The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous

By Gabrielle Glaser

J.G is a lawyer in his early 30s. He’s a fast talker and has the lean, sinewy build of a distance runner. His choice of profession seems preordained, as he speaks in fully formed paragraphs, his thoughts organized by topic sentences. He’s also a worrier—a big one—who for years used alcohol to soothe his anxiety.

J.G. started drinking at 15, when he and a friend experimented in his parents’ liquor cabinet. He favored gin and whiskey but drank whatever he thought his parents would miss the least. He discovered beer, too, and loved the earthy, bitter taste on his tongue when he took his first cold sip.

His drinking increased through college and into law school. He could, and occasionally did, pull back, going cold turkey for weeks at a time. But nothing quieted his anxious mind like booze, and when he didn’t drink, he didn’t sleep. After four or six weeks dry, he’d be back at the liquor store.

By the time he was a practicing defense attorney, J.G. (who asked to be identified only by his initials) sometimes drank almost a liter of Jameson in a day. He often started drinking after his first morning court appearance, and he says he would have loved to drink even more, had his schedule allowed it. He defended clients who had been charged with driving while intoxicated, and he bought his own Breathalyzer to avoid landing in court on drunk-driving charges himself.

In the spring of 2012, J.G. decided to seek help. He lived in Minnesota—the Land of 10,000 Rehabs, people there like to say—and he knew what to do: check himself into a facility. He spent a month at a center where the treatment consisted of little more than attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He tried to dedicate himself to the program even though, as an atheist, he was put off by the faith-based approach of the 12 steps, five of which mention God. Everyone there warned him that he had a chronic, progressive disease and that if he listened to the cunning internal whisper promising that he could have just one drink, he would be off on a bender.

J.G. says it was this message—that there were no small missteps, and one drink might as well be 100—that set him on a cycle of bingeing and abstinence. He went back to rehab once more and later sought help at an outpatient center. Each time he got sober, he’d spend months white-knuckling his days in court and his nights at home. Evening would fall and his heart would race as he thought ahead to another sleepless night. “So I’d have one drink,” he says, “and the first thing on my mind was: I feel better now, but I’m screwed. I’m going right back to where I was. I might as well drink as much as I possibly can for the next three days.”


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34 COMMENTS

  1. It’s difficult to avoid suspecting that since 1935 there’s been an ulterior motive at work here.

    I’m put in mind of an expression containing the words frying pan and fire.

    Thank the Good Lord above/below that I’m only a drunkard.

  2. I went to a couple of meetings several years ago but found the ethos extremely offensive, particularly the bit about abandoning all hope of curing oneself to the aid of a higher power. Given that no such higher power actually exists and that everyone who has ever beaten substance addiction has done so by their own willpower (plus whatever other human aid they received) I could not bring myself to join such a program.

  3. I drink only occasionally. I don’t use drugs, and I recoil from AA and the entire recovery industry as from a hot flame.

    It’s nice to read some intelligent criticism of it.

  4. I’ve heard that Europeans deal with addiction much better than we do here in the States. Can anyone explain what the normal treatment would consist of there? In the U.S. addicts end up in the court system/prison and then on release from that are required to attend AA meetings as explained in the article. Long term rehabs are very expensive and not covered by insurance so families go into debt for tens of thousands of dollars out of sheer panic that their heroin addicted child might drop dead at any minute. The rehabs can be very predatory and play on parents worst fears just to get their hands on a check for ten thousand dollars, nonrefundable of course.

    I’ve heard rumors that European rehabs are government funded and the inpatient program lasts for months not 4 weeks. True?

  5. I find the recent condemnations of AA very interesting. I am a militant agnostic who believes that all religions are entirely the creation of humans. I am extremely uncomfortable with religiosity of any sort. Given that, in 1970 I was planning my own suicide after years of futile struggle against alcoholism. By chance I ended up being taken to an AA meeting. I was put off by the religious overtones but attracted by a room full of happy, welcoming people who, instead of telling me what to do, simply told their own stories. For the first time I understood what alcoholism was, that I was not alone, and that there was a way to survive. I read “The Big Book”, and “The Twelve and Twelve”. I was excited by the wisdom of experience and proof that their path to recovery could work. I was still put off by all the “Higher Power” stuff, even though every mention of “God” was followed by “As you understand him”. I mentioned this to the man who was taking me to meetings; my first “sponsor”. As we were leaving a meeting one snowy evening he could not start his car. He asked me to get out and push a bit. As I did the car roared to life and backed up, almost running me over. I screamed at him, he smiled and said “why didn’t you just stop the car” “What!?!” “Oh, is the car stronger than you? A power greater than you?” He followed up:”Why did you come to AA rather than just stopping by yourself? Was Alcoholism stronger than you? And how do you feel after attending a meeting?” I admitted I usually felt empowered and hopeful. “And did you do that on your own or through the power of the interaction of the meeting?” I realized and understood a whole new way of looking at the “religious overtones” of AA. I was free to interpret them as I wished and for me the program and the fellowship themselves became my higher power. With them I could recover. Without them, experience proved, I could not. I made a conscious decision right then that sobriety was far more important to me than nit-picking over religion. I’ve been sober for nearly 45 years now and have had a wonderful life as a husband, father, and alcoholism counselor. I fully agree that as we learn more about the scientific aspects of addiction and recovery we must use all of the tools, pharmaceutical and psychological, that become available to us to treat this disease. However, for the moment there is simply no treatment modality, other than AA, that can boast literally millions in recovery around the world. That is simply an undeniable fact.

  6. As far as this article goes, I don’t see them as knocking Alcoholics Anonymous, just suggesting there’s other just as successful, if not more successful secular treatments. You were clearly successful, there might be others that are not simply because they do not know there’s a secular treatment.

  7. This is the problem with AA, it doesn’t address dual diagnosis patients. AA is great if you don’t have a mental disorder to go with your alcoholism. A therapist or medical interventions can be combined for success. Intellectual people have problems with any for of spiritually based intervention because many don’t think spirituality is important. Spirituality is not religion, but it can be for those that need religion. Spirituality for me is science based and has to do with my intense connection with the cosmos. That helped me deal with depression and attempted suicide. You don’t have to have faith in a deity to be spiritual, but you need to be spiritual to be a whole person.

  8. I don’t believe so after much research. Properly administered the “faith” part, the higher power, is in no way emphasized to mean God. It can be the cosmos, a door knob or your dog. It is true that the “Blue Book” does refer to God but only does so after explaining that it is more convenient to say “Whatever higher power you choose.” Otherwise it is 100% secular and after much study by scientific experts with credible research over the years is still considered to be the best extant method for dealing with addiction. I am a scientist and a secular humanist and this program, at least for me, was the most powerful approach. After reading the story about the lawyer this is not uncommon. Plus it is irresponsible for the sanctioned Richard Dawkins site to use the story of a single individual to dismiss the entire process. This is not the kind of ignorance I expect from the best respected secular humanist in the world. In addition, a good rehab facility involves intense individual and group therapy, which often discovers that an individual is an addict because of some pathology such a bipolar disorder. The success rate of alcoholics anonymous is still relatively low, especially among younger people with a minimum of life experience. I do hope that solid scientific research comes up with something that has a higher rate of success but so far this has not happened.

  9. Michael Mar 22, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    Plus it is irresponsible for the sanctioned Richard Dawkins site to use the story of a single individual to dismiss the entire process. This is not the kind of ignorance I expect from the best respected secular humanist in the world.

    RDnet does not “endorse” articles, it puts them up for critical discussion.

    Actually other sources have been used for discussions recently:-

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/12/letting-go-of-god-how-12-step-programs-are-losing-their-religion/

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2015/02/alcoholics-anonymous-in-des-moines-wont-list-non-religious-groups-meeting-times-in-its-master-schedule/

    and no so recently:

    http://old.www.richarddawkins.net/discussions/612971-aa-meetings/comments?page=1

  10. In the United States, the religiosity of AA has been tested in the Federal Appellate courts, and so far every time it’s been tested there has been a ruling that AA can indeed be perceived as religious.
    For example, when the courts considered Griffin v. Coughlin, the ruling included the following conclusions:

    • A fair reading of the fundamental A.A. doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious

    • The A.A. basic literature most reasonably would be characterized as reflecting the traditional elements common to most theistic religions

    • The 12 Traditions include a profession of belief that “there is one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.”

    • The writings demonstrably express an aspiration that each member of the movement will ultimately commit to a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being of independent higher reality than humankind

    • Chapter 4 [of the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”], entitled “We Agnostics” the theme is unambiguously proselytizing

    • The A.A. basic doctrinal writings clearly express a preference for and a conviction favoring a concept of God and prayer which is not merely “`a conscientious social belief, or a sincere devotion to a high moralistic philosophy [but] one based upon an individual’s belief in his responsibility to an authority higher and beyond any worldly one’”

  11. Lot’s of misinformation here. While it is true that AA can be overtly religious in tone, that phenomena is a corrupted version of AA’s central tenants. The core idea of AA is spiritual, not religious, and, therefore, is not ‘faith-based’. There is plenty of evidence in AA of people leading productive lives after abstaining from alcohol and immersing themselves into AA’s program. Faith is not required. It is also true that within the Twelve Steps the words God, ‘a Power greater than ourselves’, and ‘Him’ are used. However, do not make the mistake of assuming this is overtly religious in nature: ‘Him’ is used as shorthand for ease of understanding, and God, as well as ‘a Power greater than ourselves’, are both immediately followed by the phrase ‘as we understood him’. This is very important. The word God in AA can mean anything to the individual. It can mean the Christain God, of course, but it can also mean ‘Group of Drunks’, ‘Good Orderly Direction’, or even ‘Gift of Desperation’. The goal of AA is to replace the self-centered ego with a sense of oneself as part of something greater than said ego. That way, the person can more easily navigate life’s up’s and down’s without reaching for a bottle. How AA members choose do that is up to each individual. Here is AA’s central mission:

    “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.

    The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions.

    AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes.

    Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.”

    In a nutshell, AA can be boiled down to a simple quote from, I believe, the Dalai Lama: “Resistance to reality is the source of all suffering.” AA members try to help one another navigate reality without altering that reality with mood altering substances. That’s pretty much it. In order to successfully accomplish this task, long term, members have found that getting life’s spotlight to shine on anything other than themselves is extremely helpful, and even beneficial.

    (Self reflection is not the same thing as being the star of ones own ego-centric show – thus the spotlight metaphor).

  12. An excellent and well researched article. There has been a cloud of articles and other media recently that have called into question the efficacy of 12-step programs and that there have been recent advancements in Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) most notably Naltrexone–a very effective medication for alcohol and opiates. Many private “rehabs” have incorporated Naltrexone into their formularies and have offered the Vivitrol brand to anyone who can afford the $1000.00 per injection. And there is the problem. Cost and funding. I work for a program that is 75% funded by county, state and federal funds. Our client population–many referred by the criminal justice system–others through other social service referrals can not afford the luxury of the quick fix. Like so much these days–salvation is available to those who can afford it. Of the 2.8 million individuals who are currently receiving services for substance use disorders–a tiny fraction can afford such an expensive drug.. Now it behooves the Big Pharma to promote MAT on the grand media scale as I believe it has been doing–in order to have a serious impact on public policy and thereby make structural changes in how the Feds consider paying for MAT. Right now — there is NO funding for MAT from local, state or federal programs–except for a growing pool of pilot programs–subsidized by the makers of Vivitrol. Which is fine–the stuff works. But I believe the strategy to discredit the 12-step approach is heavy handed and cynical. The 12-step model is NOT the only approach that is for sure– but it has its place in the resolution of substance use disorders. And as a committed non-believer and anti-religionist (I reject atheism for it’s own brand of orthodoxy and dogma) who regularly attends 12-step meetings –I accept that I can have my own spiritual understanding of my place in the world and the universe–and if that helps me stay sober and out of everyones way–well then that’s ok by me.

  13. Charles Mar 22, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    The word God in AA can mean anything to the individual.

    This sounds like theological double talk, with the customary “reinterpretation”, of words to suit whatever argument someone wishes to make.

    While I can understand AA trying to accommodate various religions by leaving the term largely undefined, it really is a stretch too far to pretend that the term “god”, and especially the word “God”, does not refer to some worshipped deity.

    If the the greater community spirit of the group therapy works, is a different matter.

  14. William Mar 22, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    And as a committed non-believer and anti-religionist (I reject atheism for it’s own brand of orthodoxy and dogma)

    While I agree with some of your post I am intrigued by this strange claim about “atheist orthodoxy and dogma”!

    Atheism is a lack of “belief in gods”.
    I keep hearing from theists, and from those who have thoughtlessly copied theist claims, that there is some “atheist dogma”!

    Having been an atheist and scientist for many decades, I am fascinated to know what this atheist dogma is!
    (Most theist claims of “atheist dogma”, turn out to be a “negative-proof fallacy” about gods, and usually a claim that atheists “deny their personal ‘default-god’ in particular”!)

  15. It takes more than the word God written on paper to make a group religious (or a religion for that matter). Something has to be considered sacred or holy and be worshipped. And there is usually some sort of dogmatism and formal institutionalisation process involved as well. AA exhibits none of these traits.

  16. Charles Mar 22, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    Something has to be considered sacred or holy and be worshipped. And there is usually some sort of dogmatism and formal institutionalisation process involved as well. AA exhibits none of these traits.

    Maybe it comes in different versions. This comment on the discussion I linked earlier says otherwise,

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/12/letting-go-of-god-how-12-step-programs-are-losing-their-religion/#li-comment-163945

    . . . As does the recent comment from France Mar 22, 2015 at 4:59 pm.

    There are also references to court rulings about the religious nature of AA programmes on the earlier discussions.

  17. The religiosity of AA has been tested in the Federal Appellate courts, and so far every time it’s been tested there has been a ruling that AA can indeed be perceived as religious.
    For example, when the courts considered Griffin v. Coughlin, the ruling included the following conclusions:

    • A fair reading of the fundamental A.A. doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious
    • The A.A. basic literature most reasonably would be characterized as reflecting the traditional elements common to most theistic religions.
    • The 12 Traditions include a profession of belief that “there is one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.”
    • The writings demonstrably express an aspiration that each member of the movement will ultimately commit to a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being of independent higher reality than humankind
    • Chapter 4, entitled “We Agnostics” the theme is unambiguously proselytizing
    • The A.A. basic doctrinal writings clearly express a preference for and a conviction favoring a concept of God and prayer which is not merely “`a conscientious social belief, or a sincere devotion to a high moralistic philosophy [but] one based upon an individual’s belief in his responsibility to an authority higher and beyond any worldly one’”

  18. AA has a dark secret – rape and sexual harassment

    Many courts order alcoholic, OCD wife beaters to AA. Unknowingly, vulnerable women trying to battle their own demons become targets to these men. Several have also been murdered.

    AA has started several “women only” groups since people frequently go to AA to get a dates. Rather than focusing on self improvement, they go to hook up.

  19. Yes there is. We can start with: “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”

    –//–

    I’d like to say before we go further -if we do- that I actually enjoyed the company of many AA folk, and in a lot of situations I prefer the company of addicts to “normal” people. 😉

  20. Hi Laurie,

    I live in New Zealand, which is about halfway between the European system and yours. For starters, here all treatment is publicly funded on a “no fault” basis, which removes some issues you face in the United States. While AA is firmly entrenched in the rehab system, it’s actually harder to object to as here (and in many countries in Europe) separation of church and state is less defined and very much “open to interpretation.”

    Having said that, treatment here is different to the United States, and similar to Australia. It took me two stints through the system to get my life together enough to operate functionally, and I still receive supplementary help in some areas as I have the usual co-morbid mental health/addiction duo.

    Both stints involved rehab. In my first I basically exited rehab to a halfway house, relied solely on AA, and stayed sober for a year. After blowing that years sobriety and suffering through a series of major earthquakes I drank again haphazardly for a while, then regained my composure in a markedly different way.

    The second time around I spent a year seeing at least one professional a week, and rather than any single person, it was more the synthesis of competent professionals which saw me through. The most important things for me which I considered part of a treatment plan and were met fully by government social services were, in no particular order:

    —Access to stable housing (this was a big issue for me)
    —Correct psychiatric management and diagnosis for co-existing disorders, such as anxiety problems and depression
    —Being prescribed antagonists such as Naltrexone
    —Regular access to a doctor for six months
    —Emergency dental work, which I could not afford to pay upfront
    —Access to formal Alcohol & Drug treatment
    —Initial support from a social worker to navigate bureaucratic systems
    —Peer support and mutual-aid groups
    —Support to navigate areas I was intentionally neglecting such as negotiating debt repayment
    —Professional counselling services

    All of this support in synthesis was orchestrated in a manner which was more intensive at first, and less intensive as time went on. It might sound like a LOT of resources but the entire cost amounted to much less than keeping me in jail for a year, which was where I was probably headed – but stopped short of. Largely because I got help in time before everything went pear shaped, I’m now training to be a medical professional.

    Something like this, or elements of this, is what are probably relatively typical of what drug and alcohol abusers can expect in New Zealand, anyway.

    Also, here the shortest rehab you can do is where I live is 2 months absolute minimum, many go for 3 or 6 months, and if you “keep coming back” you’ll get assigned longer and longer term rehabilitation.

  21. I do hope that solid scientific research comes up with something that has a higher rate of success but so far this has not happened.

    I don’t believe addiction can be completely described medically and in scientific terms, and there simply has to be significant “biopsychosocial” elements. It’s certainly not true that AA is “the best extant method for dealing with addiction”, maybe you mean the cheapest method.

    In my country addiction experts who advise and inform government policy seem to have very clear ideas about better ways to treat addiction, which have much better recovery rates than Alcoholics Anonymous. But they cost money, or involve large scale prescription drugs, resources, and ongoing investment.

    I think a fair interpretation of the general consensus among those who study addiction is that the more resourced and individualized the approach is the more this will correlate with better outcomes – after all, we already know those with access to the most resources always have better outcomes for addiction. The more the treatment leans towards “one size fits all”, the more the measurable efficacy will slide. There is simply massive co-morbidity problems with mental health.

    But I agree neither AA nor the current body of scientific evidence can adequately describe addiction.

    It’s interesting watching my government try to stamp out smoking – they’ve got much better at it over a decade of trying. One thing they’ve learned is to approach the problem from as many angles as possible, and chip away at it. It’s been very effective, nearly halving the rate of nicotine addiction. I think the people involved in alcohol policy and treatment could learn a lot from my local smoking cessation folk.

  22. William

    Many private “rehabs” have incorporated Naltrexone into their formularies and have offered the Vivitrol brand to anyone who can afford the $1000.00 per injection. And there is the problem. Cost and funding.

    I can’t speak for the policy in every state but here in Massachusetts the poorest citizens can acquire the Vivitrol shot for free if they qualify for Mass-Health, the government funded health insurance. Granted, one must be at the bottom of the pay scale, unemployed or in dire circumstances to qualify, but this does include most heroin addicts in that group. Vivitrol is the the great hope of heroin addiction and anything that blocks access to it for the people who need it is a total ethical failure.

    I can also tell you that at a price of $1157.31 per month, or $13,887.72 per year (CVS Caremark price), the opioid blocker shot Vivitrol is a bargain compared to the expense of having a heroin addict running amuck in society. Parents of these addicts go into debt for much more than this just to put their addicted offspring into (12 step) rehabs that fail to deliver on their promises. The entire rehab system in the US is in a shambles. It’s a national disgrace.

  23. France,

    Thanks for that info. The services that you list out above are what I think a recovery program should include. I don’t think it’s “a lot” at all. Our addicts here in the States end up in the prison/court system and once they enter the system there is a high probability that they will never get out of it. You are fortunate to have access to that program. I wish you the best.

  24. QKat,

    In addition to what you said above, there is a serious problem with the AA perspective of the addict surrendering power over themselves to a domineering alpha male God and admitting that they are weak and diseased and sinful. Many of the women sitting in these meetings have engaged in behaviors that have dragged their self esteem right down into the dirt. Female heroin addicts prostitute themselves for that drug and trade sex for drugs, cash, food and a roof over their head for the night. They suffer beatings and abuse from their so called boyfriends on top of facing a major life threatening addiction. How can anyone with half a brain think that they will be helped by further demeaning them? There is no way that I would ever advise a woman to join this program.

    A progressive treatment would shelter addicted women from sexually predatory men and offer therapy and support systems that build up self esteem, not grind it down.

  25. LaurieB Mar 23, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Parents of these addicts go into debt for much more than this just to put their addicted offspring into (12 step) rehabs that fail to deliver on their promises. The entire rehab system in the US is in a shambles. It’s a national disgrace.

    Addiction to drugs, like addiction to fundamentalist religions, is much easier to get into than to get out of.

    The “freedom” to make silly decisions, has a cost!

  26. Alan,

    Indeed, there’s a cost and it’s a crippling expense on a personal and societal level. That’s why it’s so important to comparison shop when in search of solutions.

  27. I don't care what any of the people here say that are trying to defend A.A — it is obviously either a religious cult or very similar to a religious cult therefore it should not logically be used to treat a medical condition such as alcoholism. In case you didn't realize the medical profession is based on solid science such as nosology etc.. etc.. so what is next ? Do we start treating people with cancer with voodoo or faith healing ? Because that is what it is like to treat alcoholics with a faith based program such as A.A.

    Slightly edited by moderator to bring within Terms of Use.

  28. Kevin Mar 23, 2015 at 10:20 am

    . . . . . the medical profession is based on solid science such as nosology etc.. etc.. so what is next ? Do we start treating people with cancer with voodoo or faith healing ? Because that is what it is like to treat alcoholics with a faith based program such as A.A.

    Well most of the medical profession are, but it appears that “besotted faith”, can even penetrate into the brains of that profession! (Although it looks like the regulators are going to make that a temporary situation.)

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2015/03/priest-questioned-over-13-exorcisms-allegedly-performed-on-anorexic-teen/#li-comment-173312

  29. I was told in rehab that without embracing a higher power, AA and the 12 steps I was doomed to remain a drunk. That was well over a year ago. I do not go to AA, have not embraced a higher power or the twelve steps and I am glad to say have not taken a drink. I believe the power to remain sober is entirely within my own control and I find the idea that it should not be terrifying. AA struck me as having qualities resembling a cult about it and members simply replaced one dependency with another.

  30. Yes, I had not thought about the “god” as dominant male take on this. I want to add that the stories of sexual predators is quite widespread and not limited to court ordered cases. This alone should keep alcoholic women away from AA.

  31. I take issue not with the spiritual aspect of AA but the psychologically negative aspects.
    I’m an intelligent, uni educated (BSc), naturally analytical person and am atheist from birth. I have a long family history of depression, which I also suffer, and I’ve had an addiction that i ended myself through internal dialogue and will power (to oversimplify it). For the last 15 years I’ve been able to consume my vice on occasion and not feel that addiction urge or the fall back into use with the inability to stop.
    I found that the inability to stop consuming was the most powerless feeling of the whole addiction. I felt most powerful when i did take the step to stop (which was extremely difficult).

    To me, being told i should think I’m powerless to my addiction and that i should accept that one slip-up will take me down again was ludicrous. Feelings of powerlessness in all other aspects of life trigger only negative emotions of guilt, shame, worthlessness, embarrassment, fear etc. Most, if not all, people with a negative-impact addiction will also suffer associated psychological problems. An atheist can’t tell themselves to rely on, or have faith in, something bigger and outside ourselves for a cure. A friend who was helped significantly by AA said the “something bigger than ourselves” could also be a rehab clinic or medical professional, which is a viable interpretation, but no amount of belief and faith that only outside forces (beit God or a rehab clinic) will cure you will actually do just that. Maybe it does for a proportion of people but it certainly doesn’t with me.

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