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The Virgin Of Bennington
In 1965, when I was seventeen, I became Nick Carraway. That is, I found myself living out the core of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which is how young westerners adapt-or do not adapt-to what seems to them the dazzling but dangerous world of the East Coast. A middle-westerner by heritage, and far-westerner by virtue of having spent my adolescence in Hawaii, I had no idea, when I applied to Bennington College in Vermont, that I was signing up for a crash course in the turbulent dynamics of place and culture. I had chosen the school because, having dutifully fulfilled the minimum requirements for math courses at my preparatory school in Honolulu, I was seeking a place that would accept me as I was, precociously devoted to literature but unable to master the rudiments of algebra. Bennington had little in the way of a required curriculum, and I felt ready to chart my own course.
In truth, I was a sheltered adolescent from the provinces, still rooted in my family. My mother was a schoolteacher, and my father a professional musician, and I had been content to assume their interests as my own: books and music were at the center of my life. When many of my classmates were getting driver's licenses so that they could socialize with one another, I spent my evenings attending church choir practice with my parents, or accompanying my father to rehearsals of the Honolulu Symphony, where he was a cellist. Left to my own devices, I gravitated toward the periodicals room of the Hawaii State Library, or sat for hours reading in the library's pleasant outdoor courtyard.
Every morning, before I caught a school bus at six-fifteen, I would listen to portions of favorite record albums-it might be a Verdi overture, or Frank Sinatra's "Only the Lonely," any Bob Dylan song, Barber's Adagio for Strings, or if I was feeling truly moody, a solemn movement from a Bach cello suite. Listening to music was a way for me to survive another day in a school where I never felt I belonged. Many of my classmates had been together since kindergarten, and when I entered the school in seventh grade, I found a close-knit, all but impenetrable society, steeped in traditions unknown to me. Fresh from the mainland, and woefully ignorant of the complex culture of Hawaii, I was an easy target for derision.
I held on because it was an excellent school, and I learned I could take refuge in the honing of my intellectual skills, particularly in areas that did not interest my classmates. This promised me an independence I craved, and I accepted loneliness as its cost. I began to write, and also plunged headlong into existentialist philosophy. I can only wonder at the sixteen-year-old girl who went alone on a Saturday afternoon to see Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass, Darkly, clutching the yellow paperback I had been reading on the bus, Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death. I can laugh at her now, and at the two sailors, not many years older than she, who sat behind her in the theater, growing more restless as the film progressed. They had apparently mistaken it for one of the Swedish pornographic movies then in vogue, and were impatiently waiting for the sex to begin.
My life then had direction, a straightforward goal. A steady stream of vocational, aptitude, and intelligence tests had aimed me like an arrow at college. But I was never asked to take stock of what would be required of me once I landed there, and this left me with the impression that life at college would be a continuation of what had gone before, four years in which I would read books and write papers and be rewarded by the encouragement of dedicated teachers. It never fully hit me that I would have to construct a life of my own, outside the parameters of my family. When I arrived on the Bennington campus with my parents and sisters, I was not at all prepared to watch them drive away in the Volkswagen van, en route to my father's two-year teaching stint at the Navy School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia. I could not conceive of how to proceed into the next moment, let alone an entire semester.
One of the reasons I had chosen Bennington was that, though it had a few male graduate students in dance and drama, it was a women's college, and I assumed this would allow me to study free of the distractions and social failures I had endured in a coed high school. College has long been a place where young middle-class Americans break out of the shell of adolescence. But leaping out of the provincialism of 1960s Honolulu into Bennington's aggressively au courant milieu would skew the process so badly for me that I retreated into myself for another four years. That my new Bennington friends often misread my shyness as poise, my reclusiveness as maturity only increased my sense of isolation. I felt that there was no one I could talk to about waking every morning with a crushing sense of dread, unable to bear the thought of remaining at school. College was something I had strived and longed for, and yet I felt empty there, without resources. My distant parents, the two younger sisters with whom I had squabbled fiercely in a shared room until I was well into my teens, and even my older brother, who was then with the Peace Corps in Liberia, had taken my identity with them, leaving me a shell: I was going through the motions, but was not fully alive.
I felt that I had died, and considered other people dense for not recognizing this, and for treating me as if I was still alive. One morning, in great distress, I rang the doorbell of the campus apartment of the admissions director. Finding me on her doorstep blubbering with tears, she appeared surprised that a young woman who had confidently quoted Emily Dickinson, Søren Kierkegaard, and Albert Camus in her application essay was just a homesick adolescent. She invited me in for a breakfast I could hardly eat, listened well, and then kindly advised me that the decision over whether or not to remain at school was one I might make on a trial basis every morning, in the hope that the way would be clear before me. Can I stay here one more day? Probably. Most likely. That became the mantra that got me through the next few months.
What I have come to see as my quintessential Nick Carraway experience, one that replicated itself many times and in myriad ways during my time at Bennington and later, in New York City, occurred during the first class of my freshman year. I had the good fortune to have been assigned to the literature course of a poet, Ben Belitt, whose passion for literature was surpassed only by his love of teaching it. Glad to be free of the strict dress and conduct codes of my prep school, I was pleased to find that class was to be held in the common room of a dorm, and the students-nearly all of us in blue jeans-could lounge on the floor or perch on window seats.
I found a chair, and another girl took a spot on the floor nearby. Invigorated by Belitt's lecture, I was more intrigued than intimidated by the lengthy reading list he handed out. But I was distracted by my neighbor, who throughout the class chain-smoked, drank from a bottle of Coca-Cola, and ingested small white pills. When class ended, I asked her how she was feeling. She stared at me blankly, and I couldn't resist adding that I didn't think it was a good idea for her to be taking so much aspirin. She looked at me as if I were possibly the stupidest person she had ever encountered, and sneered, "This isn't aspirin, it's speed."
I was Alice down the rabbit hole, without bearings in a world that while it appeared familiar had proved unaccountably strange. Booze had been the drug of choice among my peers; even in junior high, I'd heard rumors about binge drinking on weekends, everything from beer blasts at the beach to kids' raiding the good scotch when their parents weren't home. But in the early 1960s, in our relatively gentle environs, my classmates and I were largely ignorant of drugs. It shocked us when police found marijuana at a high school in a rough neighborhood, and confirmed our suspicion that drugs were low-class. What little I knew of speed, heroin, and other hard drugs came from the newspaper, or novels such as Naked Lunch, which I read but barely comprehended. I had never considered that a person of my own age might be an addict.
But the girl in front of me and her addiction were undeniably real. Our encounter taught me something I had not known about myself, that like Nick Carraway, I was inclined to withhold judgment when people around me engaged in bizarre behavior. I also started to appreciate the reservations that a Bennington professor had expressed when I applied to the school. He was on sabbatical at the University of Hawaii and agreed to meet with me. After we had talked for a while, he recommended that I reconsider, and apply to a college in the Midwest or on the West Coast. His remarks had made me uneasy, but I didn't know why. I was beginning to understand.
I could not have foreseen that my four years at Bennington would be so much like Alice's journey through Wonderland, that I would often be confused or confounded by matters other girls took for granted-not only drugs, but also sex with faculty members, or their spouses, and the ministrations of psychiatrists to sort it all out. Remaining underground, as it were, retreating inward, even as I cautiously explored the peculiar landscape, seemed the only sensible response. Trying to avoid the pain of encounters I had no way of understanding, I relied on what had worked for me in high school, and spent more time with books than with other people. I often went for days not speaking to anyone.
Some girls, although they appeared bemused by my innocence, regarded it as something to be protected. Others saw me as a solid, midwestern type who could be counted on to clean up the mess after Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan had fled the scene. Because I wasn't taking speed or LSD, I was safe company for coming down off a bad trip. Because I was still a virgin, I could be trusted with the sordid details of an abusive relationship. And if, at the end of such an affair, a friend was suicidally depressed, I would do something sensible. Heat a can of soup and sit with her in my quiet room, or tuck her into my bed and roll out a sleeping bag on the floor for myself. If a girl attempted suicide, I would walk her to the infirmary, carrying the empty bottle of pills or stanching the flow of blood until a nurse could treat the self-inflicted wounds.
But these things were yet to come. During that first semester of freshman year I proceeded timidly through my days, so overwhelmed by the challenges of college life that I was afraid to become too involved with other people. A scholarship job at the library provided my only regular social outlet outside of class, a safe environment where I could rely on a breezy efficiency to serve other students while keeping them at a distance. Given my loneliness, I was ripe for a first love affair. That it was with a young woman instead of a man had much to do with the fact that she was the first person who had demonstrated an erotic attraction to me. I'd had very few dates in high school, and several of them consisted of attending concerts with a gay musician from my father's Navy band. I was attracted to boys, but terrified when they showed interest in me. I was unconsciously drawn to this girl because she seemed less threatening to me than a man. Her manner was masculine, but her body was reassuringly like my own. Her veneer of sophistication-she owned a car, and had driven herself to college without parental assistance-impressed and attracted me, and provided a perfect foil for my out-of-placeness and naiveté. Convinced that I was in love, I used the affair as a proving ground for the emotions, an exploration of my capacity for devotion, and a testing of limits and boundaries. This is how we come to be human, after all, and learn what love requires.
But I was still too adolescent to be capable of genuine intimacy, far too absorbed in constructing my own identity. And the affair, like so many college romances, was too racked by self-consciousness to endure. What I had thought was love was, as Kierkegaard puts it in The Diary of a Seducer, merely the "self-love of erotic love." I can see now how comically mismatched a couple we were: she had a range of bisexual experience, while I was sexually ignorant. She had adopted the language and manner of a young tough, and I hung on to the moorings of the good midwestern girl I thought myself to be. Sexual relations were so new to me that I was far too shy and prudish to please my partner. Sadly but predictably, the affair became contentious, and we ruthlessly manipulated each other: her aggressive worldliness never quite penetrated the obtuseness that allowed me to keep my inner self well protected. I learned, of course, that love has no traffic with manipulation and insularity, and that the flames of infatuation can quickly become ashes of enmity and contempt. The histrionics that fueled our passion grew predictable and stale, and the relationship soon collapsed under its own weight.
In the emotional turmoil that accompanied the end of the affair, I turned to my parents, phoning them in tears one night to tell them everything. My mother was calm, and reacted with a comforting equanimity. My father's response was more dramatic, but equally helpful; he drove all the way from Norfolk, Virginia, to Bennington, Vermont, in a little over twelve hours, surprising me after dinner in my dorm. He had already contacted a college counselor to make sure that someone was keeping an eye on me. She had said, "We do count them, from time to time." My father and I sat for hours in a Howard Johnson's on the outskirts of town, and he related stories about himself, and his own marriage, trying to tell me that he was no expert in knowing how to do the right thing, and that when it comes to love, it is often hard to know. That night, even as I realized that it made no sense to cling to a relationship that was no more, my faith in love itself was restored. I could hope that while I was not yet ready for it, love would come in time.
Years after I had left college and the East Coast, I awoke once in the middle of the night, startled by the memory of a long-forgotten event that loomed up in a vast darkness: a small illuminated space revealed me standing in a dorm room at Bennington with my lover. It was toward the end of our relationship, when our encounters had become strained, fractious, and for me, weepy.
She had spent the afternoon driving through the Vermont countryside and had stopped at a stable to purchase a riding crop. She clearly wanted me to admire it, and take note of its fine workmanship. She insisted that I run my hands up and down the delicate leather strips crisscrossing the handle. I was bewildered by her insistence, and scandalized at the exorbitant price she told me she had paid for it. With a perfect midwestern probity that I could not have appreciated at the time, I told her I didn't know why she wanted a riding crop in the first place; she didn't have a horse-she didn't even like horses.
Sixteen years later I sat up in bed, gasping with astonishment that it had taken me so long to get the joke. And then I laughed, mostly at myself and my impenetrable denseness, which must have been frustrating to my friend. Appropriately enough, as I was living in my maternal grandparents' house, I could hear my grandmother's light, clear voice, saying decisively, "To the pure all things are pure." And I shook my head. I hadn't thought of my friend in years, and now, in circumstances I never could have imagined at Bennington-lying next to my husband in my grandparents' bed in South Dakota-I thought kindly of her, hoping that she too was laughing on that chilly autumn night, chuckling with pleasure over a good book, or roaring with gusto over something a new lover had said. I said a prayer for both of us and went back to sleep.
The Virgin Of Bennington
Before I arrived at Bennington, I had no notion of its reputation on the East Coast. But I soon learned that to many people the term "Bennington girl" connoted someone who was flamboyantly (if not oppressively) artsy, bohemian, and also notoriously easy with sexual favors. Once, at a party in New York City, when I was introduced as a Bennington student, another guest piped up: "Oh. The little red whorehouse on the hill." The reputation for raciness was well deserved, particularly in the randy 1960s, but was of course not the whole picture. I was by no means the only student who took her studies seriously. But I did feel isolated: my Bennington consisted of long, solitary walks in the countryside and equally long hours reading, or studying in the library. In a sense I converted the school into a cloister for myself, no mean feat when one considers the sexual maelstrom of the time.
Without meaning to, I became nunnish-quiet, withdrawn, and obviously virginal-and this sometimes made for high comedy at a place in which visiting Dartmouth boys felt free to walk up and down the halls of our dorms, hollering, "Does anyone want to screw?" Often, someone did. One of my dorm neighbors explained that sexual intercourse relaxed her if she needed a study break. But more often, a girl would call out from her room, "Why don't you go screw yourself?" In a time when most college coeds had strict curfews, Bennington students had none, and only a cursory morning check to make sure that we were alive and in our beds. This was conducted by other students, so it was easy to fudge. If a boyfriend had spent the night, or if a girl was shacked up in a local motel, having prostituted herself for a Williams boy who operated as a pimp on weekends, no alarm was raised. Students tended to protect one another's privacy, and the college refused to act in loco parentis.
In this charged atmosphere, aloofness became my shell. If I refrained from judging or condemning others, I could remain friendly but at a remove, and we could get along. This was pure Nick Carraway, a measure of self-defense mixed with a dose of denial. Yet I was learning that the distance I cultivated might be useful, and perhaps even necessary, for the art of writing. No matter how extreme the behavior of those around me, I found it interesting. It taught me what I could not have learned from books. A passage in William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience that had stunned me when I encountered it in a freshman literature course provided an apt description of how art was insinuating itself into my life. In a chapter on the "divided self," James quotes the playwright Alphonse Daudet commenting on the death of his brother: "My father cried out so dramatically, 'He is dead, he is dead!' While my first self wept, my second self thought, 'How truly given was that cry, how fine it would be at the theatre.'" In a similar way I observed and pondered, growing more aware of what Daudet termed a "terrible second me" that "sees into things, and...mocks."
I do not regret for a moment the extracurricular education that Bennington provided in human psychology and sexuality, especially in its female incarnations. For the first time I heard young women talk about how they couldn't live without a man, and was fascinated by the curious mixture of hard calculation and pitiful naiveté they demonstrated as they set about obtaining one. I watched in awe as intelligent but insecure young women sold themselves short in order to have a steady boyfriend. Often they set their caps for older, powerful men, usually Bennington professors who were all too glad to be so targeted. Several faculty members were notorious for checking out the new crop of students, and for having affairs with one girl after another. One stalked the library's all-night study room on weekends.
More than once I received an engraved invitation to an on-campus orgy; a more perfect expression of debutante wantonness could not be conceived. And when I first heard Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman," with its depiction of a neurotic and vulnerable young woman strung out on speed, but still wearing her pearls, it rang so true that I could have named at least five girls who fit the description. That such persistent self-destruction was possible, and among people of my own age, frightened me, and made me sad.
This was the world in which, like Alice, I had landed, to find that the mores and values I'd been raised with had been turned inside out and upside down. So much was both bewildering and illuminating to me. One weekend during my sophomore year, for example, I was looking for one of my few close friends. I knew she hadn't planned a trip home to New York City, and when I returned several times to her room to knock and call her name, I sensed that she was in there, behind the locked door. I finally saw her a few days later and learned that she had picked up a college boy on Friday night. The two of them had spent the entire weekend in bed, rousing themselves only to go to the snack bar on Saturday night for a quick meal. This behavior no longer seemed strange to me, but I did assume that it signified the start of a relationship. I made polite inquiries about the boy, his name, and where he was from. "I don't know," my friend replied. "I never asked." I was speechless. "I didn't know that you could do that," I mumbled, and it was my friend's turn to be surprised. She, like my other friends at Bennington, was puzzled by my lack of interest in sexual exploration, but generally accepted the only explanation I could give, that I simply was not ready. Our tolerance was mutual, a two-way street.
The fact that I remained a virgin well into my senior year became the stuff of campus legend, complete with jokes about "Norris the Nun" and "The Virgin of Bennington." But there was no religious dimension to my situation. While I had turned my dorm room into a recluse's cell, my solitude was not holy and hospitable, but merely a means of retreating from other people and their demands. It had none of the self-giving that a true religious vocation requires. As yet, I had not enough self to give. "Formation" is the term monastic communities use for the period in which novice monks and nuns are guided and trained, before they make their solemn vows. I happened to undergo my formation not within convent walls but in the wilds of Bennington in the late 1960s.
I never did feel quite at home at Bennington, although I came to love the place and am grateful for the education I received there, both in human nature and in the art of literature. The college set me on the path of becoming a writer. But emotionally, it was always a difficult place for me. Like Nick Carraway, I discovered that my habit of reserving judgment had "opened up many curious natures to me," and made me privy to other people's secrets; I became something of a confessor, or at the least, a repository of other people's stories.
Late in my junior year my peculiar role at Bennington was acknowledged by the other girls in my dorm in a manner that combined girlish whimsy with uncanny prescience. At our first Sunday-night social of the spring semester, we decided to designate titles and roles for the upperclassmen. We chose a Terpsichore, an Artist, a Scribe. My friend Andrea Dworkin was declared our Oracle, and a charming, boyish homosexual girl was named Knight Errant. I spoke up and said that I wanted to be the Poet, but someone misheard me and declared me Pope. I protested, but to no avail.
I was annoyed and more than a little baffled. I had been raised a Protestant, and hadn't been to church since arriving at Bennington. I was Pope nonetheless, and I had my duties. On Sunday nights I would enter the dorm's common room with my face powdered white, and gray shadow under my eyes to make me look unworldly, burdened with the care of souls. For a vestment I wore a floor-length Mother Hubbard muumuu with a high neck and long sleeves. And because a Pope needs a scripture, I read aloud from my facsimile edition of Alice in Wonderland. This is what passed for liturgy at Bennington College in 1968, when having any sort of campus ministry program would have been unthinkable. Our religions were the arts and psychology. And as silly as our schoolgirl nicknames and Sunday-night rituals were, they gave us a small measure of communal identity that, in turn, made us feel more at home.
Although I could not have imagined this then, my years at Bennington did constitute a sort of priestly training. I had to learn to listen carefully, without rushing to judgment. The primary education, or formation, if you will, that I received in college had little to do with books and everything to do with mercy. I learned that sexual preferences and practices, no matter how depraved they might appear on the surface, were significant only insofar as they affected who a person became. Controlling and manipulative sex would replicate itself in controlling and manipulative behavior in the classroom or with one's friends. Wantonness might be sheer desperation, masking a suicidal self-debasement, but it might also represent a joyful, lusty sexuality that indicated, at heart, a vast generosity of spirit. Sexual abstinence might be wise and thoughtful, or an embittering rage that fed on belittling others for their perceived sexual weakness. Even as my own sexual experience remained extremely limited, I gained a broad perspective on the range of human sexuality that has served me well.
I now recognize that having friends who indulged in sexual behavior that I found incomprehensible was a test of my spirit that would have been familiar to fourth-century Christian monks. They were uncannily wise about the strength of human sexual desires and blasé when fellow monks would succumb to temptation. The real scandal, to them, was in assuming that such behavior would cut a person off from God. Despair, loathing, and presuming to judge were far worse than any sexual misconduct: if the erring monk were to indulge in self-hatred to such a degree that he began to feel that his prayers for forgiveness were useless, or if other monks condemned and rejected him for his licentious behavior. The literature of early monasticism sometimes shocks with its absolute refusal to judge other people. It insists on the supreme value of being steadfast in loving others.
I regret the times when I was not steadfast, when I withdrew from friends in need. One classmate, when she learned she was pregnant, returned from the doctor's office in a manic state. Angrily grabbing my arm, she said that I couldn't imagine how terrible it was to have something growing inside and not be able to stop it. To her, the pregnancy was no more than a cancerous tumor, and she hit herself repeatedly in the abdomen with her fists, as if she could make it go away. After asking me to phone her psychiatrist in New York City, since she was too distraught, she told me, wearily, that she had been seeing a psychiatrist since she was twelve, and seemed annoyed that this amazed me. I dialed the number for her, and once I had determined that he was making arrangements for her to fly to the city to have an abortion-this was in the days when a legal abortion took place only after a panel of psychiatrists attested that a woman was too mentally unstable to undergo a pregnancy-I went to the library and stayed there for hours. I could not face her anger, her suicidal craziness, and the profound sadness of the circumstances. I have always been grateful that she did not kill herself that day, and ashamed of myself for having abandoned her.
One reason I tended not to judge others at Bennington in terms of their sexual mores was that I had determined that my abstinence did not spring from any excess of virtue on my part. In my mind, at least-and I was resolutely cerebral in my college years-I thought I might be as promiscuous as many of the girls around me. In fact, it was years before I could see a connection between sexual activity and morality. And by that I mean nothing narrow-minded, but as large as love: the rightness of treating people, including oneself, with respect, honor, and trust, preparing the earth of the heart in which love can grow. At eighteen, I thought it only a matter of time before I would "fall in love," and of course, I would know it was really love, and then the fulfillment of sexual intercourse would follow.
I was still wading cautiously on the shores of life, willing to get my feet wet but not venture into the depths. When I finally took that step, it was every bit as misguided as my earlier schoolgirl romance. An older man, one of my professors, seemed exciting yet safe, less demanding than a boy of my own age might be. The professor was married, which I unconsciously interpreted as meaning that I could have all the thrill of a romantic involvement without being asked for a genuine commitment. I was relieved to find that his marriage appeared solid, and that I liked his wife. It was years before I could admit how badly I betrayed her. At the time I wanted to believe that I was so insignificant as to be almost invisible, and that I would be able to have my affair with her husband without leaving any effect on her, or their marriage.
This denial eased my sense of wrong, and for a time the affair buoyed me, stimulating me not only sexually but intellectually as well. I was discovering a whole new self. Any discriminating person might have seen that I was simply in love with love, and a spicy, forbidden love at that. I was just young enough to be devastated when, after I had graduated and moved to New York City, I learned that the man was a habitual philanderer, and was already trading me in for a younger model. His brusque dismissal, with a shrug and a terse "You knew this wouldn't last," was both contemptuous and pleading: he was hoping that I'd be sophisticated enough to exit quietly, and not make trouble.
My lover's words were truer than I wanted to admit. Deep down, I had known that an adulterous student-professor romance was not destined to endure. And as painful as his rejection was, it also had a salutory, bracing effect: a burden whose weight I had greatly underestimated had been lifted, and my life was again my own. Dimly, through my anguish, I could recognize liberation: I was free, but adrift, as untethered as a runaway balloon. I left his apartment and made my way up West End Avenue as if learning to walk again. The experience gave me the title for my first book of poems, Falling Off. I felt that I had come to the end of the world, and might indeed fall off. Yet the moment was unaccountably full of promise, and even joy.
I will always regard it as an example of God's great mercy and inexhaustible creativity that so unpromising a creature might begin to turn her life to the good. And not only that: the very things that had gotten me into such irredeemable messes were the instruments of my conversion. It was the illusion of love, for instance, that drew me to New York City. I would not have had the fortitude to move there on my own had I not been energized by the folly of romance. And my philandering professor had done me a good turn by setting up a job interview for me at the Academy of American Poets, where I worked during the winter term of my senior year at Bennington, and where I returned after graduation. The woman I was to work for over the next five years proved to be a mentor who would introduce me to the idea of writing as a genuine vocation, and teach me that it was possible for a writer to, in one of her favorite phrases, "live by her wits." And this, in time, would help me summon the courage to move to my ancestral ground in South Dakota and try my hand at freelancing. These are the sorts of connection, and transformations that work their way through any life. But this is my story, and it begins with an untidy but cheerful job interview on a snowy day in early December 1968.
Reprinted from Virgin of Bennington by Kathleen Morris by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Kathleen Morris. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.