New Directions in the Study of Scientology
Podcast with David Robertson, Carole Cusack, Stephen Gregg and Aled Thomas (19 November 2018).
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.
Audio and transcript available at: Robertson_-_New_Directions_in_the_Study_of_Scientology_1.1
David Robertson (DR): So we’re here at the BASR Conference 2018, in Belfast. And I have gathered several colleagues together today to have a discussion about Scientology: the idea of new directions in the study of Scientology, and how do we move the conversation about Scientology forward? There’s a large number of different directions we can go in that conversation, so I’m not going to constrain it at this point by saying exactly what I mean by that. But we’re going to start off by looking at some interesting data and approaches and move into a discussion of the larger methodological issues about the study of Scientology in relationship to NRMs and other more established religious traditions. And then we’ll end the conversation by opening it out to some interesting responses, in the coming week. But for now I’m going to start by going round the table and asking my colleagues to introduce themselves.
Carole Cusack (CC): I’m Carole Cusack, I’m a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney and I have a longstanding interest in Scientology.
Stephen Gregg (SG): Hello, I’m Stephen Gregg. I’m the BASR honorary secretary and senior lecturer in the study of religions at the University of Wolverhampton. And I’ve taught and researched Scientology for a number of years now.
DR: Where I think we should maybe start is, I know that you two have both been working on apostasy and Free Zone and things like that. Let’s start there. Because that seems to be an area where the normal . . . the clichéd ideas of Scientology as a sort of cult maybe start to break down. And we can start to measure out some of these fault lines in the idea.
SG: Well, I suppose, yes. The first response to that is sort-of one of the inherited problems in the study of Scientology, for a number of years now, is that it’s been under-researched and under-published, actually. That’s a problem for source material for students in particular. But the research that has been done has essentialised the Church of Scientology as Scientology in that they’re one and the same. And that’s problematised the media’s relationship with Scientology, public discourse and Scientology and interdisciplinary research on Scientology. So the first step, really, is to begin to understand scientologies beyond the Church, I think.
AT: Yes, I absolutely agree. And when considering the Free Zone, which is an umbrella term for all Scientologists outside the Church of Scientology, it’s important to remember that simply because they are outside of the Church of Scientology doesn’t mean that they are united. There’s an assumption that the Free Zone is united against the Church for either institutional reasons, or interpretation of L. Ron Hubbard’s works. From my research I’ve found that there’s a huge degree of innovation in Scientology, in Free Zone Scientology, in the way Free Zone Scientologists conduct their auditing sessions, how they identify and also their perception of Hubbard. It’s a much more complicated issue than “What does Scientology (believe) and what does the Church believe?”
SG: If I can just jump back in again, you mentioned the dreaded C – word there David! And I think part of the perpetuation of that problem is that we have a dominant narrative from ex-members. I’ve used the term “apostate” in a chapter recently and I know that’s a contested term. But if we use the more general “ex-members” then, of course, their relational identity is often against the established Church. So it perpetuates this domination of the Church as this cult-like figure or organisation, because of the noisy apostates, who often – and Bromley wrote about career apostates – who often made a career out of this. They’ve published books. You go on Amazon at the moment with self-publishing . . . I can’t keep up with the number of apostate testimonies now. I used to read them all. Go back a few years, I would systematically read every one. It’s a mini-industry of ex-member testimonies coming out of Scientology now. That’s huge area of research in itself. (5:00) But of course that perpetuates the public discourse on this sort of bad religion/ negative religion/cult dynamic that of course, in NRM studies, we’ve tried to reject for a number of years now.
CC: It’s very import though, Stephen, to realise that that ex-member tsunami has only been possible for ten years. 2008 is the hinge year for when the anonymous campaign Project Chanology begins. It’s when the Cruise accepting the medal speech goes viral and a lot of people begin . . .
SG: Yes. The Oprah Couch
CC: Yes, the couch. And there’s also the death of Jett Travolta around the same time. And so there’s a whole lot of things that happened there. And I would like to say something about the scholarship on Scientology to date. When Donald Westbrook’s The Church of Scientology’s history, theology and praxis in ethnographic perspective is published by OUP, it will be only the fourth monograph on Scientology since the 1970s, when Roy Wallis published the Road to Total Freedom. And that’s all linked to this 2008 as a hinge year, because the Scientologists who at that point were the Church, most definitely, spent a lot of money and effort harassing and suing and shutting down anyone who wanted to talk about the Church.
SG: And, indeed, Roy Wallis actually talked with them about his manuscript, and showed his manuscript before publication.
CC: And the second great monograph on Scientology, which is Harriet Whitehead’s, was of course published under such an anonymous and was also published after Hubbard’s’ death, and it was her doctoral research which she’s done at least 15 years earlier and didn’t feel that she was free to publish. And so what it was called Renunciation and . . .
CC: . . . in an American Sect. And it’s like: how would you know that that was Scientology? That’s why a lot of people, nowadays, don’t even know that book exists. It’s very rarely referenced. So I was just going to say, the real issue – the thing that’s changed – is that we’ve got 24 hour news cycle, we’ve got free media being distributed on YouTube, we’ve got the absolute collapse of copyright. So Scientology used to also use Copyright law. The Church used copyright law as a way of keeping their materials out of the public eye. And that’s not possible anymore.
AT: No. That can’t . . .
DR: And I’ve written recently about that idea of “blowback”: that Scientology, by keeping a tight control of that material and being reactive and litigious, have encouraged the idea of suspicion from the media that. . . . It’s that, if you’ve been sued by Scientology you’re much more likely to celebrate the fact when somebody “gets the boot into them”, kind-of-thing. But that doesn’t really explain why the situation’s so different for Scientology in academia. Why is it that there’s been so few monographs, for instance? Are there any other equivalent situations where we have such significant and rich traditions or figures to look at that are just kind-of beyond the pale in academia? What is it about Scientology that’s made that happen?
CC: Well there are two things, again – and these are not the whole answer, but I think they work. One is that, what I’ve just mentioned, that the Church of Scientology kept very close control on any academic that was anywhere near them. And the academics were aware that they could be not only sued, but personally harassed and that their families, and people that they cared about, could get into trouble. So very little was ever published, because even people who did projects on Scientology generally didn’t want to risk putting them in the public eye. And really Hugh Urban’s monograph – which I think is 2011, isn’t it? – that’s the first post-2008 monograph, and Westbrook will be the next. And it still shows that it’s slow to develop. But the second thing, which I think is equally important, is that some of the noisy ex-members actually did a great service themselves by publishing: Jon Atak is the obvious example, since A Piece of Blue Sky came out very, very early in the conversation, really. But he is part of, now, a kind of global network of ex-members who accuse New Religious Movement scholars of being cult apologists if they say anything good about any religion. And the other groups that might be comparable, for example, like the Unification Church – there’s been more published on that than on Scientology. Or, for example, ISKCON, similarly. And the issue was, of course, that the academics used to more-or-less be coaxed, and sometimes even paid, by those groups. (10:00) And consequently the ex-member networks are vociferous in discounting that research. So you’re caught, if you like, in a pincer movement. On one side you’ve got the Scientology response which is: they control what you write, they harass you if you publish the wrong stuff. On the other side, you’ve got the people who hung out with Bhagwan and with Moon and with ISKCON and they’re all tarred with the brush of being cult apologists. So, in some ways, publishing in New Religious Movements, really until comparatively recently, was always very difficult and generally not a good career move.
AT: Sorry, just to pick up on what Carole was saying about the small amount of monographs. In addition to the monographs there’s a slowly increasing number of journal articles and chapters and so on, on Scientology. And James Lewis has mentioned in the past about how the Church has, of late, abandoned their famed approach of suing and taking legal action against any critics. And in recent years, I’ve found that the Church’s latest method of countering critics is to claim for religious legitimacy and to accuse them of religious discrimination. They’ve set up an organisation called STAND which is Scientologists Taking Action against Discrimination. And their website has sections of “hate bloggers” or even “false experts” – Margaret Singer being mentioned, and so on. And that in itself plays into how academics are currently received by the Church. Because if an academic is perceived as being, or is attempting to be as objective as possible then they can avoid the dreaded c-word and present it as a new religious movement. And Donald Westbrook has mentioned himself that there’s this improving relationship between the Church of Scientology and the scholar. And I also think that’s very subjective to what the scholar is actually studying. And in Westbrook’s case, he was doing a history of the Church of Scientology, he was concentrated on the Church, and he had a very insider, very interesting experience. And by insider I mean, he was able to take part in the Purif and so on. And he was able to conduct an enormous amount of rich interviews.
DR: Can you tell us what the Purif is?
AT: Oh, sorry. The Purif is a shortened term for the Purification Rundown, which is a Scientology detoxification programme that new members are encouraged to take part in. But I find that the Church of Scientology is still curious to know exactly what an academic’s research entails and what the goal is, before they’re willing to let that person come in, to a certain extent. And how much they concede.
DR: Well I was certainly challenged on my first publication on Scientology by a chap who was fairly high up, or had been high up in Sec Check? Is that the right name?
DR: I don’t know if they call it that any more – but that office. Because I’d used the word “conspiracy” and Scientology in the same article – although the article itself was actually, you know, it was fairly . . . I wasn’t making any outrageous claims. I was actually saying, “We need to take these people seriously, and scholarship isn’t doing that.” But because I used the word conspiracy, they were quite unhappy about it. And I actually, ironically, I had to adopt a Scientology “steely gaze” as he repeatedly attacked me. So there’s a certain irony there. So I think the kind of scholarship that you’re doing makes a big difference. But I think there’s definitely interesting date there in the way in which the way “religion”, “cult”, “new religion” and stuff are being wielded by various actors.
SG: Well that’s interesting, David. Because I was going to pick up on something that Carole said earlier, when you used Atak as your example, because it’s these different actors, these different interested parties, who are all negotiating in a sort of public sphere ownership of what Scientology is, and how Scientology fits in. And so with NRM scholars sort of striding down this path, trying to understand these traditions, we’re not the voice that, for example, media often wants to hear. I was called up by a conservative radio station not too long ago, asking me to talk about Scientologists going into schools doing a Narconon anti-drugs programme. The head teachers hadn’t realised that it was Scientology; they’d had a bit of tantrum when they did realise (15:00); they wanted someone to just talk about this in general. “Fine. Perfectly happy to do that”. I was phoned up . . . the producer told me 30 seconds before broadcast that they were dropping the article, because of a breaking news story. Well fine. Not being born yesterday I tuned in and listened to Jon Atak, who they’d chosen instead of me, to say that Scientology was a cult, was a “demon-worshipping cult”, I think he said at one point; a “death cult”, he said at another point. And so we get this sort of contestation of the narrative. And so it’s very difficult for NRM scholars to find a voice if public discourse and media isn’t interested in our voice – because I don’t have the human interest story of being the ex-member.
DR: But we don’t hear the same argument regarding Steiner schools, for instance.
DR: And this is the thing that confuses me. Why is it that this is something that Scientology seems to particularly attract, but we don’t hear in other places?
SG: Well you’re absolutely right. And in fact, the first thing I said to this radio producer was, “Well, hang on a minute. Would you have asked the same question if they came from a Jewish or a Christian background?” And she sort of hesitated and went, “No.” And I said, “Well, exactly.” Scientology is treated differently: the question is, why? I think it’s a two-way street isn’t it? Part of it is previous spokespeople at Church have sometimes been more confrontational than perhaps a PR guru would advise you to be. I can think of the sort of infamous John Sweeney documentaries of, gosh, 10-12 years ago now, aren’t they? Where he turned into a human tomato and I thought he was going to explode when he was in the anti-psychiatry event. But Tommy Davis did not cover himself in glory. You know, and one doesn’t have to be an apologist or a critic of the Church to realise that neither of those two gentlemen behaved in a proper way. No-one came out of that very well. So when you’ve got this sort of confrontational M.O. if you like, that’s going to put people’s backs up.
CC: The other thing is, of course, that there are real questions about Scientology. And when you think about the institutional Church, they’re probably not any different to the questions that might be asked for example about the whole Rajneesh experiment– because there were certainly crimes that were involved; the same, actually, with ISKCON after Bhaktivedanta Swami died. But we do know that Scientology engages in practices that have been taken to court by various ex-members. The most obvious ones are forced labour and slavery, because of the lack of legal and reasonable wages. There has also been forced abortions argument from women from the Sea Org. There are situations with the Rehabilitation Project Force . . . . The most important book on Scientology written by a journalist in Australia, on Scientology in Australia – the only book – Steve Cannane’s Fair Game, reveals the really terrible things that go on in what used to be a Catholic boys school that the Scientologists have bought and turned into their RHP, in Sydney’s northern suburbs.
SG: Well there’s an irony in that straight away isn’t there, Carole? Because, of course, when we have crimes that are committed within a religious organisation, when that is a minority organisation it somehow is reported or perceived in society differently to the majority. For example, we’re sitting on the Island of Ireland at the moment, in Northern Ireland, and we’re talking about Australia: between those two countries and everywhere in between we’ve had the Catholic abuse scandals. And yet the Church seems to be continuing, strengthening in some parts of the world, you know – 800,000 people came out to welcome the Pope in Dublin in the last week. You know, there’s a different response. And that, surely, is about the social capital and then political capital that these organisations have. Scientology doesn’t have that. It’s a minority movement. It’s easier to beat with a stick.
CC: Oh, absolutely. And I have no problem with that at all. The main reason why being a New Religious Movement specialist is not generally a good career move is that very few departments that study religion – in whatever methodological point of view, whether they’re named as Religious Studies departments or not – mostly the big business is the big traditional world religions paradigm, because they consist of like two-thirds of the planet, or whatever. And so, if you’re going to be interested in a minor, small religion you’re going to be possibly not doing your career a favour. But also, that religion will be in an awkward kind-of space publicly. Because somehow being able to see the origin point, (20:00) being able to know that it dates from a registration in California in February 1954, means that there is this credibility gap, maybe? Is that one way of putting it?
SG: It could be. We have a problem with chronology in that we seem to sort-of validate things just because they’re old. Just because something’s tenacious doesn’t make it worthy, to quote Tim Minchin. So I mean, it’s problematic that it’s a problem that we’re always facing in New Religious Movements.
AT: That’s something, ironically, that the Church of Scientology is using in itself, in its response to the “Squirrels” – the derogatory term towards the Free Zone and anybody doing Scientology apart from them – is that they were founded by Hubbard, they are the original form of Scientology, ergo there’s a superiority to that. And that’s present in the way that they present themselves, and then in the way that scholarship has addressed Scientology: that so much research on Scientology – as you’ve previously mentioned, Stephen – has just concerned the Church of Scientology. So there is still that prejudice towards the superiority of the older movements.
CC: But the Free Zone people and many of the squirrels – who would be the ones who are not actually practising Scientology, merely have appropriated tech and have used it for something else – they are very likely to say that, actually, they’re interested in Hubbard too. And it’s not Hubbard that’s the problem, it’s the institutional Church that’s the problem.
SG: Because they may well be practising what they see are a purer form of Hubbard’s original text, yes.
DR: One thing that strikes me from this discussion is – jumping off what Carole was talking about in terms of being an NRM scholar is not good for your career. . . .
DR: Firstly the one thing . . . . And, you know, I think all of us round this table understand that, in a very real way . . . ! But one thing that’s different about studying Scientology is, I can’t think of a single insider scholar. Now a lot of these kind of NRMs and other things – like Paganism particularly, there’s a strong . . . they become established in academia through largely insider scholars. And that’s not to say that there aren’t people who are insider scholars, and that all of those insider scholars are necessarily bad scholars, but there is a drive for scholarly insiders to sort-of establish the field. And that seeps out and it becomes more acceptable. But I can’t think of any example in Scientology like that.
SG: There’s a half-example. He’s been mentioned already, it’s Jon Atak. Because his research, A Piece of Blue Sky, actually started as an official biography of Hubbard from the Church and commissioned by the Church. When he did the research he came across issues that were counter to the narrative and the hagiographies of the Church. That’s normal; every religious leader has hagiographies around them. But as an insider, that sort-of blew his mind and so that was part of his progression out of Scientology and the creation of A Piece of Blue Sky. But that’s the closest example I can think of.
SG: And that was a long time ago, and only half an example.
CC: Definitely with something like the Unification Church most of the people – you think about Michael Mickler, and with The Family– Claire Borowick, they’re insiders and people who contribute regularly the chapters on Unificationism and The Family to edited volumes on NRMs and so on and so forth.
AT: There may not be necessarily insider scholars, but I can think of a few examples of insider scientologists who are now trying to take part in academic discourse. For example, I was at the Scientology scholarly perspective conference in Antwerp, Belgium a few years ago and there were representatives of the Church of Scientology there, which was fine and it was great to get their input. But I’m also aware that there are Church members who have recently given papers at semi-academic conferences on Scientology, despite having no academic credentials, or even necessarily presenting an “academic” in inverted commas paper. But there is this increased interest in what the academic community are doing, and trying to take part in it – arguably – rather than pushing it away. But that is becoming a little more frequent.
SG: Is that the beginning of a dialogue, do you think?
CC: I think it depends. I go to CESNUR, and there are always Scientologists at CESNUR – mostly that are not very interested in dialoguing. They are interested in monologuing.
SG: Well that’s why I wondered whether this was a new . . . I wondered if there was a new direction.
DR: The confrontation I had was at an INFORM-related event, as well. (25:00)
AT: The ones that I’m aware of, that scientologists have spoken at recently, they’ve been events promoting religious freedom – which is a big thing for the Church of Scientology at the moment. So I think it depends on what sort of conference you’re at. It wouldn’t happen . . . I ‘d be very surprised if it happened at the BASR. But as Carole was saying, it’s a monologue, it’s a promotion, it’s putting forward a worldview. It would be interesting to see, if we were present at these events, if we could strike up a dialogue. But that would remain to be seen.
SG: Of course, I’ve come across that from other insider scholars. I’m thinking back to the IAHR at Erfurt a couple of years ago, and there was a panel organised by Brigham Young University. And they were sort-of early archival talks on early letters and papers from some of the Mormon leaders, back in the day. And that was a monologue, that was a hagiography. But, you know, so I mean we kind of expect it from different traditions. But it’s that maybe Scientology has . . . . Because it’s focussed on the Tech, because the Tech is the solution and the answer, then surely the time of the research of the insider needs to go into perfecting the practice of the Tech. Here’s a question: is academic engagement therefore superfluous, if all you need is the Tech?
DR: I am not going to try to answer that.
SG: I don’t expect a simple answer! I’m just posing a thought.
DR: No. I’m jumping in just because dead air on radio is . . . .
DR: But one thing I wanted to raise, which has occurred to me: I don’t think that Scientology particularly fits the model of the cult as we normalise it, particularly well. It seems to me that some of the attempts to label it as dangerous seem a little forced, sometimes. For instance, I can’t think . . . there’s no sex scandals as far as I’m aware – certainly no major ones in the Church. I mean, compared to the other sort-of controversial cults there’s nothing like that. There’s no mass suicide, there’s no stockpiling of arms. It seems a little strained, even – like there’s a desire to force it into a pre-existing model, which is based on kind-of ‘60s . . . .
SG: I think rather than some sort of apocalyptic event, as it were, or preparation for such an event that we’ve seen in other movements, it’s more this perception of the negative aspect of Scientology is about control, isn’t it? It’s about control from a very, very hierarchical institution: control of bodies, control of freedom – or perceived control, one should say. So it’s that over-arching sort of perception of that, rather than one event, I think, which is what sort-of fuels that.
DR: Yes, and I think the idea of the hierarchical control and control of bodies is a very important part of that model. But that’s what I’m saying. The attempt to do that is relatively weak, compared to a lot of others. I mean if you look at The Family or something like that, the control of bodies is real, but it’s relatively small. It’s much smaller than the Catholic Church, for instance. And also, even with the hierarchical structure – as Aled’s been arguing – it’s to ignore the fact that Scientology is much larger than the Church of Scientology. And it’s much larger than any messianic kind-of cult of personality.
CC: Is one distinction that we could think about, the fact that almost everything that’s come out in the memoir genre, it’s not even the Church of Scientology, it’s the Sea Org. And so far we haven’t even talked about the idea that there is an inner church within Scientology, which is, in fact, the site of most of the violence and the weirdness, and the critique that comes from within.
SG: Well, this is something that Aled and I have just finished a chapter together that will come out with Equinox next year. And it’s looking at different types of identity, both within the Church and the Free Zone, in relational identity. And there are different types of insiders, because of this hierarchical nature – not just of the structure of the organisation, but of the Bridge to Total Freedom. If you’re at a different point on the Bridge then you are a very different type of insider to someone at a higher or lower point on the Bridge. And so we have these sort of sub-clusters, these different groups of groups, which will have different knowledge and different experience of the Church. So Carole’s absolutely right. These noisy apostates, if you like – to use a term that George Chryssides and I have used in a recent chapter – they’re from this central power base (30:00): usually the Sea Org and indeed the RTC, the Religious Technology Centre themselves, when you think of people like Mike Rinder, for example. So it is from that central power base.
DR: Really interesting. I ‘m aware of time passing and what I’d like to do to end is . . . . We’re relatively unusual, in this podcast, in that I know who the responses are going to be from. And we’re going to have Bernard Doherty writing a response to this. So I want to sort-of anticipate the question I’m going to be asking him, now. And what I want to do is go round the table and ask: where do we go from here? In the scholarship on Scientology, scholarship in relation to Scientology, what avenues do we need to follow? Where do we see this going? What needs to change? Quite an open question, I realise, but we’ve got three people to answer. Maybe I’ll start with Carole, just because I happen to be pointing at her as I speak!
CC: I think that the most interesting new directions will only be possible if the Church genuinely is offering a more open kind of experience to scholars. And Donald Westbrook’s PhD, which I have read, is one example of how that might happen. Now Aled’s already pointed out it’s a very particular kind of example, and the people he spoke to, and what he was allowed to do were very location-specific, and there were contextual factors. But that was an example of ordinary ethnographic work that any of us might imagine to do with any kind of ordinary organisation. So that is one absolute new direction. The daily lives of ordinary Scientologists: people talking about their own experiences, not from a point of view of hierarchy or power, but from the point of view of lived religion or vernacular religion. The kind of approaches that are now very popular.
AT: Perhaps I’m slightly biased because it’s related to my PhD topic, but I think that examining Scientologists outside the Church is particularly important at the moment. Because – as we’ve already mentioned to a certain extent, the notion of the Charismatic leader’s been done to death – but if you think about Weber‘s idea of the “charisma of office”, for example: David Miscavige, leader of the Church, has established a role of authority through being what’s known as the chairman of the Religious Technology Centre which protects Hubbard’s work. So, by being the president of an organisation that protects Hubbard and protects his legacy, he is lent an authority. But every single Free Zoner I’ve interviewed has nothing but negative things to say about David Miscavige, perhaps predictably. So we are at that really exciting point with Scientology, in that it is a New Religious Movement, but now that it is around 60 years old – and you’ve got second and third generations – we’re seeing these schisms and we’re seeing challenges to the notion of charisma, and how Hubbard’s charisma can be used by different parties, different groups to legitimise their own true version of Scientology. And what we were saying earlier about the Church of Scientology being the original, so to speak. Well, L. Ron Hubbard’s works have recently been completely republished by the Church in the Golden Age of Knowledge and the Golden Age of Tech initiative. Which means it has essentially changed. It is different. And that Ron’s Org, for example – which is a Free Zone group – uses editions of Dianetics from 1969, because the date of Hubbard’s death is contested, and so on. So what I would say, is to move away from the notion of Scientology being the Church of Scientology, but to also look at how the authority of Hubbard is being used in different groups to legitimise their practice.
SG: I have the joy of going last, now that they’ve eloquently said it all! But, I mean, obviously I agree with what’s been said. The Church needs to be more open. I think it’s incredibly interesting that Miscavige has done one interview. It’s, I think, Nightline from 1994- 95 something like that, you know. it’s easily gotten on YouTube. That’s it. You know, there’s not many religious leaders that don’t have the public-facing sort-of view, and do interviews that other people would do. So a bit more openness from the leadership of the Church and . . . engagement rather than openness, engagement is the word I’m looking for. And preference the bottom up, not the top down. Preference the everyday. Let’s move beyond the institution and let’s look at the lived, embodied, relative experience of everyday Scientologists (35:00).
DR: Stephen, Aled, Carole – thank you so much!
CC: Thank you, David.
SG and AT: Thank you.
Citation Info: Robertson, David, Carole Cusack, Stephen Gregg, and Aled Thomas. 2018. “New Directions in the Study of Scientology”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 November 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 14 November 2018. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/new-directions-in-the-study-of-scientology/
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