar to what is done with those who have a mental illness. Mentally ill patients are sent for procedures, given drugs, strapped to the bed when they get out of control, and are placed in a mental ward along with others who have mental disabilities. I do see how the society is treating the deliria as though the person who has it is an unsafe schizophrenic rather than a person with depression. Meaning, they go to greater extremes in this book, but it is more than suggested that the Deliria is a terrible mental illness that must be controlled, rather than just a physical illness.

      Also, the stigmatism that surrounds mental illness is something people shy away from, and in Delirium that is no different. Sympathizers are avoided by society and thrown in wards or killed, they are treated as outcasts but nobody talks about it; they are surrounded by this negative stereotype. The society talks about Lena when she’s caught with Alex but when Lena tries to talk to Rachel about the cure and falling in love, Rachel avoids it – mostly because she has no emotion towards it anymore, but also because people are not supposed to show emotion. Showing emotion is not ideal and would cause others to think she is a sympathizer. The stigmatism around mental illness is represented as the negative reactions towards sympathizers. Sympathizers are treated as depression is treated; no one knows what to do because they have already been cured, so they hide away the sympathizers, pretending they don’t exist. With depression, medicine is sometimes given but otherwise no one talks about it.

      What I’m trying to say is that the stigma that surrounds mental disabilities such as depression and anxiety is represented through sympathizers – people pretend they don’t exist, they don’t talk about it, there are no warning signs for what a sympathizer is. But the Deliria itself is treated as a more prominent mental illness that can be aided with medical attention, such as Alzheimer’s, or Schizophrenia.

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  2. Although you make a strong argument about the affects of those who find love in Lena’s society I would disagree that love is treated as a disability. Lena makes it clear that love is a disease, that anyone can catch, but since there is a cure it is something that can be combated. To compare this Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome, which is not something that can be cured, and is not something everyone is susceptible to, therefor it is a disability that she is born with and cannot cure. Therefore I don’t think that the book is commenting on disability because it does not deal with disability. Love may be considered a kind of ‘mental illness’ as you’ve said but it also is seen as a physical disease.
    I also think that love is not an issue to do with girls only. You stated: “Lena explains that one of the many symptoms of amor deliria nervosa (love) is that ‘it affects your mind so that you cannot think clearly, or make rational decisions about your own well-being’ (Oliver 3). This description can also be applied to stigmas surrounding adolescence, and more specifically girlhood.” However it is not only girls who receive the cure for love; boys and girls are both separated, monitored, and given the cure when they reach eighteen. Although our experience in the book is through a female protagonist this does not mean that male characters of the same age as Lena are not treated in the same way in this society. This could relate to your point on adolescence relating to Lena’s description of love. Therefore the cured female characters are not a symbol of purity as you’ve said but rather a norm, and it is the children who stand out.
    You discussed the idea of those who fall in love as being misfits in society. Rather I find them as treated as a member of society who is sick. The other citizens may be scared of those who come down with the deliria they reintegrate them into society once they are ‘cured’. Rather than being a ‘misfit’ they are ‘sick’.

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    1. I agree with Angie about how the book views love as a disease rather than a disability. A disability is a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements or activities while a disease is a particular quality, habit, or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person or a group. In Delirium, love is seen as a disposition that negatively affects society and creates war. The term “cure” for the solution to love reinforces the idea that love is a disease rather than a disability. A disease is something that can be spread from person to person, where as a disability is something they are born with.

      Love is treated in this book with the same stigma as mental illness in our society. It is seen as something that is completely avoidable and can be treated easily. It is seen as something that the person, who loves or is mentally ill, can control. The treatments are standardized for many people even though each person’s treatment should be personalized based on their situation. It is also the same with forcing people to have the cure. People with mental illness are forced into treatment by their families and friends, which makes people, like Lena, deceive the people in their life so that they are not made to treat their “disease” or illness against their will.

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    2. I would like to challenge these responses on the basis of definitions. In regards to this essay, specifically because of Laura C. and Laura N.’s definition of disability. According to their source, and the way they use it in this essay, a disability is dictated by environment: “if the physical spaces change to be accommodating to people with disabilities, they are no longer disabled in that environment.” In a normal society, those who fall in love would be considered the norm; however, in Lena’s society, loving makes you an anomaly. Therefore, those who fall in love are disabled in their environment.

      Above, Brianna has specified that a disability limits a person’s movements or activities while a disease is a particular quality, habit or disposition adversely affecting a person or group. Given this definition, I think it would be fair to still consider love as a disability in the context of this novel. The society in Oliver’s text does believe that love limits every aspect of its victims lives; its symptoms are understood to be physically, mentally and emotionally crippling.

      I think a better way to approach this concept of love as a disability would be to focus on the definition provided in the paper. Uncured’s are disabled by the society that they live in: they are forced to follow curfew, are kept separate from those of the opposite sex and are constantly policing every action. These constraints are imposed upon them because of the society that they live in.

      Given this, I want to pose a question. In the context of this essay, if you infected then you are disabled, a misfit – what, then, are they invalids? If uncured’s are still a member of civilized society within the walls but are considered disabled misfits – how would you define the invalids? Or, does the society not define the invalids because they are in denial of their existence?

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  3. I really liked this argument mainly because I liked the way you linked it back to our current society and how disability is a social construct because we don’t have space for disabled people’s needs. I thought you made a strong argument that love is a disability and I especially liked your argument towards the end that this disability effects Lena’s experience of girlhood because girls who have had the cure are seen as ‘pure’. I think this is important in answer to your question about how do Lena’s experiences inform the reader about experiences of girls with disabilities today. I think here Oliver is making a strong connection to our current society and how under represented people with disabilities are in the media, similar to how the invalids are excluded in Lena’s society. An example that springs to mind is the controversial photos by Vogue before the Paralympics where they used able-bodied models and photoshopped them to appear as amputees, therefore excluding people who actually suffer physical disabilities. Additionally, I would argue that Lena’s desperation at the beginning of the book to be free of love, free of the disability, could ring true with people who have disabilities in our society.

    One of the other comments on this post that argues Love in this book is less of a disability and more a disease because there is a ‘cure’, however I challenge this because of the comparisons to mental health that Oliver makes. As mental health is becoming more understood in our society it is becoming more acknowledged as a serious illness that impairs people and does restrain what people can do in similar ways as a physical disability. Furthermore, people with mental illnesses do not always ‘fit’ into the ideal just as people who love in Delirium don’t fit into what is expected of society. Finally, why I think our society creates a ‘misfit’ for people with mental illnesses is because there are different treatments or ‘cures’ for people with mental health issues however these are subjective as they do not work for everyone and work in different ways. But our society doesn’t always understand this, just like Oliver’s dystopic society doesn’t understand that the ‘cure’ doesn’t always work in the ways they want it to especially regarding Lena’s mother.

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  4. I think you raise an interesting point to say love is constructed as a disability in Delirium, and it makes me wonder if this was Oliver’s original intention, and if so, what are the potential effects on readers of talking about disability in this setting? If Oliver is creating a world in which love is a disability, and that disability has a cure that everyone has access to, does that erase how disabilities exist outside the novel—in the real world? From my personal relationship with disability, there is no cure I can get to make me better (although I would really love one). And if there was a cure, what would it cost me? I think Oliver creates a slightly problematic universe in which disabilities can be cured, seemingly at the cost of the government. I do think that you both raise an excellent argument in saying that it is through the medicalization and stigmatization of love that shapes it as a disability rather than a disease in Oliver’s universe. But the presence of the cure makes me think that Oliver may have intended love to be seen as just a disease—not a disability. If we argue that love is a disability in Delirium, will Oliver cause her audience to raise questions about disabilities? Such as why “disabled” people in the real world cannot just get cured like those characters in the book?
    I wonder if it is also problematic for Oliver to not have written any disabled characters in the book as we know disability. I was reading Lena’s mother as perhaps having a mental illness when it was thought that she committed suicide, but now that we have learned that is not the case, I am not sure I can still think of her this way. I do not recall any characters in the book having any physical disabilities (correct me if I am wrong). And I am wondering what this means for a universe where supposedly nobody has a disability other than love, as if curing love could also cure all other ailments as this dystopian America believes. I think it is incredibly important to have representation of disability in books targeted towards young people, because it gives space to those who are disabled, as well as shows readers that able-bodied people are not the default, and do not always get to be the main characters or even all the of side characters. I am not sure how it would affect Oliver’s universe, but I would have liked to have seen legitimate representation of disabled people in this book—outside of those disabled by love.

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      1. Although I am unsure of my position regarding the question, I do believe it can be argued that the cure is not a disability. If we use the definition of disability that constructs disabilities according to the world in which they belong, I believe those who are cured can successfully function in the world of Delirium. Using the argument that some disability theorists make, it is believed that we construct bodies as disabled only if they cannot function in the world the same way as “non-disabled” bodies can. Such as, we see the lack of mobility as a disability only because our society is structured to benefit those who do not have mobility restrictions. Take Western University for example; classrooms are not structured in a way that gives people in wheel chairs the same access to mobility as able-bodied people. Because of this lack of access, we can construct people who are differently-abled in terms of mobility as disabled. To tie this theory to Delirium, Oliver’s Portland is constructed in a way that benefits those who have received the cure–allowing them to avoid the suspicions of the violent police force and controlling government. Cured individuals function better within their restricted society than those who have escaped the cure–such as Lena’s mother who was institutionalized because she could not be cured. To contrast my previous argument, we can say then that love is a disability because those without the cure cannot function in a society that was made for people who have received the cure, with both the arranged marriages and lifestyles decided the government. From this argument as well as my previous argument, I have come to the conclusion that there is no one argument to say whether love or the cure are disabilities, diseases, or neither. I think it can be successfully argued for many different points of view.

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      2. In reply to this comment (which I can’t for the life of me figure out how to reply on instead): I think you raise great points here, Sam. Can we look at this another way? Are those who don’t have the cure constructed as disabled?

        I would agree that non-cured individuals in Delirium can be thought of as disabled because their modes of living go against the structure of the world they must inhabit. In Delirium, individuals are not supposed to desire anything that the government does not choose for them–such as a spouse or children. The government essentially chooses your spouse and the amount of kids you will have and those without the cure are not (forgive me for lack of a better word here) designed to want this–leaving them at odds with the construction of their society. Those without the cure love on their own terms and want on their own terms. This is not how society is structured, and therefore, we can argue that those without the cure are indeed disabled according to Delirium’s supposed world and the definition of disabled.

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  5. Looking at ‘deliria’ as a disability is really thought provoking because of how in the text the ‘cure’ is actually just a way for the government to control the population. This immediately creates a parallel with how lots of people in real life argue that mental illnesses, particularly ADHD, shouldn’t be medicated or are even made up. There’s plenty of people who argue that some mental illnesses aren’t real, and parents are just medicating their children so they’re more manageable. If looked at from this angle, the construction of disability in Delirium is really problematic, as it aligns with these kind of views of mental illness. This ideology is reinforced in how the book treats real mental illnesses. Lena says no one has depression and other mental illnesses once they’re cured, so again this feeds into the idea of treatment for these real illnesses as made-up; ways for society to control you or for drug companies to make money.

    However, on the other hand presenting love as a disability also reflects something more nuanced about mental illness in current society. As the post discussed, the concept of disability is socially constructed. If spaces are designed for people to walk in and can’t accommodate wheelchairs, being a wheelchair user becomes a disability. This is why things like wearing glasses aren’t seen as signs of disability; they’re accommodated for by society. So there isn’t an objective concept of inherent disability: just people being treated differently if they have a physical impairment or their brain functions differently than is the norm. So I would agree that love is seen as a disability in the context of the book, even if it is only constructed that way in order for the government to control people. The novel’s world is not accommodating to people who feel love.

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  6. I thought your argument that love is treated as a disability in Delirium was really thought-provoking. I want to focus specifically on the parallels that can be drawn between mental illness and the idea of ‘love’ and deliria in the novel. I think it is specifically interesting to look at how encouragement to suppress (extreme) emotions exists in the instance of deliria and perceptions of mental illness, despite the recent increase of awareness and activism around it. Somehow, expressing emotions is looked down upon in our society. I think one of the most poignant example of this is how empty the question, “How are you?” seems. Most people aren’t actually asking and I would argue that it’s rare to ever receive a truly honest answer to that question – at most someone might answer, “I’m just tired,” rather than disclose the depth of their feelings. Contrastingly, the stigma around mental illness encourages people to hide sadness and anger whereas experiencing deliria encourages people to hide their happiness and excitement – laughing “too hard” or dancing without abandon therefore becomes offensive.

    Regarding Garland-Thompson’s idea of the misfit, there are many existing relations and environments that exclude and marginalize people who suffer from mental illness. My first thought when contemplating these unaccommodating spaces were schools. Regardless of the high stress environment, students are often subjected to exhaustive administrative processes and barriers to receive minor allowances and through simply pursuing access to avenues of support. Similarly, professional work environments and part-time employment alike often emphasize that physical sickness is more valid than mental. Even within the function of every day relationships there remains ignorance about what it means to have mental illness; for example, someone who refuses invitations to hang out can be automatically deemed a “bad friend,” when they might experience severe social anxiety. On a broader scale, the homeless crisis can be partially attributed to ignorance as well considering that the majority of homeless people have experienced some manner of mental struggle. Others are quick to assume that the homeless are unworthy or undeserving of help and broken infrastructure further perpetuates these ideas and denies support for those in need. In all these cases, those with mental illness become unfit for their respective communities, just as those who experience love become unfit to function within Oliver’s construction of Portland in Delirium.

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  7. You made some great insights about the relationship between love, disability and adolescence in Oliver’s Delirium. I agree that the society Lena lives in constructs love as something that is disabling because, as you mentioned, it hinders one’s ability to think rationally and make sensible decisions. I find your argument of the construction of love as a disability serves to maintain and “preserve a nation and community” very interesting. This reminds me of the discourse discussed in Mary Pipher’s self-help book “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls”. The Reviving Ophelia discourse is one that constructs girls as “vulnerable, voiceless and fragile” (Gonick 2). This represents an anxiety about girls who have failed to achieve the idealized form of girlhood, which is characterized as “dynamic, assertive and unbound from the constraints of passive femininity” (Gonick 2). While the idealized form of girlhood appears quite feminist, as it promotes non-stereotypical ideas about girlhood, this discourse suggests that girls themselves are responsible for their own success or failure in achieving this type of girlhood. Similar to love’s construction as a disability in order to maintain the integrity of the nation in Delirium, the stigmatization of vulnerability that characterizes the failed form of girlhood also functions to preserve a certain kind of community, in this case one that is neoliberal. Lena’s society stigmatizes individuals who failed achieve their idea of the ideal citizen by succumbing to feelings of love and refusing to get the cure, and chastises them for disrupting the integrity of their community by attempting to cure them without their consent. Adolescent girls who fail to achieve this idealized form of girlhood are constructed not only as failures, but as being primarily responsible for their failures, simply to perpetuate a neoliberal society.

    Gonick, Marnina. “Between ‘Girl Power’ and ‘Reviving Ophelia’: Constructing the Neoliberal Girl Subject”. Project MUSE, vol. 18, no. 2, Summer 2006, pp. 1-23. NWSA Journal. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/199490

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  8. When discussing disability, physical disability is usually at the forefront of the discussion. Often times, mental illness are not discussed or validated. The concept of misfits relies on temporal spatiality – meaning that with the change of time and space, the environment changes and can embody a space for different people. If mental illness is not openly talked about, where does the space for these people exist? Are they more often than not considered a misfit? When thinking about disability in general, there is always an attempt to “fix” what is “wrong” with that person. Delirium follows a similar concept in terms of the Cure as a remedy for Love. Looking at mental illness in current society, the one perspective that mental illness is not “real” comes to mind. The lack of willingness to address mental illness makes these people misfits in the entirety of our society as it devalues their struggles. Alongside this lack of acknowledgement, there remains lack of resources. Mental illness effects a wide number of people but the stigmatization that surrounds it makes for a disregard within society. Due to the fact that society neglects the existence of mental illness, there lacks many accommodations. The normative spaces in which we are surrounded by everyday do not accommodate these bodies. In schools, instead of creating a classroom or having resources accessible to people with mental illness, these individuals have to seek their own help. Often times, this requires documentation stating that THEY have a PROBLEM in which they need SPECIAL accommodation. This places blame on the individual for not being able to fit into this space, when there is no available means of accommodation. The way mental illness is addressed in society is by essentially denying its existence.

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