The following post originally appeared on Godless in Dixie.
Do you or one of your loved ones suffer from BADS? Does your love one have an unusual fixation on cherry-picking Bible verses to confirm their personal prejudices? When you are with your loved one, do you find yourself feeling defensive, simply for being alive? Does your loved one tell you things in love and truth that are actually abusive and harmful? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, you may be experiencing a relationship with someone who has BADS. BADS is Biblical Adherence Disorder Syndrome and it affects 4% of Americans, and 100% of the people they come in contact with.
Symptoms of Biblical Adherence Disorder Syndrome include: black and white thinking; loving the sinner but hating the sin; an inability to see other people’s points of view; private shame and public shaming; delusions of heaven; delusions of hell; a need to always be right; having conversations in your head with God; substituting the word God for I when demanding people respect your opinion; cognitive dissonance and intellectual dishonesty; magical thinking; controlling your loved ones; disbelief in scientific facts; and a strong justification for self-absorbed selfish behavior because, you know, God.
WHAT CAME FIRST THE CHICKEN OR THE NARCISSIST?
If you are like me and you were indoctrinated as a Christian since birth by your character-impaired parent(s), you may ask yourself: What came first, the religion or the personality problem? Sometimes these two wonderful things just come together in one wacky, messed-up package.
Neil and I are in a group of what I like to think of as a union of sorts, an International Brotherhood of Survivors of Christianity. We mostly just goof around on the internet, and on occasion meet up in Texas at a halfway-house for wayward adults. I am often shocked and heartbroken by Neil’s experiences in Dixie, and feel both guilty and grateful to live in the Northeast. Here Catholics and liberal Christians may think you are a complete weirdo for not sharing their beliefs, but the most likely scenario is that you are not going to lose your job, your spouse, or your lifelong friends. The worst that has happened to me outside of my relationship with my mother and brother is some side-eye, and the overbearing Italian mothers of my closest friends insisting that I am not really an atheist and ordering me to schedule my baby’s baptism.
I admire Neil’s desire to have the people around him understand him, and the graceful way in which he reaches out and responds to his critics. I myself have given up on being understood by Evangelical Christians. Neil has asked us how he can build a bridge so that people in the Bible Belt will stop being ignorant and hateful toward us irreligious folks. I have no good answers for him. The issue is deeper than the religion they practice, I truly believe the fallout he deals with has more to do with their narcissism than it does with their theology, and it is unfortunate that they use this theology as a justification for their narcissism.
People with character impairments are unskilled in practicing empathy. Granted, while many of them likely have zero empathy for others, they are often quite practiced in appearing as if they do. Some have empathy for those whom they consider to be like them, a part of their tribe, but none for anyone they consider to be “the other.” Some of them become aware that their self-absorbed behavior is negatively affecting their relationships and then begin to practice the skill of empathy in order to make positive changes. I think we see this when people change their opinions on homosexuality because someone they love “comes out” to them. Others who are deeply entrenched in their personality will never be able to change, or even see that their behavior is harmful. We see this in the people who abandon the people they pretend to love, because they are not living up to their (God’s) expectations. What they fail to grasp is that no one feels the love when their parents abandon them in the hope that this emotional manipulation will draw them back to God. Love usually feels like love, and this feels like exactly what it is: It is hate masquerading as love.
THE MYTH OF THE GOOD CHILDHOOD
Many of us who grew up in Christian households unknowingly experienced emotional abuse. We did not realize this at the time because in our culture some forms of emotional abuse pass for good parenting. A lot of us even believed we had good childhoods, and could not understand why we spent so many years struggling with low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Hey, my mom clothed me, fed me, gave me shelter, she sent me to school, took me to church, and made sure I was polite. I did not get beaten often, or enough to leave marks, or sexually molested. On the other hand, I also did not get my emotions validated, get praised for being the person I actually am, or get my feelings mirrored back to me by an empathic parent. I did get shamed, however, and I did get to be on the receiving end of screaming, erratic rage. I did get to be responsible for managing my mother’s emotions and acting as her therapist. I did get to be called “stupid idiot” and get criticized for everything about me, including my physical appearance, or dismissed and yelled at simply for asking questions, or expressing my individuality. But that was only on the days I was actually getting attention; the rest of the time I was completely ignored. And because being responsible for a young child with needs was an inconvenience my mother did not have the energy for, I was a burden. Mind you, this was all considered “good parenting.” And if you ask anyone who knew me then, they will tell you I was a great kid, I was happy, I had a good childhood, and my mother was a great parent who loved me. So, you know, shut the fuck up about abuse, because it did not happen, do not rock the boat. Narcissistic family systems will make this clear: We will not change…the problem is you.
My deconversion experience is very similar to the experiences of other ex-Christians. I dealt with the traumatic stress of losing religion/God, of becoming “the other” to my family. I dealt with the anger I felt for being so thoroughly conned by the very people I was taught to trust. I was angry with myself for being stupid enough to believe in obvious lies and misinformation. I saw clearly at a young age that the answers given to me were not just: Good people going to hell for not accepting Jesus into their hearts, hello? So let me get this straight, my good friend down the street who is honest, kind and has integrity is going to burn in hell for eternity because, by pure chance, she was born to Muslim parents, but Jeffery Dahmer gets to go to heaven because his Dad got him saved in prison? Fuck. Your. God. Character-impaired people call this God’s justice, and inform you that you are just a worm who is too small to understand God’s ways. Healthy people call it insanity. When I was young, the great mythological stories never seemed like facts to me. I would watch the teachers in Vacation Bible School and think: They cannot really believe this because it is so absurd! It took decades of indoctrination to beat it into my brain, and make me a True Believer, or else to just live in the confusion of cognitive dissonance because I was taught to trust in the absurd, and that faith without evidence is a virtue. These were the beliefs of my only parent, and I had a deep desire to please God, because by pleasing God maybe I would finally please her.
I actually had to get a Master’s degree in Biblical Studies to figure it out. What a waste. I could have studied something that is actually useful in the real world. Even when I finally got free, I had to remain secretive about my deconversion to protect my relationship with my mother and brother. I spent years unpacking my family of origin and learning how my indoctrination affected me. I researched codependency when I found I identified strongly with the adult children of alcoholics (my mother does not drink). I looked into religious addiction, personality disorders, emotional abuse, and narcissistic family systems.
Religion is not a requirement for emotionally abusive behavior, but I do think it is fair to examine how Christianity (the dominant religion in the United States) can act as a great disguise for narcissistic people.
It took me over thirty years to undo my indoctrination and gain clarity about my religion of birth, and another ten years to see that my mother has never had any empathy for me, and most likely never will. Our relationship has always been difficult. I always wanted to please her, but now I see the impossibility of ever being able to whether I am a Christian or not. No one wants to believe her parent does not love her—that is why it is so easy to confuse his or her cruelty for love. The need for parental love is so strong that we will defend their negative behavior, believe their lies, and blame ourselves just to keep them in our lives.
We practically fetishize our relationship to mothers in this country, to the point where you are not allowed to say anything negative about your mother (even if it is the truth) without being on the receiving end of judgmental criticism. If it is not outright criticism then it is comments intended to be helpful that invalidate our experiences and make us feel alone:
Just get over it.
It is in the past.
That happened to me, and I am fine.
She did the best she could; she loves you.
Every family is dysfunctional.
Incidentally, if you are saying every family is dysfunctional, chances are you are protecting a dysfunctional family system. Every family has problems and imperfect people, and some of those families are functional. Or they say idiotic things like “You two just never got along,” as if a child has equal responsibility in creating healthy boundaries with a parent who has none. I mean, unless your mother is a drug addict who let your stepfather beat you within an inch of your life, then you have got nothing to complain about, right?
The insidious thing about emotional child abuse is that it is hidden in plain sight, often producing “good” kids who are completely overlooked by the other adults in their lives. If the child of an emotionally abusive parent begins to struggle outwardly, and the family looks normal to everyone else, then we blame the kid. This is often helpful to the emotionally abusive parent, who will condition her other children and other members of the family to think that there is something wrong with the abused child: She has always been difficult, she is just rebellious, she is disrespectful, she has mental problems, she exaggerates, she is too sensitive, I never did that, why is she doing this to me? So then if the abused child does complain, it is very easy for her sibling(s) and family to dismiss her as the problem. She is invalidated for years before she even understands what has happened to her. It is an unrecognized, subtle, and systematic dismantling of the child’s self-esteem.
NEVER GO AGAINST THE FAMILY
What is important is the family and protecting the abuser so that the outward appearance of a healthy family can continue to be promoted. The abused child is commanded to forgive, and told to have understanding for the abusive parent because everyone loves each other so much. They are asked to give the empathy and understanding that no one in their lives will give them in return. They are still told to be responsible for the emotions of the parent, who will act like a victim. The narcissistic family needs the real victim to continue this dysfunction: You just need to love her, you need to forgive her, you are just angry and you need to fix it; that is just the way she is. The parent bears no responsibility for damaging the relationship, because in narcissistic families everyone has spent a lifetime letting the narcissist get away with his or her behavior.
After decades of codependency, trauma bonding and enmeshment, some of us repair our lacking self-esteem and get help. When the trauma bond is gone, and the parent’s constant criticism is no longer in our heads, we wonder what is left? You cannot rebuild a relationship with a parent who refuses to accept responsibility for her behavior. You can forgive, but that does not mean you can tolerate continually being verbally abused (because the verbal abuse doesn’t stop when you’re 18! or 25! or 53!). It is a very crazy-making place to be, and we adults who care need to stop giving our social consent to emotional abusers. Emotional abuse is not good parenting, even if by sheer inner strength the child turns out all right. The child has turned out all right in spite of their parent’s parenting, not because of it.
I’M NOT YELLING, I’M ITALIAN!!
I come from a high-strung and intense people. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard, “I’m not YELLING. This is the way I talk.” I have even said it myself on occasion, the horror. A few years ago, after I had unpacked my deconversion journey, I started to study personality disorders and narcissism, and it was like reading about my people. I actually wrote on Facebook, “I’m starting to think all these things we call ‘being Italian’ are just a personality disorder.” My Italians liked it and concurred. I was joking, but that’s what humor is: a way to see a difficult truth.
I was raised in a good Christian household, by a good Christian mother, and I am an adult survivor of emotional child abuse. My mother never wanted to be my parent, so she gave up the emotional portion of her parenting duties to Jesus. This happened when my father died and she got married to Jesus, her heavenly husband. So you can see it was just your typical American childhood. You can imagine the comfort I gained trying to understand how an invisible person—in an invisible place—invisibly loved me; when my one living parent was in the house but not really there for me at all. It was hard, cold comfort and incredibly lonely. My mother fluctuated between complete neglect to engulfing, controlling behavior. I was a sensitive child, and was made fun of for that, so I created a tough shell to protect myself. Now I truly believe that my mother would have been abusive to me whether she was a Christian or not. She herself is a victim of emotional abuse by her narcissistic mother, and she only repeated this pattern with her own children.
My mother publicly puts both of her parents on a pedestal and worships them for all their abilities and perfections. In private with me, she has often complained about how self-centered her mother is, how everything has to be about her, and how emotionally unsupportive she always was to her. She has told me how good I have had it, and how I could never understand how awful her childhood was: her mother always putting her down and calling her fat, never being there for her like her father. Of course my grandmother would deny all this, and I am sure she bragged about my mother to her friends. Just like my mother’s idea of a compliment is telling me that she always says good things about me to her friends. Of course she does! If she said anything bad it would reflect on her. She saves those comments for me. My mother would also deny ever speaking poorly of her mother to me. She would tell people I am only exaggerating.
It is hard to know what I am supposed to believe when she spends so much time denying the things she has said to me. She complains about her mother with passion and hatred; she screams and cries. I usually calmly reply, “Mom, I understand exactly how you feel because that is how you treat me.” She ignores this statement and continues to rant about herself and her neglect. There is no room for two people in conversations with a character-impaired parent. It is not so much a dialogue as it is a monologue with two people: one who is heard, and one who is dismissed. They need you to be actively listening to them, but they will never offer you the same respect in return. She defends her behavior by saying she only acts this way with her mother and me, and no one else. She says it’s just us because we do not believe in God, and she does not know if we are going to heaven, and she hates us. A narcissist will usually make others responsible for her own emotions and her happiness.
My mother is the way she is because my grandmother never mirrored her emotions when she was a child, and she has no empathy for her as an adult-child. My grandmother is a true narcissist too, which is the funny part. It does not matter to me where either of them are in the narcissistic spectrum or which Cluster B Personality Disorder they may have; the results are the same, even if the abuse was subtle. My grandmother is not a malignant, evil sociopath; she is your everyday, garden variety suburban mom narcissist. She is concerned only with her needs and how her family reflects on her. If you are doing well, and living up to her expectations, she adores you. If you have issues that she finds unseemly, she lets you know what she thinks of your behavior; and if her judgmental comments hurt you, then she gets greatly offended and acts like you have personally harmed her. There is no empathy for the person who needs love and support, it is just: Get your sh** together because I told you to and I am ashamed of you.
Everyone loves my grandmother. She is beautiful, charming and charismatic; and if you have not heard her stories a million times, she is interesting. She is smart as a whip and has a variety of interests she can converse about. My grandmother loves to be the center of attention and will supply her words of wisdom to anyone who will listen. I cannot tell you the infinite number of times I have heard her say, “I put myself first, I LOVE MYSELF! You have got to love yourself. Your body is a temple! My body is a temple. I look in the mirror every day and say, Jane, you are beautiful, I love you. And then I kiss the back of my hands.” My cousin and I have laughed about this for years. Whenever my grandmother holds court, we make eye contact from across the room and kiss the backs of our hands.
MR. AND MRS. JESUS
After my deconversion I got therapy for depression. I have had depression since I was a child. I did not even know what it was; I just thought I was born with something wrong with me. There was a deep emptiness in me that getting saved seven times, doing all my sacraments, trying to please my family by being a good girl, and begging God to help me could never fill. Jesus cannot give you any self-esteem if your parents consistently diminish you. He cannot magically fix bad parenting. I was reading literature about codependency, and as I mentioned before, I was astounded by how much I had in common with the adult children of alcoholics. The same family dysfunction, the same inconsistent, erratic parenting. But remember, my mother does not drink at all, and she denigrates alcoholics or anyone who drinks to excess. So I said to my therapist, “How can this be that I relate to this so much?” She responded, “Your mother is addicted to religion.” And I responded, “You can be addicted to religion?” It was the first time I had ever heard of this possibility. It did make sense, my mom does nothing but talk about her Christian beliefs. She works, cleans her house, talks to everyone about her work and cleaning her house, attends churchy things, reads the same rehashed Evangelical books; same crap material year after year, new exciting marketing cover! She prays in tongues and gets high on Jesus. She imposes her beliefs on anyone she comes in contact with but has such a lack of self-awareness that she believes she never shoved religion down my throat. She just did the right thing and what God wanted her to do. You always hear Jesus loves the little children. . . well, his father Yahweh hates them.
So for starters, it appears that a dysfunctional family lies at the heart of the Christian religion. But more than that, my narcissistic grandmother had no use for religion and says she does not really believe in a God. My covertly narcissistic mother, who is a born-again Christian, could never compete with her mother for beauty and perfection. Like I said, my grandmother loves herself like she is a Greek goddess. So my mother needed someone even more powerful to validate her diminished self. And who could be better for this role than the most overt narcissist in all of literature, Yahweh himself?
When I was younger and my mother was out of work, and she needed something material, she would pray to Jesus and then tell my grandfather what she needed. This would usually result in her getting a new refrigerator, or a car, or her mortgage paid off. She would then give her testimony at her women’s Bible study about how awesome her husband Jesus is for always providing for her. Praise Jesus! If I called her out on this she would say Jesus used her parents to provide for her. If you are that confident, why not just pray next time and say nothing to your father? My grandmother would come visit my mother’s weekly Bible study at our house and walk around and say, “Hi, I’m Mrs. Jesus and this is my husband, Mr. Jesus.” This really happened. My grandmother is not about to let Jesus get credit for a new refrigerator she paid for.
CHILDREN NEED EMPATHY
At some point in my mother’s development, she stopped growing emotionally. I believe this is due to neglect during her childhood from her own mother. This arrested development caused her to have erratic behavior as a parent, particularly in her inability to have empathy for me or provide me with any kind of emotional support. I cannot say definitively that my mother is incapable of empathy for anyone, but I am confident I have never been on the receiving end of it. She seems to identify more with my brother; she may have empathy for him.
Even now, having a conversation with my mom can be like speaking with a child. You never know how it is going to go, or what is going to set off a temper tantrum. There is no emotional regulator there. I, of course, was expected to empathize with her one-hundred percent and live my life in a way that would protect her emotions and not set off her rage. When you try to get your character-impaired parent to understand you, this usually results in them telling you that you do not understand them. Except we know them better than we know ourselves. We had to learn for our own emotional survival. I think what Christianity added to this equation was her ability to justify her poor behavior and neglect by labeling it God and truth.
I am not just right because I am your Mother, I am right because God is right, and what I tell you about God is right. Obeying me is a commandment. You don’t matter, only God and what I say about God matters. I put God first in my life, not you!
Do you see how that would reinforce an already entrenched character impairment? In church you learn that God should be first in everyone’s life. Keeping God first is a part of being a good parent as well. When you put God first, everything else in your life falls in line. How this actually plays out is debatable. In my experience it left no room for me at all in our relationship. Everything was about worshiping God, meeting my mother’s needs, and devaluing me as an individual.
CONDITIONAL LOVE AND NARCISSISTIC PARENTS
Shame is also an intricate part of Christianity. One of the first things we are taught is the story of Adam and Eve and that all people are born sinful and can only be good through God. The difference between shame and guilt is that guilt is a healthy response to actually doing something that hurts you or someone else, allowing you to correct your behavior and learn from it. You cannot correct shame, however. Shame is the emptiness in you that makes you feel unworthy just for being alive. That is why shame never changes people, it just makes them feel worse and gets them stuck. You cannot fat-shame a girl thin, or gay-shame a guy straight, or liberal-shame a Democrat into a Republican. You cannot atheist-shame a free-thinker into a Christian. You cannot hypocrite-shame a religious person into being more consistent. The weird thing about Christian narcissists is that they are extremely filled with shame, and yet they are right, and need to be right about virtually everything. It is such an odd combination of having all the answers, trying to control everything they can, projecting an air of superiority and/or false humility, and yet being an empty shell of a human being, whose self-esteem hangs on a thread that can snap at any second exposing their narcissistic rage.
Hey, I don’t love you unconditionally, but my imaginary friend does, even if his wrath cannot be appeased and people will burn in hell. It is your choice. God gave you freewill.
When you are the child of a parent with narcissistic tendencies, you are taught that there are conditions attached to receiving parental love and approval. Your parent is unable to look into your eyes and see a separate individual with her own ideas, talents and aspirations, but rather you are treated as an extension of the parent’s self. In my home I was taught that the only thing of lasting value in me was that Jesus was in my heart. “You are special, you are not like the other kids. You are a leader because you have Jesus inside you.” On my own, I had no value whatsoever. Within the past year, I said to my mother, “Your love is conditional,” and she replied, “People can’t love unconditionally, only God can do that.” Stop for a moment and reflect on what I just wrote. People cannot love unconditionally, only God can do that? Does my mother actually believe this? Does it even matter? Wouldn’t she just deny saying it?
I am a mom and without a doubt I love my kids unconditionally. I loved people unconditionally when I was a true believer, and I love people unconditionally as an atheist. I did it with and without God. She is not incapable of unconditional love because only God is capable. She would like to believe that this is reality, that humans are deficient and cannot be capable on their own – because this is the greatest justification a parent can have for not loving their kid. What has always mattered are her needs. My love for my kids is so strong; it is one of the things that opened my eyes to how little I was treated with respect and valued as a child. I am not even sure if my own mother loves me, or the concept of me as “my daughter.” I did not have a father to buffer her parental ambivalence like she did because mine died. My mother did not want to be bothered by the chore it was to actually parent me consistently and with love, and she did not think there was anything wrong with this because she prayed for me, and God was going to magically make up for anything that was neglected in our household.
Your father is dead, but that is okay because he got saved before he died and you’ll meet him in heaven. You are really blessed because God is your father now, and he is the best father you can have.
A regular narcissistic parent takes credit for all the things they think are good about their kids, and their kids’ accomplishments. A Christian narcissist does the same thing, except they think they actually are doing something when they pray for their kids. It has nothing to do with your innate talents, good decisions, or how hard you worked to accomplish any goal. Everything good in your life comes from their prayers, like magic! They can refrain from helping you with tasks you need help with, but when good comes in spite of their neglect, they sweep in and say, “I knew this would happen, because I prayed for you.” And they expect you to be grateful for this. They do nothing and want you to credit them for it.
INNOCENTS AT THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY NARCISSIST
In a narcissistic family, the real problems you have are ignored, and all that matters is how things appear to the outside world. Image is everything. Because of this, character-impaired parents become bullies; they will beat you into submission with their fists, their words, or their authority as your parents. This is the real reason why the church teaches submission. It is not for noble reasons. The leaders need you to believe this so that you will more easily let them control you. It is their way or the highway. It is God’s way, and if you are not on God’s way then just get up and turn you’re arse and walk the other way, because there is no more room for you at the inn. They will enforce their beliefs with manipulations and lies, or in my house just by being the loudest person! You do not win arguments by being correct; you win them through authoritarian force.
Christian parents teach that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. They need you to fear God because they need you to fear them. It is not so much about doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, it is about doing the right thing or else Mom will be upset with you…and then ultimately you will burn in hell. My mother liked to quote “spare the rod, spoil the child” in defense of her cruelty as if she were not being mean but just practicing tough love. She liked to laugh and say children are to be seen and not heard, because invalidating us as people gave her a boost, I guess. She seemed to have ignored the “do not provoke your children or you’ll crush their spirit” New Testament hippie vibe. Cherry-picking always works, every time (This is why I think that, instead of chanting “God is good, all the time, all the time God is good,” they should instead sing “Cherry-picking works, every time, every time, cherry-picking works”).
Since you are indoctrinated from birth, it is highly misleading to say children are choosing the Lord of their own volition. You are born in a household that believes human beings are evil without God. Before you choose the Lord, they spend years coercing you into sharing their beliefs. Christians love to give their testimony about when they “got saved,” but most of them neglect to mention that they were raised in a dominantly Christian culture and indoctrinated by their majority Christian family. You are forced to go to church and you are forced to participate in religious events. It is only after all this conditioning that you are given the “freewill” choice between an eternity in heaven with your friends and family, or burning in hell forever, separated from everything you love.
God wants you to love him on your own, except that he also is brutally manipulating you into loving him by threat of hellfire. It is the equivalent of the Mafia Don’s offer you cannot refuse. It is like having Biblical Stockholm Syndrome. And you would have to be an idiot to refuse making the choice your parents want, and not doing those altar calls because your family and peers are watching you. Publicly not choosing the path of the Lord is going to show them that not only are you evil, but you really want to be evil. And of course, you learned in your Christian narcissistic home that these appearances matter a great deal.
Indoctrination like this works because we love our parents and we want to please them. We are vulnerable as children and prone to believe those whom we should be able to trust. We put one-hundred percent of our trust in unreliable people who then scapegoat us and gaslight us when we have honest-to-goodness direct questions and say things that are the truth. Don’t expose the things in your family that they want to keep secret! And don’t ask questions about God that exposes his flaws! Character impairments plus religion equals a magical recipe for screwing up your kids, and then blaming them for it.
At the heart of any family that has been infected with narcissism is a scapegoat. I say heart because the scapegoat is usually the empathic child, the one who gets told she is too sensitive. She is usually the honest child who says things out loud that everyone around her is in denial about. Some families call the scapegoat the black sheep. Ironically, if you are your family’s black sheep, you may want to consider the possibility that this is a good thing for you. It means you’re likely the only healthy one. As it turns out, the Christian religion is built around the symbolism of Christ as the scapegoat. In the Hebrew Bible, the scapegoat is a goat that is used as an animal sacrifice to appease an angry God, a God who will never be appeased. In modern times the scapegoat is anything Christians are taught to hate: atheists, homosexuals, Democrats, feminists, etc. Blaming those outside their tribe validates them and gives them a false sense of superiority. It is their rage that needs to be appeased. But they will never be appeased. It is a wicked and vicious cycle.
If you are raised in a household like this and go down a different path than the one prescribed by your family, you will be afraid to let your family know. We know intimately that Christians view atheists as the lowest of the low kinds of people. Some of us keep our irreligious status to ourselves because we know that what will follow this revelation in your narcissistic families will be more emotional abuse, and possible shunning. And just like when we were children, our truth will be invalidated by the bully’s pulpit.
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