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Washington Post Magazine: Night and Day

Jody Arlington overcame a traumatic childhood.
Jody Arlington overcame a traumatic childhood. (Erika Larsen - Redux)
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Laura Wexler and Kathryn Harrison
Monday, June 16, 2008; 12:00 PM

When Jody Arlington was a teenager, her brother brutally murdered her parents and sister -- a trauma that would have destroyed most people. For her, it was a new beginning.

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Washington Post Magazine contributor Laura Wexler and author Kathryn Harrison were online Monday, June 16 to discuss "Night and Day," Wexler's cover story about Jody Arlington's past and present.

Wexler, a Baltimore-based writer, is the author of Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America. Harrison, a New York-based writer, is the author of a new book about Jody Arlington's story: While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family. Her other books include the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot and the novels Envy and The Binding Chair.

A transcript follows.

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Kathryn Harrison: Hello, I'm Kathryn Harrison, and I wrote "WHILE THEY SLEPT: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family." The book is based primarily on interviews with a pair of siblings, Jody Arlington, who was 16 in 1984, and her then 18-year-old brother, Billy Gilley, who murdered their parents and their 11-year-old sister, Becky. Billy was subsequently sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, which he is serving in Oregon. Jody provided the sole material witness for the case against her brother.

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Laura Wexler: Hello, I'm Laura Wexler. This is a powerful story and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions about it.

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Washington, D.C.: I am curious about the thesis Jody wrote, "Death Faces," and that agents thought it could not be published in the format or voice she originally wrote it. I gather you have read the document, do you agree it is not publishable as is?

Laura Wexler: I have read "Death Faces," and it's an extraordinary piece of writing. I'm not qualified to say whether it's publishable, but I can say that it's an odd hybrid piece, and that hybrids--as opposed to books that are clearly one genre or another--are always difficult to market.

For better or worse, we are living in the age of the memoir and "Death Faces" is a far cry from what we've come to expect from memoirs.

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Munich, Germany: I've often thought that suspicions and bad thoughts about and in people have to come from somewhere, such as from movies or books, but to have really lived through something as traumatic as you have makes me wonder how difficult it was to start trusting people again. Did public opinion and being the bogeyman make it more difficult?

Laura Wexler: I think it has been difficult for Jody to trust people, as it would be for anyone in her situation.

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Washington, D.C.: I willing to ask the hard questions. Knowing that if her family hadn't been killed, it's highly likely she would still be caught in a cycle of poverty and dysfunction, does she feel guilty about what she has achieved because of what happened? Does she ever wonder if she would give up what she's become to have her family still alive? And does she seek out young people who come from these backgrounds and who have yet to hear, "You're smart and special?" to mentor? Because without the tragedy, chances are no one with power and pull would have noticed her.

Kathryn Harrison: Jody isn't here to speak for herself, but based on many hours of conversation with her, I can say that, yes, Jody suffered a great deal of guilt in the wake of the murders. There was the guilt of surviving, when others, especially her younger sister, did not. There was the guilt of being freed at the cost of human lives. There was the guilt of having wished her cruel parents dead on many occasions. All of these do not add up to material guilt, but they are a psychic burden --or they were. It has been 24 years since the murders, and Jody has worked hard to reinvent herself, to create a whole an useful life. She does offer her service to social agencies and speaks out against family violence and other issues that threaten the lives of children.

Laura Wexler: The only thing I would add is that survivor guilt is such a terribly, terribly complicated thing. It's the feeling of being "lucky" and not feeling you deserve to be lucky, so the luck is a kind of burden.

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Arlington, Va.: Interested to know from either or both of you - how open is Jody about telling her story to people? Does she tell new acquaintances about her family when she first gets to know them? Is she participating in interviews about this book? And is she nervous the disclosures from this article and book might change her relationships with -- maybe not with close friends -- but with neighbors, clients, etc?

Laura Wexler: My sense is that Jody is more open to talking about this part of her life than she was when she first arrived in D.C. Much of that is due to the benefit of time passing, I think. The tension for her is that at the same time she wants to acknowledge that this is a part of her life, she doesn't want this story to define her. And because it's such a powerful, taboo and easily sensationalized story, that's a real risk.

I do think she's confident that that the people in her life, both personally and professionally, know who she is and that this disclosure will not affect those relationships. Of course, there will be the strange experience of people she already knows learning more about her from a public newspaper, which is just an odd thing. But it is what it is.

Kathryn Harrison: I know that Jody does not want to be defined by her past, especially not by this very troubling part of her past, and she wouldn't introduce herself as the girl whose family was murdered by her brother, nor would she share this information with a casual acquaintance. That said, she does speak about the murders articulately and would share them with someone she considered a close friend. She is participating in interviews, not across the board, but considering them on a case-by-case basis, and like all people thrust into the public consciousness, I think she's a bit nervous about the reception of her story. But she is a sophisticated and intelligent woman; she has addressed these issues for years now.

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Va.: Hello, a good article. I was wondering if there is parole in state criminal jail sentences? I thought only those in jails for federal criminal sentences can/will have parole.

Laura Wexler: I believe there is no parole for federal crimes, but the relevant point here is that Billy Gilley's sentence was three life sentences without parole, which is three 30-year terms, adding up to 90 years. As I wrote in my article, he is due for a resentencing hearing sometime in the next year, so his sentence could be changed, and he could be offered the chance for parole or fewer years, etc.

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Alexandria, Virginia: Did Billy ever state why he killed Becky? If so, is this addressed in the book?

Kathryn Harrison: Billy killed Becky when she interrupted him during the murders of their parents. He never intended to kill her, and went to some trouble to remove her from the scene, but she returned and he hit her. He claims that it was his intention to stun her -- knock her unconscious -- and that he did not mean the blows to be fatal.

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Washington, D.C.: Has Jody gotten involved in crime prevention activities?

Aside from the book, is she involved in any outreach programs that work with children who have been abused or with any groups that work to prevent child abuse?

Laura Wexler: Jody served on President Clinton's national commission against youth violence as well as working in human rights on behalf of women around the world in New York. She also sees her work in documentary film as helping to tell important stories for those who often don't have the voice or the forum.

Beyond that, she really has the desire to "pay back" the help, support and mentorship she received from Thad Guyer and many others in D.C. through the years, and she talks about doing that through helping a kid who may be in a similarly difficult situation to hers, or adopting a child.

As you'll see when you read the book, Jody has provided a list of agencies and services that offer help.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Wonderful piece, Laura. This is a relatively silly question, but does Jody attach any significance to the fact that she collects materials related to Batman -- whose parents were brutally murdered (and, come to think of it, whose name is apropos in a macabre way)?

Laura Wexler: I just read your question to my husband and he said, Oh, yes, that makes sense. Having sadly no knowledge of Batman's lineage, I never thought to ask Jody this. But, you could be right. And, too, I can say that one of the few positive things she inherited from her family, as she sees it, is a love of comic books and graphic novels. I was very struck by the description of the graphic novel she and her husband, Franck, are working on--what a powerful, disturbing and yet miraculous story.

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Rockville, Md.: How has Jody's experiences changed her views on having her own children?

Laura Wexler: Jody has said she doesn't want to have children, but is interested in adopting an older child and providing the support and mentorship and kind of "found family" others gave her. My sense is that she's worried that the various pathologies that surfaced in her family could affect her offspring, and that's why she doesn't want to have children.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: I believe Jody's story 100%, but I also have a morbid curiosity which makes me ask: If Billy has been claiming that she was an accomplice in the attack, how was it proven the first time around that she was not? It seems like a he said/she said type situation.

Kathryn Harrison: It was, at heart, very much of a he said/she said situation. But both Jody and Billy agreed that it was he who murdered the rest of the family, and it was Billy who had a juvenile record, and more of a motive, as it was he who suffered more abuse at the hands of his parents and was, at the time of the murders, a virtual prisoner of his father. The case is not a black and white one, which is why it is interesting to explore.

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Washington D.C.: Why the resentencing?

Laura Wexler: Briefly, the reason is that Billy's lawyers from the federal public defenders' office were able to make the case that he had ineffective counsel during the sentencing phase of his original trial. So it's not a new trial--the verdict stands. But he will be given the opportunity for a new sentencing hearing in a court in Medford, Oregon.

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Maryland: In Md., resentencing hearings require the victim's family, the victim, and anyone else involved to show up. Will Jody show up at Billy's resentencing hearing?

Laura Wexler: That was a question I had, too, imagining Jody and Billy in a courtroom together again. But it's not yet clear whether Jody will have to appear in person--it could be she could submit her thoughts and opinions in writing, which would be her preference, she told me.

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D.C.: I thought the article in Sunday's magazine was very interesting. I'm wondering if you feel any sympathy for her brother after getting to know him and hearing his version. The Sunday article was of course focused on the situation for his sister, but I couldn't help be curious about her brother and how he might see the circumstances differently, especially after many years in prison.

Kathryn Harrison: I have a great deal of sympathy for Billy, as I would for anyone in his situation. As Jody herself says, her brother didn't need to become a murderer; he was brutalized for years before answering violence with violence. Having spent a few days visiting Billy in prison -- we did 18 hours of focused interviews -- I can attest to his being a polite, soft-spoken and unexpectedly thoughtful individual -- at least this was my experience of him. He has had a long time to think, and he has come to terms with the deaths of his parents, to the extent that he is able. I know he considered the murders justified by the abuse he suffered at their hands. Becky, his little sister, is a different case, and it's my opinion that he does not engage with his responsibility for her death. It's too painful, too inexcusable, to impossible for him to forgive, and so he pushes it out of consciousness. He is an odd combination of child and adult, a person who found more care and order in prison than he ever did in real life.

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Anonymous: Did Bill Gilley plan this or was it out and out rage? I watched a movie last night, "No Country for Old Men." Did he ever say he knew he was going to kill someone just for the act itself??

Kathryn Harrison: Jody and Billy were raised by sadistic and brutal parents, and each had many times fantasized about life apart from those people. Some of these fantasies involved the deaths--or murders--of their parents, a natural response to battery and cruelty. But Billy was the more damaged of the two, the child who had learning difficulties and who didn't fashion an escape out of books and school. Once he had dropped out of school and become his father's "employee" -- often paid only in cigarettes, one at a time -- his fantasies assumed the aspect of plans. By the afternoon of the murders, they were a plan he intended to carry out that night.

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Arlington, Va.: Fascinating article. I was inspired by the subject's ability to nurture herself, pull herself up; also by her compassion. Do you think she will ever speak to her brother? It seems wise to do as she's doing but it must be so hard to cut oneself off from what's left. She is really strong. I loved the part where 9/11 inspired her to be rid of all old papers: I have also have burdensome journals.

Kathryn Harrison: Jody has no plans to reengage with her brother. She hasn't seen him since the trial in 1984, and the very limited correspondence that the two had when she was in college was painful, and offered no redemption. The two have very different understandings of what transpired on the night of the murders.

One aspect of Jody's genius for survival is her pragmatism. She knows exactly what she can and cannot support, psychologically. And a relationship with her brother is not among the things that she can handle.

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Literature: I was fascinated that Jody took strength from reading Holocaust memoirs as she began to move on with her life. Was this something she discovered on her own or was it recommended to her? It is interesting to think about literature that can support a psychological process like that.

Laura Wexler: I'm not sure how Jody first found Holocaust memoirs, but I can totally understand why they would have been at once familiar and inspiring to her. I mean, there are so few of us who have any idea what it would be like to live through an experience like Jody has, just as there are relatively few of us who have an experience like surviving the Holocaust even as our loved ones and family member dies. I can see how there would be great comfort in reading them, especially with regard to the issue of survivor guilt. I think it made her feel less strange, for lack of a better word.

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McPherson Square, D.C.: One thing I found very interesting about the comments section for this story was how willing several posters were to accuse Arlington of being complicit, or even actively helping, in the murder of her family. (Including the "justification" that because she changed her name, she must be dishonest...and therefore accessory to murder. Unbelievable.)

Are this sort of accusations an ordinary part of Arlington's life, and if so, how does she handle them?

Kathryn Harrison: Unfortunately, this type of response has been something that Jody has had to deal with ever since the murders. There were two children in the house that night in 1984, and Billy said that Jody knew and understood his plan to kill their parents. Jody thought he was fantasizing about killing them, not planning to murder them. The fact that he did not kill Jody tempts people to assume she was complicit in the crime. Jody deals with such comments by being sure of her own innocence. She suffers -- or did suffer -- because she wished them dead many times and her brother's actions carried out her wish. But that is a psychic complication, it does not make her an accomplice.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hello,

I do not take issue with Ms. Wexler's article but with Mr. Shroder's Editor's Note. He compares making the decision to lose weight with the decision to "not grieve" and "get on with one's life."

As the survivor of traumatic death myself and as a psychologist who was, after many years, finally able to integrate her experience into her practice and work with traumatized survivors, I take issue with the simple "just do it" and "get over it" approach Mr. Shroder assumes.

Ms. Wexler's article clearly shows that coping with traumatic grief is a life-long endeavor, witnessed by Ms. Arlington's desire to - some day - tell her story in her own voice. The best we can hope for is to learn to live better with our trauma and loss. And "retelling the story" numerous times" as required for Ms. Harrison's book, was part of the process.

I wonder if either Ms. Wexler or Ms. Harrison have comments concerning writing about a dimension of horror neither one of them - presumably - has experienced personally.

Laura Wexler: I think Kathryn will want to weigh in on this one and talk about how she personally relates to the story, but, for me, what I can say is that my job as a nonfiction writer is to constantly write about experiences and people that are not me--that, in other words, I am a stranger to. The process of research and writing is one that transforms me from a stranger to a sort of outsider/insider on that experience or life. So by the end I feel a confidence at representing someone's experience, even though it is not my experience.

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Bethesda, Md.: I wonder if Jody makes decisions about what sort of people she lets into her life -- if she feels she has finite emotional resources and some people have to always be at arm's length because of their personalities or emotional demands.

Laura Wexler: This could definitely be one of her many coping mechanisms.

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Maryland: Was Billy ever diagnosed with mental illness? Or some other disorders? The 1970s/1980s are different now with improved research and diagnosis.

Kathryn Harrison: Billy was assessed by a number of mental health workers when he was a juvenile and has been examined by forensic psychiatrists as well as by experts in trauma and organic brain syndrome (mental illness brought on by head trauma, i.e., beatings) The results of the many tests and examinations has been varied. The two psychologists who have testified for his appeal consider him to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and from organic brain syndrome. One psychiatrist who saw him as a teen-ager diagnosed him with as suffering from a conduct disorder, the usual childhood precursor to becoming a sociopath. The many reports do not add up to a single answer, but I think it is fair to say that he was mentally ill at the time of the murders, and that if he had not been he wouldn't have carried them out. There are very few children who commit parricide who have not been battered and abused. Those who haven't are almost exclusively psychotic, and Billy was not psychotic. Statistics alone would suggest he was what is now considered a "victim-offender" -- a term used to describe battered women and children who turn on their predators. Even his words upon killing his parents -- We're free -- are spoken almost universally by battered children who go on to murder their abusers.

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Concord, N.H.: How difficult was it it to sift through both sides of the events and come up with an approximation of truth? As you said, memory is slippery. Did the communication/relationship you developed with Billy affect how Jody was able to relate to you?

Kathryn Harrison: I was interested in Jody and Billy's story because it isn't reducible to a single or simple answer. The story of the Gilley family is filled with gray areas. And this is apart from the slippery nature of memory. Is there ever one truth about any situation? Jody decided to trust me because she wanted the story of her family told. I think this was not an easy decision, especially in light of my ongoing dialog with her brother and my sympathy for him -- not my condoning his actions, but my refusal to judge him. But, while working with me, and witnessing my struggle to come to terms with the various aspects of her family history, I think Jody came to understand that I wasn't on anyone's side, that I wasn't interested in taking sides, or announcing what was True or False, but in trying to tell a complicated story to the best of my ability.

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Saint Paul, Minn.: Thank you for the very interesting article about this case.

1. Did the killer exhibit exhibit characteristics similar to the Columbine killers or other youthful mass murderers: seeking revenge, planning this a long time, and expecting to die or commit suicide afterward?

2. Could this killing been anticipated and prevented by anyone outside the family?

Kathryn Harrison:1) No, Billy is not similar to the Columbine killers. He was battered and abused by his parents, failed by social services, and ultimately so desperate that he could see no escape from his tyrannical and sadistic parents save killing them.

2) There were a number of opportunities for social services to step in and rescue both Billy and Jody from what was clearly a an abusive family situation. The starkest moment was when Billy, at 14, asked to be put in foster care rather than returned to his home, a red flag if ever there were one.

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Memoir-writing: Kathryn, I know you have written memoirs about very sensitive things that happened in your life and your family. I wonder whether if you were to go back 10, 20, however many years later and "rewrite" one of your books if it would come out differently?

Kathryn Harrison: I think there is a general answer to your question: that any writer would write any book differently after the passage of 10 or 20 years. If s/he would write it at all. But, with respect to my personal, autobiographical writing, I don't yet see how I might change it, not "The Kiss" anyway, which I will have the chance to revise slightly when it is reissued in a couple of years. The few changes I've planned are minor and aesthetic; they will not alter the content of the book.

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Arlington, Va.: Kathryn, has Billy read the book and has he said anything to you about it?

Kathryn Harrison: Billy has not read the book, and I've been spared having to address the issue by the fact that he hasn't asked to see it or even inquired as to whether I've finished it. For many years now Billy's consuming focus has been the progress of his appeal for a retrial, which was denied, and then for resentencing, which has been granted, based on his claim that he was inadequately represented at the time of the original trial. These issues loom so large before him that I don't think he has spent much time considering my projects.

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Concord, N.H.: It's sad that people blame her for being complicit just because she survived. I don't think Billy would have killed Becky intentionally - it sounds like he tried to take her away from the scene and saw himself as the protector/savior. Had it gone the way he planned, all of the kids would have survived.

It does strike me that Jody has far more freedom than Billy in many ways. She can examine her feelings of guilt over not keeping Becky in her room and all of the grey complexities involved - Billy can't entertain engaging in introspection since he did kill her and likely didn't intend to - that could break him.

In looking at the different points of view they have . . . Billy, if he did have a personality disorder, would have absolutely believed his perspective and can't see it being any other way. He can't get deep enough inside to look at himself with more clarity.

Kathryn Harrison: I'm sure -- and I believe Jody is, too -- that it was never Billy's intention to hurt let alone kill Becky. His actions on the night of the murder suggest the opposite: that he initially tried to get her out of harm's way. Had it gone the way he planned, had he been tried in a different state, had he committed the crime ten years later, he might well have been found guilty of manslaughter and served a reduced sentence, or none at all, as has been true for other "victim-offenders."

Yes, Jody has more freedom -- but she didn't commit a crime. And yes, I believe you are correct: Billy avoids his culpability re. Becky because he cannot bear it. It would perhaps dismantle whatever psychic poise he has achieved.

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Millersville, Md.: What was the reaction of the community in Oregon when the murders occurred? was there any history of problems with this family, were people honestly surprised by both the brutality of the crime and the treatment of these children?

Kathryn Harrison: Medford was shocked by the murders-- nothing like this had ever happened before. And, like most abusive parents, the Gilleys were secretive in their abuse; they hid it from all who were outside the family. The extent of the abuse did not come to light at the trial, or in the media -- Billy's court-appointed attorney did not present mitigating evidence -- and his appeal for resentencing is based on that fact.

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Maryland Suburbs: I was struck by what an important role Thad Guyer played in Jody's life and how her life would have turned out much differently if she hadn't met him. It seemed almost at random that she decided he would be her guardian. Then, the fact that he introduced her into such a well-connected world. Something about it just doesn't seem to make sense to me. What lawyer working for the legal aid bureau has a private plane or could afford to adopt a teenager? How far did you investigate Tad's role in Jody's life?

Kathryn Harrison: I spoke at length with Jody, with Thad, and with Connie Skillman, the victims services counselor who knew them both. Thad and Jody's relationship makes sense if you can accept that each recognized something in the other, on first meeting. This doesn't always or even usually happen, but Thad communicated to Jody something essential that she hadn't received: that she was a person of value, a value he recognized upon meeting her: she was smart, she had a strong will, she was a survivor. And he was a man who could take satisfaction in parenting a girl, as he hadn't had the chance to before. As for Jody: here was a person who looked at her differently, who believed what she wanted to believe: that she was going to make it.

Thad came home from Vietnam after having gone to Georgetown, a Jesuit institution that intends for its graduates to have a social conscience. He began his law career as a civil rights lawyer, and went on to legal aid. I imagine he had other sources of income, family money, perhaps.

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Guilt: Does Jody feel any guilt over the differences Billy's actions have made on her life versus his? He did essentially set her free, while he was not given consideration for having been a victim of awful abuse that led him to his actions. Does the anger from the molestation prevent Jody from viewing him with any sympathy?

I wonder how differently this would have turned out if Becky had survived.

Kathryn Harrison: The fear and loathing that result from Billy's molesting Jody has had a long half-life and certainly impacts her present-day feelings for him. The death of Becky, too, is hard to forgive. Jody's feelings for her brother are complex: she is aware that he freed her and she has dedicated herself to not wasting the life he allowed her: to giving back to the world in as much as she can. But she is afraid of him, and justifiably so; she witnessed the kind of violence most of us cannot imagine. And the fear of him perhaps prevents her from expressing sympathy.

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Kathryn Harrison: Thank you, everyone, for your questions, your thoughts, your interest. I'm signing off for myself and for Laura, who is answering the important demands of her new baby.

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