Becoming Myself

A Psychiatrist's Memoir


By Irvin D. Yalom

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Bestselling writer and psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom puts himself on the couch in a lapidary memoir

Irvin D. Yalom has made a career of investigating the lives of others. In this profound memoir, he turns his writing and his therapeutic eye on himself. He opens his story with a nightmare: He is twelve, and is riding his bike past the home of an acne-scarred girl. Like every morning, he calls out, hoping to befriend her, “Hello Measles!” But in his dream, the girl’s father makes Yalom understand that his daily greeting had hurt her. For Yalom, this was the birth of empathy; he would not forget the lesson. As Becoming Myself unfolds, we see the birth of the insightful thinker whose books have been a beacon to so many. This is not simply a man’s life story, Yalom’s reflections on his life and development are an invitation for us to reflect on the origins of our own selves and the meanings of our lives.




I awake from my dream at 3 a.m., weeping into my pillow. Moving quietly, so as not to disturb Marilyn, I slip out of bed and into the bathroom, dry my eyes, and follow the directions I have given to my patients for fifty years: close your eyes, replay your dream in your mind, and write down what you have seen.

I am about ten, perhaps eleven. I am biking down a long hill only a short distance from home. I see a girl named Alice sitting on her front porch. She seems a bit older than me and is attractive even though her face is covered with red spots. I call out to her as I bike by, “Hello, Measles.

Suddenly a man, exceedingly large and frightening, stands in front of my bicycle and brings me to a stop by grabbing my handlebars. Somehow I know that this is Alice’s father.

He calls out to me: “Hey, you, whatever your name is. Think for a minute—if you can think—and answer this question. Think about what you just said to my daughter and tell me one thing: How did that make Alice feel?

I am too terrified to answer.

Cummon, answer me. You’re Bloomingdale’s kid [My father’s grocery store was named Bloomingdale Market and many customers thought our name was Bloomingdale] and I bet you’re a smart Jew. So go ahead, guess what Alice feels when you say that.

I tremble. I am speechless with fear.

All right, all right. Calm down. I’ll make it simple. Just tell me this: Do your words to Alice make her feel good about herself or bad about herself?

All I can do is mumble, “I dunno.

Can’t think straight, eh? Well, I’m gonna help you think. Suppose I looked at you and picked some bad feature about you and comment on it every time I see you?” He peers at me very closely. “A little snot in your nose, eh? How about ‘snotty’? Your left ear is bigger than your right. Supposed I say, ‘Hey, “fat ear”’ every time I see you? Or how about ‘Jew Boy’? Yeah, how about that? How would you like that?

I realize in the dream that this is not the first time I have biked by this house, that I’ve been doing this same thing day after day, riding by and calling out to Alice with the same words, trying to initiate a conversation, trying to make friends. And each time I shouted, “Hey, Measles,” I was hurting her, insulting her. I am horrified—at the harm I’ve done, all these times, and at the fact that I could’ve been so blind to it.

When her father finishes with me, Alice walks down the porch stairs and says in a soft voice, “Do you want to come up and play?” She glances at her father. He nods.

I feel so awful,” I answer. “I feel ashamed, so ashamed. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…

Since early adolescence, I’ve always read myself to sleep, and for the past two weeks I have been reading a book called Our Better Angels by Steven Pinker. Tonight, before the dream, I had read a chapter on the rise of empathy during the Enlightenment, and how the rise of the novel, particularly British epistolary novels like Clarissa and Pamela, may have played a role in decreasing violence and cruelty by helping us to experience the world from another’s viewpoint. I turned out the lights about midnight, and a few hours later I awoke from my nightmare about Alice.

After calming myself, I return to bed, but lie awake for a long time thinking how remarkable it was that this primeval abscess, this sealed pocket of guilt now seventy-three years old, has suddenly burst. In my waking life, I recall now, I had indeed bicycled past Alice’s house as a twelve-year-old, calling out “Hey, Measles,” in some brutish, painfully unempathic effort to get her attention. Her father had never confronted me, but as I lie here in bed at age eighty-five, recovering from this nightmare, I can imagine how it must have felt to her, and the damage I might have done. Forgive me, Alice.



Michael, a sixty-five-year-old physicist, is my last patient of the day. I saw him for therapy twenty years ago, for about two years, and I had not heard from him since until a few days ago when he emailed to say, “I need to see you—this attached article has ignited a lot of things, both good and bad.” The link led to an article in the New York Times describing how he had recently won a major international science prize.

As he takes his seat in my office, I am the first to speak.

“Michael, I got your note saying you needed help. I’m sorry you’re distressed but I also want to say it’s good to see you and wonderful to learn of your award. I’ve often wondered how you’ve been doing.”

“Thank you for saying that.” Michael looks around the office—he is wiry, alert, nearly bald, about six feet tall, and his gleaming brown eyes radiate competence and confidence. “You’ve redone your office? These chairs used to be over there? Right?”

“Yep, I redecorate every quarter-century.”

He chuckles. “Well, you saw the article?”

I nod.

“You can probably guess what happened to me next: a flush of pride, all too brief, and then wave after wave of anxious self-doubting. Same old stuff—down deep I’m shallow.”

“Let’s go right into it.”

We spend the rest of the session reviewing old material: his uneducated Irish immigrant parents, his life in the New York tenements, his poor primary education, the lack of any significant mentor. He spoke at length of how much he envied people who were taken in hand and nourished by an elder, whereas he had to work endlessly and get the absolute highest grades simply to be noticed. He had had to create himself.

“Yes,” I say. “Creating yourself is a source of great pride, but it also leads to a feeling of having no foundations. I’ve known many gifted children of immigrants who have a sense of being lilies growing in a swamp—beautiful flowers but no deep roots.”

He remembers my saying this to him years ago, and says he’s glad to be reminded of it. We make plans to meet again for a couple of sessions and he tells me he feels better already.

I had always worked well with Michael. We connected from our very first meeting, and he had told me at points that he felt I was the only one who truly understood him. In our first year of therapy he talked a lot about his confused identity. Was he really the sterling student who left everyone behind? Or was he the bum who spent his spare time in the poolroom or shooting crap?

Once, while he lamented his confused identity, I told him a story about my graduation from Roosevelt High School in Washington, DC. On the one hand, I had been notified that I would be receiving the Roosevelt High School Citizenship Award at graduation. Yet, in my senior year, I had been conducting a small bookie venture handling bets on baseball: I was giving 10–1 odds that any three selected players on a given day would not get six hits between them. The odds were in my favor. I had been doing famously well and always had money to buy gardenia corsages for Marilyn Koenick, my steady girlfriend. However, a few days before graduation I lost my bookie notebook. Where was it? I was in a frenzy and searched everywhere up to the very moment of graduation. Even when I heard my name called and started to stride across the stage, I trembled, wondering: Would I be honored as a sterling citizen of the Roosevelt High School 1949 class or expelled from the school for gambling?

When I told Michael that story, he guffawed and muttered, “A shrink after my own heart.”

After writing notes on our session, I change into casual clothes and tennis shoes and take my bike out of the garage. At eighty-four, tennis and jogging are long behind me, but almost every day I ride on a bike path near my home. I start by pedaling through a park full of strollers and Frisbees and children climbing ultramodern structures, and then cross a rude wooden bridge over Matadero Creek and climb a small hill that grows steeper every year. At the crest I relax as I begin the long downhill glide. I love coasting with the rush of warm air streaming in my face. Only at these moments can I begin to understand my Buddhist friends who speak of emptying the mind and luxuriating in the sensation of simply being. But the calm is always short-lived, and today, in the wings of my mind, I sense the rustling of a daydream readying to go onstage. It is a daydream that I’ve imagined scores, perhaps hundreds, of times over my long life. It had been dormant for several weeks, but Michael’s lament about the lack of mentors stirs it awake.

A man, carrying a briefcase and dressed in a seersucker suit, straw hat, white shirt, and necktie, enters my father’s small, shoddy grocery store. I’m not in the scene: I see it all as if I’m hovering near the ceiling. I don’t recognize the visitor but I know that he is influential. Perhaps he is the principal of my elementary school. It is a hot, steamy Washington, DC, June day and he takes out his handkerchief to wipe his brow before turning to address my father. “I have some important things to discuss with you concerning your son, Irvin.” My father is startled and anxious; he has never before encountered such a thing. Never having assimilated into the American culture, my father and my mother were at ease only with kinsmen, other Jews who had emigrated with them from Russia.

Though there are customers in the store demanding attention, my father knows that this is a man not to be kept waiting. He phones my mother—we live in a small flat above the store—and, out of earshot of the stranger, tells her in Yiddish to rush downstairs. She appears a few minutes later and efficiently waits on the customers while my father leads the stranger into the tiny storage room in the back of the store. They sit down on cases of empty beer bottles and talk. Mercifully no rats or roaches make an appearance. My father is obviously uncomfortable. He would have much preferred for my mother to do the talking, but it would be unseemly to acknowledge publicly that it was she, not he, who ran things, who made all the important family decisions.

The man in the suit tells my father remarkable things. “The teachers in my school say that your son, Irvin, is an extraordinary student and has the potential to make an outstanding contribution to our society. But that would happen if, and only if, he were provided a good education.” My father seems frozen, his handsome, penetrating eyes fixed on the stranger, who continues, “Now the Washington, DC, school system is well run and is quite satisfactory for the average student but it is not the place for your son, for a very gifted student.” He opens his briefcase and hands my father a list of several private DC schools and proclaims, “I urge you to send him to one of these schools for the rest of his education.” He takes a card out of his wallet and hands it to my father. “If you contact me, I’ll do all I can to help him obtain a scholarship.

Upon seeing my father’s bewilderment, he explains, “I’ll try to get some help to pay his tuition—these schools are not free like the public schools. Please, for your son’s sake, give this your highest priority.

Cut! The daydream always ends at this point. My imagination balks at completing the scene. I never see my father’s response, or his ensuing discussion with my mother. The daydream expresses my longing to be rescued. When I was a child I didn’t like my life, my neighborhood, my school, my playmates—I wanted to be rescued and in this fantasy I am, for the first time, recognized as special by a significant emissary of the outside world, the world beyond the cultural ghetto in which I was raised.

I look back now and see this fantasy of rescue and elevation throughout my writing. In the third chapter of my novel The Spinoza Problem, Spinoza, while strolling to the home of his teacher, Franciscus van den Enden, loses himself in a daydream that recounts their first meeting a few months earlier. Van den Enden, an ex-Jesuit classics teacher who operated a private academy, had wandered into Spinoza’s shop to buy some wine and raisins and had become astonished at the depth and breadth of Spinoza’s mind. He had urged Spinoza to enter his private academy so as to be introduced to the non-Jewish world of philosophy and literature. Though the novel is, of course, fiction, I attempted as much as possible to stay close to historical accuracy. But not in this passage: Baruch Spinoza never worked in his family store. There was no family store: his family had an export-import business but no retail outlet. I was the one who worked in the family grocery store.

This fantasy of being recognized and rescued abides within me in many forms. Recently I attended a performance of the play Venus in Fur by David Ives. The curtain opens on a backstage scene showing us a weary director at the end of a long day of auditioning actresses for a lead role. Exhausted and highly dissatisfied with all the actresses he has seen, he is preparing to leave when a brash, highly flustered actress enters. She is an hour late. He tells her he is finished for the day, but she begs and wheedles for an audition. Aware that she is obviously unsophisticated, profane, uneducated, and entirely inappropriate for the role, he refuses. But she is an excellent wheedler; she is savvy and persistent and finally, to get rid of her, he gives in and grants her a brief audition in which they begin to read the script together. As she reads, she is transformed, her accent changes, her speech matures, she speaks like an angel. He is stunned; he is overwhelmed. She is what he has been looking for. She is more than he could have dreamed of. Could this be the bedraggled, vulgar woman he met only thirty minutes earlier? They continue to read the script. They do not stop until they have brilliantly performed the entire play.

I loved everything about the performance, but that first few minutes, when he appreciates her true quality, resonated most deeply with me: my daydream of being recognized was enacted upon the stage and I could not contain the tears streaming down my face, as I rose, the first one in the theater, to applaud the actors.



I have a patient, Rose, who lately had been talking mostly about her relationship with her adolescent daughter, her only child. Rose was close to giving up on her daughter, who had enthusiasm only for alcohol, sex, and the company of other dissipated teenagers.

In the past Rose had explored her own failings as a mother and wife, her many infidelities, her abandoning the family several years ago for another man and then returning a couple of years later when the affair had run its course. Rose had been a heavy smoker and had developed crippling advanced emphysema, but, even so, she had for the past several years tried hard to atone for her behavior and devoted herself anew to her daughter. Yet nothing worked. I strongly advocated family therapy, but the daughter refused, and now Rose had reached her breaking point: every coughing fit and every visit to her pulmonary doctor reminded her that her days were limited. She wanted only relief: “I want her gone,” she told me. She was counting the days until her daughter would graduate from high school and leave home—for college, a job, anything. She no longer cared which path her daughter would take. Over and again she whispered to herself and to me: “I want her gone.”

I do all I can in my practice to bring families together, to heal rifts between siblings and between children and parents. But I had grown fatigued in my work with Rose and lost all hope for this family. In past sessions I had tried to anticipate her future if she cut her daughter off. Would she not feel guilty and lonely? But that was all to no avail, and now time was running out: I knew that Rose did not have long to live. After referring her daughter to an excellent therapist, I now attended only to Rose and felt entirely on her side. More than once she said, “Three more months till she graduates from high school. And then she is out. I want her gone. I want her gone.” I began to hope she would get her wish.

As I took my bicycle ride later that day, I silently repeated Rose’s words—“I want her gone. I want her gone”—and before long I was thinking of my mother, seeing the world through her eyes, perhaps for the very first time. I imagined her thinking and saying similar words about me. And now that I thought about it, I recalled no maternal dirges when I finally and permanently left home for medical school in Boston. I recalled the farewell scene: my mother on the front step of the house waving goodbye as I drove away in my fully packed Chevrolet, and then, when I vanished from view, stepping inside. I imagine her closing the front door and exhaling deeply. Then, two or three minutes later, she stands erect, smiles broadly, and invites my father to join her in a jubilant “Hava Nagila” dance.

Yes, my mother had good reason to feel relieved when I, at twenty-two, left home for good. I was a disturber of the peace. She never had a positive word for me, and I returned the favor. As I coast down a long hill on my bicycle, my mind drifts back to the night when I was fourteen and my father, then age forty-six, awoke in the night with severe chest pain. In those days, doctors made home visits, and my mother quickly called our family doctor, Dr. Manchester. In the quiet of the night, we three—my father, my mother, and I—waited anxiously for the doctor to arrive. (My sister, Jean, seven years older, had already left home for college.) Whenever my mother was distraught, she reverted to primitive thinking: if something bad happened, there must be someone to blame. And that someone was me. More than once that evening, as my father writhed with pain, she screamed at me, “You—you killed him!” She let me know that my unruliness, my disrespect, my disruption of the household—all of this—had done him in.


Years later, when on the analytic couch, my description of this event resulted in a rare, momentary outburst of tenderness from Olive Smith, my ultraorthodox psychoanalyst. She clucked her tongue, tsk, tsk, leaned toward me, and said, “How awful. How terrible that must have been for you.” She was a rigid training analyst in a rigid institute that valued interpretation as the singular effective action of the analyst. Of her thoughtful, dense, and carefully worded interpretations, I remember not a one. But her reaching out to me at that time, in that warm manner—that I cherish even now, almost sixty years later.

“You killed him, you killed him.” I can still hear my mother’s shrill voice. I remember cowering, paralyzed with fear and with fury. I wanted to scream back, “He’s not dead! Shut up, you idiot.” She kept wiping my father’s brow and kissing his head as I sat on the floor curled up in a corner until, finally, finally, about 3 a.m., I heard Dr. Manchester’s big Buick crunching the autumn leaves in the street and I flew downstairs, three steps at a time, to open the door. I liked Dr. Manchester very much, and the familiar sight of his large round smiling face dissolved my panic. He put his hand on my head, tousled my hair, reassured my mother, gave my father an injection (probably morphine), held his stethoscope to my father’s chest, and then let me listen as he said, “See, Sonny, it’s ticking away, strong and regular as a clock. Not to worry. He’s going to be all right.”

That night I witnessed my father drawing close to death, felt, as never before, my mother’s volcanic rage, and made a self-protective decision to shut the door on her. I had to get out of this family. For the next two to three years I barely spoke to her—we lived like strangers in the same house. And, most of all, I recall my deep, expansive relief at Dr. Manchester’s entrance into our home. No one had ever given me such a gift. Then and there I decided to be like him. I would be a doctor and pass on to others the comfort he had offered me.

My father gradually recovered, and though he had chest pain thereafter with almost any exertion, even walking a single block, and immediately reached for his nitroglycerin and swallowed a tablet, he lived another twenty-three years. My father was a gentle, generous man whose only fault, I believed, was his lack of courage in standing up to my mother. My relationship with my mother was an open sore all my life, and yet, paradoxically, it is her image that passes through my mind almost every day. I see her face: she is never at peace, never smiling, never happy. She was an intelligent woman, and though she worked hard every day of her life, she was entirely unfulfilled and rarely uttered a pleasant, positive thought. But today, on my bicycle rides, I think about her in a different way: I think of how little pleasure I must have given her while we lived together. I am grateful I became a kinder son in later years.



From time to time I reread Charles Dickens, who has always had a central place in my pantheon of writers. Recently an extraordinary phrase in A Tale of Two Cities caught my eye: “For, as I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in a circle nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind of smoothings and preparings of the way. My heart is touched now by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep…

That passage moves me tremendously: as I indeed draw closer to the end, I, too, find myself circling more and more to the beginning. My clients’ memories more often trigger my own, my work on their future calls upon and disturbs my past, and I find myself reconsidering my own story. My memory of early childhood has always been fragmented, probably, I’ve always believed, because of my early unhappiness and the squalor in which we lived. Now, as I move into my eighties, more and more images from early life intrude upon my thoughts. The drunks sleeping in our vestibule covered with vomit. My loneliness and isolation. The roaches and the rats. My red-faced barber calling me “Jew Boy.” My mysterious, tormenting, and unfulfilled sexual throbbings as a teenager. Out of place. Always out of place—the only white kid in a black neighborhood, the only Jew in a Christian world.

Yes, the past is drawing me in and I know what “smoothings” mean. Now, more than ever before, I imagine my dead parents watching and taking great pride and pleasure in seeing me speak before a crowd. At the time my father died, I had written only a few articles, technical pieces in medical journals that he couldn’t understand. My mother lived twenty-five years longer and, though her poor grasp of English, and, later, her blindness, made it impossible for her to read my books, she kept them stacked by her chair and stroked them and clucked over them to visitors in her retirement home. So much is incomplete between my parents and me. There are so many things we never discussed about our life together, about the tension and unhappiness in our family, about my world and their world. When I think of their lives, picture them arriving at Ellis Island, penniless, without an education, without a word of English, my eyes tear up. I want to tell them, “I know what you went through. I know how hard it was. I know what you did for me. Please forgive me for being so ashamed of you.”


Looking back at my life from my eighties is daunting and sometimes lonely. My memory is unreliable, and there are so few living witnesses to my early life. My sister, seven years older, has just died, and most of my old friends and acquaintances are gone, too.

When I turned eighty, a few unexpected voices from the past awakened some memories. First there was Ursula Tomkins, who found me via my webpage. I had not thought of her since we attended Gage Elementary School together in Washington, DC. Her email read, “Happy 80th birthday, Irvin. I’ve read and enjoyed two of your books and asked our Atlanta library to get some of the others. I remember you from Miss Fernald’s fourth grade class. I don’t know if you remember me—I was pleasingly plump with red frizzy hair and you were a beautiful boy with coal-black hair!”

So Ursula, whom I remembered well, thought I was a beautiful boy with coal black hair! Me? Beautiful? If only I had known! Never, not for a moment, had I ever thought of myself as a beautiful boy. I was shy, nerdish, lacking in self-confidence, and never imagined that anyone found me attractive. Oh, Ursula, bless you. Bless you for telling me I was beautiful. But, why, oh why, didn’t you speak up earlier? It might have changed my entire childhood!

And then, two years ago, there was a phone message from the deep past that began: “THIS IS JERRY, your old chess buddy!” Even though I had not heard his voice in seventy years, I recognized it immediately. It was Jerry Friedlander, whose father owned a grocery store on Seaton and North Capitol Streets, just a block from my father’s store. In his message he told me that his granddaughter, in a clinical psychology course, was reading one of my books. He remembered that we had played together regularly for two years when I was twelve and he fourteen, a time I remember only as a wasteland of insecurity and self-doubt. Since I remembered so very little from those years, I jumped at the opportunity for feedback and pumped Jerry for any impressions he had of me (after, of course, sharing my impressions of him).

“You were a nice guy,” he said. “Very gentle. I remember that in all our times together we never had an argument.”

“Give me more,” I said greedily. “I’ve such hazy images from then.”

“You played around some but, for the most part, you were really serious and scholarly. In fact I’d say very scholarly. Whenever I came over to your place, your head was buried in a book—oh yeah, that I remember well—Irv and his books. And always reading hard stuff and good literature—way over my head. No comic books for you.”


  • One of the Guardian's best books of 2017
  • "When Yalom publishes something--anything--I buy it, and he never disappoints. He's an amazing storyteller, a gorgeous writer, a great, generous, compassionate thinker, and--quite rightly--one of the world's most influential mental healthcare practitioners."—Nicola Barker, Guardian
  • "Fans of this eloquent and introspective author will welcome this innermost chronicle of his history, passions, and the keys to unlocking a fruitful life."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Part memoir, part diary, and part teaching tool, Yalom's autobiography is revealing, inspiring, and moving. It is well written and well organized....Yalom's warm personality permeates the pages...[a] delightful memoir."—Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy
  • "In 40 chapters, from 'The Birth of Empathy' to 'A Novice at Growing Old,' the author writes with authority, energy, and humility.... An honest, engaging, and rewarding autobiography. For Yalom's admirers and those interested in the philosophy of psychology and memoirs."—Library Journal,starred review
  • "Wise and warm, this memoir recounts a life well lived."—Campus Circle
  • "Becoming Myself offers a rich exploration of some of the author's favorite themes with a rare honesty, openness and generosity... But it is in the way Yalom weaves together insights and recommendations about therapeutic praxis that he is most compelling. His ideas about therapy and technique build upon a child-like curiosity and unquenchable thirst for learning about the human condition. The medium for delivery is Yalom's brilliant story-telling...and the result is a treasure trove of gems about how we can best create the kind of connection and impact that foster satisfaction and success for our patients, as well as for ourselves."—American Journal ofPsychoanalysis
  • "I've always wondered, as any reader would wonder, about the author, about the balance between the professional and the personal and how out of that alchemy the writing emerged. Finally, in Becoming Myself, we have the answer, and it is wonderful, compelling, and as insightful about its subject and about the times he lived in as you could hope for. A fabulous read."—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
  • "Near the end of Becoming Myself, Irvin Yalom claims to be 'a novice at growing old'--to which I say, 'Oh, please!--you're as good at it as you have been at everything else.' This is a candid, insightful memoir by one of the world's most important and accomplished experts on the human soul."—Daniel Menaker, author of The Treatment and My Mistake: A Memoir
  • "Irv Yalom is the psychiatrist who thinks like a philosopher and writes like the fine novelist he also happens to be. Becoming Myself delivers not only the engrossing story of one exceptional individual's life. It shines with revelations regarding life as it ought to be lived."—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away
  • "I loved reading Becoming Myself, having been a huge fan of Irvin D. Yalom for many years. This is the book we've been waiting for from him, his own deep journey into the self.... This is a book to read and reread for years to come, a memorable journey through Yalom's time and ours."—Jay Parini, author of The Last Station and New and Collected Poems: 1975-2015

On Sale
Oct 3, 2017
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

Irvin D. Yalom

About the Author

Irvin D. Yalom, MD, is professor emeritus of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He was the recipient of the 1974 Edward Strecker Award and the 1979 Foundations’ Fund Prize in Psychiatry. He is the author of When Nietzsche Wept (winner of the 1993 Commonwealth Club gold medal for fiction); Love’s Executioner, a memoir; Becoming Myself, a group therapy novel; The Schopenhauer Cure; and the classic textbooks Inpatient Group Psychotherapy and Existential Psychotherapy, among many other books. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

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