Why I’m Not Excited For ‘The Normal Heart,’ and It Troubles Me To The Core That Many Are

Why I'm Not Excited For 'The Normal Heart,' and It Troubles Me To The Core That Many Are

The
internet has been alight the past few months with anticipation for Ryan Murphy’s
HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play ‘The
Normal Heart’ (which airs May 25th on HBO). JustJared headlined the trailer as “Watch Mark Ruffalo and
Matt Bomer kiss” and The Huffington Post commands viewers to “Get your tissues
ready.” Many writers on this blog have been pretty excited for it too. Fresh off critically and commercially popular revivals of the AIDS-era
drama in New York and Chicago, the HBO adaptation offers a solid ensemble cast led
by Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, and proudly bears the insignia of Murphy, one of
the most visible gay artists working today. The internet, and one would assume
the gay community, anticipates this May premiere with great aplomb. As a gay man
who is reasonably knowledgeable about queer theatre, a number of people have
asked me if I’m excited for the film. I’m not. I’m not excited about it, and in
all honesty, I’m not OK with it. I’m not OK with ‘The Normal Heart.’ And it troubles me to my core that many are.

Written
in 1985, ‘The Normal Heart’ is a
quasi-autobiographical play about Kramer’s experiences as a gay man working to
make his voice heard in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York.
Raging as hard as he can against the establishment, Ned (the Kramer character),
fights indifference from the press, the government, and the gay community,
accusing all three bodies of denial in the face of the destruction. No one will
ever accuse ‘The Normal Heart’ of being
a great play, as Kramer is certainly activist first and artist second, and my
point is not to belittle the writing of the play (though the writing itself is poor–
at one point a doctor literally says, “What is going on inside your bodies!”). The
quality of the art is not what I question. What infuriates me about this play
is its brazen sex negativity and singular drive to belittle a queer community
that Kramer clearly could not stand, and the shameless emotional manipulation
of its audience.

The
politics of ‘The Normal Heart’ are, in
a word, irresponsible. Simply put, Kramer cannot abide by those whose views
differ from his. Ned, the driving force of the play, is as fiercely opinionated
as his author, and points the accusing finger squarely at the newly liberated
gay men of New York as responsible for spreading HIV.  At the time of the play’s publication,
Kramer’s distain for casual sex was well-known, and Kramer was largely
unpopular with the gay community (see the controversy surrounding his 1978
novel ‘Faggots’). When we see the play
today, with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the scope of AIDS, it is
easy for us as an audience to side with Ned’s accusations of the gay community
as being overly sexual to a fault, but in 1985, this was not a popular opinion,
and such overwhelming sex negativity coming from such a prominent voice was
damaging to a community that was dealing with an incredible blow to its
fledgling sense of self-worth. Is this attitude of sex-shaming how we want to
view the early years of queer liberation?

Accordingly, he also accuses the press
and the government, on both city and federal levels, of indifference and
neglect. Here, I completely agree with Kramer. The fight for recognition of the
disease has been one of the best-recorded issues in modern queer history – with
works from across the spectrum of gay literature, from Randy Shilts to Harvey
Fierstein. However, his accusations are impulsive and sloppy. The play takes a
series of cheap shots at New York Mayer Ed Koch, who was long-suspected of
being a closeted gay man who avoided the topic of AIDS to distance himself from
the gay cause. “Who would want him?” Jokes Ned when Emma, a doctor, asks if
Koch is gay. Not only is this crude, it is simplistic. Though the true damage
will likely never be known, the silence of those in power (like Koch and Reagan)
had untold consequences on the rapid-fire spread of HIV. This is not a matter
to laugh off with a jab at Koch’s sexual desirability. Thousands of people died
wretched deaths because our government avoided this issue and did not provide
the support, financial or institutional, that our citizens needed. This is our
shame.

Furthermore, the play simplifies
the scope of the epidemic. Though at the time of the play’s publication the magnitude
of AIDS was not as clear as it is today, the play restricts the discussion of
AIDS to gay upper-middle class white cisgender men. This is ludicrous. There is
no mention of women with HIV. There are no characters of color. Only men with
healthcare are shown receiving treatment. There is no mention of the trans*
community. Kramer is not only alienating these factions of society, he is
outright excluding them. Certainly, he is under no obligation to write about
every person affected by HIV, nor does his play claim to be encyclopedic, but
he falls prey to the same type of tunnel-vision and exclusionary thinking of
which he accuses so many. Not only does this distance these other groups from
the epidemic (and from our historical view of the epidemic) but from the queer
history in general.

What is most infuriating to me,
however, is Kramer’s sentimentality. Despite the play’s rages and tantrums,
accusations and realizations, the play survives on the emotional manipulation
of its audience. The author specifies a desire for a set with facts about AIDS
displayed on its walls, we hear tearful admissions of losing loved ones, and
the play ends with the marriage of Ned and his boyfriend Felix, seconds before
Felix dies. This is brazen manipulation of the audience for emotional release. Living
with AIDS, especially in the early years, was physical and mental torture. It
was not dropping cartons of milk on your apartment floor and dying one scene
later. It was blood, shit, tears, hatred, disgust, brimstone, alienation and being
very alone. It is not something that can be summarized or understood. It is not
a history representable by numbers painted on an upstage wall. It cannot be
compartmentalized as such. The wretchedness of this condition was captured with
stunning force by a generation of artists: look at the work of David
Wojnarowicz, Robert Chesley, Félix González-Torres. Look at Karen Finley’s ‘A Constant State of Denial.’

And what is possibly worse than
Kramer’s sentimentality is our society’s willingness to accept it. It is
convenient for us to see a production of ‘The
Normal Heart,’ cry, and return to our scheduled lives. We can see ‘The Normal Heart,’ feel as if we’ve done
our duty to queer history, and then go about our lives feeling like better
people. And to absorb and file away this part of our history is to insult it.
To post a Facebook status about running mascara or to Tweet about the slice of
history you have seen is NOT to experience of a time. Am I being too
simplistic? No; I have seen these posts. And I am so, so afraid for my
generation – we who think that validation of an event through social media
represents an understanding of a historical process. To be clear, I am not
faulting Kramer for this. I am faulting the lazy way that we understand
history. Surely, we cannot understand all of the struggles that our kind has
seen throughout history. But we can endeavor to bear witness to the generations
of those who have passed.

But who knows? Perhaps the HBO
adaptation of ‘The Normal Heart’ will
surprise (at least this prejudiced viewer) with historical accuracy and a lack
of sentimentality. Ryan Murphy is a creative force with artistic and commercial
savvy and his work is always singular. I can’t help but fear not only for the
film, but for those who will treat it as a history text. As I write this, I am
reminded of the hubbub surrounding the 2008 Stephen Daldry film, The Reader,’ which takes the Holocaust as
its subject (though I am loathe to draw connections between this ‘The Normal Heart’ and the Holocaust,
which Kramer does flagrantly, but that is for a later rant). Reviewing the film
for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis notes: “…the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those
Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good
about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful
interpolation.” How many white-washed AIDS testaments can we hear before it
becomes a paragraph in a textbook? And what, if anything, will shock us out of
our seats and remind us that this is real, and this is still happening?

I’m not saying that Larry
Kramer’s activism is not important. I’m not saying that staying quiet (what
Kramer advocated against) was or is remotely acceptable behavior. I’m saying
that we cannot summarize an entire social group’s response to a major world
change in a single play, and to do so is lazy history. Kramer’s play and its
characters do not speak for all queer people, or all people with AIDS. To
simplify this (or any) major social event is to belittle it, and to ignore the
vast and varied response that we had to this event. If you see this film or
this play, please do not forget that this is one voice in a huge plurality, and
that AIDS is not historical, it is universal.

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Comments

KR

You're an excellent writer, but lack a certain amount of common sense. To say that a person's point of view is not all-encompassing automatically negates the notion of point of view. All writers write what they know. He had no business writing about how the crisis affected women because at that time he, and many others, didn't know. And can we talk about how prophetic he was? Cautioning gay men about unprotected sex. Imagine. You may not like his politics, you may not like his point of view. You may question the quality of his writing. Fine. But, as you note at the beginning, you are in the minority on this. Maybe there's a reason for that. Dig deeper and find out what you have against this work and its author, because nothing here is substantive enough to merit the brazen headline of this article. What worries me is that young gay men will see your headline, or worse, read your article, and think, "I don't need to see this film." You are denying gay history in a way that is worrisome.

Vanessa

Sorry but to shine a light on the fact that unprotected sex with multiple partner increases the risk and spread of AIDS is not sex negative. Want to people to not contact HIV through unprotected sex is pretty darn sex positive! Kramer has never claimed to be telling any story other than a narrow autobiographic story of a white, middle class cis- gay boy in the crisis. To want it to have broader lens would make a different play. A better play perhaps but not the play he wrote and not the play that represents his point of view. It is not a documentary and it certainly was never intended to represent all the experiences. Yes it's melodramatic cause guess what it's a melodramatic play. Funny you claim Kramer doesn't get it but I don't think you even know what you are judging. Judging the play for not being a play it never claims to be makes no sense at all.

RANDOLPH DELLAGO

One can only be grateful that this bloviating imbecile only had 30 minutes to write his copy. Had he had a full hour, it might have been longer. William F. Buckley could not have written a more bilious screed.

Randal

I am bothered by the way the commenters state it is not a "documentary". Documentaries are not unprejudiced, unmanipulated, regurgitations of the truth. Choices are made on whose story to tell, which parts to film, which parts go on the cutting room floor, etc. it is a totally subjective media not unlike fiction films. Call Me Kuchu is a perfect recent example of total emotional manipulation, and in that case the female filmmakers waisted no time in exploiting the real life death of one of the film's subjects whose death they may own some part in to repeatedly raise major additional funds in spite of having the nerve to claim they had no idea it might happen. Then why did they go all the way to Uganda of all places?

jay

You did NOT call the characters in this play "cisgender" men.

May your fingers fall off and you lose your voice, so you can never type another word.

Sarah

I understand where you're coming from– the play is preachy and limited in scope and so is Larry Kramer. But I think the existence of the movie will expose people (Many people) to this period of history which they maybe didn't even know existed.

Matt

I have to disagree strongly with you about the play version of THE NORMAL HEART! It was one of the most MOVING plays i have EVER SEEN!

If you want to make a change in the world today for ALL PEOPLE, Donate to bcefa.org!

Melissa

After throughly reading the article and some of the comments, the only thing I can think of is that the author doesn't share Kramer's politics, which is fine, and he feels the need to express it by atacking Krame's work, and that I don't understand…

I haven't see the first interview or scoop, or article where the author, or the director of the movie or any of the actors, present this work as the definitive truth about what happened in the early 80's with the AIDS crisis and the gay community, they've actually been pretty vocal about how this is a very personal work, the story about Kramer and his group of friends and the anger and frustration of watching his friends die horrible deaths and nobody doing anything about it… it should be emotional and dramatic!

Nels

Thank you. The play has bugged me for decades. Your comments about the sex negativity encapsulate it for me clearly for the first time.

CJ

I'm glad you admitted to being prejudiced at the end of this article – because it was very apparent throughout. I don't know that Kramer has claimed that his play, and now the filmed adaptation, encapsulated the entire experience of the world, or even the country, when first confronted by AIDS. He's under no obligation to do so. He chronicled his own story, as any author or playwright is entitled to do. The fact that the story doesn't encompass EVERYONE and EVERYTHING that you want it to is, quite frankly, irrelevant to the question of whether it's a moving and important film about a period of time – and a sense of inaction – that we cannot afford to forget or repeat.

Fastidious

Your criticism is very generic and can be applicable to any fictional movie made about any social/historical issue. This is not a documentary, it's a fictional piece (even if somewhat autobiographical). It's purpose is to stir emotions and we all know movie/plays in general manipulate emotions in hoardes. Larry Kramer, from what I've heard so far, is presented sort of a flawed activist. It's ridiculous to complain that the hero isn't perfect or all races/genders aren't represented. It's one person's pov and how he dealt with the crisis. What you are asking for is a documentary and hopefully we'll get one soon only it may not reach as many people as TNH would.

You need to remember it's a play written by a person motivated by indignation towards social injustice. It makes important points, raises awareness, and to some extent documents history. An achievement not to be scoffed at imo.

Chase Whiteside

Charles O'Malley is troubled to the core! He's not okay! And he's infuriated, too! But at what, we cannot be sure: this isn't criticism of The Normal Heart, the play or the movie (which he hasn't seen). Nor does he fault playwright Larry Kramer for anything, who he considers overly sentimental but an important activist.

No, what troubles and infuriates O'Malley is some vaguely defined manner in which "we" (gays on the internet, writ large) appreciate history: "To post a Facebook status about running mascara or to Tweet about the slice of history you have seen is NOT to experience of a time. Am I being too simplistic? No; I have seen these posts."

He considers the obvious: that his reading of people's social media posts anticipating the film are overly simplistic, but decides for himself that he is not guilty. Well, that settles that.

Sadly, you have to read all the way to the end to see how painfully pointless his article is:

"I’m saying that we cannot summarize an entire social group’s response to a major world change in a single play, and to do so is lazy history. Kramer’s play and its characters do not speak for all queer people, or all people with AIDS. To simplify this (or any) major social event is to belittle it, and to ignore the vast and varied response that we had to this event. If you see this film or this play, please do not forget that this is one voice in a huge plurality, and that AIDS is not historical, it is universal."

You see, only O'Malley holds the power to discern that this story — of a real man's fight against AIDS within a specific community — is in fact not the ENTIRE history of AIDS!

Well, duh. Neither was And the Band Played On. Or A Silverlake Life. Or We Were Here. Or How To Survive a Plague. Or Angels in America. Or Rent. And so forth…

O'Malley recognizes that no one play can contain all of this history, but faults The Normal Heart for failing to do so nonetheless — all the while railing against some imaginary pack of ravenously Tweeting, history obliterating queers.

Some advice for O'Malley: if the people you follow on the internet are truly that stupid, then you should find some new friends.

Tim

I've seen the movie (thank you HBO Emmy screener). It's fantastic. It has stayed with me for days, quite haunting.

This article is garbage — just because something or someone makes you feel uncomfortable or does not align with your opinion, doesn't mean it's not a valid point of view. And… honestly, why not just wait to see the movie before you decide it's terrible?

What's most shocking about Mr. O'Malley's analysis, is he echoes what Larry Kramer was actively fighting against — ignorance and complacency. As the movie illustrates, many men were burying their head in the sand (or in the bathhouses) while it was clear something terrible was happening in the gay community — how many people could have been saved if they listened to Larry Kramer sooner? SEX is not more important then being alive. The fact that Larry Kramer realized that, illustrates he understands sex, more then the men seeking validation and liberation in it.

Regardless, the movie is worth watching — form your own opinion about it AFTER you see it.

FP

Why are two pages dedicated to a tweetable idea? This guy isn't excited to see a film. 2 pages, why? Slow week, boys?

In two words, who cares? Save your opinions for the actual film, if you can put down your prejudices long enough to steal an HBO Go password.

As for the sex negative portrayals, the lily-white characters, the number of dongs vs. vag's, did this author watch WE WERE THERE? HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE? GAY SEX IN THE 70s? I saw a lot of white male faces in those, along with a few women doctors and caretakers. If he's going to accuse THE NORMAL HEART, he needs to accuse those documentaries and their makers of the same white-washing.

Obviously, there were people of color and women present during the crisis. If their voices are muted or absent, find ones able to talk about it instead of whining that the predominantly white-male filmmakers who have brought the stories of their friends and forbearers for being successful in providing the voices of those who survived that awful period. If you're so concerned, go find the others. Unless you're bothered that, in fact, this was a disease that primarily affected white males who were, in fact, engaged in rampant unprotected sex in bars, clubs, streets, parks, XXX theatres, etc for a decade. The author seems awfully determined to hide those facts by presenting Kramer's fairly obvious truism that, if these men had stopped doing so, the disease could have stopped spreading so easily, as sex negativity. Why was ceasing to engage in behavior that could kill you, sex negative? If friends and loved ones are dying around you, and at the time there was little to no proof condoms were the key to prevention – was it viral, bacterial, airborne, transmitted from just kissing, etc.? – that's exactly the answer.

These two pages make the author sound far more Millenial than survivor of the 80s, with a "cisgender" here, and mention of every social media platform. And I'd rather hear from people who survived than some grad student determined to live in a perfect Benneton ad.

manny

I just want to say, as a 25 year old. When I was in high school they showed movies like the normal heart regarding the aids epidemic. They were simplistic and manipulative, and you know what, for a 15 to 16 year old audience, they worked. Ryan Murphy has an audience, and it's teens, and teens own the future, he knows what he's doing. He knows after the HBO premiere, this film will be in circulation in high-schools around the US, along with 12 years a slave, Schindler's list, Amistad, stand and deliver, dead poets society, angels in america, ect. In other words, these films are not for adults, they are for people 14 to 30, which is where emotional manipulation not only works, but ACTUALLY engages. And for those who say, "oh when I was in high-school I was smarter, and didn't put up with this crap" good for you, now in your mind's eye look around you and see the rest of your classroom, done? Good. Those people now have a vote in this country equal to yours, you better hope they cry when all the gay people died in that sad movie, and you better hope they remember they cried when they are at the ballot box.

Dennis Harvey

This is a typical example of blaming a a pioneering work for faults determined with the benefit of 30 years' historical hindsight. Larry Kramer has indeed always been an embittered scold toward the gay community, but "The Normal Heart" was the one time he transcended personal vindictiveness and created a powerful if not particularly subtle work of art. Chiding it for not being inclusive enough is silly–it was written at, and about, a time when only the gay community was talking (in anything but panicked and misinformed terms) about AIDS, even though there were also victims outside it. The author complains because "The Normal Heart" IS a flashback and doesn't address every ongoing issue of the ongoing AIDS epidemic. Well, it's not as though there's exactly a large number of AIDS dramas being produced now. When was the last one? Shouldn't we be glad that at least somebody made one now, and hope it might spur the creation of others? The author's last paragraph is particularly ridiculous–he seems to suggest that if a work of art can't encompass every single facet of a real-world issue, it's not worthy of existing. That's a viewpoint just as discouraging of diverse voices as Kramer-the-political-activist has often been, another way of saying "My way or the highway."

Adam Gonzalez

While The Normal Heart isn't one of my favorite plays, I feel like the author is treating it like a work of historical fiction rather than a historical artifact.

In 1985, Larry Kramer wasn't writing to teach future generations about AIDS. He was dramatizing the fear and anger (mostly anger) of living at a moment when being a gay man in New York was virtually a death sentence, and it seemed as though no one would do anything to change that. The only way that can be seen as a "sentimental" attempt to make the audience "feel good" about AIDS, or "whitewash" the horror of the pandemic is if you're looking at it with the privilege of someone decades removed from the moment the play was written out of.

For someone who criticizes our perception of history, the author sure seems unwilling to understand The Normal Heart from a historical perspective. Also, is it a bit misplaced to condemn a largely autobiographical work for having too narrow a scope? Yeesh, this author's criticism is almost as scattered and directionless as Larry Kramer's…

frank

Every single point about the play that this ridiculously stupid writer makes in this article is not in the movie. I've seen the movie. The movie is different than the play, as it should be.
O'Malley is irresponsible and his points are mute. He will feel like the idiot he is when he watches the film version of The Normal Heart and realizes that nothing he said here applies.

Matt

Thanks for spoiling the ending for everyone who hasn't seen the play!

Come on. REALLY?!?!

The Normal Heart was not trying to represent the global turmoil brought about by AIDS because no one had yet acknowledged that the disease even existed. This play was created as a piece of political screaming. Silence=Death.

Larry Kramer was one of only a few people who were demanding that the government and society as a whole, pay attention. The play is an example of a time in the United States during which we turned our backs on people who were suffering. That's why it's an important piece and why it bears revivals and new interpretations. It can serve as a cautionary tale and teach us to avoid the mistakes of our past.

And regarding the emotions of the play… YES. The play was, and is, absolutely trying to tug at the heartstrings of the viewers. It's goal was to spur people into action by making them care. To today's audiences, it may seem overly sentimental, but that was exactly the point. Could it have been written with more delicacy? Yes. But the movement did not need subtle. It needed shouting and passion.

Hopefully, Ryan Murphy has recognized this as a period piece and will not attempt to tell the whole story of AIDS through it. The play is about the 80s when we ignored an epidemic. The movie might be, too.

And finally – I question the author's understanding of the word "aplomb."

seriously?

This article defines the word "prejudice."

You haven't seen the film; therefore there is no reasonable conclusion to be made at this time.

As for covering all the various facets of the early AIDS years – your own viewpoint attempts to muzzle a work that was based on real-life experiences of its author. Of course its limited in its scope: as we all are by our own perceptions. Put this film in with a group of works (Angels in America, And the Band Played On, Long Time Companion, Rent – as examples) and you get the diversity that you seek. It's not fair to demand that one film represent all points of view – it only needs to be true to its author's.

JH

There is a real trend lately that all art (and let's be honest here, plays & films ARE art) is supposed to subscribe to communicating the point of view shared by activists and academics. Your point that "we cannot summarize an entire social group’s response to a major world change in a single play, and to do so is lazy history" is absurd, because the point of art is not to communicate capital-H History. Of course with having this point of view, you would be offended. What wouldn't be offensive if we thought about all art and communication from this very specific and pin-headed point of view?! Art is NOT activism. Art is NOT your PhD thesis. Art is NOT about perfectly recounting history.

Not the history of AIDS activism...

The Normal Heart was a call to action, it was never written as a historical representation of the AIDS crises… it was written during the onset of the AIDS crises! ACT UP wasn't even active until a few years after the play's premiere. I don't take issue w/ applying the lens of contemporary identity politics to a 30 year old play, but I do think using this space to outright dismiss the work (and it's significant impact on the AIDS crises in New York) is a missed opportunity. I would have very much appreciated a more thoughtfully written discourse about some of the issues you raise (is it sex negative? what's the role of the piece in 2014? White people. etc.), but this unfortunately just comes across as more of unhelpful noise our community often throws around at itself. I think this blog can do better.

J

So, The Normal Heart reflects its author's point of view, and doesn't comport exactly with the prevailing thinking of 1980's AIDS activists, as if that's some sort of crime.

Jose

"But who knows? Perhaps the HBO adaptation of 'The Normal Heart' will surprise (at least this prejudiced viewer) with historical accuracy and a lack of sentimentality"

Doubt it. I'm unfamiliar with the source material, but Ryan Murphy is THE reason why I'm staying away. All his stuff reeks of self-importance with inconsistent character and writing that LOVEEEEEEES to toy with audience's emotions. After seeing you describe the play The Normal Heart is based on as something that loves manipulating audience's emotions, this definitely sounds like something up Murphy's alley.

Also, I just saw that this movie is on the cover of the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly and it's dubbed as "the most important & heartbreaking movie of 2014."

Ugh.

Mark Brest

Wow, the exploitative queer propaganda on HBO is not exploitative ENOUGH for this author. I will avoid it, but not for the same reasons. I don't pay for HBO. And I don't function as part of any readymade "gay" demographic. Here's the thing: if we were real human beings, we would appreciate a glimpse into homosexuality and AIDS circa 1980's. A view from outside the politically correct box is sorely needed, if truth be told.

anonymous

Murphy indicated that there was a lot of changes made for the movie. I don't think its fair to judge it before seeing it.

Also missed...

Also troubled by the author's feeling that "a single play" can't represent an entire experience. I mean, DUH. Let's just stop all art altogether, since a single painting, song, play, movie, and TV show aren't universally representative of ANYTHING. What is the point even?

Missed the point

Honestly, the author's need to be "oh-so-serious" about all these "oh-so-serious" issues is more troubling to me than Kramer's politics. The idea that we can't joke about troubles – when it is so very human TO joke in the midst of trauma and tragedy – is hugely problematic. The author seems to be pushing for a more sentimentalized approach – the "woe is me" approach to queer politics – rather than a more cynical, perhaps sometimes acid approach to crafting art around a political time. I personally prefer the latter, but I'd never say the author is wrong or problematic for preferring the former, even if I find it trite and self-indulgent.

Ziad Ghazzawi

This is a MOVIE. Not a documentary.

Jeez.

Fartzilla

"I’m not excited about it, and in all honesty, I’m not OK with it. I’m not OK with 'The Normal Heart.' And it troubles me to my core that many are."

Three paragraphs later:

"The politics of 'The Normal Heart' are, in a word, irresponsible. Simply put, Kramer cannot abide by those whose views differ from his. "

Idiot.

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