Dreaming, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1994


Contexts of Dream Interpretation Among American Therapists and Pastoral Counselors

Mary-Therese B. Dombeck a,b


Ethnographic studies of traditional societies suggest that dream telling and dream interpretation are socially and culturally constituted.  This paper explores the popularization and influence of Freud on Americans particularly psychotherapists and pastoral counselors.  One of the dreams from Freud’s work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which was used by B. Kilborne in his research with dream interpreters in Morocco, is interpreted by psychotherapists and pastoral counselors in the United States.  It is, therefore, possible to compare the responses of the Moroccan dream interpreters with the responses of the Americans.  Freud’s opinions of the same dream are, of course, a matter of record.

KEY WORDS: anthropology; American Society; psychotherapists; Freud’s influence




            Ethnographic studies of traditional societies suggest that dream telling and dream interpretation are socially and culturally constituted (Kilborne, 1981a; Tedlock, 1987a). Anthropologists have studied the social functions of the dream (Hallowell, 1942, 1966; Kilborne. 1981b), the role and status of the dreamer and dream interpreter (Meggitt, 1965; Charsley, 1973) and the relationship between dreams, social values and cultural perspectives (Eggan, 1966; Kracke, 1979). More recently research has focused on the dream sharing interaction (Tedlock, 1978; Herdt, 1987; Kracke, 1987; Roseman, 1990). Studies on dream-telling and dream interpretation in American society suggest the same things, namely that social traditions, cultural beliefs and values as well as perceptions of the person and self are reflected in the dream-sharing interaction (Collins, 1984; Hillman, 1988; Dombeck, 1991).

    This paper focuses on dream interpretation. Dream interpreters in three different contexts were asked to give their opinions about the same dream. The first context is described from a study done by Kilborne in Morocco (1978, 1981a), the second is based on a portion of a study done in two community mental health centers in the Northern United States (Dombeck, 1991), and the third is done in a slightly different context in the Northern United States namely a pastoral counseling agency.  What connects the three contexts is, not only, that in all three the interpreters were responding to the same dream, but also that none of the interpreters had access to the dreamer. The only access to the dreamer is available, in an earlier context, through yet another interpreter: none other than Sigmund Freud.

                                                           THE DREAM

 Standing back a little behind two stately palaces was a little house with closed doors.  My wife led me along the piece of street up to the little house and pushed the doors open; I then slipped quickly and easily into the inside of a court which rose in an incline (Freud, 1965:433).

The Moroccan Context

           Kilborne’s work on dream interpretation in Morocco (1981a) is emphatically socially oriented.  He makes a much needed distinction between the dream as experienced and the dream as reported and states his bias toward the social emphasis. His methodology is uniquely enriched by a delightfully provocative irony; As western Freudian dream interpreters have analyzed native dreams, so Kilborne used Freud’s own dreams and dreams of Freud’s patients for interpretation by Moroccan dream interpreters. He considers the status of the dreamer, and of the interpreter, and always the particular situation of the interpretation. He tells us that Moroccan interpreters share fantasies about the dream with the dream reporter. Thus there is a sharing of emotional reaction to the perceived dream report. His process is two-fold. First, the interpretations of the Moroccan interpreters provide an insider account of their ideas about dreams, about themselves and about the dreamers. Then Kilborne provides his own analysis by considering the dream and the interpretation from a Freudian perspective. Among the many other values of his methodology is the instructive demonstration of the differences between the Moroccans’ interpretations and Freud’s own interpretation of the same dream. For the purposes of this paper, it will also be useful to compare those interpretations with the interpretations of American psychotherapists. Portions of the interpretations given by the Moroccan interpreters are summarized here from Kilborne’s paper (1981b). 

1.                  “The imposing palace is paradise. The small house is a failure or financial fiasco. The husband is cruel to the wife. This is a bad dream of a rich man who finds himself suddenly deprived of his wealth.” 

2.                  “The palaces are compared to two learned men or university professors who assist the dreamer (represented by the little house). The small house is a student who comes in search of knowledge or science. As for the slipping quickly and easily into the inside of a court,” this means that “the dreamer’s project will easily be realized. His wife who accompanies him (or someone close to him) will be of particular assistance in helping him to realize this project.”

3.                  “The dream means that your wife is obedient and that this obedience needs to work both ways: Do what she tells you and you will be happy.”

4.                  “The palace is the sign of happiness to come. In dreams palaces are sentinels that watch over the small house, as sentinels guard the king. Therefore, the dream represents intense happiness, because the place in which the dreamer lives is well guarded.”

5.                  The fifth interpreter did not believe the dream was real and so refused to interpret it.

6.                  “The palace is a grave and the house, the other world. Therefore, the dreamer is going to die and go to the other world, but he will go with his wife. He will go to paradise.”

7.                  “The palace stands for a saint and represents a sanctuary. The house represents good acts and paradise. The dreamer is a man who has done good and who is going to die. When he does, he will go to paradise.”

8.                  “The dreamer is a good man who will get to paradise. But, adds the interpreter, “your wife is bad.” Clearly, the implication here is that the wife will not get there.

9.                  “The two palaces represent saints to learned men. The small house is a student who finds the door to knowledge (in general) closed. He enters with the help of a woman.” (Kilborne, 1981, p.300).

 Themes of authority and of reward for punishment to the dreamer for being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emerge (see Table 1). Three of the Moroccans interpreted the palaces as being learned teachers, saints or wise men and the house as the dreamer. They saw themselves taking a parental role in the dreams and encouraging the dreamers to take the role of ‘good’ children to rectify relationships and to uphold the values of obedience, filial piety and high regard for authority. We can see this from the way they gave directives and told their opinions about the consequences of the dream. Although there are Western and oriental legends about places of future reward, it is significant that the images in that dream evoked the idea of ‘paradise’ in four of the nine interpreters. They seemed to understand ‘paradise’ as a place of reward after death. In the absence of the interpreters we can look for some of the clues to these interpretations by considering passages from the Qur’an which is recited daily in Morocco:

 “Lo! Those who believe and do good works, theirs are the Gardens of Paradise for welcome” (Surah XIX The Cave 108)

“Lo! Those who merit paradise this day are happily employed they and their wives, in pleasant shade, on thrones reclining; Theirs the fruit (of their good deeds) and theirs all they ask” (Surah XXXVI Ya Sin 54, 55, 56)



Table 1. Recurrent Themes of Moroccan Interpreters

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
High regard for authority  Ö   x  Ö  Ö
Good and bad reward and punishment Ö  Ö Ö x  Ö Ö 
The value of obedience  Ö Ö  x   Ö 
The spousal relationship Ö Ö Ö  x   Ö 
The student/teacher relationship  Ö   x  Ö  Ö
Paradise as future reward Ö    x Ö Ö Ö 



                In the Qur’an the Garden of Paradise is a place of reward for the good deeds of the faithful done in their lifetime. The dream interpreters saw in the dream to be interpreted themes and images from their religious myths. All but the fifth interpreter supposed the dream to have been really dreamed by a Moroccan dreamer.

            However, that dream was dreamed by one of Freud’s patients and Freud’s interpretation was quite different. Freud saw the dream as a symbol of sexual intercourse. The dreamer’s association to the little house between the two palaces was the Citadel in Prague which he related to an attractive housekeeper who had given him the impression that she would not reject any sexual overtures he might make. Freud’s point in introducing the dream was to show that ‘seemingly innocent’ dreams were wish-fulfillments of sexual desires (Freud, 1900; p. 433). 1


1Freud’s interpretation –Anyone who has a little experience in translating dreams will at once reflect that the penetration into narrow spaces and opening closed doors are among the commonest sexual symbols, and will easily perceive in this dream a representation of an attempt at coitus a tergo (between the stately buttocks of the female body). The narrow passage rising in an incline stood, of course, for the vagina. The assistance attributed by the dreamer to his wife forces us to conclude that, in reality, it was only consideration for her that restrained the dreamer from making attempts of this kind. It turned out that on the day of the dream, a girl had come to live in the dreamer’s household who had attracted him and had given him the impression that she would raise no great objections to an approach of that kind. The little house between two palaces was reminiscent of the Citadel in Prague and was a further reference to the same girl, who came from that place. (Freud, 1965, p. 433).




Interpretations of American Psychotherapists


            The method used to explore the local beliefs and ideas about dream interpretation was to ask psychotherapists in two community mental health centers why they thought people had dreams, and to ask their opinions about one of their own dreams and a dream of another person. They were also asked to give their opinions about the dream of the Little House between Two Palaces. They were subsequently asked where they had learned about dreams. I did not use the word “interpretation.” But, very often, they used this word as well as the word “analyze.” These are a few of the comments made when I asked their opinion of this dream.


1.                    “Oh! You want me to analyze this?”

2.                    “OK! but I’m not very confident” about dream analysis.

3.                    “Some people would say these are Freudian symbols, but I don’t go for all that Freudian stuff.”

4.                    “It’s not right to interpret a dream without asking the dreamers’ associations.”

When the dream of Little House between the Two Palaces was presented to the therapists for their opinions, many of the interpretations were similar to Freud’s. The dream was identified by many of the therapists as a “Freudian dream” because it was interpreted to refer to the dreamer’s sexuality (see Table II).

Only two of the narrative statements of these interpretations will be presented here, the first one because it is typical of most of the others, and the second one because it represents an example of a case where Freudian terminology was used to express anti-Freudian sentiments.

The first one was from an experienced psychologist who remembered learning about dreams in high school and in freshman college courses but who had not read Freud’s works. She said in response to the dream:

“This dream of the stately palaces has a lot of sexual symbols and connotations. It is about intercourse. She’s accepting him into her world. It’s important in terms of how welcoming she is to him. Maybe the fact that it’s about palaces and courts is that there is some intimidation by the wife. In the process of working internal conflicts dreams are useful in terms of gaining insight. Also they give a glimpse of the unconscious and primary process thinking. I would want to know how accepting the wife is of him and what he thinks of her.” (Dombeck, 1991, p.132).

 The second interpretation is given by a young woman with a college degree who was working in a Day Treatment Center.

“I don’t know (what it means) that’s why I don’t choose (to interpret) that one. I wouldn’t know what the heck he was dreaming about if it wasn’t Freudian. That’s why I wouldn’t want to tell my dream to a psychiatrist. I wouldn’t want them to interpret it in a Freudian way. Because I personally don’t believe in that. That’s just my opinion, and I don’t want somebody telling me about my sex life because, you know, that’s my business.” (Dombeck, 1991, p. 133).


Each person with whom I spoke had an opinion about why people dream. Some of the most prevalent ideas about dreams were that dreams mean something which is discoverable by analyzing the symbols, and that what is discovered about the self has to do with unconscious, hidden, and unacceptable feelings, conflicts, and wishes that the dreamer of which the dreamer is unaware. Their opinions about dreams were delivered in Freudian terminology, even though some of those ideas were misunderstanding of Freudian theories. The words symbol, sexual symbols, unconscious desires, unconscious conflicts, internal anxiety, wish fulfillments, hidden emotions, disguises, distortions, associations and analysis were frequently used to describe their theory of dreams and of dream interpretation.

Some of the therapists recognized that they were using Freudian ideas without remembering where they had learned them. There were also a large number of therapists who did not recognize that their ideas resembled Freud’s. For example, many of the therapists who said, without hesitation, that dreams were wish fulfillments, unconscious releases, and displacements respectively had no idea where they had learned that theory. A few of the therapists were convinced that they had not been influenced by any dream theory; for example, I was told by one of the therapists that he did not remember reading anything about dreams so he concluded that his ideas about dreams came from himself. “Even if I watched a TV program about that, it probably just supplemented what I thought about it myself.”

Table II.


Even when people admitted to having read theories about dreams, including Freud’s, they usually claimed not to be influenced by them.

A young psychiatrist stated emphatically:

“I’m not a dogmatist. I try to approach the topic with almost a blank screen approach. I don’t subscribe to any one theory of dreams.” 

When I pressed him by asking which of the many theories he had read was the most plausible, in spite of his alleged theoretical neutrality, he was not willing or able to express his view without Freudian terminology and without quoting Freud. This is how he continued:

“If someone came to me with a dream, I would ask a lot of questions. Someone might dream they love a person, but they don’t. This is to couch uncomfortable feelings. It’s a reaction formation. But sometimes it’s simple and straightforward. Let’s say, if someone has a craving for a particular food they haven’t had in a long time, and they can’t find it in the city, they might see that in their dreams. This is a simple wish fulfillment. It does not always represent something else. Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.” (Dombeck, 1991, p. 127). 

            There were also many subtle and obvious misconceptions of Freud’s theory. The most common was related to the use of symbolism. Most therapists thought that Freud had a fixed code of universal symbols for interpreting dreams. However, in Freudian theory any attempts to interpret dreams by dealing directly with the manifest content are considered erroneous. The dreamers must be encouraged to give their associations to the dream symbols. The choice of associations gives clues to the interpreter about the latent thoughts of the dreamer. In this sample only one person, a psychiatrist, refused to interpret the dream because the dreamer was not there (#2 in Table II).

The Interpretations of Pastoral Counselors 

          This same dream was presented to nine American counselors with a religious orientation. All defined themselves as counselors or therapists, and each had a special relationship and/or interest in their religion. Six were ordained ministers. Five defined themselves as pastoral counselors and one as a spiritual director. All of them were from traditional denominations (Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Baptist). All of them said that people came to them with material from dreams for discussion. Most did not wish to define themselves as dream interpreters, yet they each considered themselves as having competence in listening intelligently to dreams. Each said they would rather describe themselves as helping others to interpret their own dreams.

            The questions asked of the nine American interpreters when they were presented with the dream were: (1) Do people tell you their dreams? (2) If someone came to you with this dream, what would be your opinion and what would you tell them?

            The interpretations given by the American Pastoral Counselors were as follows:

1.                  If someone came to me with this dream I would want to ask questions about their childhood. I would wonder if this person feels very small.  I see a small person between two overpowering parents. Maybe his wife is helping to free him from being in their shadow.
The sexual symbolism in this dream is very obvious. The words “slipping” and “entering quickly” inside are very sexual.

2.                  It is hard to talk about the dream without the dreamer. I would want to see what kind of effect or emotion he expresses with the dream. I would want to ask him about his relationship with his wife. I would want to know if he were being led by his wife. In spite of the apparent ease in entering there is still an ‘incline’ he still has to go up. I wonder what he is ‘inclined to do?’ What his inclinations are?

3.                  It is hard to deal with a dream without knowing its context. I would want to be in touch with the man intuitively. I would understand the dream in light of whatever problem he presents with it.
There seems to be no big struggle in this dream, no big problem.  I would say that the person is making a wise choice in wanting to enter the small house rather than the stately palaces.
            You know, the sexual symbolism jumps out at me. The sexual imagery points to sexual contentment.

4.                  I would want to do the Gestalt thing and ask him what stands out most, and what his feelings are with different parts of the dream. I would ask him to identify each part of the dream as a part of himself. I would ask him to have a dialogue with the closed and open door. I would want to know the part that the feminine plays in his life.

5.                  If this man presents the dream to me, I would want to ask him how things are with his wife and I would want to know his areas of dissatisfaction. The symbols in this dream are sexual. The castles are the thighs and the narrow court is like the vagina, and the incline is the erection. I wonder if this man is very dissatisfied with his wife and is wishing things were better sexually. You know, I don’t have to be right about the dream, as long as I ask the right questions. We’re doing this backwards.

6.                  I would want to have more information about his thoughts about the dream before I interpreted it.
The dream could be making at least two statements about the man’s sexual relationship with his wife. It could also refer to the journey of the soul. There is a journey motif. “Rose on an incline” reminds me of “Climb every mountain.” The palaces reminds me of “in my Father’s house are many mansions.” The little house refers to the man, his body; in scripture our bodies are like a tent for the soul. I wouldn’t be surprised if the man felt isolated.

7.                  I would want to know how this person looked at dreams and why he brings me this dream as a presenting issue. Does this man use his dreams as a means of spiritual growth? I would be very Rogerian with him; listen much and talk little.
I would want to know about his relationship with his wife. The “house’ and the “open door” have mythological connections. Opening the door and entering is like having spiritual or mystical experience. If the house is a symbol of the man, it is as though he is entering himself. He is coming into some personal awareness maybe through the feminine part of himself.

8.                  I would be reluctant to do any interpreting unless I were with him for at least an hour and had asked him many questions. This sounds like a transition dream because it has to do with entering new places. I would want to know the place of the feminine in this man’s life, his wife, his mother, sisters, other women. I would want to know whether he expresses the feminine in himself or always projects it on someone else. I would also want to get a sense of the man’s ambition, because he places the little house behind the stately palaces.

9.                  Well you know as well as I, that I can’t interpret a dream without talking to the dreamer. This is probably a dream about the feminine part of himself leading him to new things. He is entering a new spiritual state in life. There’s an upward journey here which he is willing to take. That is why I think this man seems to be on the right path. There is a good feeling I get from the dream. Of course I would have to check that out with him.

These nine short commentaries indicate that the main focus of dream interpretations is individual self-awareness. The dream was interpreted symbolically and very tentatively in the absence of the dreamer. Nevertheless it was interpreted. There were no directives, or opinions about the consequences of the dream, as was evident in the Moroccan interpretations.

            The influence of Freud is apparent (see Table III). Apart from looking at symbols and pointing to the importance of the dreamers’ associations, there were four interpretations which mentioned symbols for sex or sexual activity. Two of the interpretations saw the dream as disguised wish-fulfillments. The fifth interpretation was remarkably like Freud’s (Freud, 1900, p. 433).

            Even though the pastoral counselors understood themselves to be in a religious context, only three of the interpretations departed from Freud in mentioning religion and spirituality. In those interpretations the dream was seen as a transition dream, as a journey of the soul, and as indicating mystical self-awareness. The sixth and seventh interpreters connected the symbols in the dream with symbols in scriptures and in mythology. Five of the interpretations advocated the exploration of the place of feminine persons in the man’s life. However, this was not only a suggestion for exploration of his interpersonal or social relationships, but also, more specifically, an individual internal reflection.



Table III. Interpretations of American Pastoral Counselors

  12 34


6 78 9
Symbols to be interpreted by dreamer Ö Ö Ö Ö Ö Ö Ö Ö Ö
Manifest contents are disguises for latent thoughts Ö   Ö Ö Ö  Ö 
Latent thoughts of basic life instinct or of sex instinct Ö  Ö  Ö Ö   
Dreams are wish fulfillment   Ö   Ö    
Dreams are royal road to unconscious—provide self awareness       Ö Ö Ö
Dream symbols are decoded by plays on words –Rebus  Ö   x Ö   
Had read some Freud   Ö      
Religious Symbolism      Ö Ö  Ö


                Thus, although the American therapists and the American Pastoral counselors saw the dream as a private and individual experience, their interpretation of the dream in the absence of the dreamer pointed to the influence of Freud. In the American contexts, self-reliance, individualism, privacy and autonomy were valued. Parental authority was not a point of reference except in one of the pastoral counselors’ interpretations (#1 in Table III) where emancipation from parents was seen as a value. Conversely, obedience to authority was a very important and frequent interpretation in the Moroccan context. A noteworthy detail is that none of the Moroccans saw anything remotely sexual in the Freudian” dream although Koranic literature is rich in sensual and sexual symbolism. 


             The learnings from this study are both obvious and subtle. It is not surprising that in America as in traditional societies dream interpretation is culturally and socially contextualized. The dream is a universal human experience yet any understandings of the dream are filtered through the lens of our own language, social values and cultural symbolism (Ullman 1960; O’Nell 1976; Dentan 1987a, 1987b; Domhoff, 1985). It is not even very surprising that both American therapists and pastoral counselors were influenced by a popular version of ideas of which they were, for the most part, unaware. It is an assumption of ethnographic research that the effect of one’s own cultural understandings are often taken for granted, and, therefore, not readily available for conscious reflection. What could give us pause, if we cared to listen, would be an examination of assumptions reflected in the interpretations of the American therapists and pastoral counselors. Since cultural contexts provide the conditions and limits of our understandings, examining contextual interpretations could tell us something about ourselves; our social values, cultural preferences and blind spots.

            Most of the therapists knew how to interpret the dream. Their interpretations were remarkably like each other’s and like Freud’s. Yet each believed that their interpretations were discovered by themselves. In fact many of them asserted that they were not influenced by anyone. Whenever Freud came up it was with emphatically negative protests or even embarrassment. There was much denigration of Freud. It was not seen as a good thing to be associated with an antiquated Freudian theory. Dreams were regarded as helpful for the purpose of gaining personal insight – one’s own private domain; no one else’s business. Freudian interpretation and terminology were accepted as obvious. “Sexual symbolism” was perceived to be ubiquitous (especially in the interpretations of the pastoral counselors). Protests of epistemological autonomy were made with an anxious demeanor. In a society where individual autonomy, independence, self reliance, personal ingeniousness, iconoclasm and novelty are valued, it is hard to admit our communal traditional and contextual influences.

            All of the therapists said that the dream could not be interpreted without the associations of the dreamer, yet only one refrained from interpreting it anyway.  The belief that the dreamer is needed to effect true personal interpretations is one methodological point highly emphasized by Freud. He says “the technique which I describe in the pages that follow…imposes the task of interpretation upon the dreamer himself.” (Freud, 1965:130). Yet the most common misconception of Freud among the therapists was that Freud had given us some sort of a code book of symbols. A young psychology trainee said "The only thing I remember learning about dreams in school was one thing; it was a Freudian idea that there were universal symbols, that they were, you know, you could interpret the dream based on the universal symbolic code." A doctorally prepared clinical psychologist told me substantially the same thing. When I asked her if she knew the code, she said, “I’m unfamiliar with it, I don’t know the exact correlations.” Then she gave me the names of some psychoanalysts who could tell me more about it.

            Is there a code? In the Freudian literature we have strong opinions derived from his analyses, based on his own and his analysand’s associations. But no code. His interpretations, like ours, are contextualized in his time and social situation. What we have in the interpretations of the American therapists is a rejection of what is construed as someone else’s code which is considered old, traditional and fixed, and the tacit proposing of another one which is accepted as one’s own personal opinion. It is based on a belief in personal individual introspection. The symbols, which are seen as products of the mind, are expected to provide new information for working through personal internal and external conflicts and problems. This, of course, implies the belief in the rejection of codes especially old traditional, societal ones. The tendency, if not the de-facto methodological code, is to down play the influence of social and cultural traditions on one’s personal introspections. For American psychotherapists as for Freud, and dream interpreters in other societies, the social context provides the conditions and limits of understanding of dreams.

            The cultural context provides us with the capacity and tendency to create and understand special culturally encoded symbols. Codes function as frozen symbols. They function as templates for understanding and fixing conventional meaning. This process is an extremely important one for the learning of languages as well as for the understanding of dreams. When a symbolic meaning is learned, the symbol functions as a somewhat solid if not frozen signal and a signifier so that meanings are manifested and made clear. Members of the same social group could not otherwise communicate with each other with a degree of consensus. Yet the freezing of symbols, as invaluable as it is, for learning language and interpreting dreams also tends to limit our understandings, not only to what was meant in the past, or what is meant by our own social group, but also of what can be expressed at all. There is an implication that if one knows the code, one can discover a definite meaning, point to it, articulate it, and therefore solve the problem. This is unfortunately also a limiting understanding of what knowledge is, and of how psychotherapy functions.

              But dreams and the symbols that arise in them are not that simply explained. They express and refer to things which cannot be said otherwise. The symbols of our dreams also point to what is most opaque and mysterious about our humanity. They occasionally serve to adumbrate what seemed previously quite obvious. According to Paul Ricoeur, they contain an excess of meanings. (Ricoeur, 1981:176).2

            Dream interpretation requires not only the decoding of frozen symbols but also and especially the thawing of frozen symbols.

2I refer here to Ricoeur’s understanding that a symbol is polysemic and that metaphors contain a surplus of meaning, even though in discursive language only specific contextual meanings are taken. This enables univocal discourse.



             Is it legitimate, or even ethical, to interpret a dream without the dreamer? Was I tricking my informants by asking their opinions of someone else’s dream? The reason they “fell for it” is precisely that it is as impossible to not interpret as it is to not communicate. A dream is like a text, a poem that cries out to be read, enjoyed and interpreted not only by the poet but by whoever reads it or hears it. This activity is not unethical as long as the interpreter remembers that the response to the dream is as contextual as the dream itself.  



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aUniversity of Rochester School of Nursing, Rochester, New York.

b Address correspondence to Mary-Therese B. Dombeck, Ph.D., D.Min, 53 Genesee Park Blvd, Rochester, NY 14611.

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