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Genetic sexual attraction | From the Guardian

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At first, Ivor Lytton's emotional predicament seems unremarkable, no different from the woes that make up any agony aunt's weekly column. On Sunday October 4 1998, Lytton, an Edinburgh public relations consultant, met the love of his life. The meeting took place at a dinner party at a fashionable country inn. Rita Meadows, who lives in South Africa, was on holiday in Scotland. Describing their meeting, Lytton's words overflow with sentiment. "From the moment we met, I was smitten, and continued to be drawn to her like a magnet. As I got to know her, I felt she had given me a life transmission. She put a smile in my heart and a spring in my step." Each October for the past four years, he has sent her a card to commemorate the date of their meeting.

What Lytton didn't know was that the consequences of that love would plunge him into the most devastating crisis of his life. "To say that I have been to hell and back wouldn't be accurate. The situation is far worse than that." On the surface, his ordeal seems a classic case of unrequited love. Despite forming a warm friendship with Lytton, and meeting him several times a year either abroad or in Britain, Meadows, a divorcee, has never shared his feelings. Irritated and, at times, angry with his outpourings of affection, she recently emailed him curtly to think of her as "just a casual friend". Unable to reconcile himself to her indifference, Lytton's subsequent depression and sense of rejection, and the continuing compulsion to declare his feelings, are no different from the irrational fixation and emotions that mark any young adult's first major infatuation. But that is as far as the Mills & Boon scenario goes.

In the circumstances, Lytton's new-found love was doomed to be a nonstarter. He is a married man of 66, semi-retired, with grown-up children and grandchildren. The story might be relatively straightforward, and there may even have been a happy ending of sorts had he merely fallen for a woman half his age or abandoned his family to start a new life in another country. Instead, his love for Meadows represents society's most abhorrent taboo. She is his younger sister, adopted as a baby shortly after the death of their mother from an illness contracted after the birth, when Lytton was two. Although Meadows had no idea she had a brother, Lytton, who was raised by his stepmother after his father's death during the second world war, had always known of her existence, but waited until 1995 to begin searching for her. The 1998 party at which they met had been organised by Lytton, with the help of his wife and children, as a celebratory reunion after he had tracked down his 60-year-old sister in Durban.

"I knew Rita was my sister," he says now. "I didn't choose to fall in love with her, or expect to feel sexual desire. It just happened. Even in front of my wife, I made no attempt to hide my adoration, I just buzzed whenever she was around. It was as if no one else existed. The two biggest mistakes I made were deluding myself that I could become all-important in her life, a brother and a surrogate lover, even though she didn't desire me, and then believing I could control and resolve the problem by myself."

When we met, Lytton brought with him several large files bulging with four years' correspondence, mainly email printouts, to and from Rita. A tall, white-haired and articulate man, he has recorded every emotion, thought and incident involving his sister since their reunion. Photographs taken on his trips to South Africa, and on her visits to Scotland, show a vivacious and elegant redhead, seemingly little older than 40. From the sharp intake of breath as he begins reading aloud from his correspondence, it is clear that his feelings are still raw. Letters written shortly after their reunion begin with such endearments as "my special girl", "goddess", "darling miracle", "my princess". Declaring that she "walks on water", Lytton confesses how much he misses and thinks of her, miserable at the distance between Edinburgh and Durban. The places they have visited together are described as "sacred shrines".

But a persistent undercurrent of uncertainty and despair runs through almost every message, as he urges her to write more frequently and to reveal her own feelings. "I have found it easy to love you since we met, and am totally committed to our relationship. You illuminate my life... let this be our secret. But how important am I to you? Do you feel affection for me?" Breaking off, Lytton's voice cracks. Far worse than the pain, he says, are the shame and guilt. "You see how besotted I was? Every line oozing with obsession. I mean, what normal brother ever spoke to a sister in this way? How can a man approaching 70 experience emotions usually attributed to a screwed-up adolescent? It's sick."

He then produces a diary, one of several in his briefcase, labelled The Journal Of An Emotional Junkie, and offers to lend it to me. He started to keep the journal eight months ago, after discovering that his sister had begun a relationship with a 40-year-old South African banker. He became intensely jealous - an emotion, he stresses, that is virtually alien, and therefore deeply shameful, to him. In one revealing passage he fantasises about his sister having sex with her new lover. "On a visit, she'd shown me some sexy underwear she'd bought in London, including a thong. Once she left England, I visualised her gyrating around a pole, in a G-string, her boyfriend watching lustfully on the bed."

Although this is the first time Lytton has told any of this to a stranger, he feels that, by doing so, he is beginning to control and resolve the situation. "I'm letting you inside my head. Perhaps my experiences can help anyone else in a similar predicament, let them realise they are not alone, that they aren't going mad and haven't turned into some sick, perverted individual - all of which I thought until very recently."

In the past year, Lytton says, he came close to wrecking his marriage, having a complete nervous collapse, even committing suicide. What saved him was his sister's emotional detachment, his wife's extraordinary patience and understanding - and, most crucially, learning about a little-known phenomenon called genetic sexual attraction (GSA), increasingly acknowledged by post-adoption agencies to be a common feature of reunions between blood relatives who have never before met. "I seem to have contracted this condition, GSA, in its severest form," he declares, as if describing a virus. "Now that I know there is a condition, and why it occurs, I feel I have reached a turning point and will be able to work towards building a normal, balanced relationship with my sister." If, as seems possible, he comes through the crisis with his marriage, mental stability and relationship with his sister intact, Lytton will be in a fortunate minority.

The term GSA was first coined in the US in the late 1980s by Barbara Gonyo, the founder of Truth Seekers In Adoption, a Chicago-based support group for adoptees and their new-found relatives. The emergence of GSA both in the US and the UK coincided with the relaxation of adoption laws in the mid-1970s, which gave adopted children easier access to their records and led to an increase in the number of reunions between adoptees and their blood relatives.

The unexpectedly high number of reported cases of men and women struggling with sudden and terrifying emotions after a reunion has surprised and perplexed most post-adoption agencies. So far, because of the taboos surrounding GSA and its variable and complex nature, the frequency of these cases is almost impossible to quantify, although some agencies estimate that elements of GSA occur in 50% of reunions. Growing awareness of its potentially devastating implications, especially in cases where relatives embark on a sexual relationship, has prompted some organisations to warn all clients attempting to trace a relative about the phenomenon, while also training counsellors to recognise the warning signs and to help adoptees and their families cope with the damage.

These may sound like important and timely advances but they don't, in fact, add up to much. Because of the revulsion aroused by incest, and the stigma attached to anyone who admits experiencing GSA - let alone those who embark on sexual relations with a parent or sibling - the condition remains obscured by myth, tainted by smutty innuendo, under-reported by sufferers and, worse, virtually ignored in academic circles. Although, occasionally, a story involving GSA is given predictably lurid tabloid coverage, ignorance prevails. Why GSA occurs only in some reunions, whether certain people are more predisposed to GSA than others, or whether it manifests itself differently between parents and children or siblings, is simply unknown. Above all, GSA raises serious questions about what factors influence sexual attraction: are the origins of GSA social, environmental or biological?

The lack of any serious scientific research is especially disturbing in view of the growing number of reunions between adoptees and their birth parents, and the prospect of many future reunions between children born through IVF involving sperm and egg donors. In the view of Sue Cowling, deputy director of the Post-Adoption Centre, "Genetic sexual attraction associated with IVF births is a time bomb waiting to go off." Cowling, like many professionals, suspects that the subject has remained a no-go area, even for psychologists, because even in a society wide awake to the spectre of paedophilia and sexual abuse in families, GSA - which falls into neither category - threatens to explode too many cosy assumptions about "normal" and aberrant sexual instincts.

Gonyo, the non-academic who originally "outed" GSA in the 1980s, has written the only book on the subject. In it, she suggests that romantic love and erotic arousal may be the delayed by-product of "missed bonding" that would have normally taken place between a mother and her newborn infant, or between siblings had they not been separated by adoption. "Many such people, as adults, need to go through that early missed closeness. It may become sexual, or it may not."

Gonyo's reputation as the world's leading GSA "expert" came about largely as a result of her own experience of strong sexual attraction, when, in 1979 and aged 42, she was reunited with her adult son 26 years after she had given him up for adoption. Now a 65-year-old grandmother, she admits, like Lytton (whom she has been counselling by email since he contacted her via the Truth Seekers website), that what saved her marriage and allowed her eventually to build a healthy relationship with her birth son Mitch was that she did not have sex with him, due to his unresponsiveness.

An energetic, cheery and straight-talking woman, Gonyo estimates that it took her a dozen years to overcome the desire to sleep with Mitch. "Believe me, the state of arousal, which grew as I got to know him, was as erotic as anything I felt for my husband. I wanted to get naked with Mitch, feel his flesh against mine. The first time I hugged him, it beat any feeling I've experienced in my life. If he had felt the same way, I don't know if I could have stopped myself. But Mitch was very afraid of my feelings, and wouldn't ever talk about any of this, or how he felt."

At that time, Mitch, an art teacher, had various girlfriends. "Despite this, my behaviour around him was atrocious. I was flirtatious, coquettish and playful. When getting ready to see him, I primped and primed, becoming like a 16-year-old in mind and body. I was trying to win him over, like someone I wanted to date or marry." Gonyo recalls feeling ashamed and dirty. "At the beginning, the urge was less erotic, more like bonding with a newborn child. As with all my subsequent children, I wanted to smell him, stroke and run my fingers through his hair. I saw so much of myself in him, and he also reminded me strongly of his father, my first teenage love." But having experienced that primary stage of "delayed bonding", Gonyo wanted more. "I was no longer looking for the baby, I wanted a relationship with the adult - the man." What frightened her was that these emotions did not fit into any appropriate context. "I wasn't Mitch's lover or girlfriend, and I couldn't be his mother, because he had one, although he never allowed me to meet her. I felt like an intruder, unimportant and humiliated."

When Mitch got married 12 years ago, Gonyo finally established a relaxed friendship with him. "It's as if I've turned him over to his wife, so now we can be friends. It took me until then to be able to say honestly that I don't have those sexual feelings any more. What meeting Mitch taught me was self-control." It also led to her passionate "mission" to encourage widespread understanding of GSA.

Twenty-five years ago, that would have seemed an absurdly unrealistic goal given that this realm of human desire was guaranteed to repel most people, including Gonyo's clients. Since then, not much has changed. "GSA becomes an incest issue, whether or not it is carried out in a sexual act," she says, pinpointing the most likely explanation for the paucity of research. "Most people will only reveal their own situation once someone else breaks the ice." Gonyon recalls that, when she told a support group for adoptees and birth mothers about her own feelings on meeting Mitch, her disclosure was met with repugnance. "Some openly dismissed such feelings as 'sick'." But, a few days later, she was phoned by the wife of one of the group's male participants, telling her that she was convinced her husband was similarly infatuated with his birth mother, whom he had recently met, and asking Gonyo if she could help him.

It wasn't until almost a decade later, when Gonyo became the director of Truth Seekers In Adoption and raised the issue of GSA, that others began plucking up the courage to confess their own "forbidden" attraction to a parent, adult child or sibling with whom they had been reunited. She vividly remembers the first time someone raised their hand in one workshop. A man in his 30s, he was the first person she saw stand up in a room full of people and speak the unspeakable. "He simply said, 'I slept with my mother. I was 21 when I found her. We were very much in love. After several years, it stopped.' His mother had ended the relationship because it was too painful for her; she felt guilty and was afraid of being discovered. That was more than 10 years ago, and he said he'd not only lost his lover but what was even more important: his mother. He said he had never regretted having sex with his mother, only that losing her was a high price to pay."

Many clients consult Gonyo privately, even anonymously, by phone or email. "Often, the attraction isn't sexual, but it's still frightening and alien, and therefore perceived as abnormal and sinful. One woman told me that she and her birth mother, soon after they met, slept together in the nude: there was no sex, only a strong need to be close as parent and child. Grown men tell me they've sat in their mother's lap, just being rocked and held. One man talked about his need to be sexual with his newly found brother, but not being homosexual they shared a woman instead."

Sometimes, she warns, there may be an underlying element of revenge: "One man admitted openly, 'My real mother fucked me over. Now I'm going to fuck her.'" In contrast, many others experience an almost primordial sense of having "belonged" to the other person all their life. For Gonyo, the recognition that she shared her son's sarcastic humour and artistic talents, and saw the "male side" of herself in him, were especially powerful. (This sudden "shock of familiarity" is often also commented on by twins separated at birth.)

Gonyo is not surprised that attraction between fathers and daughters should be the least reported variant of GSA. "That group tends to stay very silent. It's still regarded as dangerously close to abuse, even though it is no different from other forms of GSA." But it does happen: a woman who recently traced her non-identical twin daughters, and included the birth father at the reunion, was horrified when one of the daughters and the father became instantly attracted to one another. As is common in cases of parent-child GSA, the attraction involved the girl who most resembled her father. "It's like my meeting Mitch: for a woman, meeting your father is to meet the male aspects of yourself for the first time."

Sometimes, that recognition may act as a powerful aphrodisiac. A young woman in one of Gonyo's workshops confessed that she had been in love with her father, and he with her, since their reunion. Only after they both suffered mental breakdowns did they have sex. "Sadly, although they imagined it would be cathartic, after sleeping together they felt no happier."

Almost invariably, the outcome of sexual relations between reunited relatives is that any subsequent lasting relationship, platonic or otherwise, is doomed - a dilemma illustrated in Kathryn Harrison's 1997 memoir The Kiss, a frank, sometimes shocking, account of her affair with her father.

That awareness has led New York psychotherapist Joe Soll to adopt the term "genetic attraction", believing the word "sexual" is in many cases inaccurate and also responsible for the underlying shame and fear that make the condition so distressing. He has noticed that the "romance" that develops, especially when mothers meet their adult children, mirrors the sensuous bonding between a new mother and her baby. "These people regress to a very early stage of development. The relationship is sensual, but we don't call it 'romance' or being 'in love' when it's breastfeeding, cradling and stroking, or when it's a mother and baby gazing into one another's eyes. Often, people tell me all they want to do is snuggle up together. A woman reunited with her adult son felt an overwhelming urge to suckle. There's an urge for intimacy, which they were previously denied."

Where that urge leads to sex, which appears to be more common between brothers and sisters, Soll and Gonyo encounter the greatest desperation and refusal to exert self-control. "I'll get calls from clients asking me in which of the American states they would be allowed to set up home together, or even get married," says Gonyo. "It doesn't matter what age they are - when your hormones are raging, you don't think about the consequences."

GSA rarely features at conferences on adoption, however, because the big US institutions, such as the National Council For Adoption, are reluctant to recognise the phenomenon. On the rare occasions that workshops do take place, they are usually packed. Unlike the UK, most US states are opposed to "open" adoption, so adoptees' records are sealed, which presents a formidable obstacle to family research. Gonyo, meanwhile, is convinced that the more an adopted child is told about their original family, and sees photographs of parents and siblings indicating shared characteristics, the less likely this will come as an intense shock if they meet. "Although it is better to play in the sandbox as kids than in bed as adults," she says, "the authorities prefer to ignore GSA, so it remains confused with real incest, rape and child abuse."

But in the light of the confessions and desperate actions of some "victims" of GSA, isn't it understandable that such confusion exists? Understandable, perhaps, but not inevitable. In contrast to America's squeamishness in addressing the issue, by the early 1990s British post-adoption agencies such as Norcap, the Child Migrants Trust and the Post-Adoption Centre were already admitting that, far from being either unique or bizarre, or a sign of deviance or emotional disorder, GSA was an all too normal reaction to an extreme emotional situation - and more commonplace than supposed.

Not that this makes it any easier to understand. Today, the Post-Adoption Centre, which offers practical information and counselling at any stage before, during and after adoptee reunions, and sees 3,000 new clients a year, estimates that up to half of reunions are accompanied by anything from temporary attraction to obsessive sexual obsession - and, very occasionally, even to the birth of a child.

At their most extreme, such relationships can have dangerous and potentially tragic consequences for families, especially spouses. In a recent, well-publicised case, a mother of two, Jennifer Grant, and her adopted half-brother, John Shannon, a former mayor of Pickering, North Yorkshire, left their respective spouses and children and set up home together after being united for the first time in 46 years. Interviewed by a Sunday newspaper in 2001, Jennifer's husband Graham, whose physical resemblance to John is striking, talked about his ordeal, typical of casualties floundering in the riptide of such obsessions. "I asked her if she had gone to bed with him and she said they had. I just left the house, got in my van and drove. I wanted to do myself in. Then I thought of the boys and what it would do to them. When I got back, she had gone."

Graham Grant reportedly cannot come to terms with what has happened: "It fills me with shock and dread," he said. "Members of our family have found it hard to discuss the matter with me. There's a sense of shame and disgust. It's left me feeling like a leper." Although, reportedly, there was a police inquiry into his wife's relationship with Shannon, with which they co-operated fully, the investigation ended due to lack of evidence that any crime had been committed.

Under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956, sexual intercourse between a brother or even a half-brother and sister is an offence that carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years. Although he escaped imprisonment, Scarborough police officer Tony Smedley's nine-month affair with his half-sister Janet Paveling tore apart his life. When Smedley's colleagues accidentally came across love letters that clearly referred to their sexual relationship, he and Paveling were arrested and committed for trial on charges of incest. He pleaded guilty when the case came to York crown court last month, and received a conditional discharge; the charges against Paveling were not pursued. Even so, Smedley lost his job, and must now try to rebuild a future with his wife and children, and with his sister's family. Another British brother and sister, Kim Straker and Terri O'Neill, who lived together as a couple and eventually had a child, were taken to court in the early 1990s. They were given suspended sentences and allowed to keep their daughter; they have since parted.

Even where such relationships do not end in turmoil and trauma, the effects of the taboo itself remain inescapably powerful. One of the strangest cases in recent years is that of Gary Klahr and Micka Zeman, who met in 1979 in their Connecticut hometown and enjoyed a casual six-month affair. In 1998, by which time both were in their 50s and married, Micka, knowing she was adopted, had traced her biological parents and found that she was one of 13 children born to the same couple, nine of whom were given up for adoption to couples in the area - one of them was Gary Klahr. On realising that she had had sex with her brother, Micka was physically sick. "Although it was brief and we were not that involved or serious, it was a shocking revelation and I was filled with tremendous guilt and sadness. I have since forgiven myself and realise it was foolish to feel guilty: after all, we did not know we were brother and sister, and when we re-met in 1998 the chemistry had long disappeared."

Although the news also shocked Gary, he maintains that someone less emotionally well-adjusted might have suffered greater damage. "A person with a different personality might have jumped out of the window, or at least had profound long-term feelings of guilt. But if you understand that nine out of 13 children from the biological family were adopted out to different families, with different names and different religions, within a 15-mile radius of the hospital where we were born, then something like this was bound to happen. I never had an idea, until 1998, that I was adopted: how could we have known that we were brother and sister?"

Cowling says that neither the threat of prosecution nor the suffering of families are a deterrent to those caught up in and determined to pursue such relationships. "I've heard women, including mothers sleeping with their sons, tell me, 'It's the most amazing sex I've ever had. Don't ask me to give it up - I can't.'"

When the relationship becomes obsessive and violent, especially between mothers and sons, the danger seems only to heighten the sexual chemistry and magnetic bond. "I've worked with cases where the violence has been terrifying because one person becomes fixated, phoning their relative 10, 12 times a day, demanding to know their movements, stalking them like a jealous lover," says Cowling. "But the other person still can't pull away. It's like an addiction." She cites a man who was imprisoned for violence against his mother: "The woman went into hiding, but he found her. We were getting panic-stricken calls from her at all hours, saying, 'He's coming for me, what shall I do?' Yet she, too, was obsessed with him. In another instance, a woman referred to her son as 'my lover' and talked of her body 'aching' for him. Unfortunately, for some men, the sex and violence is a way of punishing the birth mother for abandoning them, and for mothers the sex is a guilt trip: they feel they owe it to their son after giving him up for adoption."

The dilemma originally faced by professionals such as Cowling was that everyone wanted to help, but no one knew how. In 1992, Dr Maurice Greenberg, a consultant psychiatrist, head of student counselling services at University College London and former adviser to the Post-Adoption Centre, conducted what, incredibly, remains the only academic study into GSA. He interviewed eight male and female adoptees and analysed another 40 cases, including birth parents, reported by the Post-Adoption Centre; the objective was largely to gather information to help guide counsellors. Greenberg, who has the gentle, amiably absent-minded manner that instantly makes you want to tell him your troubles, admits he knew he was entering an unusual and special area and asked the Post-Adoption Centre why it did not simply acknowledge that these people were having incestuous relationships, rather than use the euphemism genetic sexual attraction. But was it really such a euphemism? What Greenberg couldn't foresee was how promptly he would do a u-turn, concluding that the consummation of GSA was "incest" only in the strictest biological sense. Today, he insists that it is essential to distinguish GSA from incest, and especially from child abuse. "There is no force, coercion, usually no betrayal of trust. And no victim. If sex occurs, it involves consenting adults."

He stresses that none of the interviewees who were sexually aroused by or had sex with a parent or sibling considered this incestuous, or that their behaviour was wrong, "But when I asked them if they might ever have similar feelings about members of their adoptive family, they shuddered at the suggestion".

Most interviewees described the period before a reunion as already exceptionally emotionally charged, filled with excitement and fantasies about meeting their relative. Reunions were characterised by so-called "mirroring" - the shock of familiarity and self-recognition on first meeting. Even where there is little physical resemblance, the emergence of shared interests, similar traits, mannerisms and instincts, often subtly transmitted through sense rather than verbal communication, tended to have a profound impact on one or both relatives. Greenberg says that many used the terms "finding a soulmate" and "like looking in the mirror for the first time".

Body odour, too, held an especially powerful attraction: there was, says Greenberg, frequent fascination with a relative's characteristic smell - acknowledged to be a potent factor in both human and animal attraction - as well as the feel of their skin and the sound of their voice. "The sudden, overwhelming sense of falling in love, a profound need for unusual closeness and intimacy, was almost universal. As adults, we have very limited abilities for communicating such intense feelings, and sometimes sex becomes the only familiar means."

The intriguing paradox that Greenberg appears to have uncovered is that, no matter how shocking it appears, GSA is a largely normal response to an extremely unusual situation: blood relatives meeting as strangers. More crucially, the existence of GSA, as distinct from habitual incest and child abuse within families, raises fundamental issues concerning sexual attraction, as well as with the origins of the "incest taboo" - areas that have only recently been the subject of serious research.

No analysis of incest and sexual desire is possible without the shadow of Freud looming over the debate. A new study by psychologists at the University of St Andrews shows that men and women are more likely to choose a spouse whose eye, skin and hair colour resembles that of their opposite-sex parent. Last year, a study by the same team revealed that women with older fathers, and men with older mothers, are usually attracted to older-looking partners. The same principle applies to racial characteristics, and to the smell of an opposite-sex parent. Although the reasons are unclear, one theory is that we are "imprinted" from birth with certain familiar characteristics with which we feel comfortable and to which we are eventually attracted.

However, Freud would have had an altogether different take on it, believing that the Oedipus complex was paramount in determining all sexual behaviour. Freud's theory, propounded in 1897, that every male infant has an overwhelming sexual desire for his mother, and every female for her father, is the cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory. He maintained that these incestuous drives were so powerful that they had to be suppressed. Our transition, between the ages of two and five, from the incestuous Oedipal phase to the post-Oedipal phase, resolves these impulses and, according to Freudian theory, is crucial to healthy human development. By the time we reach the post-Oedipal stage, the incest taboo, Freud reasoned, is indelibly imprinted on the psyche, governing future sexual behaviour.

But how persuasive is this Oedipal theory nowadays? Because Freudian ideas dominated much of the 20th century, what is less well known is that, at the turn of the 19th century, a contemporary of Freud's, the Finnish social anthropologist Edward Westermarck, put forward the opposite view, based not on the theory of natural attraction but of natural aversion. According to Westermarck, children growing up in close proximity are not sexually attracted to each other as adults. Quite the contrary: the "Westermarck effect" meant that overfamiliarity and boredom automatically caused siblings and other close relatives raised together to go out of their way to avoid sexual contact. Westermarck also reasoned that, since we find the idea of sex with our relatives so distasteful, we developed moral codes and laws to ensure that society conformed to this "norm" to avoid any social disruption, shame or discrimination.

Although these ideas were rubbished by Freud for their lack of supportive evidence - despite his own inability to provide a scientific rationale for the Oedipus complex - in recent years evidence confirming the Westermarck effect among humans and other species continues to grow. By revealing more about what lies behind our choice of sexual partners, these findings may hold clues to the "mystery" of GSA.

In one ongoing study of children raised on Kiryat Yedidim, an Israeli kibbutz, between the 1950s and late 1960s, US and Israeli anthropologists were amazed to discover that the sabras - boys and girls of almost identical ages from different families - did not, as their parents hoped and anticipated, marry each other. As one of the first researchers, Melford Spiro, observed in 1958, the intimacy between these children, especially between the ages of seven and 12, could not have been greater. Not only did they shower, sleep and run around naked together and explore each other's bodies, as they approached puberty they began openly to play sex games, including intimate kissing, fondling and simulated, or attempted, sexual intercourse. Despite this climate of sexual freedom, by their mid-teens the girls, especially, displayed signs of shame and became hostile towards the boys, to the point of insisting on having unisex showers. At around 15, the girls became attracted to older students and young unmarried men in the kibbutz, admitting that they saw their peers as "brothers".

In a second phase of the study, when these children had grown up, it emerged that not only had no marriages taken place between any of the sabras from Kiryat Yedidim, and three other kibbutzim, but neither was there a single reported incident of sexual intercourse. Eventually, another team of sociologists analysed the records of almost all known kibbutz marriages, totalling nearly 3,000: in only 16 cases did members of the same peer group marry - and in these cases the couple had met only after the age of six.

In the 1960s, about the same time as the kibbutz studies were being concluded, Professor Arthur Wolf, an American anthropologist from Stanford University in California, travelled to Taiwan to study the effects of child-training methods on child behaviour. He ended up living for long periods in Chinese communities after discovering, by chance, that these had a high incidence of a certain type of arranged marriage - known as the sim-pua, or "minor form" - in which the bride was sent away as a young child by her parents to be brought up alongside her future husband as an adopted "daughter-in-law" of the family.

Wolf, now 70, has spent the past four decades examining the effects of this now almost extinct practice, and revealing its previously unforeseen consequences. "Although the age at which the girl went to the future husband's family was between three and five, in some areas of Taiwan they were under two. Many who entered these marriages were, in fact, nursed by their future mothers-in-law." When Wolf asked some of these surviving mothers-in-law why they did this, he was taken aback by their candour. "They explained that the children weren't treated as daughters: they were referred to as 'little daughter-in-law'. They'd say, 'It's better to raise your son's wife, because she will listen to what you tell her and won't always be talking about your son behind your back.' It was the classic mother-in-law strategy!"

A shortage of suitable brides in these developing communities in the late 19th and early 20th century made this "trade" in girl children an attractive proposition. Wolf discovered that the mothers of infant boys whose next child was a girl preferred to give her away and then adopt someone else's infant daughter as a future daughter-in-law. As in the kibbutzim, the future couple, very close in age, were effectively raised as siblings. Unlike the children from the kibbutz, however, they had to marry - and, as grown-ups, many refused to go through with the marriage, or did so only under threat of severe punishment. Some women, says Wolf, became prostitutes rather than marry their fiancée. And in marriage adultery was rife: "One man promised he would marry any other woman as long as it wasn't his fiancée, although she was very attractive. This was more than lack of sexual interest - it was a complete sexual indifference towards their intended partner, which, as Westermarck claimed, led to disgust and aversion when the act was merely thought of or became a possibility."

Wolf's studies of government records of marriages, divorces and births of everyone in Taiwan prove that, compared with other arranged marriages in which couples were introduced as adolescents, such "minor marriages" were a disaster. His analysis of 25,000 minor marriages found that many ended in divorce and few offspring. Most significant of all is Wolf's discovery that these marriages were spectacularly unsuccessful if the girl had been adopted into her husband's family when aged five or younger. "If she came at three or younger, the sexual aversion and rate of marriage breakdown was very high. After five or six, there wasn't much difference between married couples who met at 16. There is some factor in developmental psychology during the first three years of life that seems critical in determining sexual attraction, but we don't know yet what this factor is."

It may be a long time, if ever, before we can identify the complex interplay of nature and nurture behind the dramas of love and loathing played out in the kibbutz and in Taiwan. Or know precisely at what stage in the sweaty rough and tumble of shared childhood that the potential for mutual sexual desire is switched off. But one thing seems clear: GSA is neither a horror, an illness, nor a perversion. Indeed, given what we already know, might it eventually prove to be not that much of a mystery?

Some names have been changed.

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Super, super fascinating.
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Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job, and How I Came To Peace With Her

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Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job, and How I Came To Peace With HerExpand

The internet is a mountain, and if you climb that mountain, waiting for you at the top will be the person with whom you need to make peace. I climbed my mountain and a woman named Justine Sacco was there.

One year ago today, Justine Sacco was the global head of communications for the digital media conglomerate IAC. Getting on a plane for a trip to South Africa, to visit family, she published a tweet: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm White!"

At the time, I was editing Valleywag, Gawker's tech-industry blog. As soon as I saw the tweet, I posted it. I barely needed to write anything to go with it: This woman's job was carefully managing the words of a large tech-media conglomerate, and she'd worded something terribly.

It was a natural post. Twitter disasters are the quickest source of outrage, and outrage is traffic. I didn't think about whether or not I might be ruining Sacco's life. The tweet was a bad tweet, and seeing it would make people feel good and angry—a simple social and emotional transaction that had happened before and would happen again and again. The minimal post set off a 48-hour paroxysm of fury, an eruption of internet vindictiveness.

Sacco was in the air, unable to realize what she'd done or apologize it, and as the tweet garnered retweets and faves and the first drafts of think pieces, eager observers tracked her flight across the Atlantic. A hashtag trended: #HasJustineLandedYet. Several hours later she emerged into an unfathomable modern multimedia hell-nightmare and was quickly and summarily fired.

Nearly as quickly, the righteous Twitter mob moved on. There were other social media morons and marketing employees to hold accountable: Trayvon Martin blackface costumes (338,000 page views), ill-conceived brand tweets, the Auschwitz selfie teen (179,000 page views), racist radio hosts (291,000 page views), and so on.

Some of them were pernicious, some were stupid. Each time, each slap, was the same: If we could only put one more wrongheaded head on a pike, humiliate one more bigoted sorority girl or ignorant Floridian, we could heal this world. Each, next outrage post was the one that would make a difference.

Sacco-related hashtags went dark; blog posts were pushed down the page. The "Justine Sacco" of headlines and links faded into a blur with those racist 12 Years a Slave posters. Remember those? Of course not—and I didn't think much about Justine Sacco after that, either.

Six months later, I got an email. The subject was "Justine Sacco here." I almost had a stroke. Yes, there was a period after "here." Justine Sacco, here. Where? Right here—fuck. There was a ghost speaking directly into my Gmail inbox.

Was Justine Sacco typing to me from the grave? Was she typing from the bottom of a sewage pit? Had she lost everything? I realized suddenly that I felt very guilty about having—I assumed—destroyed another person on what was basically a professional whim. It had only taken half a year to kick in!

She was asking me if I'd be willing to meet for drinks. Putting aside worries of a murder-suicide, I said OK.

Not long after, the two of us shared dinner and margaritas, and I looked up at a face I'd only ever seen on a screen, tweeted and repeated by people who hated that face. I've never been star-struck, but my stomach knotted. Justine Sacco had a face that wasn't made up of pixels.

And, as it turned out, Justine Sacco is not a racist monster. She is a kind and canny woman who threw back cocktails, ate delicately, and spoke expertly about software. She was friendly, very funny, instantly relatable, and very plainly not a cruel sicko. We talked about college, jobs, home, family, and work—she'd recently landed on her feet as the communications boss for a small New York startup, and seemed to be happily rebuilding her career.

I was severely nervous throughout. It was like a first date, only it's not a date and also the person has a really good reason to hate you, and has had half a year to stew over that reason. For about an hour, we talked about anything else; we gossiped about our respective industries, her treatment in the press, and cheery career goals.

Maybe it was the third drink, or months of piling, compressed guilt, but midway through our meal I had to say sorry. An apology to Justine Sacco had been itching at my throat from the moment I saw her. I was afraid to say it—because who knows what else I should be sorry for?—but the itching was worse.

So I did it: I said I was sorry posting her tweet had teleported her into a world of media scrutiny and misery. I'd tried not admitting even to myself that I was sorry, toying with various exculpatory principles like a child's wooden blocks: posting her tweet had been media criticism, industry watchdoggery, social justice, karma.

I'd managed to half-convince myself what I'd done was right, but then I saw her face. How often do you get to say you're sorry to someone you ruined on the internet? I was in a daze.

"I was so naive," she said. She had never expected the tweet would be interpreted the way it was.

To her, the entire thing had been plain:

She was flying to South Africa, where she has family.

This trip, she explained, made her think about how so many westerners consider HIV/AIDS an "African thing," when of course there is a domestic AIDS epidemic.

Her tweet was supposed to mimic—and mock—what an actual racist, ignorant person would say.

Ergo, tweeting that thought would be an ironic statement, a joke, the opposite of what it seemed to say. Not knowing anything about her, I had taken its cluelessness at face value, and hundreds of thousands of people had done the same—instantly hating her because it's easy and thrilling to hate a stranger online.

Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job, and How I Came To Peace With HerExpand

Sacco was not depressed, or even slightly bitter, and said she bore no resentment towards me at all. She'd only wanted to meet up, she explained, because I owed it to her. I should get to know her before ever writing about her again. There was no catch, no setup, no tricks—she just wanted me to consider her a person, and not a meme.

How could someone who tweeted something so stupid be so emotionally perfected? How could she not hate me? She was serene, decent, and despite the continued existence of Twitter, hopeful: "Someday you'll Google me and my LinkedIn will be the first thing that pops up." That part was heartbreaking.

Justine and I stayed in touch, mostly through email and IM, and I consider her a friend. I never thought I'd write (or think much) about her again.

And then, this past October, while sitting distracted and tired at my desk, riffing on the twisted online movement against "social justice warriors" in video games, I wrote a tweet of my own: "Ultimately #GamerGate is reaffirming what we've known to be true for decades: nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission."

Impulsively, and sort of laughing to myself, I added another, saying that we should "Bring Back Bullying" to counter this rising tide of web militancy. It was insincere and over in an instant, to me at least.

But within a few hours, thanks in part to my similarly trigger-happy and trolly editor Max Read, I watched a whirlpool of spleen and choler swelling till it had sucked in most of my energy and attention, along with that of many of my coworkers. Hundreds of people tweeted or emailed me or my editors; blogs and minor internet personalities sprang into action to challenge me. Their demands started with my firing and escalated from there.

Many of these people were disingenuously seizing on my tweet to direct a right-wing campaign against my employers. But it seemed clear that some portion of the outraged mass I was now facing genuinely believed that I was advocating for middle school-style bullying.

How could anyone have misread my irony? It made no sense. The question How could anyone think I was seriously condoning bullying? was exactly as clear in my mind as How could anyone think I was seriously making light of AIDS in Africa? had been in Sacco's.

Structurally, we had made the same sort of joke: Here is what a truly horrible person—a person whose attitudes were entirely opposite from mine and those of the people who know me—would say. You could argue that hers was worse, conjuring a real and pernicious attitude that had resulted in systemic historical oppression and mass death. But the impulse was the same, and so were the reactions.

The internet became unbearable, unreadable for me, a constant ringing and roaring in my ear. There was no point in defending myself; any attempt at explaining my joke would cause those who were gleefully offended by it to redouble their efforts. GamerGate had turned itself into something more despicable and retrograde than I'd ever intended to point out with my little joke, but there was no one who wanted to listen to that. There wasn't any conversation to be had, no objective to reach or conclusion to draw. Smashing a pinata isn't just for the candy—it feels great to swing your arms and feel a thud, and so they'd clobber me no matter what, even when it was clear there wasn't much sport left in it for GamerGate, either.

Twitter is a fast machine that almost begs for misunderstanding and misconstrual—deliberate misreading is its lubricant. The same flatness of affect that can make it such a weird and funny place also makes it a tricky and dangerous one. Jokes are complicated, context is hard. Rage is easy.

That's been a boon for social media platforms and digital publishers, as any blogger will tell you.

But in 2014 context means basically nil, anyway. Every time I say something online, there's a significant chance it will either be interpreted by committee on Twitter, or stumbled over by post-lobotomy brand managers. If, instead of making a facetious statement about bullying, I'd said "Gamergate is a group of shit people," they would've claimed I was making light of feces-borne illness fatalities. Does Adobe stand against dysentery?

I've been asked many times if I would post Sacco's tweet all over again, and I still don't know how to answer. Would I post the tweet again? Sure. Would I post the tweet knowing it's going to cause an incredibly disproportionate personal disaster for Justine Sacco? No. Would I post the tweet knowing it could happen? Now we're in dicey territory, and I'm thinking of ghosts: If you had a face-to-face sit-down with all of the people you've posted about, how many of THOSE would you do again? We're wading through swamps and thorns, here.

Justine Sacco has a PR job she enjoys now, but she deserves the best and biggest PR job, whatever that may be. Give it all to her. In the depths of the Gamergate blues, Sacco IMed me to ask how it was all going, and offered one piece of advice: "Just don't engage." Without any discussion, she knew the only divine truth of the internet: Do nothing. Never tweet. Never apologize. Never say anything at all. Be an inert bundle of molecules and let the world tear itself apart around you.

This is the one thing no one in public relations—pretty much a sham industry anyway, sure—has figured out, or is smart enough to put into practice. When you fuck up on the internet, do nothing. Say nothing. Remain motionless as best you can, no matter how much you want to explain, or argue, or contextualize. Shut up! Just shut up. It's what someone would have said to Sean Parker if he weren't so alienated in a big tumor of tech money.

Anyone working on any endeavor needs someone smart enough to tell them to just shut up, which is why Justine Sacco is the most qualified person in her entire field. She has the expertise of ten lifetimes when it comes to dealing with bad press. She survived a genuine personal crisis. She's unkillable, and smart, and she will tell you to shut up, idiot, it can't get any worse.

Image by Jim Cooke

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34 days ago
I wish this wasn't how it is, but this is how it is. The ghosts of the people I've thrown to the wolves in the name of clicks could probably line a city block by now.
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​The Most Miserable Princess Ever: Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of Austria

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​The Most Miserable Princess Ever: Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of AustriaExpand

Earlier this month, fashion's fanciest gathered in Salzburg for the annual Chanel Métiers d'Art collection. The runway show, meant to showcase the brand's couture bona fides, was held in a palace, featured Alpine-inspired looks and models looped around a centerpiece laden with fruits and sweets. To launch the festivities, Karl Lagerfeld made a short film imagining Pharrell Williams and Cara Delevingne as a pair of glamorous Austrian royals.

US Weekly cooed: "Pharrell Williams, Cara Delevingne Channel a Prince and Princess for Chanel Short Film: See the Glam Clip!" Well, that "prince and princess" are better known as Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, emperor and empress of Austria, the last major ruler of the Habsburgs and one of nineteenth-century Europe's most famously beautiful women, respectively. Empress Elisabeth, not actually a princess, is best known as Sisi.

In the English-speaking world, Sisi is admittedly a deep cut, as female royals go. If there's an Austrian aristo most Americans can name, it's Marie Antoinette, daughter of Habsburg empress Maria Theresa. (But of course, hardly anybody remembers the ill-fated French queen was born in Vienna.) Still, Sisi remains a byword for glamour, one that designers drop when they want to conjure opulence without the guillotines. Since her death, she's inspired a Barbara Cartland novel, a trilogy of beloved Austrian films, an entire cottage tourism industry and, oddly enough, Jessica Simpson's wedding gown. She gets a loving paragraph in Diana Vreeland's memoirs, D.V.:

And Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, is one of my heroines…. Elisabeth adored her hair, took great care of her hair…. perhaps you remember the great Winterhalter portrait. She was one of the first modern women. She was one of the first women who did exercises, one of the first who did gymnastics, and one night a week she'd go to bed in special sheets of bath toweling packed in beefsteaks—for her skin. Apparently, she never looked older than thirty—ever.

Sisi was also one of the most famously miserable royals who ever drew a breath. She despised the snotty, formal Habsburg court and spent as much time as possible far from Vienna and her dutiful, plodding husband. Shy to a degree that was practically paralyzing, she loathed public appearances and dodged them whenever she could—far too often, critics said. She feuded endlessly with her adamantine-willed mother-in-law. She spent years drifting around Europe, writing maudlin poetry, bemoaning her (very, very privileged) life. She was a complicated, high-strung woman who emphatically refused to live by others' rules; unfortunately, she couldn't seem to hammer out her own code, either. Her story is a bracing corrective to every princess trope Disney has ever pumped into popular culture. And now she's remembered, by and large, as a pretty lady with a tiara.

History does strange things to dead women.

​The Most Miserable Princess Ever: Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of AustriaExpand

Let's orient ourselves, using Princess Diana as our royal North Star. Sisi's story overlaps significantly with that of the People's Princess: Both married young and naive, both were saddled with domineering mothers-in-law, both grew into beautiful, glamorous and tragic figures, and in both cases, it didn't take Susan Miller to see trouble coming.

But there's a pretty major difference in how their stories open: Prince Charles came to his marriage grudgingly, and Diana was practically pulled from a lineup of perfect princess candidates. With Sisi, it was obvious from the beginning she was dreadfully unsuited to the job—but the young emperor Franz Joseph wanted her, and that was that.

Jean Haslip's The Lonely Empress records Sisi's birth in 1837, in Munich, one of eight siblings. She was a Wittelsbach, a member of the ruling family of Bavaria, though not (and this is important) from the branch that actually sat on the throne. The family had a longstanding reputation for kookiness; Sisi's cousin Ludwig would later fritter away much of their dynastic fortune building castles like Neuschwanstein, an enormous and enormously tacky homage to Richard Wagner that's said to have inspired Cinderella's castle at DisneyLand. Sisi's father Max was famously eccentric, with his drinking and his liberalism and his raucous crew of artsy and intellectual friends. He didn't much stand on ceremony, and he had little patience for courtly rigamarole.

Franz Joseph, the man who'd make Sisi an empress, was practically an animate sack of courtly rigamarole. He found himself on the throne at 18. That was thanks in no small part to his mother, the Bavarian-born Archduchess Sophie, who redefined the term formidable. Seemingly every account that mentions her claims that Sophie was for a time known as "the only man in the Hofburg." Apocryphal, maybe, but certainly telling. When the upheavals of 1848 drove out Prince Metternich—the foreign minister and legendary political scheme who'd helped reassemble Europe after Wellington finally stomped Napoleon, as well as less-than-effective Emperor Ferdinand—Sophie made sure her husband took a pass on the throne so it skipped to their son, Franz Joseph. (For more on this fancy bit of governmental footwork, see Andrew Wheatcroft's Habsburgs: Embodying Empire.) They put off the democracy-demanding hordes by swapping the old boss out for a younger, much better-looking new boss.

This woman who so thoroughly influenced Franz Joseph in his early years was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary. She believed in the rituals and the ceremony and the formalities. She wasn't the type to give two shits whether a daughter-in-law felt stifled. From Brigitte Hamann's The Reluctant Empress (noticing a theme, here?):

Archduchess Sophie was still entirely caught up in eighteenth-century thinking. She had no high opinion of individualism, let alone emotion, as an element in court politics—in contrast to her daughter-in-law-to-be. On one occasion, Sophie wrote to Princess Metternich that one should not believe "that individual personalities have any significance." She had always noticed that one person was replaced by another, without making the slightest difference in the world.

Sophie was Sisi's aunt, and for various personal and political reasons, she liked the idea of her son marrying one of her sister Ludovika's daughters (because that's the way you roll when you're European royalty, I guess). Specifically, she liked the looks of Helene, Sisi's older sister. Sophie and Ludovika arranged a meeting in the Austrian resort town of Bad Ischl, but their plan went sideways when Franz Joseph fell for Sisi practically on sight. Sophie described their meeting in a letter to Marie of Saxony, via Hamann: "He beamed, and you know how his face can beam when he is happy. The dear little one did not suspect the deep impression she had made on Franzi."

​The Most Miserable Princess Ever: Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of AustriaExpand

Don't mistake that anecdote for wholehearted approval. Sophie also wrote: "He told me, his expression beaming, that he found Sisi charming. I begged him not to act rashly, to think the matter over carefully, but he felt that it would not be right to delay." According to her diary, he praised her "soft, lovely eyes," her "lips like strawberries," calling her "fresh as a budding almond." Sisi was, for the record, 15, and not really in the position to turn him down. (She apparently burst out to Sophie: "I love the Emperor so much! If only he were not the Emperor!")

And so a moody teenaged girl married into one of the stuffiest, fussiest courts in Europe. It did not go well.

When Sisi arrived, the Austrian aristocracy didn't exactly roll out the welcome wagon. As far as they were concerned, she might as well have been born in a barn. (Presumably plenty of mommas were miffed their daughters hadn't gotten a fair shot if this sort of girl was the final selection.) Nor did she have the necessary training—her wardrobe, education in Austrian history and crash-course in protocol were all rush jobs. Nor did Sisi turn the charm up to eleven. She couldn't cope well with the crowds and the pressure. Hamann writes:

"At the sight of so many strangers, the young Empress panicked and fled to an adjoining room, where she broke out in tears. We can easily imagine the whispering among the ladies in full regalia waiting for the bride in the audience chamber. When Sisi finally joined the reception exhausted and unsteady, her face tear-stained, she provided new food for gossip. For she was too timid to make conversation with each of the ladies presented to her. According to protocol, however, no one was allowed to speak to the Empress except to reply to questions."

Wrote one witness, Baron Karl Kübeck, in his diary (via Hamann): "On the podium and among the spectators, jubilation and expectant joy. Behind the scenes, increasingly somber, very somber signs."

A sampling of the sort of poetry she was writing almost immediately after her wedding: "Fresh spring returns/And trims the trees with new green/And teaches new songs to the birds/And makes the flowers bloom more beautifully./But what is springtime bliss to me/Here in the faraway, strange land?/I long for the sun of home,/ I long for the banks of the Isar." (Another poem contains the line, "I have awakened in a dungeon,/With chains on my hands.") You can't really blame her, considering she married into the sort of situation where the whole palace knew the morning after she'd been deflowered. She was expected to offer her subjects her hand for the kissing, even if they were friends or relatives. She wasn't allowed to wear a pair of shoes more than once.

Sisi grew increasingly miserable, and her mother-in-law bore the brunt. She didn't like the micromanaging, the constant correction of her behavior, the fact that one of Sophie's closest friends was assigned as lady-in-waiting and therefore followed her everywhere. Their relationship went from bad to worse when the empress began having children. Sophie took charge of their upbringing, parking the nursery closer to her apartments than Sisi's. Years later Elisabeth told one of her ladies in waiting, after the birth of her fourth (and favorite) child (via Hamann):

"Only now do I understand what bliss a child means. Now I have finally had the courage to love the baby and keep it with me. My other children were taken away from me at once. I was permitted to see the children only when Archduchess Sophie gave permission. She was always present when I visited the children. Finally I gave up the struggle and went upstairs only rarely."

But slowly, surely, Sisi began to act out. She welcomed her brother's wife into the family—an actress who'd already borne him a daughter out of wedlock. She donated to help a Protestant congregation build a steeple—and remember, the Habsburgs were once Holy Roman Emperors. She took increasingly liberal political stances, increasingly loudly. She threw balls but invited only young people, not their higher-ranking mothers.

In 1860, her health collapsed. It's not entirely clear why, but historians speculate that her punishing exercise regimen and aggressive diets—which, to a modern eye, look awfully like disordered eating—might've contributed. Her son's birth in 1858 was hard. She was coughing constantly. Then there were rumors Franz Joseph had taken a mistress. Whatever the reasons, she decamped to Madeira for several months, returned, temporarily, then took off for Corfu. And when she returned, she came into her prime.

For one thing, she'd grown into a full-blown beauty and she knew it. The famous portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (which appears in Lagerfeld's short film) was painted in 1865. So often, you look at portraits of famous beauties and think, "Eh." Looks just don't translate very well from generation to generation. But you look at that and the racier companion painting, and you can see it. The delicate features, the piles and piles of hair. She has the coquettish little closed-mouth smile of Vivien Leigh or a young Elizabeth Taylor.

"The Empress, as I have often told you before, is a wonder of beauty—tall, beautifully formed, with a profusion of bright brown hair, a low Greek forehead, gentle eyes, very red lips, a sweet smile, a low musical voice, and a manner partly timid, partly gracious," Hamann quotes an American envoy writing home in 1864—the famously lovely Empress had become one of Vienna's great tourist attractions even then. But she hated being on display. Her lady-in-waiting Marie Festetics repeats a conversation about gawking theatergoers: "How happy the people are when they see Your Majesty," she said, with Elisabeth replying,"Oh, yes, they're curious—whenever there's something to see, they come running, for the monkey dancing at the hurdy-gurdy just as much as for me."

Two years after that portrait was painted came her greatest triumph: Her coronation with Franz Joseph as King and Queen of Hungary. This may sound like a matter of procedure, but in fact it was a major break with the beginning of her husband's reign, which had launched with the bloody repression of a Hungarian break for freedom. But things had changed by the late 1860s. By this point, the Habsburgs' domain was a cobbled-together jalopy rolling down the road of history, wheels rattling loudly, parts of varying importance flying off. They lost a province here, an ally there. Nationalism was an increasingly powerful force, eroding the bonds that held this polyglot empire together. (Ultimately a Serbian nationalist would shoot Franz Joseph's heir, Franz Ferdinand, and launch the war that brought the whole thing crashing down around their ears.) Plus, the 1866 Austro-Prussian War pretty much snatched their power among the German states. They couldn't lose Hungary.

How exactly to hang on to Hungary—that was the question. They wanted their constitution back, as well as a Hungarian coronation for Franz Joseph (a nod to Hungary as an entity separate from Austria). Sophie loathed the country, and Franz Joseph's old-guard advisors largely opposed any leniency or special recognition. (Plus, the emperor had survived an assassination attempt at the hands of a Hungarian in 1853.) Naturally, in contrast to her mother-in-law, Sisi had developed a capital-R Romantic love for the country and an admiration for the dashing leader Gyula Andrássy, and she maneuvered relentlessly on their behalf, pestering her husband incessantly, bringing all her charms to bear, wearing him down as he considered his options. Ultimately, he agreed to the dual monarchy.

The coronation itself was pretty much peak Sisi. Haslip quotes Franz Liszt, who wrote that, "Erzsebet was a celestial vision." There's a reproduction of the gown she wore on display in Vienna today, and it's stunning:

​The Most Miserable Princess Ever: Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of AustriaExpand

It was around this time that Franz Joseph's younger brother Maximilian was killed, the culmination of his fucking fool attempt to become emperor of Mexico at the urging of Napoleon III. (Yes, that really happened.) Between that and the ascendance of Hungary, Sophie was pretty much finished as a force to be reckoned with. That dragon was vanquished.

If you rolled the credits here, it would still be possible to see Sisi's story as a fairy tale. But of course, life doesn't work like that.

The young Sisi makes a sympathetic figure, but the deeper you get into her life, she's increasingly frustrating. Most of the information in this article comes from Haslip's fairly straightforward 1965 biography and Hamann's more overtly feminist 1986 work. Haslip often seems downright disgusted with her subject. Hamann puts Elisabeth's unhappiness in context, and yet you still get the feeling she occasionally wants to screech at the woman. As one of Sisi's own ladies in waiting wrote (via Haslip):

"The Empress is sweet and good, but she makes everything a burden for herself, and what to others is a source of happiness becomes for her a source of discontent. She seems to me like a child in a fairytale. The good fairies came, and each of them laid a splendid gift in her cradle, beauty, sweetness, grace… dignity, intelligence and wit. But then came the bad fairy and said 'I see that everything has been given you, but I will turn these qualities against you and they shall bring you no happiness. I will deprive you of something which a man bears within him unconsciously—moderation in your actions, occupations, thoughts and sensibilities. Nothing will bring you happiness, everything will turn against you. Even your beauty will bring you nothing but sorrow and you will never find peace."

You see this theme more and more, the longer you watch Sisi's life unspool. After the coronation she played little role in politics. She spent long stretches in Hungary, Bavaria and other assorted European locales; she had little to discuss with her prosaic husband back in Vienna. The decades were dominated by passions that flared and then were just as quickly dropped: Her mania for horses, which took her "riding to hounds" in England and Ireland; her villa in Greece, built at tremendous expense and promptly abandoned; the spiritualist period, which was admittedly de rigeur for the nineteenth century. She wrote reams and reams of maudlin poetry, often painting herself as the untouchable fairy queen Titania. The effort dedicated to maintaining her looks intensified. Her niece Marie Latisch outlined a wide variety of outlandish beauty measures: "nightly face masks with raw veal, during strawberry season a strawberry mask, warm olive-oil baths to maintain the smoothness of her skin…. 'damp cloths over her hips to maintain her slenderness, and for the same reason, she drank a dreadful mixture of five or six egg whites with salt.'"

Her behavior was growing strange, too. Her daughter Valerie (13 at the time) wrote in 1881 in her diary: "Mama had a very strong bath, and when I went in to her, she could not stop laughing, the bath had made her completely nervous. I was afraid, but fortunately she is already well again today." Four years later, she wrote during one of Sisi's illnesses: "Much worse than the ailment is Mama's indescribable despair and hopelessness. She says that it is a torment to be alive, and she indicates that she wants to kill herself."

She also told poor Valerie things like, "I really love nobody but you… the whole of that capacity for loving which has hitherto been imprisoned in my heart I have poured out upon you" (via Haslip) and (via Hamann): "Marriage is an absurd arrangement. One is sold as a fifteen-year-old child and makes a vow one does not understand and then regrets for thirty years or more, and which one can never undo again." Fair to the institution of monarchical marriage, perhaps, but not a particularly kind thing to say to a daughter who loves her father, too.

In 1889 came the greatest catastrophe of Sisi and Franz Joseph's lives. Their son Rudolf died at his hunting lodge, Mayerling, as part of a suicide pact; he shot his young mistress then several hours later put a bullet through his own brain. He was their only son, and he died without an heir, which is the only reason Franz Ferdinand ever found himself in the historical spotlight.

After Mayerling, Sisi's spa-to-spa drifting intensified, as everyone around her fretted about her dark depressive spells. She was on yet another trip—Geneva, this time—when she was stabbed on the street by an anarchist. Her corset was so tight nobody realized what had happened until she made it back to her ship, collapsed, and died.

Visit Vienna today, and it's obvious that Sisi is essentially the German-speaking Scarlett O'Hara. She's everywhere. The Winterhalter portrait appears on brochures, magnets, coffee cups, chocolates, tote bags, Christmas ornaments—you name it, they're selling it. Gift shops on every corner carry replicas of the diamond stars she wears in the painting. Sites connected (even tangentially!) to Elisabeth always seem the most crowded. One of the most popular attractions in the Hofburg, the centuries-old seat of Habsburg power, is her exercise equipment. You see her popping up in cafes and coffee houses all over town.

The most up-to-date exhibits I saw in Vienna were in the wing devoted to the Sisi Museum. The show-stopper is the room full of carefully preserved remnants of the empress's wardrobe, which is kept dim and more thoroughly climate-controlled than the Treasury holding literal religious relics. Much of the museum is dedicated to gently but firmly correcting the misinformation in the beloved Austrian film trilogy that began with 1955's Sissi, which is perhaps most responsible for Elizabeth's legacy.

Take everything I just told you and chuck it out the window, because history bears hardly any relation to these flicks. Gone is the difficult woman who spent much of her life lurching unhappily from obsession to obsession, frantically working to maintain her beauty and avoid the public eye. Picture Rebecca of Schonbrunn Farm; Anne of Bavarian Gables. Their appeal is obvious. They offer the hoop skirts, sweeping soundtrack and breathless romance of Gone with the Wind, without Scarlett's bitchiness or, you know, the slavery. Plus Austria looks absolutely lovely in mid-fifties film stock, like an ancient copy of National Geographic:

Star Romy Schneider is flat-out adorable, harmlessly cute like a young Debbie Reynolds and outfitted in a series of fluffy gowns like meringues. She first bursts into the frame on horseback, whooping happily, and shortly thereafter cheers on a baby deer in a scuffle with an equally harmless dog. She loves her home in Possenhofen and spends her days hiking with her beloved Papa, kitted out in traditional Bavarian garb. She meets Franz Joseph when she accidentally catches him with a fishing pole. This is patently ridiculous; nothing that charming ever happened to Franz Joseph in his entire life. (Bless his heart, he was a natural-born bureaucrat.) But of course the cinematic character bears no resemblance to his real-world analogue. He's a darling strawberry blonde cutting a dashing figure in his military uniforms and most of his dialogue seems to be saying "Sisi" in varying emotional tones. He bursts with incandescent happiness at seeing his beloved bride.

His mother, the archduchess, is unequivocally the villain of the piece. She's constantly making trouble between Franz and Sisi, lurching around one palace or another in black and purple and dark blue like a scheming crow. Vilma Degischer plays her as the archetypal bitchy mother-in-law, and it's actually pretty entertaining. But once again. the rough edges have been filed off. Forget the woman who seized a power vacuum to put her son on the throne of imperial Austria and replace her with Agatha, from Bewitched.

Pitted against this judgmental version of Sophie, Sisi becomes a romanticised, dramatically simplified figure who just wants her freedom, where freedom seems to be defined as plenty of fresh air and ample opportunities to gambol. She's endlessly, unfairly chided for breaking the rules, which she always does charmingly: She simply can't help her natural high spirits! The power struggle over her children's upbringing is taken as an opportunity to paint her as a doting Victorian mama. The portrayal of her relationship to Hungary is especially telling—she's portrayed as guileless and apolitical, Angel in the House-ing her way into harmony between the two countries.

Conveniently, the third movie ends before Franz Joseph and Elisabeth lose their eldest child to a sudden illness in Hungary and decades before Rudolf's disastrous suicide at Mayerling—in other words, before it would've become hard to sustain the portrayal of the empress as a chipper, wide-eyed little dear. Schneider bailed and didn't reprise the role until 1972's Ludwig, about the Wagner-loving cousin king of Bavaria, where she appeared as an older, vastly more cynical Sisi.

Sisi hasn't been wholly reduced to the woman portrayed by Schneider. Her misery is sufficiently well known that in the 90s, a German pharmaceutical company declared the existence of "the Sisi Syndrome," a particular subset of depression common in women and characterized by listlessness. But the films have set the terms on which Sisi is memorialized, framing her legacy in a very specific way.

Outside Austria and Germany, Sisi is remembered primarily as a fashion icon, by people like Vreeland and Lagerfeld. Watch this clip, in which Carolina Herrara explains how Sisi and the iconic Winterhalter portrait inspired Jessica Simpson's custom-made wedding gown. "I love it that you're inspired by a painting," replies the clueless Newlyweds star. "That makes me feel special."

Of course, Sisi would probably relate to the relentless dieting (though certainly not the reality TV or blatant tabloid attention-seeking).

Lagerfeld's "Reincarnation" is more of the same romanticising. It's just an excuse to put Cara Delevingne in a poofy dress so she can twirl about with Pharrell (another upgrade for Franz Joseph, who'd probably die all over again if you played him something as boppy as "Happy"). (And Sisi would've loathed that getup Delevingne is wearing, which is some straight costume shop garbage.) The headlines are pretty telling. Elle: "Pharrell and Cara Delevingne Sing and Dance in Chanel Fairy Tale." The Gloss: "You'll Swoon When You See Pharrell As Cara Delevingne's Prince Charming In This New Ad." Cosmo: "Introducing Chanel's New Prince and Princess." Delevingne teased the film with Instagram images straight out of Cinderella:

Not that Lagerfeld gives two shits about accuracy, of course. "There's a touch of Pop Art in it," he told Women's Wear Daily. "It's not meant to be a historical reconstruction or something heavy like that. This is light and funny." You could compare her to any number of famous women (Princess Di, Kate Middleton, Kim Kardashian, Marie Antoinette). But Sisi reminds me of nobody so much as Marilyn Monroe—a complicated woman who died and was promptly reduced to a series of very, very lovely pictures. Nothing heavy, just a lady in a pretty poofy dress.

Images by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, via Wikipedia. Photos via AP.

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38 days ago
Sisi: heroine to depressed ladies everywhere.
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Seth Rogen’s The Interview Proves That the Mightiest Weapon Isn’t a Bomb — It’s Butthole Jokes

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click to enlarge Seth Rogen co-wrote, co-directed and co-stars in The Interview. - PHOTO BY RYAN ORANGE
  • Photo by Ryan Orange
  • Seth Rogen co-wrote, co-directed and co-stars in The Interview.

UPDATE: Sony has officially canceled the theatrical release of The Interview following terrorist threats against theaters — and the announcement that several major theater chains had opted not to exhibit the film.



Sony assumed North Korea would hate the movie. The question was: What would it do? Pyongyang had just tested its atom bomb and threatened “preemptive nuclear attack.” And the Supreme Leader with his finger on the trigger was barely over 30, with less than two years of experience.

But Kim Jong-un didn’t care about Olympus Has Fallen, even though the violently anti–North Korean 2013 film showed his people strangling women, murdering unarmed men, kidnapping the U.S. president and even executing their fellow citizens. His saber rattlers never mentioned it. That wasn’t worth a fight.

A year later, North Korea had a bigger enemy: Seth Rogen.

In the new film The Interview, which Rogen directed with longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg, he plays a trash-TV producer named Aaron who’s become bored with pop culture gossip. Then he and his bimbo host, Dave Skylark (James Franco), score an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).

There’s a catch and a twist: First, a CIA agent (Lizzy Caplan) commands Aaron and Dave to assassinate Kim Jong-un for the good of the world. Second, Skylark and Kim Jong-un instantly hit it off and spend the trip cruising in tanks listening to Katy Perry, banging chicks at orgies and bonding over the pressures of media scrutiny and disapproving parents. Sighs Kim Jong-un, “You know what’s more destructive than a nuclear bomb? Words.”

In June, two weeks after Sony released The Interview’s first trailer, the Korean Central News Agency slammed Rogen as a “gangster filmmaker” who had made a “blatant act of terrorism and war.” The country promised stern and merciless retaliation and warned that Kim Jong-un himself would see The Interview.

“We were told that they have good hackers in North Korea and that they’ve probably hacked into Sony’s servers and watched the movie already,” Rogen says.

Sony had already been worried about The Interview for months. At its Tokyo headquarters, the company had a front-row seat to Japan’s diplomatic efforts to soothe relations with North Korea. Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai asked studio head Amy Pascal to tone down the film, which she told Rogen was the corporation’s only creative command in her 25-year career.

“You have the power to help me here,” Pascal emailed Rogen. “I haven’t the foggiest notion how to deal with Japanese politics as it relates to Korea, so all I can do is make sure that Sony won’t be put in a bad situation, and even that is subjective.”

“I think if you look, it does not say Sony on the movie,” Rogen claims. “That might have been how that was resolved. This is a Columbia picture,” referring to Sony’s subsidiary.

One month before The Interview’s Christmas opening date, computer hackers imploded Sony’s online network, vaporizing its communications, pirating five new films, publicizing employee Social Security numbers and spilling embarrassing inside information about how the studio makes money. Even the physical security guards at the studio’s Culver City gates were helpless, begging visitors to call in their own credential check and scribbling passes in pen. By the time pseudonymous emails threatened Sony employees’ families, some workers were so exhausted that they stood in the hallways and wept.

Was North Korea behind this attack — or the subsequent threats on American theaters? A government spokesman denied involvement but accused Sony of “abetting a terrorist act” and suggested the studio “reflect on its wrongdoings.”
What’s most telling about Kim Jong-un’s regime, a mind-controlling, monolithic dictatorship beyond the wildest dreams of Joseph Stalin or Mao, isn’t that it was furious at a Hollywood film. It’s which film.

It wasn’t Olympus Has Fallen, the cruel action flick with three Oscar nominees in its cast. Not even after the film sent audiences scurrying to Twitter to hiss anti-Asian slurs.

It was the comedy written, directed by and starring a man last seen sword-fighting with a dildo.

Here’s why the North Korean government didn’t mind Olympus Has Fallen: It made them look capable of blowing up the White House. By contrast, The Interview dares joke that Kim Jong-un — gasp! — is scared to drink margaritas because his dad, Kim Jong-il, convinced him they were “gay.”

Fear is fine. But humiliation means war.

In response to the Korean Central News Agency threats, Rogen tweeted, “Apparently Kim Jong Un plans on watching The Interview. I hope he likes it!!”

click to enlarge Seth Rogen - PHOTO BY RYAN ORANGE
  • Photo by Ryan Orange
  • Seth Rogen

Does he really?

“I don’t know, he probably will hate it because it literally has a goal to debase him and humiliate him,” Rogen says.

But at least The Interview does so with a smile. As Randall Park plays him, Kim Jong-un is, well, adorable. At least at first.

“It was important for me to bring a vulnerability to him,” Park says. When he meets Franco’s Dave Skylark, Park squeals with excitement. Park based the moment on the Vice documentary where Kim Jong-un meets basketball player Dennis Rodman.

“He’s shaking a bunch of Americans’ hands and maintaining eye contact with each of them,” Park says. “But as soon as Rodman comes out, he looks away because he’s so nervous — it was a really human side of him that you don’t hear about.”

Kim Jong-un’s classmates from his international school in Switzerland remember the future leader forever doodling pictures of Michael Jordan, “something that I probably did when I was younger,” Park says. He empathized, not only because he, too, loves basketball but also because one of the only things as strange as being a young, unprepared, paranoid Supreme Leader is playing that young Supreme Leader in a moment of global unease.

“As an actor, I’d have some reservations about playing a living dictator,” says Rogen, who later admitted to Park that he was the only actor to audition. “I’m impressed that he did it, honestly.”

The reaction Park was most afraid of was that of his parents, both immigrants from South Korea. Luckily, they gave him their blessing. “They just thought it was a really funny concept — and daring,” he says.

“It’s all based on real shit!” Rogen exclaims. Which is crazy for a few reasons. First, because this is the first script Rogen and Goldberg ever bothered to research. (“If North Korea was a Jeopardy! category, I would do well,” Rogen insists.)

Second, because of the “facts” they’ve found, which sound fake but aren’t. The Interview’s Kim Jong-un has convinced his subjects that he talks to dolphins. (The local marine park vows that Dear Leader personally trained the animals.) An even bolder claim: Kim Jong-un doesn’t have an anus. “He has no need for one,” says his fictional press handler, Sook (Diana Bang).

“I’ve heard defectors say that, too,” North Korea expert James Person of the D.C.-based Wilson Center confirms. “The cult of personality is built to such an extreme that it’s something you would never think of: the leader defecating.”

“As idiots, we obviously gravitated to that one,” Rogen says. “We couldn’t even put in a lot of the shit that is real because it almost starts to feel like we’re just making shit up.” Fun “facts” he and Goldberg couldn’t use: that Kim Jong-un designed every building in North Korea, that he was born with a unicorn in a magical cave and that he invented the hamburger. “Like, literally!” Rogen says, laughing.

Third, despite all of that, the closing credits insist that The Interview is a work of fiction, in which any similarities to persons living or dead are coincidental.

“It’s legally the weirdest shit ever,” Rogen says. “That was the biggest battle. Normally in a movie like this, they would make up a guy — it would be Kim Song Bob.”

But he and Goldberg had already fought a similar battle the year before with the rapture comedy This Is the End, in which Rogen, Franco and friends played themselves fighting the demons of hell. Initially, the studio said no. They fretted it would be too confusing. But Rogen kept making the case.

“We kept saying, ‘The fact that you’re afraid of it means it’s good,’ ” Rogen says. They won that debate and This Is the End went on to make quadruple its budget. This time, when the studio resisted, his counter-argument was prepared: “We were, like, ‘It’s literally happening again!’ ”

Still, Sony’s lawyers weren’t satisfied. In Hollywood, speech may be free — but $45 million film production budgets aren’t. Our capitalist democracy allows filmmakers the First Amendment right to crack any joke they want, but someone still has to pay for the megaphone. (Part of the reason Rogen and Goldberg keep their budgets low is to forestall studio interference — a concession for creative independence.)

The legal team fretted over things Rogen and Goldberg weren’t expecting. In the film’s opening scene, a North Korean moppet sings that she wishes Americans would “drown in their own blood and feces.” The lawyers weren’t nervous about the lyrics. They were nervous that she was superimposed in front of an actual North Korean monument. Legally, movies need permission to show most monuments, Rogen says, no matter what country they’re in. They’re works of art. But who would grant it?

“Some things that are not quite legal were done under the assumption that North Korea won’t sue us,” Rogen says. “But then other things, they just for some reason decided we have to operate under the assumption that North Korea might sue us.” In an email to Pascal, he vented, “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy.”

When the studio lawyers asked for their biggest concession, Rogen was shocked. The Interview could keep the name Kim Jong-un, the flirtation between the dictator and Skylark, the anus joke, the real-life monument and even the line where the Supreme Leader leers, “Guess what I get tons of? Pussy!” Instead, they asked Rogen to digitally erase Kim Jong-il from the buttons on the North Korean military costumes in fear that it would be considered blasphemous.

“That’s what you want to change?” Rogen guffaws. “It’s literally imperceptible to the human eye for 90 percent of it.” But he agreed. Apparently to North Korea, it would be no laughing matter.

click to enlarge Randall Park plays Kim Jong-un in The Interview</i
  • Randall Park plays Kim Jong-un in The Interview

“Comedy is the greatest way to attack anything like a totalitarian regime,” said Ray Bradbury. “Courage doesn’t do it. Laughs do.”

Bradbury was speaking of The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s bold lampoon of Adolf Hitler. The Little Tramp was furious when the Nazis called him a “disgusting Jewish acrobat.” Chaplin wasn’t Jewish. But that wasn’t the point. He was upset that being Jewish was an insult — and worse, that more people weren’t offended.

“Hitler must be laughed at,” Chaplin insisted. “I was determined to ridicule their mystic bilge about a pure-blooded race.”

He and Hitler were born just one week apart in April 1889. Both were raised in troubled homes and pursued artistic careers — albeit, in Hitler’s case, temporarily. “He’s the madman, I’m the comic,” Chaplin said. “But it could have been the other way around.”

When Chaplin started work on The Great Dictator in 1939, he wasn’t sure his satire would even be seen. Naturally, it was preemptively banned in Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy and all Nazi-occupied territory — no surprises there. The one time a projectionist snuck it into a military theater, the German soldiers fired pistols at the screen. But thanks to the Hayes Production Code, which frowned upon breaking Hollywood’s neutrality stance, screenings weren’t even guaranteed in America or Chaplin’s native England.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt learned that Hollywood was giving Chaplin a hard time, he urged the filmmaker to press on. Roosevelt even attended The Great Dictator’s premiere in 1940 — by that time, hating Hitler was politically smart.

Rogen and Goldberg can relate to Chaplin’s battle for approval.

“We wanted to do a screening at the White House and they said no,” Rogen says. “We got back a funny email, like, ‘Given the subject matter, we do not feel that this would be appropriate.’ ” And so far, The Interview will not be shown in China or Japan, the second and third most lucrative theatrical markets. (Or anywhere else in Asia, including South Korea.)

The genius of The Great Dictator is that it doesn’t just attack Hitler’s policies. As in The Interview, the film makes the dictator a buffoon. Chaplin’s dictator falls down the stairs, gets soiled by a baby, fumbles with his pens, frets about his social status and gets caught in his own cape. He doesn’t rule with an iron fist — he’s ruled by his emotions. And in the stand-out scene where he toys with an inflatable globe, instead of bursting it like a cruel god, he bops it on his head and ass like a child. (And when it does pop, he cries.)

But Chaplin held back by dubbing his mustachioed, Jew-hating tyrant “Adenoid Hynkel.” The Interview aggressively names names.

Plus, Chaplin ended The Great Dictator with a four-minute speech in which he addressed the camera and pleaded for utopian peace. “Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people!” he declared while wearing his fictional military costume. “Let us fight to free the world — to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.” It’s no spoiler to say that Rogen and Goldberg end their film with less sincerity.

Clearly, Hitler’s own favorite film about himself, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, can be defined as propaganda. Audiences have a harder time using the word to describe Chaplin’s work, though both are unquestionably films designed to further a cause.

click to enlarge James Franco (left), Lizzy Caplan and Seth Rogen in The Interview
  • James Franco (left), Lizzy Caplan and Seth Rogen in The Interview

“Is this movie propaganda?” Rogen asks of The Interview. Well, yes. Imagine America’s patriotic anger if North Korea green-lit the same script about Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush. But that’s the curious thing about propaganda: It only feels outrageous when we disagree with it.

When a movie upsets people, its defenders insist that it’s only entertainment. But movies have power. Imagine you live in Pyongyang, where literally everything in movie theaters and on TV is made by the government.

“You watch whatever was on TV at the time, and nine times out of 10 it was a documentary about how great the Kim family is,” says Person, the North Korea expert. “From cradle to grave, you are told that they are this family that is truly fighting for Korea.”

Three generations of Kims have ruled North Korea, starting with Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung in 1948. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s, when Kim Jong-il increased his clout within his father’s regime, that the Kim family’s cult of personality took root. Kim Jong-il realized the ability of cinema to shape minds.

Part of his own myth was that, at 7, Kim Jong-il was such a cineaste that he criticized the propmaster of the drama Village for using cheap cotton “snow.” He took over the country’s film studios as writer, producer, executive and critic; made the country’s most famous actress, Song Hye Rim, his mistress; and even penned a book called On the Art of Cinema. Not only did his manual issue edicts such as “Make-up is a noble art,” it ordered his directors that every movie had to have what he called a “seed.”

“You read that and think, well, OK, ‘plot,’ ” Person says. “But it’s beyond that. You need to have an ideological message that reinforces this narrative of absolute loyalty and subservience to the Kim family.”

Kim Jong-il’s seed sprouted. The directors may have quietly resented his intrusions on the set, if only because he cost them equipment — every camera lens he touched was then taken to a museum. But to the entertainment-starved North Koreans, local movies were incredibly popular — there are rumors of people dying in stampedes to get into an overbooked theater.

Still, Kim Jong-il didn’t understand the power of making audiences laugh. He rarely green-lit funny films, even though some of his plots sounded like black comedies, such as the one in which a crippled soldier receives new legs from a team of doctors who literally tear their own limbs apart to sew him a pair. Unlike Germans under Hitler, most of whom had seen Chaplin films before the war began, the North Koreans have little awareness of irreverent comedy.

“For us, whatever, you make fun of your president,” Person says. North Koreans don’t. One night Person was in North Korea, drinking with three locals, when Kim Jong-un suddenly appeared on TV to promote an upcoming event. “They jumped up and ran to the television, and it was just a commercial.

“That’s why they’re so sensitive to the idea that Westerners are making fun of this person who they truly believe is making every sacrifice for the country,” Person adds. “They don’t even think the guy defecates, and here’s this movie showing him as this comical figure and damaging the dignity of their leader.”

And in a country with no concept of free speech, where every movie is Kim family–approved, it would be hard for North Koreans to comprehend that The Interview was made by individuals. To them, this insult was made by America.

What’s funny — not that Pyongyang is laughing — is that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg aren’t even American. They’re Canadian.

What’s funnier, at least to Rogen and Goldberg themselves, is that they’re just two doofuses who have accidentally-on-purpose triggered an international incident.

“We’re just two fucking dudes!” Rogen says. “I don’t have a lot to offer in the political arena.”

click to enlarge James Franco, left, plays the himbo TV presenter who gets friendly with Kim Jong-un, with Rogen as his producer, in The Interview.
  • James Franco, left, plays the himbo TV presenter who gets friendly with Kim Jong-un, with Rogen as his producer, in The Interview.

True, The Interview has more jokes about buttholes, homoeroticism and explosives than about foreign policy. But there’s a suspicion that the pair are more politically sharp than they’ll admit.

Rogen has described his parents, who met on a kibbutz in Israel, as radical Jewish socialists. His father, Mark, is the assistant director of a nonprofit that promotes Yiddish culture. His mother, Sandy, is a social worker.

“Where I come from, communism is not a terrible word,” Rogen told the Guardian in 2007.

During the summer, Rogen’s parents sent him to a “granola, super left-wing, labor Zionist socialist” camp on an island off the coast of Vancouver, where, instead of making macramé, the children studied poverty and social justice.

“They tried to intellectually stimulate you,” Rogen says. The kids had fun but they also worked. “You got a job in the kitchen, or you would clean the camp. There was a gardening group, a painting group, a repair squad if something broke — it was awesome.” Even though the counselors made him march the grounds carrying rocks.

Goldberg, a private-school kid, went to the other camp, “the rich, more neocon, right-wing one,” Rogen says. When the two boys met over bagels and chocolate milk in bar mitzvah class, they realized they had tons in common.

“He was the loud guy from his side, and I was the loud guy from my side,” Goldberg says. Plus they both loved Pulp Fiction and Mel Brooks. One afternoon in 1995, while watching a terrible movie on TV, he and Rogen agreed they could do better. So they went upstairs to Goldberg’s sister’s pink bedroom and began writing a script on the family computer. It wasn’t a hobby. It was their future.

“People are often just, like, ‘Aw, they’re these little Canadians and they got to live their dream!’ ” Goldberg says. “But we’re from Vancouver” — the third-largest shooting location in North America — “and they filmed movies at our high school all the time — they filmed movies in some of our friends’ houses — so to us, making a movie was inevitable, it wasn’t far-fetched at all.”

The script was Superbad, or at least its ancestor. (They rewrote it 18 times.) It was slow going. Rogen also was doing stand-up. At 16, he won the Vancouver Amateur Comedy Contest and a part in Judd Apatow’s TV series Freaks and Geeks and moved to Los Angeles.

Goldberg stayed behind. He taught aquatic fitness and enrolled in college as an American history major (in Canada).

“My primary goal was still to write movies with Seth,” Goldberg says, “but I was, like, ‘or teach history, whatever.’” Despite insisting that he was “a B-plus student,” Goldberg can’t hide his intellectual bent. He figured he’d eventually join Rogen in Hollywood, and an American history major “would help me understand America better.” He and Rogen half-joke about writing a comedy about the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States, which Canadians insist they won, while Americans claim it was a draw. (“It wasn’t a draw — America attacked and they lost and they retreated!” Goldberg says. “Canadians, we hold on to what victories we can have over big nations — we don’t have a lot.”)

Goldberg says, “History is stories and they’re real — and they’re generally crazier than the shit people come up with.”

Facts are stranger than fiction. And if that wasn’t clear to Rogen and Goldberg before, it is after The Interview’s geopolitical fracas.

But Rogen and Goldberg have always grounded their scripts in truth — at least, their own emotional truth.

“We wrote Superbad when we were in high school, we were unemployed when we wrote Pineapple Express, we were getting notoriety when we wrote This Is the End,” Rogen notes. Now, like their fictional Interview counterparts Aaron and Dave, they have a voice. What do they want their movies to say?

“We have a lot of people’s attention,” Rogen says. “Should we try to maybe do something with a little more substance? One could argue that we are the last people on earth who should do something with a little more substance — maybe just stick to the arena that we’re good at.”

“There’s no two ways about it, we’re doing something political by making this movie,” Goldberg admits. “An American or a Canadian or anyone in a country that’s democratic and free should criticize a country that’s clearly as bad as North Korea.”

To James Franco, Rogen and Goldberg have been writing serious movies all along.

“They pick subjects that are actually pretty deep, like in This Is the End, the end of the world and religious beliefs,” Franco says. “These things could really be disturbing, but because they’re in these comedic movies, they’re able to talk about these things in a way that’s free because they’re so fun.”

In fact, if you freeze-frame The Interview, it looks like a serious drama. Instead of the bright, cheery cinematography of most studio comedies, the colors are solemn and gray — more Jason Bourne than James Franco screaming at Seth Rogen to shove a secret weapon in his ass.

“I believe that Seth and Evan are being just as serious in their satire as Zero Dark Thirty,” Franco says, “but because it’s couched in comedy, they can in some ways hit a lot harder.”

To the hackers bedeviling Sony, The Interview is a full-on assault. Online, they’ve commanded, “Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War!”

North Korea’s gravest concern isn’t that Westerners may see the film. We already disapprove of Kim Jong-un’s regime. It’s more worried about its own people seeing The Interview — a challenge that has gotten harder to control as people from China and South Korea smuggle flash drives into the country.

“A lot of younger people there are learning about the outside world through this illegal market,” Park says. It’s not inconceivable that one night, a small group of curious North Korean citizens could secretly gather to watch the film. And, if discovered, be sent to labor camps.

“That’d be fucked up,” Rogen says. “Why would they be so mad about it?”

Because Kim Jong-un knows that his fly-nowhere nuclear program isn’t North Korea’s most powerful weapon. It’s the media, the movies, that keep his country in line.

Hazy links make North Korea the No. 1 suspect in the Sony online attack: the country’s two-year university hacking program with a Chinese study-abroad, the 3,000 hackers on the government’s payroll, the traces of Korean script on the servers, the suspicious timing and the cryptic denials.

Still, the clearest reason to question North Korea isn’t physical evidence but rather the absence of it. The hackers stole five new, completed movies from Sony’s servers. Yet only The Interview has, so far, been left alone — and it’s the one film Kim Jong-un doesn’t want you to see.
Correction: An earlier version of this article had the incorrect year for the birth of Chaplin and Hitler. The correct year is 1889. We regret the error.

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39 days ago
I am utterly furious that Sony has yanked The Interview. What's interesting about this piece is the last third, where the writer discusses why North Korea wants it gone-- it might not be for the reasons you think, and makes an even stronger case for why it SHOULD be released, and released widely.
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Dollar Guilt in the Land of the Collapsing Ruble

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I’ve gotten a 100 percent raise. Not as a reward for hard work or long-term loyalty to my employer, but as a gift of timing. This windfall isn’t a one-off like a bonus, nor is it evenly spaced like paychecks after a promotion. I get richer at random. Almost every time I visit the ATM, what I take out is a smaller slice of what I make than it was the time before. I’m paid in dollars, but I live in Russia, where the currency is currently collapsing; as the ruble loses value, I effectively get a raise. This week alone, at the time of this writing, my salary’s worth has increased by 20%. It’d be a gross simplification, but you could say my raise comes courtesy of Vladimir Putin.

As the ruble falls, I think back on a night in late autumn of 2007 when Moscow’s streets were windswept, but not swept clean of ice, and I decided to spring for a taxi. The gypsy cab I hailed was an old car of Russian make, not rickety, but the kind you can feel laboring at getting you where you’re going. Its fenders were obscured by a rich paste of chemical salt and mud, as were the peripheral views from the rear window, which were covered by the gathered pleats of burgundy polyester curtains. These, the smell of the car’s interior suggested, were sometimes drawn so that the driver could stretch out for a nap in the back seat.

That year, 2007, Moscow had been named the world’s most expensive city for expatriates to live in for the second year running by a cost-of-living survey produced yearly by American consulting firm Mercer, which provides websites like the Huffington Post reliable slideshow fodder.

My driver heard my foreignness in the way I pronounced my address. He inquired, and I told him where I was from. He spoke heatedly, then, about terrorists and democracy and empires and fate. Mainly, though, he laughed. All the way home, he was taken with a scary hilarity, and as he sped along the 10-lane highway that crawls with traffic during the daytime and forms a racecourse around Moscow’s center at night, I wondered if my Americanness would be both our downfalls. Russians’ savings had repeatedly been reduced to nothing by economic calamity during the 1990s; if my driver himself had not been impoverished by capricious shifts in the currency’s value, surely many he loved had. Now that the tables were turned—or shifted—he had every reason to relish the moment.

“Americans, what do they think in America now that it’s 25 rubles to the dollar!” he demanded.

I did not have many thoughts on currency rates, however. No matter, his own belly laugh was the most satisfactory answer of all.

“America! How do you like 25 rubles?!” he laughed, animated by a shameless, revelling schadenfreude. I wouldn’t have dreamed of explaining that Americans gave little thought to the value of the ruble. Driving me home seemed like the best thing that had happened to this guy in a long time.

When I first visited Russia seven years ago, Ziploc bags were commonly washed and hung to dry on a clothesline in the kitchen, and not out of environmentalism. My host mother wouldn’t let me wash my jeans in the laundry machine for fear that their heavy thrashing would break her most prized possession. The money my presence in her apartment earned was to fund the kitchen’s renovation. Russia was “rising from its knees” according to a common cliche used to describe the 2000s, but it hadn’t stood up quite yet. Moscow’s streets weren’t cleared after snowfall and would regularly become treacherous with ice. Huddles of men drinking vodka studded my walk to the metro. I saw desperately sad-looking prostitutes lurking in the stairs leading down to a pedestrian tunnel passing under the highway. But although the city felt, objectively, far from the most desirable place in the world to live, a personal-sized pizza with gluey cheese cost $30, and if I wasn’t careful, I’d find that I had ordered a $14 bottle of water.

For the next six years, Moscow never fell below the top four in the ranking of most expensive cities for expats. In 2014, it was rated 9th, “due to a dramatic depreciation of the ruble to the dollar.” The ruble had fallen in value from around 30 to the dollar to around 36 to the dollar in the time between when Mercer took its 2013 and 2014 surveys.

By the time I arrived for my gig in Moscow this June, the ruble was clocking in at around 35 to the dollar. I knew that customs duties drove up the prices of consumer goods imported to Russia, and prepared for my move by buying and bringing whatever I thought might be expensive: a couple extra bottles of the fancy shampoo I like, a jumbo jar of peanut butter, which is notoriously hard to find.

The ruble didn’t start to slide further until July, and when I went back to America for a couple of months starting in early September, it was at 37. Economic experts speculated as to whether the ruble would pass the “psychological barrier” of 40.

While I was gone it reached 45.

There is a giddy gambler’s thrill to watching your money gain value for reasons beyond your control. The world becomes your Costco; “gotta stock up on house slippers, they’re so cheap and you never know when you’ll have ten people over and they all need to wear house slippers!” As the ruble’s decline accelerated, my dollar-denominated friends and I looked up exchange rates as frequently as sports fans who can’t not check the score on their phones under the table at a nice restaurant. We texted each other the latest numbers, strategized about the timing of ATM visits and large purchases. (One friend who has held off on extending her gym membership until it runs out this month gloats daily as the currency collapses.) Taxis no longer felt like an indulgence and on more than one occasion, I ordered an extra two entrees for dinner to meet the delivery minimum. On Black Friday, I went on a HEATTECH shopping spree at Uniqlo. Of course, Black Friday isn’t a holiday (not even a fake holiday) in Russia, but sale or no sale, the clothes cost a third less than the dollar and euro equivalents marked on their price tags.

When the ruble broke the new “psychological barrier” of 50 a dollar, the habitual mental math I did to convert prices into dollars became easy. It was also then that the euphoria of money for nothing began to dissipate for me. I think it was the cold. There is nothing like cold to clarify why people need money. Shivering burns extra calories that must be made up for with food, or forgotten with vodka. Long before Russia became a petrostate, sable fur was its main export, and in some areas, served also as currency. To my mind the most Russian expression of female sophistication, no less striking for its ubiquity in central Moscow, is a woman in a fur coat, her hair draped over its folds. The straight, shining hair is an uninterrupted sheath, as if of silk, and is unruffled by the wind, as if by magic.

How badly I wanted the ruble to stop falling struck me as I climbed a flight of frost-encrusted cement steps, my hair well hidden by a hat, listening to liberal Russian talk radio on headphones. I could hardly feel the cold, my new clothes were so warm, but when I touched the metal bannister, it registered through my HEATTEACH that, were I to touch it barehanded, its iciness would burn. The guests on the radio discussed how long it would be before the masses became disenchanted with Putin. The consensus was: once everything that makes life comfortable and pleasant had become too expensive to have, no sooner, no later. Some commentators thought this would take two years, others said more quickly. I walked in the cold among these masses and the thought went through my mind repeatedly: “I’m getting richer and richer, they’re getting poorer and poorer.”

That night I gave the woman who walks my dog while I’m at work a 60 percent raise.

A couple days later, I met up with a group of mainly-expat friends at a bar called Lumberjack, where the waiters have the kind of facial hair favored by Civil War soldiers and wear tight flannel shirts and wool slacks fastened to suspenders. (Moscow is obsessed with Williamsburg.) When the conversation among the expats inevitably turned to the ruble, the group was split into two camps along the lines of the currencies in which our paychecks were denominated. While those of us paid in dollars, euros or pounds lived in a time of bounty, a woman paid in rubles said she wouldn’t be able to leave the house when she went home to America for the holidays, she was so broke. One half of a very cute couple was paid in dollars, while her boyfriend was paid in rubles. One small step in the fight against the gender pay gap?! No, that was the cheap cocktails’ expensive ingredients talking.

The bar was loud, but I felt we ought to be whispering, or not discussing the topic at all. When I first drank at this bar in September, I ordered the Penicillin, a cocktail made with ginger, honey and lemon, blended scotch whisky and Islay single malt scotch. I had first tried it at a bar with not unsimilar decor underneath the BQE. It cost 450 rubles, and my credit card bill reflected this with a charge of $12.60. When I recommended the drink to the expats at the table, it cost $8.54. How can a bar in central Moscow stay in business serving excellent, strong, classic cocktails made with imported liquors? If Lumberjack has yet to raise its prices, yesterday the Penicillin would have cost anywhere from $7.72 to $5.68, depending on the time of day you ordered it.

Gradually companies that import consumer goods to Russia are announcing price increases. The period in which Russia was the cheapest place in the world to buy an iPhone was all too short. Still, prices haven’t kept pace with the ruble’s depreciation. Russians aren’t getting raises and can’t afford to spend more money on the same stuff, and retailers won’t be able to hang onto business if they hike up prices. Yet the experts on the radio promise inflation of 15 or 20% early next year. What will happen when people can’t afford to buy groceries?

After the ruble hit 80 to the dollar yesterday, I walked down Tverskaya Street toward the Kremlin. Every single pedestrian I passed averted their eyes from the neon displays that advertise currency exchange rates. I ducked into Sephora’s Russian franchise to replace a shattered compact of Clinique powder; the markup on imported make up had evaporated.

Not long before, at a flea market in Moscow’s suburbs, where people sell Soviet bric-a-brac, zippers on strips of every color, samovars, record players and old china, I had met a woman. She grasped my gloved hand with her bare one (gloves got in the way when arranging her wares), and shifted a ceramic bowl filled with old 9-volt batteries into her other hand. Twenty years ago, she told me, she had been working in a market, when an American man picked her out and asked her to dinner. She went with him and a translator, and he asked her to come back to America with him.

“But what about, you know, when the translator can’t be there?” she asked him delicately.

“In those moments, you don’t need to talk,” the lascivious American answered.

Her Russian husband (who had not come up in the story to that point and, she said, had later died in a car crash) had refused to give her permission to take their son to America.

“I wish I had gone,” she said.

I felt sad that she wished she had gone with the creepy American. Later, I was seized by the improbable idea that her husband had been my manic taxi driver. Perhaps his rapture over the ruble’s strength had killed him after all.

Yael Levine is a writer living in Moscow and a fellow in the Alfa Fellowship Program. In the past she has worked analyzing political risk in Russia for Eurasia Group and as a news producer at Russian-language TV station, RTVi. This is a picture of her dropping a coin for good luck outside the gates of Red Square. It was taken in 2007.


Top Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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40 days ago
Fantastic piece by one of my college classmates.
San Francisco, CA
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Cara Ellison » The Beyonce Freelancing Method

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Nicki Minaj opens the track Only with the lines: “Yo, I never fucked Wayne I never fucked Drake. All my life man, fuck’s sake. If I did I’d menage with ‘em and let ‘em eat my ass like a cupcake.” When I first heard this I thought, “Man, Nicki Minaj really knows how to save time so she can get back to the studio.” This has become a fairly typical attitude of mine in the past year. I’d been calling it the ‘Beyonce Freelancing Method’.

This frame of mind has been percolating unconsciously for a while. It’s mainly about valuing men monetarily. I weigh up how much money I lose as a freelancer by spending time on pelvic sorcery rather than writing, and I calculate whether it is worth losing that money. It goes like this: if Beyonce was a freelancer, when would she spend time with Jay-Z, and when would she rather be in the studio? If Jay-Z wanted to hang out at a ball game and make out all afternoon would that be a good pleasure return for her? Or, would she need something better to take her away from her work? I assume that Bey would rather be wined and dined and go dancing and then fuck up a Warhol, rather than waste time with anything less extraordinary and planned than that.

It’s all about the pleasure return and the impact on my work. Does the sex, the hanging out, the effort to keep my attention leave me energised? Or does it make me really exhausted and sad and angry so that I can’t work? The first type is worth more monetarily. The second type is not worth it and I’ve been learning to refuse to invest in it. I’ve been sad at times in my life and I’d rather sit down to write something trivial about computer games on a liquid high from some brief touch from a good human being than from an excellent lay from someone who never wants to give me the time of day. I sit next to dudes who I know are interested in taking me home and I think to myself: if I go home with you I won’t finish that article and it will make me unhappy later. And I think about whether he’s good enough to measure up to £150 worth of happiness. I squint at them in bars. Are you worth a VICE article, I think? Are you worth a Guardian article? Are you top-level meat, worthy of a Rock Paper Shotgun rate? Are you the Rock Paper Shotgun of men?

I guess if you think about it in a very skewed way, I now consider every guy I am romantically interested in or sexually interested in as charging me for the service. And they do: they just have no idea that they are. Nicki’s right: it’d better be both Wayne and Drake eating her ass in one session or careerwomen like her just don’t have the time – no matter how much Drake thinks he’s ‘first in line’ and how much Lil’ Wayne thinks she needs him to fuck her. If she ever got around to it, she’d be clicking her fingers and pointing them both at her ass because that appointment with the vocal coach is in an hour. What’s the pleasure return to money lost graph look like? How much does she want it compared to how much cash is on the line? Not tonight, Drake, I imagine her saying. When there’s champagne and Paris, maybe.

Primarily I wonder why I have started to do this, and on one hand it’s because I have to, but on the other hand I think it’s because I used to spend too much time worrying about when things would happen, and when someone would call, or whether I was spending too much time thinking about someone. The solution is to think about pleasure as if you’re paying for it. It’s horrible to think this way, not because I’d never pay for sex, but because it makes you very aware that this is how capitalist structure forces this state of mind, makes bodies into machines. And the thing is, heterosexual men have probably been thinking like this since the industrial revolution. It’s not that they have a monopoly on meaningless sex, but there’s always this feeling like they can compartmentalise this stuff better, required of them by society so that they can kick the shit out of all that capitalist bullshit, and I only just got the memo. I used to blame them for this mechanistic attitude of quantity over quality, notches on bedposts thing, but perhaps my personal answer is to start playing the game with the parameters that I value – intimacy – rather than according to how much sex I have. It’s the best solution I have in a pretty fucked up world.

People often tell me that you can do this for any number of things in your life, you can measure bus vs taxi at the most basic level, but I never had trouble calculating whether something was more ‘efficient’ than something else other than within my personal interactions. I decline to use the method on spending time with friends because the stakes are much lower – I have hundreds and hundreds of friends I love but very few people I’d tell personal truths to. I guess at least this way, any dudes I spend time with can be certain I’m throwing away all my stupid articles away just to be with them.

Occasionally it feels pleasant to lose money. Pleasant to watch the pennies trickle down the plughole. Sometimes you waste time doing nothing with a person for hours, watching all those articles you wanted to write just disappear. Feelings are very expensive. You may as well try to conserve them. It’s what Beyonce would do.

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40 days ago
Never thought of it this way, but it might not be the worst idea to.
San Francisco, CA
38 days ago
Wow, this sounded to me like the worst idea. Some things just aren't commensurable, and shouldn't be.
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