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Witch-children - then and now: the myth of the innocent child.

Questioning children's innocence is not popular. In a world that agonizes over perennial betrayal, cruelty, war, mass slaughter, and other failures of humanity, we passionately long for exemplars of unadulterated goodness - and the child, like some sacred icon, has been traditionally placed upon an imaginary altar so that we might revere virtues lacking in ourselves. This is the benchmark of romanticism: to seek virtue and beauty in groups, places, and times that are remote and relatively unknown.

Alas, "the innocence of the little ones" is a phrase of dubious veracity, since historical events suggest otherwise. Nowhere has this optimism stumbled over more obstinate obstacles than during the great witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During those not-so-distant years vast numbers of children gave free rein to imagination. They played back the image of the witch, as it existed in the cosmology of their time, and substantially contributed to the witch-hunts. In harmony with supernatural assumptions of the Christian worldview, children denounced and brought to the stake uncounted thousands of innocent people, including neighbors, peers, and even members of their own families.

Compared to the European extent of the witch-hunts, Salem was a minor episode, limited to a panic raging merely a year (1692) and costing the lives of about two dozen victims. Immediately afterward, the Salem authorities admitted to miscarriage of justice, openly apologized, and tried as much as possible to make amends to the victimized families. The defaming children, however, were never punished for their lethal role.

In Europe, where not one country was spared the scourge of the hunt, no official retraction has ever come forth, no church has ever officially admitted that the witch-hunts had been a mistake.

In a majority of the witch panics, European as well as American, it was children who were responsible for starting the hysteria, fueling it with the wildest of allegations, and completing it with lethal accusations. Children played a pivotal role, linking the power of the inquisitor to the fates of a variety of people. It is this nexus, that demands careful examination, an examination that, for whatever reason, has been widely neglected by writers of history books.

The question arises whether this type of child behavior was merely an expression of an aberrant Zeitgeist, of an era of theological fanaticism, or whether it was an expression of a timeless condition found in the child's psyche.

Evidently the children's destructive behavior cannot be seen neatly encapsulated in an erring era, because the classical Salem syndrome is anything but past history; it is an ongoing process. Again, children reign over the nexus between prosecutor and defendant. This time the accused are not called witches but molesters, and new panics of epidemic proportions are underway.

There are, of course, significant differences between the two maniacal hunts. Most important, child molestation is an unfortunate fact of life. It's not fictional, it happens. On the other hand, witchcraft was a figment of the theological imagination. Even though there were no witches, the accusations proceeded with the air of absolute certainty.

A similar air of certainty appears to prevail in many cases of child molestation claims. Persecution-eager persons frequently seem to forget that such claims can be true or false. Perhaps a better understanding of child psychology can help in discerning truth from invention.

Modern situations in which children can wreak tragedy include court proceedings where they are stimulated to tune into a theme and harmonize with it. They often pick up cues how to harmonize with leading questions - questions that are not meant to be leading but cannot withstand the intuitive exploitation by perceptive children.

This is where the concept of "Mythomania" comes into play. It is also known by the technical term Pseudologia phantastica and refers to a person's compulsive lying and making up fantastic stories. The need to coin this phrase originated with experts in forensic medicine who frequently observed children giving false testimony. Psychiatrists discovered that a mythomane may initially lie deliberately and consciously, but gradually comes to believe in what he or she is saying. The vast majority of persons engaging in such confabulation were children or the mentally retarded. Interestingly, experts have found that lying by children does not necessarily indicate a chronic pathology and is not classified as mental illness, whereas in adults it is. Children are usually motivated to tell mythomaniacal stories on the basis of unmitigated maliciousness, the need for attention, or precocious sexual appetites. In situations where mythomanes are motivated by attention-seeking, they are particularly susceptible to suggestion. With a flair for figuring out what is expected, they set out on their mythomaniacal journeys, during which compelling auto-suggestion evolves, with the storytellers programming their brains to confer reality status to the stories.

The substance with which children built their imaginative structures most often consisted of what they gleaned from adult conversations. Mythomaniacal children seek suggestions; their radar, as it were, is constantly scanning the social horizon for cues to spin stories that would net them recognition. Theirs is the skill to quickly evaluate what they overhear and recognize how they can use it to their advantage.

This skill, in addition to verbal expressiveness, enables mythomanes to tune into a theme with persuasive loquaciousness. Through confabulation and strategic gossiping they can humor people's biases and expectations with such effectiveness that their utterances are accepted as true revelations.

The Inquisition capitalized on children's mythomaniacal talent and used them as victimizers. During archival research I examined several hundred so-called confessions by persons accused as witches. Among them are numerous "confessions" by children, consisting more of accusations of other people's alleged wrong-doing than of personal confession. A classic example is the case of a nine-year-old boy from Bamberg in southern Germany. Let's call him "Witchboy." This street urchin stood trial for witchcraft in 1629, after he had lingered in prison for more than a year. Couched in the rich imagery of what the contemporary mind understood as witchery, he skillfully inter-weaved fantastic details into a supernatural tapestry, including the description of familiars (demons in disguise of domestic animals, usually the stereotypical black cat or dog); the raiding of wine cellars by magical means; the minute depiction of the witches' night flight; the ointments needed to accomplish such; the bonus illustration of an accident while in flight: his companion riding with him on the pitchfork fell off, landed in the River Main, but was able to magically scurry on the surface to shore, where he, "Witch-boy," made an emergency landing to pick him up and resume the flight to the witches' sabbath; his reporting the metamorphosis of his peers into creatures; and most significantly, his denunciations of scores of people of witchery crimes, such as poisoning, conjuring up bad weather, and attending the witches' sabbath.

If modern readers, steeped as they are in present-day empirical science, should for one moment maintain the idea that such childish prattle must have been absolutely incredible to the inquisitors, let me assure you that they believed every word of it. There is evidence for that: they acted on it. At least one of the persons denounced in Witchboy's story was consequently burned as a witch.

In order to understand the credulity of the inquisitors we must understand the power of certain tenets of Christian theology, foremost the existence of the Devil, who is seen not as an abstract psychological or theological principle, but as a real entity that can personify itself.(1)

Obviously, there is more continuity than discontinuity in history. The specific case is the figure of the Devil, and this figure pertains to this essay insofar as children then and now have made claims of diabolic crimes.

The ultimate escalation of mythomania is not only telling stories and believing them, but acting them out. There are innumerable historical episodes exemplifying this type of mythomaniacal enactment, with the classic case being "possession." The state of being "possessed" signifies the escalation from being a mythomane to being a demonopath, a person claiming to be suffering from demonic torments.

The demonopath is far from being a passive victim of his or her affliction and was often the active initiator of witch panics, playing an aggressive role in the prosecution of witches. Also, the demonopath is far from being a historical relic. The case of Anneliese Michel deserves mention, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the need to think in terms of historical continuity instead of discrete historical eras.

This twenty-two-year-old woman was a student at the University of Wurzburg and in the late 1970s exhibited symptoms - including spasms, writhing, speaking in devilish tongues - construed by her devout Catholic family as diabolic possession. The archbishop of Wurzburg concurred with their diagnosis and entrusted two priests, who had prior experience in performing the Great Exorcism from the seventeenth-century Rituale Romanum, with ridding the young woman of the Devil. To the embarrassment of the church, the victim died of starvation during the procedures, for the exorcists had added the discipline of fasting to the other means of driving out the demons. Insult was added to embarrassment when an investigation and a trial found the two priests guilty of negligent manslaughter.(2)

There are at least two conditions that intensify the aggressiveness of mythomanes in general and demonopaths in specific: group reinforcement (they often enact their roles collectively) and an accepting audience. In fact, there are no such things as private demonopaths; they are public figures who will perform only when they feel they can captivate an audience.

The example of Michel revealed the full complement of a performance of "possession": star, manager (the priests), and audience (family, relatives, neighbors).

Intense collective reinforcement was observed among the Salem girls. A crescendo performance took place when they attended the hearing of Goody Cory, whom they accused of having bewitched them. When Martha Cory tried to defend her innocence and assured the court that she was a God-fearing "Gospel woman," one of the girls yelled "Gospel witch," a cry that was immediately taken up by the rest of the girls. At the same time they imitated every move the woman made. The significance of the two behavior forms, echolalia (compulsively repeating sounds in an echolike fashion) and echo-mania (compulsively imitating bodily movements or gestures), was the collective method serving to reinforce the individual girl's behavior - in fact, one should not even refer to individual behavior; it was group behavior. The girls behaved identically; they all had regressed to a common emotional-visceral denominator.

The basic ingredients of such role enactments are taken from two sources: the cultural context (beliefs, traditions) and the social context (direct involvement in social interaction). What that means in regard to children is that they take the concerns of the day, interweave them with cultural images, and then mold stories from which they can derive personal benefit. In the process, they take advantage of the credibility accorded them and pursue personal goals, such as prestige, praise, rebellion, revenge. These personal goals are rarely recognized as such by the children; they are largely on the unconscious level and are rooted in a variety of emotions and needs.

The Salem girls Abigail and Betty, members of a Puritan preachers's family, for example, got away with insulting what probably constituted the most sacred thing in the home, the Holy Bible, by scornfully flinging it across the room. Here is a convergence of the cultural, social, and personal elements: the Bible as a sacred item in the culture of the Puritans, the family context with parental authority, and personal feelings of resentment against authority, sacred and parental. The result was the eruption of that resentment with impunity under the protection of enacting "the role of the afflicted." Betty Parris, brought up by the strictest of fathers, finally found a way to strike back. Her skillful acting granted her celebrity status by the very people she abused.

The key element in mythomania and demonopathy is suggestibility. Observers on the modern scene have witnessed the creation of mythomaniacal profusion during numerous court hearings dealing with claims of child molestation. They noticed how a biased and one-sided climate was created through the unconscious collaboration of the questioner and the child, whereby the child emerged as if a proven victim of perverse crime.

In the majority of cases, concerned adults, particularly parents, showed anxiousness to know all about the assault - its nature, time, place, motive, and so on. The child may initially have been bewildered and embarrassed by all the questions - a reaction interpreted by the questioner, or the court in general, as a sign of shame. Right away the child was inundated with encouraging words and leading questions. The child followed the lead and would answer in such a way as to meet the more or less obvious expectations of the questioners. The hearing would turn into a veritable rehearsal of a story that the child now learned by heart. In future rehearings, the child stuck to the version now imprinted in his or her mind. The only changes the child might make consisted of adding new material conforming to this version.

As we enter the twenty-first century, children's suggestibility has gained importance as increased claims of child molestations and child abuse in the United States have aroused parental and legal concerns. Many of the events presumably had taken place within the context of occult practices, the alleged scenarios teeming with demonic figures, including witches. One case, after lengthy investigations and hearings, was finally resolved because the "abused" children had referred to a teacher who appeared in a witch's costume at an Halloween party.

The majority of the cases included claims of sexual abuse. Research by psychologists David Raskin and Phillip Esplin found that children involved in parental abuse cases often took advantage of their power in court proceedings to fabricate, or at least vastly exaggerate, sexual abuse in order to punish or to side with one or the other parent. The researchers noted that such distortion was a strong tendency when divorce, custody, or visitation disputes were involved.(3)

While research into the actual forensic problems proved to be extremely difficult, a number of psychologists have chosen laboratory situations in an attempt to identify the principles underlying children's vulnerability to influence and manipulation. While the findings are far from complete, several insights have been gained.

Suggestibility varies with age. Psychologist Maria Zaragosa found that young children (under eight) have greater difficulty than older children and adults in distinguishing between imagined events and those they actually experienced. "Given the greater tendency to confuse imagination with perception, young children might also be more likely to confuse items that were merely suggested to them with those they had actually perceived."(4)

If, however, intrusion of extraneous information and the posing of leading questions are avoided - thus creating a sort of cognitively sterile environment for the child - children's recall of factual material has been found to be amazingly accurate, approaching in quality that of adults. Research data show that "children are capable of being good eyewitnesses, but that their recall appears to be more vulnerable to various distorting influences in the interview situation than does adult recall."(5)

Once a child begins a course of confabulation, a process of self-brainwashing snaps into action. Self-brainwashing differs from brainwashing, as the former starts with voluntary confabulation and gradually assumes truth value in the mind of the narrator. The latter starts with external pressure to persuade a person to change his or her mind and ends with a new orientation.

Psychologist Paul Ekman's studies focused on the truth-value of children's verbal behavior.(6) His survey findings from the 1980s in the United States show that most children are inclined to experiment with lies. Among the examples is one that unwittingly mirrors a dialogue that could have been lifted straight from a witch trial. A little girl, Lori, decided one day to use her bedroom wall for trying out new crayons. Her upset mother shouted: "Lori, did you draw on your wall?" "No," Lori answered, completely straight-faced. "Well then, who did?" the mother pressed on. "It wasn't me," the girl insisted. "Was it a little ghost?" her mother asked sarcastically. "Yeah, yeah," Lori replied. "It was a ghost." Lori could not be swayed from that "confession," and her mother finally joined what she considered funny role-playing by saying: "Well, tell that little ghost not to do it again or she'll be sorry."(7)

While the modern mother's words were said in sarcastic levity, the same words could have been uttered by Renaissance inquisitors in absolute seriousness.

This vignette tells us that children will lie when feeling threatened - and they will lie within the framework at hand, particularly if it was initiated by powerful authority. Psycho-dynamics, largely of an unconscious nature, will sway the child's verbalizations into a direction from which he or she expects the least unpleasant consequences.

Additional studies on the truth value of children's verbalizations have been conducted at the Institute for the Study of Child Development at the University of Medicine of New Jersey. It was discovered that already at age three a majority of children will lie in certain situations. When the liars were challenged, only 38% of them admitted to having lied, with boys more likely than girls admitting their dishonesty.(8) Another study found that deception can usually be detected by unconscious body movements that differ from the person's normal movements. However, such differentiating body language was missing in "pathological liars or those who simply feel no remorse about lying."(9) Findings of this nature bear on the credibility of children's testimony and accusations in more than one way. First, they remind us that a majority of children do lie; second, they proffer the disturbing fact that liars and truth-tellers cannot easily be told apart.

A revealing study identified some of the dangers that may arise from children's reports. Psychologist Karen Saywitz of Harbor-University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center and Gail Goodman of the State University of New York at Buffalo interviewed seventy-two girls, ages five and seven, about routine medical procedures they had received. Half were given full examinations, including vaginal and anal checks; the rest were given just general physicals. When the first group was asked broad and non-specific questions about the procedure, only eight mentioned the vaginal checks, and when the children were shown anatomically correct dolls, six pointed to the vaginal area. But of the girls who had undergone a merely general checkup, three claimed they also had vaginal or anal examinations; one child even said that "the doctor did it with a stick."(10)

It is obvious what sort of disasters such fantasies can cause in real life. They are reflected in court statistics that have assumed nearly epidemic proportion. A number of cases from the 1980s and 90s illustrate the star roles of children in human tragedies.

As mentioned earlier, we are not assuming that all accusations made by children are false; child molestation is a sad fact of life. The real problem is to distinguish the false from the true claims. This distinction is often tragically delayed, if at all ever made. Often innocent persons have been punished so draconically that the rest of their lives were left in shambles. The irony usually is that in hindsight the children's claims should have been recognized at the very outset for what they were: hoaxes or bizarre delusions. Their accusations were so fantastic, as we shall see, that it baffles one's mind that anyone should have taken such absurdities for the truth.

Most of the trials involve day-care centers, preschools, and divorce/custody disputes, with charges of sexual abuse a frequent part of the custody quarrels. According to estimates, the charge is raised in about 5% of child-custody cases.(11) A 1988 study by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts concluded the charges probably are false up to 40% of the time. Dr. Ralph Underwager of the Institute of Psychological Therapies in Northfield, Minnesota, researched the psychological profile of the accusers and discovered that 75% of them were afflicted with severe personality disorders.(13) Regardless of their problems, they usually are successful in using sex-molestation charges as a strategy to obtain custody and to achieve revenge against ex-spouses. The children become pawns in the process, and the opponents vie for their cooperation. The party winning is usually the one that is more successful in manipulating the children.

This brings to mind a disturbing parallel between patterns of past witch-hunts and present court proceedings. In both scenarios children were often asked to report on their family life, especially whether it incorporated immoral (heretical) elements. And in both situations children catered to the inquisitiveness of the authority figures in order to be appreciated and to feel important.(14)

New players have entered the battlefield and now profusely populate service-oriented postmodern society: counselors, lawyers and therapists. They are the inquisitors of postmodern civilization and, for hefty fees, will belabor the suggestibility of the child. There are even heretofore unheard-of specialists among them, "memory therapists," who will help patients, young or old, to recover long-lost memories of such traumas as incest, satanic ritual, and human sacrifice.

It goes without saying that if an adult's suggestibility can suffer such misguidance, what about children's? Misguidance at a young age may result in an impression that no counselor or college course can ever delete.

Increasing numbers of schools for young children have become the target of child molestation charges. One dealt with a San Diego Sunday school teacher, Dale Akiki, whom nine children accused of rape, sodomy, and torture. The drawn-out court hearings heard the children's claims that the teacher had killed a baby, sacrificed rabbits, and slaughtered an elephant and a giraffe. The Superior Court finally concluded that the children weren't credible and released Akiki - after two and a half years spent behind bars.(15)

Another recent case involved a teacher at a New Jersey day-care center. Margaret Michaels, twenty-five, was convicted on 115 counts of sexually assaulting twenty pupils at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood during the 1984-1985 school year. The children ranged in age from three to five at the time of the alleged abuse and were six to eight when they testified. Michaels was convicted despite her lawyer's demonstration that the children's stories were fantasies created through suggestive questions asked by overzealous investigators and that there was no medical evidence of abuse. The jury, however, believed the parents, who said "they observed marked changes in their children's behavior while they were in Michaels' care. They reported that some children experienced nightmares, developed a fear of the dark, showed aversion to peanut butter, and exhibited increased interest in sex play."(16) The convictions were ultimately overthrown; otherwise the accused could have received a sentence amounting to hundreds of years in prison.

A most destructive version of the genre took its fateful course in 1983 at a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California.(17) Two teachers at the McMartin Pre-School, Peggy Buckey, sixty-three, and her son Raymond, thirty-one, were accused by Judy Johnson, the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, of having molested her son. Thereupon a public hysteria spread, resembling the case in old Salem, and soon forty-one children were involved and 208 counts filed against seven individuals.

Johnson's complaints against the teachers grew bizarre. She accused Raymond Buckey of various sexual perversities. Later, as the investigation was still underway, Johnson was found to be an acute paranoid schizophrenic. She died of alcohol-related liver disease. But by then the prosecution had stirred up enough other witnesses and felt no need to revise the initial witness's testimony. The police had written to two hundred parents announcing their investigation of sexual abuse at the preschool, thereby fanning the hysteria and encouraging more children to come forth with lurid tales of abuse.

An administrator-turned-therapist soon established that 369 of the 400 children she interviewed had been abused. Her technique was blatantly suggestive: she gave emotional rewards to the children who accused the teachers, and rebuffs to those who did not. "What good are you? You must be dumb," she said to one child who knew nothing about the game Naked Movie Star.(18) The collection of stories she presented to the authorities as being credible accounts included: children digging up dead bodies at cemeteries; being taken for rides in airplanes; killing animals (including a horse) with bats; observing devil worship; being buried alive; seeing naked priests cavorting in a secret cellar below the school; seeing a teacher fly; having been given red or pink liquids to make them sleepy. Reminiscent of the denunciations made by children at witch trials during past centuries, the preschool children identified a number of members of the community as they were driven around town and asked to point out molesters. The children pointed out community leaders, store clerks, gas-station attendants; one child picked out photos of actor Chuck Norris and Los Angeles City Attorney James Hahn.

Rather than discrediting the testimony of the children, the district attorney in Los Angeles pressed ahead with the prosecution and presented eighteen children to the grand jury, which in March 1985 returned indictments against Raymond Buckey, his mother, sister, grandmother, and three preschool teachers. They were arrested with full (national and international) publicity. In January 1986, charges against five of those jailed were unexpectedly dropped as a new district attorney took over and declared a complete absence of evidence. However, Peggy Buckey and her son Raymond remained incarcerated and suffered the longest criminal trial in American history. It was not until 1990 that they were acquitted - after they had spent two years and five years, respectively, in jail.

The California episode was exploited by the mass media and produced a tremendous repercussion across the nation - not one of caution, as one might have expected, but one of ever larger numbers of children imitating similar claims. "Nationally, the attention generated by the case set off an explosion of reports claiming sexual abuse of children, increasing such reports from 6,000 in 1976 to an estimated 350,000 in 1988."(19) The main responsibility for the explosion must be placed on the mass media, which wallowed in lurid detail. The perils created by the media's suggestive force include that increasing numbers of parents and authorities will use the malleable power of children to bring about testimonies that serve the biases and schemes of partisan adults. As someone warned: "Some parents, determined to damage each other in a divorce, are throwing abuse charges around. Those bent on destroying a reputation have a surefire weapon."(20)

In conclusion, this modern "surefire weapon" is the equivalent of the witch accusation of past times; again it is based on the testimony of children, a testimony whose truth value is hard to prove or disprove, and a testimony still too often credulously accepted.


1. This tenet is still officially upheld. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, second in authority to the pope and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor institute to the Holy Inquisition), made a public statement in 1984, saying, ". . . for the Christian belief, the Devil is a mysterious, yet real, a corporeal and not symbolic presence. A mighty reality he is, the prince of this world, as the New Testament calls him. . . ." Quoted in Georg Siegmund, Von Wemding nach Klingenberg, Stein am Rhein, Chistiana Verlag, 1985, p. 6.

2. See details in Hans Sebald, Witch-Children: From Salem Witch-Hunts to Modern Court Rooms, (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995) pp. 58-60.

3. David C. Raskin and Phillip W. Esplin, "Assessment of Children's Statements of Sexual Abuse," in John Doris, ed., The Suggestibility of Children's Recollections (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1991) pp. 153-164.

4. Maria S. Zaragosa, "Preschool Children's Susceptibility to Memory Impairment," in John Doris, ed., The Suggestibility of Children's Recollections (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1991) pp. 27-39.

5. Helen R. Dent, "Experimental Studies of Interviewing Child Witnesses," in John Doris, ed., The Suggestibility of Children's Recollections (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1991) pp. 138-146.

6. Paul Ekman, "Would a Child Lie?" Psychology Today, July-August 1989, pp. 62-65.

7. Ibid., pp. 63-64.

8. Michael Lewis et al., "Deception in 3-year-olds," Developmental Psychology 25 (1989): 439-443.

9. Rebecca L. Jahn, "Detecting Deception," Research at Arizona State University 8 (Fall 1993): 6.

10. Quoted by Jerome Cramer, "Why Children Lie in Court," Time, March 4, 1991, p. 76.

11. Quoted by Robert Dvorchak in, "Custody Fights Use Sex Charge as Weapon," Arizona Republic, August 22, 1992, pp. 1-A8.

12. Ibid., p. A8.

13. Ibid.

14. Cf. Hartwig Weber, Kinderhexenprozesse, Frankfurt, Insel, 1991, p. 243n.

15. Associated Press, "Man Not Guilty of Molestation," Mesa Tribune, November 20, 1993, p. A7.

16. A United Press International report in the Arizona Republic, April 16, 1988, p. A8.

17. See details: Paul Eberle and Shirley Eberle, The Abuse of Innocence: The McMartin Preschool Trial (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993); Vern L. Bullough, "The Salem Witch Trials and the Modern Media," FREE INQUIRY 10 (Spring 1990) p. 6; Margaret Carlson, "Six Years of Trial by Torture," Time, January 29, 1990, p. 26-27.

18. Ibid., p. 26

19. Ibid. p. 27.

20. Ibid.

Hans Sebald is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Arizona State University. This article is based on and partly excerpted from Hans Sebald, Witch-Children: From Salem Witch-Hunts to Modern Court Rooms (Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 1995).
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Title Annotation:On Witchcraft
Author:Sebald, Hans
Publication:Free Inquiry
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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