Of the millions of words that have been devoted to Marilyn Monroe, few of them were written or said by the woman herself. Only a few interviews with Marilyn herself are still in print, and most of the people who knew her well are now gone. A small handful of books can claim a direct connection to the star (My Story, an incomplete memoir from 1954; and a long interview, Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words, unpublished until 1995.) Now, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters can be added to the body of literature by Monroe.
The source material was provided by Anna Strasberg, widow of Lee Strasberg, who was Monroe’s acting coach and the main beneficiary of her will. Anna Strasberg is a shadowy figure among Monroe fans, who never knew the actress personally, and sold most of Marilyn’s possessions at auction in 1999. Some may argue that Monroe’s legacy has been pillaged by bringing her most personal writings into the public domain. On the other hand, Marilyn’s life has been tabloid fodder for decades, long before Mrs Strasberg made her debut at Christie’s.
‘This book does not attempt to show her stripped bare,’ state editors Stanley Buchtal and Bernard Comment in their preface to Fragments, ‘but rather simply as she was.’ Apart from providing transcriptions of Marilyn’s handwriting, their presence is fairly unobtrusive.
Most of Marilyn’s papers and journals were undated, and so the editors have divided them into chapters based on purported chronology. They have also tried, where possible, to identify the places, people and incidents that Monroe refers to. While this approach is largely successful, there were a few attributions that left me unconvinced. The first document is a long, typed piece by Marilyn about an early love, and has been linked to her first husband, Jim Dougherty, who she married in 1942, when she was sixteen and he was twenty-one. Though Marilyn states that she was a teenager at the time, and her lover six years older, other details do not seem to match so well.
In the text, Marilyn claims to have already worked as a model and actress, but her career did not begin until three years after her wedding. The tone of the narrative seems to be of someone looking back on past experience. It’s possible that the piece may have been written some later, or is about someone else – for example, Fred Karger, the musician Marilyn was in love with during 1948.
In an Italian-made diary, believed to date from 1955 or ’56, Marilyn writes that she is ‘afraid’ of a man called Peter. A footnote suggests that this may be Peter Lawford, but it could also be Peter Leonardi, the hairdresser who tried, unsuccessfully, to sue Monroe in 1955.
Later on in the ‘Italian Agenda’, Monroe writes of a woman, ‘A.I.’. The footnotes suggest that ‘A.I.’ may be Monroe’s great aunt, Ida Martin, with whom she lived for a few months in 1937-8. However, Monroe could have been referring to Ida Bolender, the foster parent she called ‘Aunt Ida’, and lived with for the first seven years of her life.
‘Not a Scared Little Girl Anymore’
‘Everyone’s childhood plays itself out,’ Marilyn wrote in 1958. Her youth was marred by abandonment and insecurity, and her three marriages ended in divorce. Despite these painful memories, Marilyn had a strong instinct for survival.
Three years earlier, she had written: ‘I will not be punished…or be whipped, or be threatened, or not be loved, or sent to hell to burn with bad people, feeling that I am also bad’. This seems to allude to the religious influences in Marilyn’s early life, and her struggle with guilt.
In a poem, Marilyn remembers a teacher’s kindness. ‘Maybe that’s why I told the teacher all those lies all the time,’ she ponders, ‘Young and dark she was – seemed to believe me even when I wasn’t telling the truth…’
When Marilyn talked about her childhood, some accused her of fabricating to gain sympathy. If this was sometimes the case, then it reflects her need for attention. There is little doubt that Marilyn’s early life was troubled, even if not in the Dickensian terms that have been painted by studio publicists and rogue biographers.
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of Monroe’s early years is the possibility that she was sexually abused. The details are sketchy, and even direct accounts, public and private, changed over time. However, Marilyn’s sense of shame rings true. In a note from 1955-56, Marilyn names someone called ‘Buddy’. She doesn’t dwell on the assault, but rather its aftermath: ‘must never touch myself there or let anyone – wash cloth – water running from it…fear to touch my own body’.
In the 1950s, child abuse was still a taboo and Monroe was one of the first celebrities to speak openly about her experiences. In public she deliberately blurred the details, to protect her family. But in her private notes, Marilyn was able to explore her trauma in a raw way. I believe that Marilyn’s knowledge of cruelty and neglect is what sets her apart from so many other movie stars. The fragility in her performances was real, and it also drives her writing.
Unable to have children, Marilyn connected with the young. ‘Listening to the girl crying in the hall,’ she writes in an earlier piece (a long narrative about her first love), ‘it seems that at times children have remarkable perception and insight, and in some even a very humane trait…while in the process of growing up, one loses touch…’
In 1955, Marilyn declared that she was ‘not a scared little girl anymore’. And yet it was her childlike candour that made her at once so vulnerable, and a rich observer of life.
‘A Dancer Who Cannot Dance’
‘And I do have feeling/Very strongly sexed feeling/Since a small child,’ Marilyn wrote in a 1955 journal. However, she felt afraid to express her sexuality: ‘I’m too inhibited…physically I was always sure something was wrong with me,’ she admitted.
It is ironic that an actress who was ‘deified as a Sex Symbol’ lacked confidence. In the mid-1950s, American women were primarily expected to become wives and mothers. Certainly not to live alone, have successful careers and take lovers, as Marilyn did.
‘Last night I was so badly sunburnt that I wore only a sweater and no bra,’ she recalls in the earliest note, believed to date from the 1940s. ‘It gave me a sensual feeling, which I thought he might share…’ But her lover proved unresponsive, perhaps shocked by her innocent exhibitionism. Nonetheless, Monroe continually strove to overcome her fears. ‘Strong and naked you must be,’ she says in one verse, and in another, ‘My body is my body/every part of it.’
Back in 1948, Marilyn wrote of a coach journey, ‘I was the only woman with about sixty Italian fishermen…they’re warm, lusty and friendly as hell.’ As a rootless child of Los Angeles, Marilyn was drawn to Latin culture. She would later marry an Italian-American, Joe DiMaggio.
She described her first love as ‘one of the few young men that I had no sexual repulsion for.’ Nonetheless, it was clearly a romantic attachment: ‘the secret midnight meetings, the fugitive glances stolen in others’ company, the sharing of the ocean, moon and stars…’
On being left waiting, Marilyn remembers, ‘my first feeling was not of anger – but the numb pain of rejection’. In time, this would form a destructive pattern in Monroe’s life. Despite her idealism, Marilyn concludes, ‘I think that my love if you must call it that was mostly that wonderful, titillating feeling of being cared for…’
‘Only parts of us will ever/touch parts of others,’ Marilyn mused in an undated poem, adding that the best we can hope for is to ‘seek another’s loneliness out’. By 1955, she had changed her mind. Monroe fell deeply in love with the New York playwright, Arthur Miller. Not only was she ‘attracted …practically out of my senses’, but she trusted him ‘as I trust myself’. Less than a year later, soon after their wedding, Marilyn’s hopes were already bruised. In one of her most tender poems, ‘My love sleeps beside me’, Monroe suspects that her lover is dissatisfied, and she is left alone with ‘the shapes of monsters/my most steadfast companions…’
In 1958, Marilyn wrote from their country retreat, ‘starting tomorrow I will take care of myself for that’s all I really have…When one wants to stay alone as my love indicates, the other must stay apart.’ Once again, she resigns herself to solitude: ‘how do we know the pain of another’s earlier years, let alone all he drags with him…I think to love bravely is the best…as much as one can bear.’ Strikingly, she likens herself to ‘a dancer who cannot dance’.
‘To the child of a dissatisfied woman the idea of monogamy is hollow,’ Monroe ruminates in a separate note. Soon after meeting Arthur, Marilyn had told her analyst, ‘I can’t get used to the fact that he loves me and I keep waiting for him to stop…’
In March 1961, Monroe wrote to another doctor of the Christmas she had spent with her ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio. ‘He asked me to come over and I was glad…though I must say, I was bleary and depressed, but somehow still glad…’ Long after their marriage ended, Joe and Marilyn remained close.
‘Having a sense of myself’
While recalling her childhood, Marilyn wrote that her ‘first desire was to be an actress, and I spent years play acting until I had jobs’. Acting satisfied her need to escape grim reality, and it became her deepest expression.
As early as 1951, when she was still relatively unknown, Monroe studied acting and employed an on-set coach. Nonetheless, she felt unsure of her abilities. ‘People will think I’m no good or laugh or belittle me or think I can’t act,’ she wrote while trying to memorise a script. Indeed, colleagues often found Marilyn to be vague and remote. Paradoxically, this was probably caused by her innate perfectionism. She acknowledged ‘that I have done things right, that were even good…but the bad is heavier to carry around’.
The young woman who never finished high school was determined to educate herself, studying renaissance art and literature by night at UCLA. The lives of artists intrigued her, and she learned that their work was not recognised until after their death. Sensing that her fear of intimacy also inhibited her acting, Marilyn left Hollywood in 1955 to study ‘the Method’ in New York. It is then that her quest for self-knowledge finally fused with her art, never to separate again.
‘I can and will help myself and work on things analytically, no matter how painful,’ she vowed. Here we can understand why friends like Susan Strasberg called Monroe an ‘iron butterfly’. For all Marilyn’s sensitivity, her will to succeed was formidable. One page reads simply, ‘having a sense of myself’. As an actress, Marilyn found aspects of herself within other characters. After one session at the Actor’s Studio, she was left ‘sobbing on stage’. And praise seemed to worry her as much as criticism: ‘makes me suffer with such misgivings’.
A gifted vocalist, Marilyn wrote a list of favourite songs, from ‘Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone’ to ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. Her musical legacy consists of under thirty recorded tracks, and this note is a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.
‘I’m finding that sincerity…is often taken for sheer stupidity’, Monroe mused in 1955, adding, ‘but since it’s not a very sincere world – it’s very probable that being sincere is stupid.’ The ‘dumb blonde’ persona she parodied on screen was too often taken literally by audiences, even co-workers. Being labelled as ‘stupid’ hurt Marilyn and increased her fears. The mask of glamour was a place to hide. But she was also courageous. By 1958, work was not the succour she had previously relished. As her marriage began to crumble, Monroe reluctantly agreed to return to movie-making.
‘I am restless and nervous and scattered and jumpy,’ Marilyn notes while waiting to perform. ‘I’m searching for a way to play this part…How can I be such a gay young girl…?’ The disparity between Monroe’s joyous screen presence and her personal life is bleak. But she finds her way through Stanislavsky’s concept of ‘sense memory’, recalling ‘one Sunday when I was fourteen, for I was all those things that day’. One short note epitomises Marilyn’s dual purpose with clarity: ‘For life, it is rather a determination not to be overwhelmed. For work – the truth can only ever be recalled, never invented.’
Though shy and often difficult to work with, at times Monroe related to others profoundly. While filming The Misfits in 1960, she noted that Clark Gable’s character ‘is the center and the rest move around him.’ She yearned to be part of a community of actors, and it seems that she did find this in New York, if not Hollywood. Monroe often copied lines from her films into notes, and even worked a joke from an early role in Monkey Business where her character, Miss Laurel, mistakes punctuality for punctuation, into an apology for her own chronic lateness.
Lee Strasberg became a guru to Marilyn, while his wife Paula coached her on film sets. Describing Paula as the ‘only really warm woman I’ve known’ in 1956, Marilyn acknowledged the rigours of screen acting: ‘I get before camera and my concentration and everything I’m trying to learn leaves me.’ In late 1961, she wrote to Lee Strasberg of her plans to establish an independent production unit with Marlon Brando. This plan was never realised, but the letter confirms that even in the final, turbulent year of her life, Marilyn was still optimistic about her career.
When a psychiatrist asked if Marilyn’s emotional problems interfered with her work, she replied, ‘Didn’t he think that perhaps Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman had been depressed when they worked sometimes…like asking DiMaggio if he could hit ball when he was depressed. Pretty silly.’
Marilyn’s handwritten notes, in preparation for a magazine interview in 1962, show both diligence and wit. ‘I have a strong sense of self-criticism but I believe I’m becoming more reasonable,’ she remarked, and cited Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Sandburg, the President and Robert Kennedy, and Greta Garbo as the public figures she most admired (as much for their personal qualities as their professional triumphs.)
‘Strong as a cobweb in the wind’
‘It’s not much fun to know yourself too well or think you do,’ Marilyn wrote in her earliest note. ‘Everyone needs a little conceit to carry through and past the falls.’
She wrote about her divided self in the poem, ‘Life – I am of both your directions’. The phrase ‘strong as a cobweb in the wind’ may have inspired Elton John’s 1973 tribute song, ‘Candle in the Wind’ , as Marilyn’s poem was published in Norman Rosten’s Marilyn: The Untold Story that year. ‘I exist more with the cold glistening frost,’ she continues, ‘But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve seen in paintings/Ah life they have cheated you…’
Despite her sadness, Marilyn also possessed a radiant warmth. She enjoyed art and dabbled often; one ink drawing, apparently of Sir Laurence Olivier, is published in Fragments, and friends like Rosten and Susan Strasberg have featured Marilyn’s sketches in their own memoirs.
In another poem, unseen until now, Marilyn admits: ‘Oh damn I wish that I were dead – absolutely non-existent – gone away from here…’ This could be read literally, as a death wish or cry for help. But then, Marilyn notices Brooklyn Bridge – so often the setting for suicides – and to her, the bridge is uplifting. ‘But I love that bridge…I’ve never seen an ugly bridge.’ Many of these surviving poems were written after Marilyn moved to New York, and as a native Californian, she was fascinated by the city. At times, it became claustrophobic; in one poem she describes looking down from her apartment to the ground, and the sensory impact is dizzying.
‘I am alone – I am always alone, no matter what,’ Marilyn had written in a journal years before. ‘Don’t spill your precious liquid life force’, she admonished herself on the next page. At this time, Monroe was studying with Michael Chekhov, a former pupil of Stanislavsky. In this period before her rise to fame, Marilyn led a solitary life. Recalling the bus ride to Salinas, she wrote, ‘I slept all over the kid next to me and the kid slept all over me.’ It was a hot, uncomfortable journey, but Marilyn felt at ease among strangers, a liberty that would soon disappear.
In New York, 1955, Marilyn repeatedly used ‘sense memory’ to steady her emotions. ‘I haven’t had Faith in Life/meaning Reality’, she admits, wanting to trust in ‘simple objects and tasks’, and ‘to realize the present/whatever it may be.’ In another journal entry, she vows to ‘train my will’ and keep ‘as few illusions as possible’. She practiced exercises in relaxation and awareness to combat stage fright.
A New York poem compares the neon-lit city and the shining moon. ‘It’s good they told me what the moon was when I was a child,’ Monroe reflects, ‘for I could not understand it now’. Street life, ‘impatient cab drivers’ weary her, and the river, ‘made of Pepsi-Cola’, leave her feeling alienated from both nature and society. ‘Yet I am not looking at these things,’ Monroe writes, ‘I’m looking for my lover.’ Finally, the river’s silence calms her.
A dark, eerie mood prevails in a long dream sequence where Marilyn is cut open by Lee Strasberg, a surgeon, and Arthur Miller is disappointed to find ‘nothing – devoid of every human living feeling thing – the only thing that came out was so finely cut sawdust – like out of a raggedy ann doll…’
Shortly after her thirtieth birthday, Marilyn married Miller. Her poetry begins to touch on mortality. ‘The old woman hides from her glass…daring sometimes to see her toothless gasp,’ she writes in one verse. But the old woman remembers youth, and ‘her clear-eyed baby who lived to die’. Monroe, who felt most comfortable among children and the elderly, would suffer at least two miscarriages with Miller.
Later, as her bond with Arthur waned, Marilyn worried more about losing her allure. ‘I see myself in the mirror now, brow furrowed,’ she wrote from their farm in Connecticut. ‘Tension, sadness, disappointment, my eyes dulled…’
One of Monroe’s best-known poems, ‘Help help/Help/I feel life coming closer…’ sent to her poet friend Norman Rosten in 1961, was actually the fruit of five years’ drafting, an apt reminder that even the most desolate outpourings were not beyond her control.
‘Maybe I’m crazy like all the other members of my family,’ Marilyn wrote to Paula Strasberg during a fraught movie shoot. In 1961, she was briefly committed to a psychiatric ward. After this disastrous episode, she wrote to her Hollywood analyst, Dr Ralph Greenson: ‘The inhumanity there I found archaic…I had the feeling they looked more for discipline and that they let their patients go after the patients have “given up”.’
‘Oh well, men are climbing to the moon,’ she pondered, ‘but they don’t seem interested in the beating human heart.’ Notes for a 1962 interview include a wry comment about her ongoing treatment: ‘I hope at some future time to be able to make a glowing report about the wonders that psychoanalysis can achieve. The time is not ripe.’
‘Keeping a Giggle Inside’
‘My bare derriere is in the air,’ Marilyn declared mischievously, in ‘Hospital Gowns’. ‘When I’m not aware, several Handel concertos/Vivaldi concertos/Benny Goodman…’ Monroe’s health was always fragile, but she was still able to find a kind of gallows humour in her predicament. ‘Keep the balloon,’ is her whimsical mantra, and she goes on to define humour as ‘keeping a giggle inside’.
She writes comical notes to Norman Rosten, naming him ‘Claude’ because he resembled the actor Claude Rains (Captain Renault in Casablanca.) Rosten became something of a mentor to Marilyn, and it seems he never disillusioned her as other men, like Miller and Strasberg, perhaps did. ‘So it might rhyme/so what’s the crime?’ she teases, lightly rebuffing Rosten’s opinion that she had a poet’s soul, but lacked discipline.
‘Try to enjoy myself when I can,’ Marilyn writes at the end of a ‘to-do’ list: ‘I’ll be miserable enough as it is.’ Even in her deepest sorrow, hope was always present. She made long lists of friends to visit, and what advice to ask; gifts to buy; dinner party plans, recipes, career goals, dress fittings and home improvements.
‘Forgive me for being sentimental,’ she wrote in a birthday card to Rosten. ‘I’m so glad that you were born and that I’m living at the same time as you.’ Her letters are affectionate, and her loyalty to friends was fierce. She signs off with a host of pet names: ‘Noodle, Sam, Max, Clump, Sugar Finney and all the rest…’
Throughout her life, Monroe’s greatest strength was her sensitivity – and yet she often feared it. As told to journalist Allan Levy in a 1962 memo, Marilyn’s bitterest regret from childhood was ‘a lack of any consistent love and caring. A mistrust and fear of the world was the result.’ The sole benefit of her past experience, Monroe believed, was ‘what it could teach me about the basic needs of the young, the sick, and the weak.’
She noted down words of comfort from Lee Strasberg, as evidence of her true worth. ‘Remember,’ he assured her, ‘technical things can be done – to deal with your sensitivity, to turn it from fear into the proper channels – which means dealing with fear, not running away either and not waste time with it.’
‘There are cartons of this stuff in attics all over America,’ wrote film critic Richard Schickel in the Los Angeles Times. ‘We sense in (Monroe’s) striving for poetic imagery an attempt to mobilize her sometimes shrewd but glancing observations…’ Marilyn’s tongue-in-cheek messages to Norman Rosten reveal that she most likely did not consider herself to be anything more than an amateur poet. The writings in Fragments were incomplete, and probably not intended for publication. At most, the notes might have been used as source material for autobiography.
Tiphaine Samoyault, who translated Fragments into French, spoke to Liberation France of the difficulty in working with an ‘unstable text’. Marilyn’s spelling and grammar is visibly awkward in her earliest work, though her writing is lively and complex. By the end of her life, she was confident in expressing herself. This ‘mastery of expression’ helped Monroe to illuminate her inner conflicts, if not to resolve them. As Samoyault observed, ‘I found that there was a profound truth: even in the solar side of Marilyn, even in its beauty, its light, there is something unstable.’
Marilyn’s patchwork narrative in Fragments has a direct, honest quality that is sometimes found in oral history, and like that literary genre it is non-elitist, allowing the subject to create an alternate, personal vision of their own life and surroundings.
The integrity of Fragments has been questioned by some critics from a moral standpoint. If these were private writings, their publication could be viewed as voyeurism. In a review from Canada’s Globe and Mail, Lynn Crosbie asks, ‘Is it easier to howl at Monroe’s beauty when one dignifies such lust, even love, by affecting an admiration – again, like a coroner – of what lay beneath?’
Like Schickel, Crosbie doubts that Marilyn was an ‘intellectual’, but fails to clarify what the criteria for being an intellectual are. In 1959, while promoting Some Like It Hot, Monroe told reporters, ‘I am not an intellectual. And that is not one of my aims. But I admire intellectual people.’ Her desire to learn was sincere and unaffected, and it is mainly because of the prejudice of others that she has been dismissed as pretentious. Had she not been female, working class and a ‘sex symbol’, Marilyn’s intelligence might be more readily accepted. As Maureen Dowd argues in the New York Times, ‘The false choice between intellectualism and sexuality in women has persisted through the ages…Men who were nervous about (Monroe’s) erotic intensity could feel superior by making fun of her intellectually.’
However, having defended the quality of Marilyn’s writing, the accusation of voyeurism still holds. ‘Her poems are, by far, the heart of the book,’ writes Arifa Akbar in The Independent. ‘Her depression, her romantic spirit, her impenetrable loneliness is all there, and these poems could have been published on their own, albeit, in a slimmer volume.’
‘Reading the more excruciatingly intimate material, one wonders if it really would “please its author” (as the editors suggest),’ Akbar comments on Monroe’s journal entries and letters. ‘While the personal detritus will undoubtedly offer Monroe fans and scholars a further glimpse into her world, some parts feel intrusive to read.’
Monroe’s privacy has been invaded many times before, from the inclusion of an autopsy photo in Anthony Summers’ 1986 biography, Goddess, to the sale of chest X-rays earlier this year. Friends, foes and even a few stalkers have all been approached and their stories are promoted as truth by a lazy media. While Fragments could also be called exploitative, it also helps to dispel some pernicious myths, and allows Marilyn’s authentic voice to be heard, long after her death.
‘She was very generous, endlessly giving of herself. What also struck me was the poetic brilliance of some of the writing, although the style is never affected,’ editor Bernard Comment told Swiss Radio International. ‘(Monroe’s writings) are intimate, but always very chaste. I was never in the slightest embarrassed as I read them. I can tell you that there are no revelations about her sex life, or about the Kennedys.’
‘The writings are intimate, unfiltered, and often unsettling,’ Jenny Hendrix comments in The New Yorker. ‘Monroe also emerges in these pages as a surprisingly strong writer, capable of conveying very clearly and beautifully, in vivid images, her own pain.’
Veteran showbiz columnist Liz Smith remarks, ‘Fragments reveals the sad, sensitive, savvy woman behind the obvious image. Future biographers will have to weigh their assumptions with more care.’ She speculates that Marilyn was ‘fragile but struggling against the odds. Tougher than her image, but too soft to survive.’
Biographer Carl Rollyson, whose Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress was published in 1986, is among those Monroe experts who praise Fragments. ‘As portrayed in her own words, Marilyn Monroe emerges as thoughtful and accomplished — not characteristics that most biographies emphasize,’ he comments in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
‘Like all serious artists, Marilyn Monroe lived – lives – in her art,’ argues novelist Joyce Carol Oates in Playboy, the magazine that appropriated Marilyn’s nude calendar for its first issue in 1953. ‘Here is a female artist for whom work was salvation, or might have been under slightly different circumstances.’ Monroe’s life and persona are the subject of Oates’ novel, Blonde, soon to be filmed.
While Fragments celebrates Marilyn’s intelligence and sensitivity, it’s too early to judge whether it can really change the minds of those who persist in dismissing her as a shallow starlet. Antii Alanen, programmer at the Cinema Orion, Helsinki, suggests that the mystery of Monroe will never entirely unfurl. ‘Although the material is new, the editors in their foreword slightly exaggerate its meaning,’ he observes wryly. ‘Marilyn’s star charisma was based from the beginning on the fact that she was able to reconcile huge contradictions…These private notes collected from desk drawers provide more evidence of the soulful Marilyn.’
Finally, the secret of Fragments is in the title. It is not autobiography and it doesn’t ‘explain’ Marilyn, but it does provide brief, tantalizing glimpses of the delicate, but driven woman behind the most unforgettable female star of the twentieth century.
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Ian D. Smith said:
Great piece, Tara. It seems so convenient for the media to portray Marilyn as a dumb blonde, even to this day. Just because conspiracy theorists have wild ideas doesn’t mean there’s not a conspiracy.
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