Why ‘Brave New World’ Has Fresh Significance in the Modern Day

Brave New World

Brave New World covers a range of themes and issues that have been pertinent to moral society since it was first published in 1932. From genetic engineering to class struggles, Brave New World examines a future where embryos are chemically treated to ensure they fit a certain class, and then babies and children are hypnotised into believing governmental doctrines as pure truth. The use of Soma, a narcotic used as an instant anti-depressant, casts a worrying shadow on the chemical treatment of clinical depression to an extent, and ethical grey areas such as IVF are easily comparable to the key themes of the book. These are ideas that have been explored before, but as society shifts, the importance and relevance of these key themes shift alongside it.

The Western World has arguably changed a lot more quickly in the past 10 years than potentially any other time before it. With the advent of the internet and electronic entertainment, as well as capitalism really gaining a grip on everyday life, some parts of Brave New World that were just a scary fictional quirk are becoming more and more real.

The enforced consumer society in Brave New World is strikingly familiar. Huxley may have written it in as a satire of the society he was living in, but it potentially holds even more weight now. Huxley’s new England took a logical step into the future based on the continued societal focus on economic growth, both personally and as a society. Now, nearly a century after he pondered where this step would take us, we are there in many ways. Individuals are indoctrinated with catchy phrases that cement their belief in the capitalist and consumerist way of living enforced by society’s rulers. “Ending is better than mending” is one of the most repeated of these, encouraging people not to fix something that’s broken, but to buy a whole new product instead.

With this in mind, the constantly spinning wheel of fashion – and the clothing world in general – becomes a lot more disquieting. High street chains are getting cheaper and cheaper, but obviously the quality of the goods gets compromised. If you buy a top for £2 and the thread holding the hem together falls apart within a week, how likely are you to sew it up? We don’t need no hypnopaedia indoctrination when we’re already doing it to each other and ourselves. Cheap clothing made from cheap materials (and let’s not even get into the awful realities of cheap outsourced labour because that’s a whole different essay) ensures that consumers maintain a repetitive cycle of buying and chucking.

This is by no means restricted to human vanity. Brave New World references the expensive games that the higher classes have engineered in order to extract more money from consumers. One character laughs at the idea that all people used to need for fun was a ball and a net, when they’ve created much more elaborate entertainments that require consistent consumerism. In the present, even games that used just a ball and net now need so much more – with a new shirt every season, football has become a vastly profitable business. Likewise, electronic entertainment needs constant updates: you buy a console and each game that looks good, then there’s downloadable content to pay for, and don’t forget about an online subscription on top of it all (and if you want to play something like Rock Band, make sure you get a special super-expensive controller). Early readers of the book may have scoffed at the idea of “Obstacle Golf”, but Obstacle Golf is here, and we’re happy to pay for it.

Who needs a ball and net?
Who needs a ball and net?

A more abstract (and perhaps even more relevant) detail that is striking in Brave New World is the inverted distinction between public and private. In Brave New World, relationships are out in the open. Everybody knows everybody else’s business, though not in the scurrilous neighbourhood gossip way. It’s an everyday part of life – it is important that everybody knows who you’re going out with (and who you’re getting off with), and how many people you’ve got at the same time. It’s normal to discuss sexual encounters like TV shows, and people will regularly share partners without feeling any form of jealousy or shame. Engaging sexually with multiple partners is encouraged, and the moral norm that we’re used to (adultery = bad, monogamy = good) is reversed to the point that people who stay monogamous for too long are punished by the authorities.

In the book, the desire to be alone, and the desire to talk alone with a single person, is seen as bizarre behaviour worthy of discipline. When Bernard asks Lenina to talk with him alone she laughs, not in malice, but because the idea of not being seen or heard by the masses is so absurd. Everybody must know everybody else’s business to give it worth. In Brave New World anything that happens privately may as well not have happened, which has a frightening similarity to our current culture. Epitomised by the internet lad catchphrase “pics or it didn’t happen”, the majority of the internet generation tends to share every mundane detail of their lives (I told Twitter I was eating cheese the other day and, incidentally, did provide a photo) so the public domain is becoming more important than the private. If there isn’t proof, if it happened behind closed doors, then it is judged to have not happened.

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In Brave New World, privacy is seen as both a crime and a punishment. Keeping one’s “private” life private within this new England is non-conformist and so those who transgress in this way are, ironically, sent away from society to live their lives away from the public eye. In a broadly similar way, if a person of a certain age and privilege (I’m looking at you, young, middle-and-upper-class Westerners!) does not participate in at least one social network then they are seen as being “off the grid”, and are punished for it. A large proportion of event promotions and event invitations are created via Facebook, and a startling amount of jobs (particularly in the creative industries) will penalise you if you do not have a successful LinkedIn and/or Twitter.

Being off the grid is so unusual that it’s become a known joke. In the Portlandia episode “Celery” we see Carrie taking herself off all social media and declaring “social bankruptcy” as she is unable to keep up with them all. Unfortunately she finds that, once off the grid, her best friend no longer recognises her and she literally fades away. Whilst this is a skit, it does represent the real fear of social media usage: if we stop using them, will we lose contact with (some, at least) people and events that we care about? If we don’t share our information with an internet server, will anybody pay attention when we want and/or need to share information in other ways?

Brave New World‘s main message has usually been interpreted as warning of the dangers in allowing the state absolute control, particularly in reference to control over technologies that take priority over, and are used to modify, human behaviour. Whilst this is still relevant, given the changing face of society it’s fairly fascinating that some of the less prevalent themes are gaining new relevance when keeping in mind new ethical issues that are attached to morally ambiguous technologies.

I’ve explored consumerism and privacy in particular as they are so interconnected: online at least, privacy is now arguably subject to consumerism. Personal privacy has become something of an enigma, in that we feel we are asked to choose between being socially active (as online social activity increases) and keeping our private lives private. It comes in the most unassuming of ways – did you know that if you OK-ed the latest update for your Facebook app on your phone, you’ve given Facebook permission to read your text messages? Everybody knows Google has questionable privacy rules, but Gmail is a really good email provider, and most people don’t tend to make their Twitter private. As time goes on there’s going to have to be a point where the benefits of an app, or any other electronic service outweighs the desire for personal privacy – or is there? A large amount of social media (read: big business) feeds on getting strangers to follow each other’s random thoughts or tracking our idle page visits to target advertising, and as a society we seem more than happy to provide.

Bernard’s desire in Brave New World to not have his relationship with Lenina broadcast to the whole organisation is as relatable as someone getting tagged in a picture online, snogging the face off someone inappropriate. More insidiously, say someone buys something sensitive that they don’t want to be seen buying in a shop (let’s say a sex toy). There’s a high probability that now one of the biggest and most influential companies in the world has written proof that this person has done this, and their address (and can now update the ads on other sites they visit to advertise the same kind of product).

Personal privacy is quickly becoming obsolete, and is now just something else for companies to advertise with, something else for the consumer to ingest. But is this a problem? If Huxley’s Brave New World intends to criticise the idea of diminished personal privacy, then chances are he would not approve of our new world’s tendency towards social media and online sharing. Of course, with all these things it’s moderation that’s the key. Sharing on social media brings us closer to real-life people that we may previously have not been able to stay connected with, which can only be a good thing. Huxley’s fears are unfounded in the sense that personal sharing is the basis of human connection, but they are not in that this human connection is supplied via a consumer-driven corporation that makes millions off something so basic.

There is a definite distinction between sharing among friends and sharing with corporations that changes from positive to negative. If Brave New World is a warning of the dangers in allowing the state absolute control, then we personally must be aware of the control we allow the state in sharing our personal details on an individual basis. It’s easy to forget just how simple it is for this privacy to be abused, and we’re only reminded when it has already happened (NSA scandal, anyone?). Brave New World‘s warning must be heeded online, for now at least, because the lines are still blurry with what happens to our personal information. If sensitive, this can potentially have huge ramifications for a range, and mass, of individuals.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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37 Comments

  1. Natasha Scott
    5

    Thoughtful essay. In Brave new World, all meaning is superficial, with loss of deep interconnectedness on a personal level. With the mass of electronic media that overwhelm our senses, we’re seeing the same process erode our spiritual mind-frames.

  2. Well, the society in Brave New World is depiction of what one society can evolve into if some of the trends of changes observed at the time of writing of the piece (1920′) were projected forward to extreme levels. Surprisingly, these negative trends of society has evolved in some form.

    • Micheal Mcdaniel
      3

      This society noted in bnw is only similar to the present one in a limited sense. In most areas, there is a clear indication that we have been able to reserve these trends of changes in our society in many repsects, and at the moment, we are moving further awar from the picture shown in BNW rather than closer to it.

  3. Really fascinating article! It’s been a few years since I last read the book, but the allegories are striking. Thanks for the discussion!

  4. This is something we talked about in my class, actually just two days ago. What were once viewed as near-impossible fictions – “Brave New World” and “1984” – are slowly threatening closer to becoming our reality. The reason this topic was brought up in my class was because we are studying this book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which was written nearly thirty years ago. This book as well, predicted that we would advance so far technologically (and I suppose, politically as well) that we would be in danger of destroying ourselves. The signs of it certainly show today, with the diminishing of personal privacy that is mentioned here, as well as that people are engaging in much less direct communication. The incorporation of nothing but technology in the average hours of our lives could threaten to make people just another part of the machine. Perhaps, our purpose on Earth was to create the technology that would one day take over for us?

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      I feel like the world in Brave New World is vastly different than anything we see today or will see tomorrow. Yes, personal privacy is an issue for civilians, but also for our leaders and their systems. There is a good deal of transparency in our own government, and anyone can read Obama’s tweets without being brainwashed. Obviously, everyone’s glued to their iPhone’s, but everyone is also cynical enough to get that that’s bad. Nothing subliminal is going on. Brave New World’s “warning” is a bit obsolete at this point.

      • No, there is quite a lot of subliminal stuff going on. Ever watched ‘century of the self’ or read any of the works of Marc Auge, Max Stirner or Edward Bernays? It’s funny how advertisements are able to manufacture our desires. I know Zizek gets a lot of slack, but I do agree we are ‘taught’ how to desire. Noam Chomsky has also written a lot on how the media industry work and how they are able to manufacture and craft particular worldviews, ideas, etc. Cynicism is just another form of ideology (at least in this way). Instead of ‘they don’t know what they are doing, but none the less are still doing it’, what we get now is ‘they know what they are doing, but none the less still do it’. We know bad things happen, but none the less are still passive.

        A person I knew said he was thinking of going to Kurdistan to help fight ISIS with the YPG, but was told ‘Oh no, you shouldn’t go, you don’t have to fight, your more useful here’, etc., etc. Similar excuses came from those fighting there asking their friends (who were simmilar in ideology) to join. ‘I have to walk my dog’ or ‘I’m better off protesting here’. What’s striking is how passive we are, we don’t want to get our hands dirty yet are ok letting other people do the work. Most of us are nihilists, in the sense that in action (not in belief however, we alway like to think we’re better then we are) we do not do anything. Or at least anything in a meaningful capacity. Occupy Wallstreet, COP21 is all specticle for the most part (there is nothing solid really grounding them, just an idea that feels us with a sense of emoution. This is not to negate such thing completely (I’ve heard that Occupy has lead increased public participation and COP21, though not compulsary due to using the word ‘Should’ rather than ‘Shall’ in the treaty, has lead to increased intrest by the business community and investors). There’s a lot of charity work going on, but it never really seems to be affective in many ways. Starbucks may endorse fairtrade, but then there have been issues with somalian farmers. Amnesty International has some shady practices as well. People think the UN is a good organization, but there’s tons of shady stuff happening again. Yet because there is an ‘image of doing good’ or an ‘image of doing the right thing’, people (though they may know this to not be the case) still believe the appearance rather than what it is. We should define what something is not by an inner, essential self, but rather by the actions of an entity.

  5. Hee Cuellar
    6

    Think the most interesting part is the use of the media to do what hypnopedia did in BNW. We’re bombarded with information, like on TV and Internet, and not many of us take the time to filter out what is fact, what is opinion, and what is just nonsense.

  6. Justin Wu

    I recently just finished reading the novel, and I find it a fascinating read (even though I find the opening a bit dry). It’s a modern day dilemma on how to deal with our relations to technology – clearly, as we’re commenting on this article online, we know to some degree we rely on technology rather heavily, so where should we draw the line? How do we know if we’re amusing ourselves to death when it’s quite impossible to live in this age without dependence on technology? These are always questions that we keep asking, and hoping that one day we can find some answers to such.

  7. mflamm

    Very nice review of the obvious parallels between Huxley’s imagined dystopia and the real one that is at hand. An interesting (and for me helpful) way of appreciating Huxley’s genius is to compare/contrast it with Orwell’s. (Others have offered this characterization but Neil Postman’s in *Amusing Ourselves to Death* is one of the more known.) Huxley’s prophecies, it is said, are more obviously correct than Orwell’s in 1984, the latter which were based on overt, force-established forms of oppressive control (inspired by the totalitarianism of the author’s day). Huxley saw correctly that we are more likely to be oppressed by ourselves, by our own pleasures, than by some external authority. As this article shows, Huxleyan oppression is at hand.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      But is anyone really being oppressed? An iPad was the ultimate evolution of technology in Last and First Men. Doesn’t that mean we’re already gods?

      • mflamm

        Admittedly “oppression” is an embattled (and perhaps too-dramatic) term. But do you really feel emancipated, or (yuck) god-like with your iPad? Ease of access to others and consumer opportunities through technology is not my idea of divinity. With that said, a greater statement of the “oppression” that ensues with technologies is begged. Well, take in the first place the copious time that is variously stolen and is emptied of meaning by technological forms of “engagement.” Are you seriously arguing that you are more connected and engaged with others through social media (for example)?

  8. You draw some very insightful and intriguing parallels between Huxley’s universe and our own modern world – certainly a few I hadn’t even considered before. Ultimately, however, it’s important to remember that Huxley’s novel is satirical – even farcical at times. It wasn’t meant to be a warning of what may come, so much as a reminder to his audience that they are the entities in control if their own lives. With that freedom and luxury comes the responsibility to make sure that the tools they use to enhance and improve their lives aren’t misused by entities, whether they by political or commercial, that would do them harm (intentionally or otherwise). To your credit, this reminder is no less relevant to us than Huxley felt it was to his society. However, our current society is arguably more an answer to Huxley’s brave new world than it is a prelude to it. This is not to imply that there are no breaches and abuses to the powers new technologies offer us – there are, and (unfortunately) will continue to be. What’s important is how we as a society chose to handle them. Consider the NSA metadata scandal as an example – a breach no where near Huxley-an or Orwellian in proportions. Here we see policing of major entities by individual citizens, and a society-wide, national and international demand for rectitude, resulting in real change within the organization. Is it perfect? No. But in a society as rich and complex as ours (and growing ever more complex by the moment), we must expect to be confronted with complicated problems, and demand of ourselves complicated solutions.

  9. I really like this article. I agree that BNW is relevant today, but I don’t think its relevance is new to the Internet age or the 21st century. In 1985, Neil Postman compared the dystopia of BNW with that of Orwell’s 1984 in the introduction to his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He concludes that the modern, Western world grew nearer to Huxley’s visions than Orwell’s. I think most would interpret the NSA scandal as more Orwellian than Huxlian, but I think the sedated, distracted, and entertained reaction of the consumer population would be pointed to by Postman as the kind of reaction of the society in BNW.

  10. Elaina Chastain

    I always loved Brave New World because of its relationship to modern times. I can’t help but wonder what Huxley would think of our world today, especially when juxstaposed with the times he grew up in.

  11. I find the observation of the fear of being “alone” very prescient for today’s facebook society and supports your argument well. Privacy from the state machine (or even the online mechanics of modern society) is felt to be suspect and abnormal, perhaps a more insidious form of “thought control” to conform to the state/societal norms than the literal soma of Huxley’s imagination…

  12. Great article, Hannah!

    I agree that ‘Brave New World’ does reflect modern times with scary accuracy. Our new dependence on instant communication (via social media), quick fixes, and moral relativism is something that the government is actively trying to control for better or worse.

    Yet, I think we have to see that we are not quite there. ‘Brave New World’ visits us Millennials kind of like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. For example, while social media hinders privacy and intimate relationships, it is an effective way to keep in touch with friends and family. At it’s best, it can build/enhance a community.

    The future depicted in ‘Brave New World’ could be our own if we don’t take things in moderation and remain cautiously informed of government actions. This does not mean, however, that the new technologies and opportunities we are presented with are necessarily bad.

    • mflamm

      “Technology doesn’t kill people…” (the gun argument)…sure, but that’s not the point…the point is that there is a SUBTLE and unconscious complicity with technological HABITS. The habits kill you (to be sure). (Mind you, I’m merely stating the point, reserving my right to hold a separate view.) So, let’s say that Huxley’s “soma” has no real analog to big pharma today, or that his prediction that amorality will increase with the science-consumerism phenomena of our times (because moral habits are inefficient). It would still be a monstrous denial to reject his point that we lose ourselves in our pleasures. Think of social media. We willingly relinquish all of our right to privacy simply to have superficial “connection/fame.”

      • I don’t think my argument misses your point entirely. I said we have to take these “technological habits” and “pleasures” that you speak of in careful moderation. We have to keep these two things in a state of critical analysis so we can use them to their fullest potential. The “subtle and unconscious complicity” that technological habits bring is not automatic and irreversible. Look at yourself, mflamm. You are using an online magazine to advocate an intelligent opinion to in front of a broad audience. This is the perfect example of what I am talking about. Since technology is not inherently flawed, we have to start disciplining ourselves to use it productively and ethically. It is possible that technology can bring out the best in humanity and we should strive to see that happen.

  13. Very thorough article. However, I feel that the fact that Huxley wrote the novel in 1932 and it continues to be relevant today just shows that this is a timeless problem. I would posit that a Facebook page today is much like a stack of calling cards in the Victorian era: it appears to be an overt advertisement of one’s private life, but doesn’t reveal much of the truth. I think we’re moving past a generation of over-sharing online and becoming more superficial on social media (though that’s another problem). Similarly, in the modernist context of Huxley, public appearance and private reality are very much at odds (e.g. your example of Lenina and Bernard’s relationship). The message is relevant today, but not more so than it has been for the past century.

  14. I really appreciate the distinction you draw between personal relationships fostered by social media and the “throwing oneself to the masses,” so to speak, that we see in Huxley’s book. It does seem, however, like that distinction is breaking down, and I wonder how far off we are from a total inversion of social norms. I think you can see this clearly evidenced in the way private issues are often exploited (just try watching an episode of Desperate Housewives); in fact, there seem to be few acts that remain strictly off-limits to the public. Hopefully, it will never come to Huxley’s portentous novel, and if we stop and reflect on where we’re at occasionally, there’s a better chance it won’t. Superb article.

  15. I really appreciate the distinction you draw between the public and private. It seems, however, that that distinction is slowly being broken down; acts that were once considered off-limits are now exploited to the public (just watch an episode of Desperate Housewives). It seems like that can’t be healthy, if only because getting to a total breakdown would require a mass consumerist operation of the sort you point out. Hopefully, though, if we stop and reflect where we’re at on occasion, it will never get to that point. Superb article.

  16. April Roach

    I definitely agree with many of the points you have raised. I read ‘Brave New World’ recently, and was surprised at how relevant it is for a novel published in 1932. I didn’t even make the connection you made about private vs. public, which is probably one of the most relevant factors to modern day life.

  17. It’s always made me wonder how Huxley was able to predict the outcome of present day Earth. After reading “Brave New World”, I felt ashamed of mankind and it really made me reconsider my priorities. Great article!

  18. Marta

    Duuuuudeeeee. I read Brave New World almost 4 years ago and I did not realize how relatable the plot was to today’s life.

  19. Ryan Westhoff

    I had one of my friend’s read Brave New World a couple years ago and she was convinced that the society wasn’t that bad in the book. In fact, if she had to live in any dystopia, it would be that one gladly, according to her. While I read it, I was able to distance our world and the book’s world pretty easily; but after she argued the similarities to me between the book and our real world, I was shocked and almost horrified at how similar it really was.

  20. Something I’ve found to be very characteristic of dystopian fiction is the idea of impending doom and timelessness. I believe there will always be things in these novels that pertain to the current era, whatever the current era may be.

    Good read, and I appreciate the research you put into this!

  21. bbemily
    1

    Would have liked to hear more about the “worrying shadow” of antidepressant medication, and the ethics of IVF. Donating eggs seems, at first, like a great opportunity for a cash-strapped young woman to earn money, but the industry is still quite unregulated in the states, and there are some very questionable aspects in the screening process.

  22. Your arguments concerning privacy in Huxley’s book to our current predicament are right on the money. But I’d take it one step further and put forward that not only is there no privacy (that would lead to too much independence in Huxley’s fictional world), there is a heavy undercurrent of panopticism, where because everything is in the open everyone is in a sense watching everyone, but nobody knows exactly who the watchers are or if there even are any at any given time. Weird stuff.

  23. Great review! I’ve always felt like the premonitions echoed in “Brave New World” would be implemented gradually rather than all at once, which makes the whole process very subtle, almost to the point that we are negligent of its effects.

  24. Who wrote this article?

  25. DAVID A FISHER
    1

    The social engineering we see in the book is now a reality. I was particularly intrigued by the sex play that was encouraged among children in the book. We see the government decreasing the age of sex education again and again, and I can’t help but think it has the opposite effect to what they wish. Teenage pregnancies are going up, and there appears to be more sex crime. A task once the job of parents has been given to the state and the state is proving to be really poor at it. In BNW the state runs everything and the family is obsolete, this isn’t something we are very far from. Single parent families are now in the majority, at least in the UK, and the state is now taking on the role of parenthood in many ways. I sometimes think whether governments are using BNW as a blueprint.

  26. Dear Spencer,
    i really like your article, because i agree with you in many points.
    So many things of “Brave New World” are reality now and i cant say if this is good or bad.

    In my opinion the fact, that sports and games are nowadays pushed so hard to make profit, is one of the saddest parallels to the novel. At the beginning all these games were only played to have fun and now it changed to a big industry to make money. Football is like you said only one example.

    But i can’t agree with you in the point that you wouldn`’t be a part of the society anymore without having social media.
    I agree that social media plattfoms are getting more and more important but they are not the base of a friendship or relationship. That’s why an episode of “Portlandia” isnt an argument to proof the opposite.

    I hope you understand my critisism.
    Best regards Romy

  27. Alexa Siepen
    1

    Dear Spencer,
    first thing to say, you wrote a great comment on Brave New World and i can relate to nearly ever point you said.

    The concept used in Brave New World is as comparable to the modern world as never before.
    It is unbelievable how fast and in which dimension we and the society within our technology has developed.
    In only about 80 years we are able to relate to the book.
    Back in 1932 when the book was published nobody could ever imagine living under such conditions, as shown in Brave New World.
    It is astonishment.

    i can really simulate the comparing/similarity about the controling of the people living in the society and the not available privacy.

    As you said, in BNW they are controled since birth and forced to be a specific person.
    In our word social media has a likewise influence.
    While joining a certaint social-networking-site you often allow acess to personal information, as fotos,microphone, camera or WhatsApp.
    The NSA for example already abused this and stalked almost half of the planet.
    They had acess to everything and people did not even now what was going on.
    Now a days i personally cover up my mobile-phone while showering or i leave it in another room, because I am too afraid of people having acess to the system of my phone.
    That’s why i can really understand that you see a simile in this point.

    Another aspect i can relate to is the use of drugs.
    In BNW everybody takes Soma to be happy.
    So they can avoid conflicts and problems.
    The Society stays stable, because everybody is happy.
    In our word drugs are a big deal,too.
    Many People who couldn’t stand their lives or people who had huge problems decided to take the easy way and to push their problems apart.
    They took drugs like, marijuana,speed or weed.
    All these drugs make you forget the reality, make you forget your problems.You are happy, but only for a short time.
    You become adicted and are forced to consum more and more.
    It is a vicious circle, which often leads to a bad ending.
    It is the same with alcohol.

    All in all i can say that it is nearly ridiculous how many simile are given between our “so good and exemplary” Society/World and the shocking world shown in the novel “Brave New World”.

    You also referred to many other points.but this were the main aspects i could relate to.
    Also your article really inspired me and made me overhink a lot of things, thanks for that.

    Best regards.
    Alexa Siepen

  28. Cesar
    1

    I’m doing a research project about the relation between Brave NEw World and our modern western society and this was really helpful. Thank you.

  29. Georgia O'Keefe
    0

    Aldous Huxley isn’t a man, she’s a woman named Laura Huxley.

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