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Book Excerpt: My Life So Far

30 minute read
Jane Fonda

While the high visibility of my public life has not always brought me personal peace and happiness, it has lent a certain universal quality to my various metamorphoses. Because I believed that to be loved I had to be perfect, I moved “out of myself”–my body–early on and have spent much of my life searching to come home … to be embodied. I didn’t understand this until I was in my 60s and started writing this book. I have come to believe that my purpose in life may be to show–through my own story–how this “disembodiment” happens and how, by understanding it, we can change. –Jane Fonda


Fonda was obsessed with being thin from girlhood and thought she had found a way to control her weight when a school friend introduced her to bulimia.

How many men obsess about being perfect? For men, generally, good enough is good enough.

Dad had decided that Peter and I should go to boarding school, as was common at the time for families who could afford it. Peter was enrolled at the Fay School in Massachusetts and I at the Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y. Starting my freshman year at Emma Willard, being very thin assumed dominance over good hair in the hierarchy of what really mattered.

I remember cutting out a magazine ad that said with $2 and some box tops they would send you a special kind of gum that had tapeworm eggs in it and when you chewed it the worms would hatch and eat up all the food you consumed. It sounded like a splendid idea to me–a way to have your cake and eat it too, so to speak. I sent in my $2 and the box tops, but the gum never materialized. When I told this story to a friend recently, she said, “You’re a smart girl, Jane. How did you get duped into believing this and sending in the money?” Because I was 13 (hence immortal) and health wasn’t a factor if it meant getting thin. I knew tapeworms weren’t fatal. If it had been a bubonic virus I was sending away for, I’d have thought twice–maybe. But anything that would allow me to get thin without having to do something active seemed attractive. Mind you, I wasn’t as extreme as a few other girls, who had to be hospitalized because they refused to eat, but I prided myself on being one of the thinnest in the class.

Then, in sophomore year, Carol Bentley, a wet-eyed brunette from Toledo, Ohio, entered Emma Willard and became my best friend. I remember first seeing her as I was stepping out of the dorm shower. She was naked and took my breath away. I had never seen a body like hers: fully developed breasts that stood straight out over a tiny waist, and narrow hips with long, chiseled legs. I felt certain right then that she would end up running the world and that if I hung around long enough, some of her power would rub off on me. Already I had learned to equate the perfection of a woman’s body with power and success.

Perfect body notwithstanding, Carol joined me in having major body-image issues. It was she who introduced me to bingeing and purging, what we now know as bulimia. She said the idea came to her in a class on the history of the Roman Empire. She read that the Romans would gorge themselves on food during orgiastic feasts and then put their fingers down their throats to make themselves throw it all back up and start over again. The idea of being able to eat the most fattening foods and never having to pay the consequences was very appealing.

We would binge and purge only before school dances or just before we were going home for the holidays, and then we would ferret away all the chocolate brownies and ice cream we could get and gobble it up until our stomachs were swollen as though we were five months pregnant. Then we would put our fingers down our throats and make ourselves throw it all up. We assumed that we were the first people since the Romans to do this; it was our secret, and it created a titillating bond between us.

Later it became ritualistic, with specific requirements: I had to be alone (it is a disease of aloneness) and dressed in loose, comfortable clothing. In a catatonic state, I would enter a grocery store to buy the requisite comfort foods, starting with ice cream and moving to breads and pastries–just this one last time. My breathing would become rapid (as in sex) and shallow (as in fear). Before eating, I would drink milk, because if that went into me first, it would help bring up all the rest later. The eating itself was exciting and my heart would pound. But once the food had been devoured, I would be overcome with an urgent need to separate myself from it before it took up residence inside me. Nothing could have stood in the way of my getting rid of it, differentiating myself from it–from the toxic bulk that had seemed so like a mother’s nurture in the beginning–because if it remained within me, I knew that my life would be snuffed out. Afterward I would collapse into bed and sink into a numbed sleep. Tomorrow will be different. It never was. What an illusion that there were no consequences to be paid! It was years before I allowed myself to acknowledge the addictive, damaging nature of what I was doing. Like alcoholism, anorexia and bulimia are diseases of denial. You fool yourself into believing you are on top of it and can stop anytime you want. Even when I discovered I couldn’t stop, I still didn’t think of it as an addiction; rather, it was proof that I was weak and worthless. This seems utterly preposterous to me now, but self–blame is part of the sickness. For me the disease lasted, in one form or another, from sophomore year in boarding school through two marriages and two children, until I was in my early 40s. My husbands never knew, nor did my children or any of my friends and colleagues.

Unlike alcoholism, bulimia is easy to hide (except from mothers or friends who have also suffered from the disease). Like most people with eating disorders, I was adept at keeping my disease hidden, because I didn’t want anyone to stop me. I was convinced that I was in control anyway and could stop tomorrow if I really wanted to. I was often tired, irritable, hostile and sick from this, but my willpower to maintain appearances was such that most of the time no one knew the true reasons behind it.


Fonda set off to study painting in Paris in 1957, where she fell in with the chic set and fell in love with the director Roger Vadim, who had his own ideas about what constituted a good romantic relationship.

Vadim had created a view of life for himself, a view shared by all his friends, which held that any show of thrift, jealousy or desire for organization and structure was a sign that you were bourgeois. God forbid! “Bourgeois” became the dreaded epithet, as horrifying as betrayal or dishonesty. There were even times when it was suggested that the French Communist Party had bourgeois tendencies …

I had inherited $150,000 from my mother. At the time, it was a nice sum, something I could fall back on if I stewarded it carefully. Vadim could not comprehend why I hesitated to give him large portions of it so that he could hire a friend to come with us to some vacation spot and work with him on a script. At first I was horrified and said so. But over time I began to feel that I was being petty and stingy. So I gave in. Only years later did I realize that Vadim was a compulsive gambler, that the locations for his films or vacations were often chosen for their proximity to a racetrack or casino. I had no idea that gambling was an addictive disease, as difficult to overcome as alcoholism, anorexia and bulimia. Much of my mother’s inheritance was simply gambled away.

Along with thriftiness, jealousy was a major no-no. Why did women make so much fuss about the physical act of intercourse? Just because a husband or wife (though it always seemed to be the husband) had sex with someone else, that didn’t represent betrayal–“It’s you I love.” Vadim would go on and on with his friends about how the sexual revolution of the ’60s showed that people were finally beginning to see what they had always known: that middle-class morality needed to be discarded for sexual freedom and open marriage. Maybe he’d smelled it on my skin when we’d first met–that I was malleable and insecure in my sexuality. In any event, I was vulnerable to him and felt that in order to keep him and be a good wife, I had to prove that I was, in fact, the queen of “nonbourgeoisness,” the Oscar winner of wildness, generosity and forgiveness.

As time went on, Vadim would fail to come home in the evenings. I’d have dinner ready and he wouldn’t show. Often he wouldn’t even call. I would usually eat all the food I’d prepared for us, go out and buy pastries and French glace (not nearly as satisfying as our ice cream), devour all of it, throw it all up and collapse into bed exhausted and angry. Sometimes he’d come home around midnight and fall into bed drunk. Sometimes he wouldn’t show up till morning. I swallowed my anger (along with the ice cream), never really confronting him about this behavior. I didn’t want to seem bourgeois. I didn’t think I deserved better.

Then one night he brought home a beautiful red-haired woman and took her into our bed with me. She was a high-class call girl employed by the well-known Madame Claude. It never occurred to me to object. I took my cues from him and threw myself into the threesome with the skill and enthusiasm of the actress that I am. If this was what he wanted, this was what I would give him–in spades. As feminist poet Robin Morgan wrote in [Morgan’s memoir] Saturday’s Child on the subject of threesomes, “If I was facing the avant-garde version of keeping up with the Joneses, by god I’d show ’em.”

Sometimes there were three of us, sometimes more. Sometimes it was even I who did the soliciting. So adept was I at burying my real feelings and compartmentalizing myself that I eventually had myself convinced that I enjoyed it.

I’ll tell you what I did enjoy: the mornings after, when Vadim was gone and the woman and I would linger over our coffee and talk. For me it was a way to bring some humanity to the relationship, an antidote to objectification. I would ask her about herself, trying to understand her history and why she had agreed to share our bed (questions I never asked myself!) and, in the case of the call girls, what had brought her to make those choices. I was shocked by the cruelty and abuse many had suffered, saw how abuse had made them feel that sex was the only commodity they had to offer. But many were smart and could have succeeded in other careers. The hours spent with those women informed my later Oscar-winning performance of the call girl Bree Daniel in Klute. Many of those women have since died from drug overdose or suicide. A few went on to marry high-level corporate leaders; some married into nobility. One, who remains a friend, recently told me that Vadim was jealous of her friendship with me, that he had said to her once, “You think Jane’s smart, but she’s not, she’s dumb.” Vadim often felt a need to denigrate my intelligence, as if it would take up his space. I would think that a man would want people to know he was married to a smart woman–unless he was insecure about his own intelligence. Or unless he didn’t really love her.

I hesitated to write about my experiences in this regard. I thought, “There are enough people who dislike me, I don’t need to give them even more ammunition.” But then I saw that if the telling of my life’s journey was to matter to other women and girls, I would have to be honest about how far I’d come and the meaning of where I’d been.

In my public life, I am a strong, can-do woman. How is it, then, that behind the closed doors of my most intimate relations, I could voluntarily betray myself? The answer is this: if a woman has become disembodied due to lack of self-worth–I’m not good enough–or abuse, she will neglect her own voice of desire and only hear the man’s. This requires compartmentalizing–disconnecting head and heart, body and soul. Overlay her silence with a man’s sense of entitlement and inability (or unwillingness) to read his partner’s subtle body signals, and you have the making of a very angry woman, who will stuff her anger for the same reasons she silences her sexual voice.


When she returned to the U.S., in 1970, Fonda began making serious movies and taking up political causes, including the antiwar movement. The combination of her celebrity and advocacy eventually brought an invitation to visit Hanoi.

I am running full speed through Orly Airport in Paris. My flight from New York got in late and I am about to miss the plane to Moscow that will carry me to Vientiane, Laos, and on to Hanoi. As I round a corner, I slip on the polished floor and down I go. I know immediately that I have refractured the foot I broke the previous year … By the time we land in Moscow my foot is swollen and blue, and I know I must get it tended to. I have a four-hour layover, so airport officials get me a taxi and instruct the driver to take me to the closest hospital on the outskirts of Moscow. After X-raying my foot, the doctors confirm it is a fracture, apply a plaster cast, give me a pair of crutches and send me back to the airport.

What will my Vietnamese hosts think when they see me get off the plane with crutches and a cast? They don’t need the burden of a disabled American descending on them–and how am I going to climb over the earthen dikes that I am coming to film? …

It is awkward getting down the plane’s steps, because I am juggling the crutches and a purse, a camera and a packet of letters from the families of POWs. I look up to see five Vietnamese walking toward me carrying flowers. They are the welcoming committee of the Vietnam Committee for Solidarity with the American People. The name sounds propagandistic to me, but the fullness of its meaning will soon be made clear in unusual, very human terms. As I’d anticipated, they look shocked and want to hand me the bouquet, but I can’t hold it and the crutches at the same time. Standing on the tarmac, they hold a quick conference in Vietnamese with numerous glances at my cast. I understand their concern: these are the people who will be responsible for my well-being over the next two weeks. Clearly my condition is worrisome.

Privately I am not certain how I will manage out in the countryside, especially if there is a bombing raid, as running for cover doesn’t seem to be in the cards; but I say I don’t want to change our plans, and everyone nods. In retrospect I wonder about my insistence at continuing despite the danger. Yes, I was numb with exhaustion and pain. But more to the point is my character: to turn away out of fear is just about unthinkable …

It is just dawn as we drive through the city to the Vietnam– Soviet Union Friendship Hospital, where I am to have my foot examined. I can see camouflaged vehicles coming and going, their lights off. At the hospital, two male Vietnamese doctors who have been briefed about my arrival lay me on a table to take an X-ray of my foot–or at least they try to. No sooner have I lain down than the air raid sirens blare and I have to be helped into the hospital’s bomb shelter, now filling rapidly with doctors and those patients who can be moved.

This is my first time sharing a bomb shelter with Vietnamese, and it makes the experience all the more surreal. I feel unspeakably guilty to be taking up space and the attention of two doctors while my country is attacking theirs. My interpreter for the day, Madame Chi, tells them I am American and this stirs up a lot of excitement. I search their eyes for some sign of hostility. There is none. Those unhostile eyes will stay with me long after the war ends.

The raid is over, and we return to the X-ray machine–only to be interrupted a second time by the sirens. Perhaps an hour goes by before the doctors are finally able to get the X-ray of my foot. Sure enough, there is a slight fracture across the arch. As they are removing the Soviet-made cast, they begin to laugh and chatter to each other. Madame Chi, who has remained by my side throughout, tells me they are laughing at the poor job the Soviets have done: they had neglected to put gauze between my skin and the plaster, and because it was mixed improperly, the plaster hasn’t hardened on the inside … thank God! Had it hardened, my skin would have come off with the cast.

The doctors explain that they are going to strap a poultice made from chrysanthemum roots onto my foot and ankle. They tell me that it is so full of healing and strengthening elements that pregnant women in Vietnam drink tea brewed from the same roots. “Because of the war,” one doctor says, “we have to rely on whatever we have, simple things, to meet our medical needs.”

The stuff is truly foul smelling, but the doctors tell me they are certain that within days my swelling will go away and the fracture will mend. Anything that smells this bad is bound to work! The irony of this whole episode is not lost on me: here is this besieged, agrarian country accused by the United States of being a Soviet pawn when in mind, spirit and medicine, at least, its people seem remarkably independent and to be “making do” just fine …

We travel at night because of the danger of strafing by U.S. planes. Yesterday 20 foreign correspondents who had come to examine the damage done to the dikes three days earlier were witness to a second attack. Twelve Phantom jets and A-7s dove at the dike the journalists were standing on and released several bombs and rockets. The reporter from Agence France-Presse wrote on July 11 that they “all felt the attack was clearly against the dike system.”

This is what the United States is denying. This is what I have come to document.

The sky is beginning to lighten as we enter the province. Many people are already in the fields working. I am told they do a lot of work at night, when there is less danger of bombing. The whole area is protected from flooding by a complicated system of crisscrossing dikes. The particular spot that has been attacked for the second time just the previous morning is the most strategic, for here the dike must hold back the waters of six converging rivers. These rivers will be raging down the mountains in about two weeks. I am told that Nam Sach has been attacked by U.S. planes eight times since May 10 and the dikes have been hit four times. Although the planes are expected back, there are people all around, knee- and elbow-deep in mud, planting their rice and carrying huge baskets of earth to repair the dikes.

As I stand on the dike, I look in all directions. I see no visible military targets, no industry, no communication lines–just rice fields. Then I suddenly see the bomb craters on both sides of the dike–gaping holes, some 10 meters across and eight meters deep. The crater bottoms, I am told, are two meters below sea level. The crater that had severed the dike is almost filled in again, but the main worry is the bombs that have fallen on the sides of the dike. They cause earthquakes that shatter the dike’s foundation and make deep cracks that zigzag up the sides. Antipersonnel bombs have also been used; they enter the dike on an angle, lodging underneath and exploding later. This damage does not show up on aerial reconnaissance photographs. I am told that if these cracks aren’t repaired in time, the pressure from the water–which will soon reach six or seven meters above the level of the fields–will cause the weakened dikes to give way and endanger the entire eastern region of the Red River Delta.

I am taken to another major dike in Nam Sach on the Kinh Thay River that was completely severed a few days before. Repair work is dangerous because of unexploded bombs. People in the province are preparing for the worst. I’m told everyone has a boat, that the top floors and roofs of homes have been reinforced and that research is being done on crops that grow underwater.A sulfur butterfly is resting on the lip of a bomb crater. Little things.

When I get back to Hanoi I make a radio broadcast about what I saw …

I am driven south to the village of Nam Dinh, which had 50 bombs dropped on it on June 18, a raid that destroyed about 60% of the hamlet. People are hard at work rebuilding their homes, but [her guide and interpreter] Quoc says that the area is bombed almost daily. The Cuban ambassador in Hanoi told me the other day that a dozen or more Cubans, accustomed to working in the fields with the Vietnamese, collapsed after three hours of packing the earth into a dike. Maybe they should have drunk some chrysanthemum-root tea …

It is my last full day in North Vietnam. In spite of having made it clear to my hosts that I was not interested in visiting a military installation, I am going–and today is the day.

It is not unusual for Americans who visit North Vietnam to be taken to see Vietnamese military installations, and when they do they are always required to wear a helmet like the kind I have been given to wear during the air raids. I am driven to the site of the antiaircraft installation, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. There is a group of about a dozen young Vietnamese soldiers in uniform who greet me. There is also a horde of photographers and journalists–many more than I have seen all in one place in Hanoi. (I later learn some of them were Japanese.)

This should have been a red flag.

Quoc isn’t with me today, but another translator tells me that the soldiers want to sing me a song. He stands close and recites the words in English as the soldiers sing. It is a song about the day “Uncle Ho” declared their country’s independence in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. I hear these words: “All men are created equal. They are given certain rights; among these are life, liberty and happiness.” I begin to cry and clap. These young men should not be our enemy. They celebrate the same words Americans do. The song ends with a refrain about the soldiers vowing to keep the “blue skies above Ba Dinh” free from bombers.

The soldiers ask me to sing for them in return. I am prepared for just such a moment. Before leaving the U.S., I had memorized a song called Day Ma Di, written by students in South Vietnam who are against the war. I launch into it con gusto, feeling ridiculous but I don’t care. Vietnamese is a difficult language for a foreigner to speak and I know I am slaughtering it, but everyone seems delighted that I am making the attempt. Everyone laughs and claps, including me. I am overcome on this, my last day.

What happens next is something I have turned over and over in my mind countless times since. Here is my best, honest recollection of what took place.

Someone (I don’t remember who) leads me toward the gun, and I sit down, still laughing, still applauding. It all has nothing to do with where I am sitting. I hardly even think about where I am sitting. The cameras flash.

I get up, and as I start to walk back to the car with the translator, the implication of what has just happened hits me. Oh, my God. It’s going to look like I was trying to shoot down U.S. planes! I plead with him, “You have to be sure those photographs are not published. Please, you can’t let them be published.” I am assured it will be taken care of. I don’t know what else to do.

It is possible that the Vietnamese had it all planned.

I will never know. If they did, can I really blame them? The buck stops here. If I was used, I allowed it to happen. It was my mistake, and I have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for it. A traveling companion, someone with a cooler head, would have kept me from taking that terrible seat. I would have known two minutes before sitting down what I didn’t realize until two minutes afterward. That two-minute lapse of sanity will haunt me until I die. But the gun was inactive, there were no planes overhead–I simply wasn’t thinking about what I was doing, only about what I was feeling–innocent of what the photo implies. Yet the photo exists, delivering its message, regardless of what I was really doing or feeling.

I realize that it is not just a U.S. citizen laughing and clapping on a Vietnamese antiaircraft gun: I am Henry Fonda’s privileged daughter who appears to be thumbing my nose at the country that has provided me these privileges. More than that, I am a woman, which makes my sitting there even more of a betrayal. A gender betrayal. And I am a woman who is seen as Barbarella, a character existing on some subliminal level as an embodiment of men’s fantasies; Barbarella has become their enemy. I have spent the last two years working with GIs and Vietnam veterans and have spoken before hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters, telling them that our men in uniform aren’t the enemy. I went to support them at their bases and overseas, and will, in years ahead, make Coming Home so that Americans can understand how the wounded were treated in VA hospitals. Now by mistake I appear in a photograph to be their enemy. I carry this heavy in my heart. I always will.


Distraught over the breakup of her marriage to political activist Tom Hayden, Fonda found that the courtship of the man who would become her third husband was unexpected and unpredictable.

The day after my divorce was announced in the papers, the phone rang. Someone yelled, “Jane, there’s a Ted Turner on the phone for you.” Ted Turner? I’d met him once with Tom at a screening of a documentary about child abuse that his Turner Broadcasting System was going to run. He’s probably calling to offer me a job, I thought as I picked up the phone. Suddenly a voice boomed through the phone so loudly that I had to hold the receiver away from my ear.

“Is it true?”

“Is what true?” I thought it was an odd way to start a phone conversation with a virtual stranger.

“Are you and Hayden really getting a divorce?”

“Yes.” I was still in the throes of depression and unable to speak above a whisper.

“Well then, would you like to go out with me?”

I was dumbstruck. Dating was the furthest thing from my mind. “To tell you the truth, I can’t even think about dating right now. I can hardly even speak. I think I’m having an emotional breakdown. Why don’t you call me back in three months?”

“Hey, I know just how you feel.” I could tell he was trying to modulate his voice to approximate compassion and that this was hard for him. “I just broke up with my mistress,” he went on. “I wrecked my whole family and my marriage two years ago to go and live with her, so now I’m having a hard time myself.”

It occurred to me that this was just about the most inappropriate thing a man could say to a woman who had just been dumped by her husband of 16 years for his mistress. Didn’t it occur to him that it would be his wife I’d identify with, not him? This is one strange guy, I thought.

But what I said to him was, “Call back in three months, when I’m feeling better. Okay?” He said he would do that, and we hung up. Whatever would come of it, the call in and of itself made me feel better.

Ted called back almost three months to the day. I’d all but forgotten about his promise and was surprised and flattered that he had remembered. I realized I didn’t know enough about this man who would be my first date in 17 years. I knew about CNN but had never watched it. I got my news from the papers and National Public Radio. Besides, this was pre–Tiananmen Square, pre–Gulf War days, and CNN was still referred to occasionally as “Chicken Noodle News.” Nor was I familiar with the world of sailing and the fact that he’d won the prestigious America’s Cup. So as time approached for the date, I hurried to find out everything I could.

It wasn’t encouraging. Someone gave me an article about his life that revealed he probably had a drinking problem. Not what I needed–again. A friend of one of his children whom I happened to know told me he liked only younger women and if he was interested in me, it would only be as a notch in his belt. Of course there were lots of positives as well: his environmentalism, his global vision, his work for peace.

Actually I had come down with a bad cold the day before the date but decided not to cancel on him, given how long he’d waited. When he called to get directions to my house, I told him I was sick and would have to make it an early evening. It didn’t seem to faze him. But I was nervous! I’d gathered the clan around me for support: Peter, [her stepdaughter] Nathalie, Troy, Vanessa, Lulu and my assistant, Debbie Karolewski.

I may not have been invested in this date “going anywhere,” but I wanted to be sure it wouldn’t be because he didn’t want it to. So I wore a very short black leather miniskirt, a tight black halter top, black hose and spike black heels. A few studs and I could have passed for a dominatrix.

I remember being up in my room putting on last-minute touches when Ted arrived. I could hear when Peter opened the door and Ted burst through, his over-the-top voice booming out, “Hey, Montana! Gimme five!” Peter lives in Montana and, as I learned later, Ted had just bought a ranch there and was excited that they had this in common.

A few minutes later I came down the stairs and Ted swung around to watch me. “Wow,” he said in a husky voice, devouring me like so much eye candy with an unabashed lust so palpable that I could feel it on my skin. I also saw he was nervous, and I found that endearing. He shouted good-bye to my family (they seemed subdued, as in the wake of a tornado), ushered me quickly out the door and helped me into a hired sedan with a driver he introduced by name (which impressed me).

“I have friends who are Communists,” he offered eagerly as soon as we were seated. He said it like a little boy bringing home good grades.

“I’ve been to the Soviet Union several times because of the Goodwill Games. [Mikhail] Gorbachev is my buddy and so is [Fidel] Castro. I’ve been to Cuba two times. We go hunting and fishing together.”

I had to laugh. I didn’t know if it was because he really thought I was a Communist and wanted to let me know that wouldn’t stand between us or if he thought it was something I’d find endearing. I did. It was the second time in a matter of minutes that the word endearing had come to mind–not what I had been expecting. Before we’d even gotten to the restaurant, he pulled another stunner:

“I don’t know much about you, see, so … ahhh … I got CNN to do a printout of your archives and I read through it. The stack was about a foot tall. So … ahhh … then I had them do a printout of my files and mine is about three feet tall.” Pause. “Mine’s bigger than yours! Pretty cute, huh?”

I was astonished–by his comparing our files, by his telling me about it and by his favorable editorializing … Pretty cute, huh? All I could do was shake my head and laugh, telling him that I hadn’t known much about him, either, and had done my own, far less extensive research. He was bowling me over and my whole body was abuzz.

To read about Fonda’s memories of making On Golden Pond with her father Henry and Katharine Hepburn, go to time.com/fonda

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