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April 21, 2022 34 mins

Beamon and Mary Triplett discharge their three-year-old son, Donald, from a Mississippi institution. They appeal to Dr. Leo Kanner, the father of child psychiatry, who is intrigued by the boy’s remarkable memory and singular behavior. After years of studying children with similar attributes, Dr. Kanner makes the diagnosis that changes history. 

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Hey, Karen, you remember when you were talking to that
librarian up in Canada. Yeah. Sure, we were trying to
check out whether this sort of amazing story we had
heard had really truly happened what like eighty years ago,
so that we could put it in our book if
it did turn out to be true. Oh yes, the
incident on the train tracks and Halifax. In this librarian

was really helpful. She led me to a story published
in seven in the Halifax Herald. Yeah, look at this
front page. All of these headlines from seven about how
the world was really starting to come apart, British soldiers
being Sheldon Shanghai, Italy walking out of a peace conference,
and a new law passed in Germany making it illegal

for Jews to go into business with non Jews, all
of this foreshadowing of World War two coming. And then
right here on the same front page this little headline
doctor Mrs Death. Well, you know, the story of autism
could have turned out very differently if what happened in
Halifax had a different ending too. September A brisk afternoon

by the harbor in Halifax, Nova Scotia. So close to
the water you can almost taste the salt in the air.
Dr leo'connor, who likes to walk, sets off on a
stroll along the train tracks that trace the shoreline. Connor
is forty three years old and about a year away
from starting the research on autism that today defines his
career for most of us. But at this point he's

already well known as the world's leading authority on child psychiatry.
His book on the topic is the standard text. He
heads the clinical Department of Child Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins,
the first of its kind in the world. He's up
in Canada for a conference. During a break, he takes
a ferry across Halifax Harbor to have lunch at the
home of an old friend. Afterwards, Connor decides to walk

back to the ferry landing. It's a gorgeous walk along
a set of railroad tracks. But at a certain point
these tracks cut out across a stretch of water, a
little inlet called Dartmouth Cove. So now the tracks are
running on top of this rickety wooden bridge. It's a
train trestle about twenty ft above the water, and it's
really narrow, just wide enough for a single set of

railroad tracks. So there's really no shoulder there and there
are no guardrails, but getting across it looks like it
should take a minute or two. It most so. Connor
continues on steps onto the trestle and starts stepping carefully
from railroad tie to railroad tie. He's out near the
middle of the bridge when he sees the train coming
at him. The train is moving fast. He's already too

late to run back. His only option jump, but he
doesn't jump. Instead, he attempts this sort of weird maneuver
where he steps out as far as he can on
one of the railroad ties, and he tries to make
himself as small as he can. I guess in the
hope that there would be enough rule him for this
oncoming locomotive to just squeezed by without hitting him. It

doesn't work. The train hits him. It just clips him.
Connor falls, his overcoat flapping up around him, his arms flailing,
and then he hits the water. He's terrified, and not
just because he's just been hit by a train. It's
for the same reason that he chose not to jump.

He can't swim. It is definitely not looking good for
the doctor from Baltimore. Question, what do I feel about
retirement of Well, for one thing, I so far, I
haven't retired. Here's Connor years later in an interview. The

quality is kind of rough here and there, so we
brought in a voice actor to recreate Connor's words verbatim.
What do I feel about retirement and dead? Well, for
one thing, so I haven't retired. Second, as to debt,
that is something that comes to everybody. I was near
death when I had my accident in Nova Scotia, and

since then it has given me a great deal of
satisfaction to know that at that time I wasn't panicking.
The only thought I had then was a good thing.
My insurance policies are all paid up. Dead comes to everybody,
it will come to me. So just when it looks

like he's going to drown, Connor gets really lucky. A
member of the train crew named Murray Hanes, according to
the newspaper story, sees the doctor hit the water and
Haynes dives into the cold waters. He gets to Connor
and pulls him to shore. A passerby runs for help
from a doctor who lives nearby. Connor is badly shaken

up and he has a broken hip, but he's alive,
and Connie recovered pretty quickly. He was out of his
plaster cast within him better of months, and never even
had a limp after everything that happened. He does complain, however,
that the accident left him unable to dance, which of
course was a joke, because Connor could never dance to
begin with. Connor may have made light of what happened,

but when John and I were researching the origins of
the autism diagnosis, we always wondered what would the world
be like if that guy hadn't jumped in to save him.
How would we be thinking about kids with autism? Would
we still be locking kids away for life, euthanizing them,
sterilizing them. Would autism as we understand it today even

have been recognized by now? Your question is an extremely
important one, probably an unanswerable one. That's Dr Leon Eisenberg.
He worked under Connor as a young doctor, and then
he went on to become a huge figure himself in
child psychiatry. It's a question that's raised in physics so
all the time, and you get these wonderful stories about

the guy who goes to sleep and see the six
carbon atoms holding their hands, and when he wakes up
in the morning says, that's it, that's it, that's it. Well,
what capacity to take an abstract problem and to make
it visual to see the the atoms holding onto each other,

and then RAMI faded back towards is a question I
think we have a really successfully answered. So your question
is important. It's probably unanswerable. From my Heart radio, this
is autism's first child. I'm Karen Zucker and I'm John Dunvin.

In our last episode, we met Beamon and Mary Triplet
of Forest, Mississippi their determination to unlock the meaning of
their little boy, Donald's unexpected behavior. We'll change history in
this episode, Donald meets the father of child, said Kietry.
Episode two Connor Syndrome, a young couple from a town

called Forest, Mississippi, Beamon and Mary Triplet brought their three
year old boy, who was acting and speaking in ways
they didn't understand, to an institution about an hour and
a half from their home to live there without them.
They arrived at the institution, checked him in, and then
they drove home. There's no way for us to know

how painful this was for Mary and Beaman, but they
were doing what parents in that error were told to
do by almost the entire medical establishment whenever a child
in the family presented as mentally defective. Those two words
just sounds so horrible, but in that era, that's how
doctors talked about kids like Donald who were different. The

idea was to remove those kids from their families, like
they were not fully human and even posed a danger
to society. And then the families were told to move
on with their lives, as though these kids didn't even exist.
To get on with their lives, that was the phrase
they used. Have more kids, that kind of thing. Mary
and Beaman did that. They had another son, Oliver, with

Donald away, so they were kind of playing by the roles.
But there was a part of them that we sing
didn't feel right about that. And here's what we know
happened next. They wanted basically to get another opinion about Donald,
and they wanted to get it not just from another doctor,
but from the top child psychiatrist in the country, if

not the world, who was none other than the man
who nearly perished in that train accident less than a
year earlier. Dr leo'connor. Now Connor is a fascinating and
singular character. Here's Dr Leon Eisenberg again reflecting on his
mentors personnel pity. He who was an unusual child, who

is an unusual capacity for memory aver seeing patterns where
they were not fel Evidently, he was born in Austria
and he went to med school in Berlin. Well, I
might say briefly in the internroduction that I had originally
had my medical training in Berlin medical school. That's from

an interview with Dr Connor in two. It's one of
three long interviews recently discovered by the archivist at the
American Psychiatric Association, and these tapes have probably only ever
been heard by a handful of scholars. I had some
excellent teachers that included a classical student of organic psychosis
and would later be punished after going against Tyler and

his son was killed by Nazis. I specialized first in
internal medicine. I came in on the ground for of
electric cardiography and published my thesis on electric cardiographic work
and also my first paper. Connor was thirty years old
and had a growing medical practice in Berlin when he
moved to Yankton, South Dakota on a whim. An American

physician he had grown close to helped Connor land a
position at the South Dakota State Hospital for the Insane.
Connor was fluent in seven languages when he arrived in Yankton. Unfortunately,
English wasn't one of them. He worked at changing that,
just as he worked hard at becoming culturally American, buying
a Chevy, taking up golf, joining a weekly poker game.

Back then, the field of psychiatry was still new and
not really professionalized like it is today. Basically there was
Freud and a lot of Germans and Austrians theorizing about neuroses,
and then there were just regular doctors working in mental
hospitals figuring out how to help patients just using their instincts.
They were basically self taught, and that's how Connor learned psychiatry. Also,

working in Yankton, he developed his own values and philosophies
about how mental patients should be treated them. One of
them was he thought we should avoid pigeonholing people and
getting to know them as individuals, as people with their
own stories that needed to be listened to, and doing
that became one of the hallmarks of his life's work.
Here's the late doctor James Harris, another of Connor's protegees

from Hopkins, in an interview with the BBC, he was
a wise man, a scholar, a compassionate clinician. Although he
was retired, he would drop by the clinic and encourage
staff members in their work. But I think most importantly
was his rapport with children. Children talked to him, he listened.

His timing was exceptional. He was particularly concerned the children
be treated as individuals. They tell the stories if you
let them, if you don't use the aha reaction, you
know what they mean by that. Some people look at
drawing and say, Aha, this means this, and this means
that to home to the interpreter. But if you're going

to give a chance to talk about it, you'd get
their story and not your biases and preoccupations. Connor got
restless and yanked in and he left to work on
a three year fellowship at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. When
the fellowship was finished, Hopkins gave Connor the job of
setting up the first psychiatric department within a pediatric hospital

in the United States. In short order, he became the
field's most prominent figure. But at the start, the hospital
provided Connor with just a small room that had a
washstand and a desk. The little acorn from which the
oak of the Children's Psychiatric Service at Yarns Hopkins Hospital
grew was not much to look at. I was installed

in an abandoned annex and the Harrott Lynn Home, which
was once used as an isolation ward for children with
infectious diseases. The room assigned to me had a shaky
white table, there was no waiting room, and there was
nobody to look after the children when I interviewed the parents.
Occasionally an adventurous rodent found its way up from the

cellar and enabled at the sandwich which I had brought
for lunch. But it grew from there as Connor became
a major figure in the United States and eventually around
the world, whose textbook called Child Psychiatry became the standard
in the field, and Hopkins itself became the training ground
for dozens of young doctors who would go on to
forever change our understanding of pediatric psychiatry. And it's where

one day in the summer of Connor received a letter
from the father of Donald Triplet. Now John and I
knew something about the backstory of this letter. We know
that back in forest, Beaman triplet dictated to his secretary
while she filled her notepad with shorthand then she typed
it all up. Beamon wasn't just a successful lawyer. He

was a man with first rate observational skill, and he
was determined to compose a really full, complete, comprehensive biography
of this four year old child that he and his
wife had sent away. And this letter he wrote would
turn out to be a game changer. In time. His
words would travel far and wide around the world. They

would be quoted in scholarly research, They would be discussed
in university classrooms. They would be translated into many many languages.
But on that human day and forest, it was just
one father speaking from his heart about his boy. You
seem to be self satisfied. He is never glad to
say father or mother. He has no apparent affection when petted,

it does not observe the fact that anyone combs or goes. It.
Never seemed glad to say father or mother or any playmate.
He seems to draw into his shell and live within himself.
He seldom comes to anyone when called, but actually picked
up and carried or led wherever he ought to go.
Beamon described Donald's eating habits, his verbal patterns, the age

of which he learned to walk and count and hum
and sane. And here's the thing, Little Donald showed glimmers
of real brilliance for a young child, and has just
tantalized his parents to see how he dialed in on
activities that captivated him in such an intense way at
the age of two, that will memorize the words of
many songs and the melodies that went with them, the

names of all of the presidents of the United States.
But here's the other thing. According to his father, Donald
could do little with these facts beyond reciting them rotely.
He said that conversation with his son was impossible because
Donald seemed to have no interest in people, and he
wasn't learning to ask or answer questions. In fact, he said,
his son seemed unreachable by any of the usual ways

that parents connect with their kids. He appears to always
be thinking and thinking, and to get his attention almost
requires wanted to break down a mental barrier between his
inner consciousness in the outside world. Beaman's letter went on
and on like this. By the time as secretary finished

typing the letter, it ran to thirty three single space pages,
and it's historic because it would be the basis of
a landmark account of a child with autism, a term
and diagnosis that did not yet exist. When we return
Beaman and Mary Triplets stage a rescue for their little boy.

So Beaman sent the letter off to Baltimore, and Connor
received it and he read it, and he wanted to
see Donald. A date was set, and in those days
far As, Mississippi was a long way away from Baltimore, Maryland,
but that's where Donald was heading now for an in
person meeting with Dr Connor during the first week of October.

Beamon triplets letter describing Donald is a hugely important document
because it's just so influential. But sadly for us, for everyone,
most of what he wrote has been lost. We have
excerpts quotations from it that Connor published, but the original
it's gone and there don't seem to be any copies,

so we've never been able to read the full text,
not that we didn't try. In fact, we searched for
that letter a long long time. We pastor Johns Hopkins
to look through their archives and they never turned it up,
although we did find some of Donald's initial medical records. There,
we went through every page of the Connor archive at
the American Psychiatric Association. Then we went down to Forest

and visited Beamon's old law office, where there was a
room stuffed with old, rusting metal file cabinets stuffed with papers,
but nothing there of that letter. We went to an
old bank vault in Forest that his family used to
store the overflow from Beamon's law practice and went through
all of those filing cabinets. Nothing there. Then Donald let
us go through all of the cupboards and closets and

drawers and a x in the house where he grew up.
His family had saved everything. In fact up in the attic.
We found love letters between Mary and Beeman in the
early nineteen twenties, perfectly preserved after a century. But we
just didn't find what we were looking for, that famous letter.
So writing that letter was just one step Donald's parents stuff.

The next one was even more important in Donald's life.
They had sent him away because they were told it
was the right thing to do. Now they decided it
wasn't the right thing at all. Here's Donald's nephew, Oh B. Triplett.
I think one day. So she said, you know what,
I'm not doing this. I am not doing this. It

doesn't you know, doesn't pay all right or whatever. And
then you know, we're going to turn the page and
started to know the chapter in the life of Don.
So they drove back down to that institution and they
told the director they were taking Donald out and taking
him back home. And here's the amazing thing. They got
pushed back. Okay, the director insisted, and this is a quote.

Donald is getting along nicely now, and he said they
should leave him alone, which meant leave him there. But
Mary's mind was made up. She dressed Donald and clothes
she had brought him from home, and then the three
of them got in the car and they drove home
together and now to Baltimore. Donald had just turned five

a few days earlier when he and his parents boarded
the train in Meridian, Mississippi. The train journey took two
days across seven states, and for Donald, we imagine this
trip must have been one of those bewildering, maybe mesmerizing
explosions of new sensory experiences. I mean, don't we all
have that experience in a train at night, staring out

the windows, watching the lights, sling through the blackness outside.
Their journey ended in Baltimore at the Harriet Lane Home
for Invalid Children. After a physical exam, Donald was led
into a hospital library and presented to a group of
roughly thirty physicians. Donald blocked eyes on some alphabet blocks

in one of the doctor's hands. He grabbed them and
started spinning them, seemingly completely oblivious to anything else going on.
And a little later he walked up to one of
the older doctors and reached up to stroke his beard.
Our research on Donald's story brought us to the library
at the American Psychiatric Association in Arlington, Virginia. He spent

a lot of time there and found, amongst many other things,
that Leo Connor had written an unpublished autobiography. More recently,
a series of audio recordings of long interviews Connor sat
for in the late nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies was discovered,
and Karen, you made a really interesting find in the
Hopkins archives, the intake notes on Donald for when he
first got to Hopkins. Yeah, they were only a few

pages long, but no journalists had ever seen them before.
In October nine hundred and thirty eight, a five year
old boy was brought to me from Forest, Mississippi. I
was struck by the uniqueness of the peculiarities which Donald exhibited.
He could, since the age of two and a half years,

tell the names of all presidents and vice presidents, recite
the letters of the alphabet forwards and backwards, and flawlessly,
with good enunciation, rattle off the twenty third song. Yet
he was unable to carry on an ordinary conversation. He
was out of contact with people. What he could handle
objects skillfully, His memory was phenomenal. The few times when

he addressed someone, largely to satisfy his wants, he referred
to himself as you and to the person a desk
as I. He didn't respond to any form of intelligence testing,
but manipulated intricate form boards jointly. Donald remained in Baltimore
for two weeks observation and study at the Child Study Center,

on whose the directors I was a member, and of
course Connor and his colleagues remarked on all of the
ways that Donald appeared to isolate himself. Connor observed that
Donald showed disappointment when he didn't get his way, and
it seemed that he did like getting praise. That's all
stuff a typical child would do. But Connor also noted

Donald doing some really unusual things. For example, he would
walk around drawing letters in the air with his fingers
and speaking out random words like semicolon and capital and
twelve twelve. He chewed on paper, he put food in
his hair, he threw books into the toilet, he put
a key down the water drain, he threw temper tantrums,

he climbed all over the furniture. So Donald spent two
weeks being observed in Baltimore, and after that the family
went back home to Mississippi, and from that point on,
Mary started sending almost monthly letters to Connor describing how
he was doing at home, and some of what she
wrote showed some real development going on. He learned to
read fluently and to play simple tunes on the piano.

He began responding to yes or no questions. He started
building things with his blocks, watering flowers with his hose,
playing store with the household groceries. Yet it was clear
that Donald still had some serious challenges, and he made
several more visits to Baltimore over the next few years,
kind of becoming one of Connor's favorite patients. The truth

is Donald fascinated le O'Connor and made him want to
figure out exactly how this boy was different and why,
and Donald's parents wanted to know the same thing. We
found some correspondence between Connor and Mary where she admitted
to being worried that she had quote a hopelessly insane child.
Connor took these feelings seriously, and he wanted her to

be more optimistic. In his next letter, he urged her
to quote refrain from that type of gloom. Many times
he wrote to reassure her that our efforts to help
Donald were splendid and often heroic. Donald, he insisted, was
fortunate in having you for a mother. Important things were
happening in Donald's life during these years. In the fall

of nineteen thirty nine, he began the first grade. Mary
wrote Connor about that also October nineteen thirty nine. The
first day was very trying for him, but each succeeding
day he's improved very much. Dawn is much more independent.
He wants to do many things for herself. He marches
in line nicely, answers when called upon, and is more

bidable and obedient. In March of nineteen forty, in the
middle of the first grade year, Mary noted to Connor,
the greatest improvement I noticed is in his awareness of
things about him. He talks very much more and asked
a good many questions. Not often does he voluntarily tell
me things at school, but if I asked leading questions,

he answers them correctly. He really enters into the gangs
with other children. One day he enlisted the family in
one game he had just learned, telling each of us
just what to do. Donald paid another visit to Connor.
In one he was inexhaustible and bringing up variations like
how many days in a week, years in a century,

hours in a day, hours and a half day, weeks
in a century, centuries and a half a millennium. So
it's now four years since Connor and Donald met, and
Mary starting to get impatient for something. She wants a
solid explanation, a diagnosis. She writes to Connor, complaining that
he had given her only generalities. The truth was, he

confessed that he still simply could not match Donald with
any familiar or standard label, nothing that was in the textbooks,
nor could he predict Donald's future prospects. Donald's behaviors comprised
the syndrome. Connor was still struggling to see in full.
But then he told her some news that he was
beginning to realize that Donald had a novel kind of syndrome.

He said, he is putting together a paper detailing the
outlines of this new diagnosis. He kept this news to himself,
he said, because he wanted to have sufficient time to
observe the children and follow their development. Soon, however, he
intended to go public with these findings and to give
his discovery a name. In Dr Leo O'Connor published his

landmark paper Autistic Disturbances of Effective Contact. For here we
seem to have pure cultural examples of inborn artistic disturbances
of effective conduct. The way Connor describes autism, the way
he wrote about it, and the language he used, was
remarkable in itself. What he did made autism, you know,

sort of a thing because it was so clear and
accessible to the reader. That's Dr Joseph Pivet. I'm a
psychiatrist with training and child menolyist and psychiatry and adult psychiatry.
I've done a number of different things in my research career.
Now is looking at infants at high familiar risk for

autism and following them over time, looking at how their
brains develop and their behavior, and have kind of connected
with leo'connor in that area. Dr Piven is a big
fan of Leo connor's. I give a lot of talks
to trainees and students and particularly those that don't know
about autism, maybe graduate students in neuroscience, and and I

asked the students to read that first paper because while
it's not synonymous with the breath and of the way
we think about autism today, it's just so rich and
it's description. I often talk about how you could you
could read the d s M all day and sit
on the bus next to somebody with autism and not
realize that they have autism. But if you read Lee

O'Connor's accounts, it just as you say, leaps off the page.
You know, not only was he institute observer in general
and a great writer, but he was able to kind
of distill some of the essential features out that are
still with us today. And we're still sort of wrestling
with terms that really kind of have persisted in our conversation,

like insistence on sameness, something that's important to understand the
term autistic wasn't something that Connor came up with on
his own. It had been quite a few decades earlier
to describe a behavior that was thought to be unique
to schizophrenia, where people sometimes withdraw for a while socially
and appear to lose contact with the outer world. So

back in the nineteen thirties and nineties, psychiatrists who described
somebody as autistic or displaying autism meant only that the
person was behaving that way, that socially withdrawn way for
the moment. It described one symptom, not a syndrome, and
definitely it did not yet describe the diagnosis we know today.
Various psychiatrists applied it to various people with various constellations

of behaviors, and now Connor was using it to characterize
something about the complex set of behaviors he saw Donald
and the other children that together he believed constituted a single,
never before recognized diagnosis. Here's Connor again, in in my
search find appropriate designation, I decided on the term early

infantile autism, thus accentuating the time of the first manifestations
and the children's limited accessibility. Years later, Dr Connor claimed
that identifying autism was serendipity. He didn't discover this syndrome,
he said, because it was always there. Connor, however, news

that in psychiatry the obvious often went unrecognized until someone
looked at it with the right set of eyes. And
that's what leo'connor had meeting Donald. Thinking about Donald gave
him the right set of eyes to recognize what today
we call autism. Today we call it autism, but there

was a time and you can still find this in
the medical literature from the nineteen fifties when the syndrome
that Leo Connor wrote about was called by many professionals
Connor's syndrome. In the mid twentieth century, having a syndrome
named for you is considered a great honor, but Connor
didn't really go for it. I'm identified little too closely

with one particular thing that I did, and that I
consider a vignette of my activities rather than the main principle.
But now autism is identified with me, and I with it.
I think it just speaks to the fact that he
was an incredible human being, and incredible human beings don't

try and sell themselves on one thing they accomplished, that's
Dr Piven. If you train at Hopkins and Child Psychiatry,
interacting with Leo Connor is on a warble, you know.
So he clearly was the first director of child psychiatry Hopkins.
That's not a small thing in those days. He wrote

the first textbook on child psychiatry, so he essentially established
the field of child psychiatry. But he also used his
stature and position in some of the cultural wars of
his era. Remember he was working when ideas like eugenic
still had a huge following among important people. Well, here's
a clip of Connor describing an argument he started at
the American Psychiatric Association meeting in twenty five years ago.

At the meeting of the a p A in Richmond
in nineteen forty one, then famous neurologists from New York
gave a talk on euthanasia for the feeble minded, with
the general feeling they are dragon society off with their
heads too much money. I rarely get real angry, but

they did at the time, and there was no discussion anticipated,
but I got up and had my say, whereupon I
was asked to give a talk the next year at
the two meeting in Boston, which I did, and which
I called Exoneration of the feeble Minded. You know, Connor's
use of the term feeble minded reminds us that he

was still very much a man of his time, But
the fact that he was doing battle with the eugenicists
also shows us how he was ahead of his time too,
and that he pioneered the entire field of child psychiatry,
which took that special ability to listen and to empathize.
It really helped to open the door to a lot
of progress and growth and killing. And yes, if he

hadn't survived being hit by that train, who knows where
we'd be. But we know Connor would never have met Donald,
and Donald would never have met Connor. And in this
version of how autism came to be known to the
world at large, well the two of them meeting, it's
how it did happen, and it really was everything. I'm

John don Vent and I'm Karen Zuker. Autism's First Child
is a production of School of Humans and I Heart Podcasts,
and it's based on our book and our documentary film
in a different Key. Autism's First Child is produced by
Alexander Ritchie our story. Editors are Matt Riddle and Alex French,
senior staff writer at I Heeart Originals. Original score composed

and mixed by Alice McCoy. Additional scoring, mixing and mastering
by Alexander Ritchie. Executive producers are Virginia Prescott, Brandon Barr,
Elsie Crowley and Jason English. Special thanks to Ray Conley, Ernie,
Indra Doot and Will Pearson. Editing an assembly by Kareem
ben Yagoub. Voice worked by Louis Carloso, Ben Ritchie and

Missy Ritchie for the recordings of Dr Lee O'Connor. Special
thanks to Dina Goreland of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation,
Melvin Saption, Empty Librarian Archives, and A p A Foundation
School of Humans m
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