Mommy's little angel

Marshall Ball can't talk. So he listens to God. Everyone else listens to Marshall.

Becker met Troy and Charlie Ball in 1990 at an exhibition that Becker had organized to show the works of the Scottish autistic-savant artist Richard Wawro. The Balls expressed interest in purchasing a Wawro drawing of horses for Marshall, and told Becker of their son's disabilities.

Becker has written, in Kiss of God's preface, that he "sensed the gentleness and strong love that flowed through this couple toward their son."

Two years later Becker met Marshall on a visit to the Duane Lake Academy, a school that combines partial classroom teaching with a home-schooling regimen. Becker observed Marshall with his letter-board and became friendly with the family. He began introducing Marshall to books -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince; Anna Flynn's Mister God, This Is Anna; Leo Tolstoy's What Men Live By; James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones; Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven; Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Troy Ball always knew there was something more to her handicapped son Marshall's painstaking utterances.
Deron Neblett
Troy Ball always knew there was something more to her handicapped son Marshall's painstaking utterances.
Troy Ball always knew there was something more to her handicapped son Marshall's painstaking utterances.
Deron Neblett
Troy Ball always knew there was something more to her handicapped son Marshall's painstaking utterances.

Sometimes Troy or Charlie read the books to him. Sometimes they played him audio-book tapes.

In 1992 Becker made his own first transcription of a Marshall writing. The piece, "My Harmony Prevails to be Free," is one of Marshall's most-quoted and ended up in Kiss of God:

Even though my individuality finds sweet
Knowing perfection I listen for the
Answers to wishes from above. I listen to
Good thoughts like something cloudy over
mountain tops. Fine messages clearly
govern my thinking. Feelings grow
harmoniously making Love possible.
Harmony might justify every marvelous
Idea given to Love. The seeing Marshall
Hopes to free the hopeless. Dear harmony
Needs progress governing fine thinking
That I feel. I see harmony as the final
Known answer.

Becker urged the Balls to begin sharing Marshall's work with the public. Taking his Wawro exhibition to the annual conference of the Texas Association of Gifted and Talented, Becker convinced the Balls to print some of Marshall's writings on cards, several hundred of which were sold from the booth.

Troy had saved Marshall's work in three-ring binders since he began writing at age 5. The true first edition of Kiss of God was designed, Troy says, under Marshall's direction, as a Christmas present from the boy to his father in 1997. Troy had bound and printed an extra hundred copies, which were given to friends and family as holiday gifts.

In November 1998, Becker again organized a program on his savant artists at the nearby Dripping Springs library, and he invited Marshall to be present, to "speak" to the audience through his letter-board.

After the program was over, Troy says, Marshall expressed to her a disappointment that he had failed to communicate individually with everyone who had been present.

"Very shortly after that, Marshall decided he wanted to get out there, go kind of public," she says.

Troy says she took the self-published Kiss of God to a local Barnes & Noble store, that a local buyer looked at it, cold off the street, and told her he thought his store could sell that and referred her to Austin's Phenix & Phenix, Literary Publicists. The Phenix people, she says, called her back immediately, and they discussed the business of books. Troy decided, with Marshall's approval, to buy a booth at a booksellers expo in Los Angeles. Troy says her booth happened to be across the way from the Health Communications Inc. booth. Becker later told the story and said that Troy purposely had reserved the booth near HCI.

"Troy was smart," he says.

Troy says the family invested close to $50,000 in prepublication costs for Kiss of God. She also says she walked away from the expo with three offers, with HCI's the most attractive. Marshall's contract stipulates his final editorial say over the contents of the book. Royalty checks, Troy says, haven't started arriving yet.

Then came the personal appearances and the newspaper articles and the camera crews and the sales. A Web site was launched with a schedule of upcoming events and a newsletter from Marshall's aunt Cindy and a link to "Marshall's Thoughts," which brings up a pull-down menu offering access to seven categories of same: God, Learning, Happiness, Angels, Teaching, Understanding, and Dream.

Last month Troy drove to Houston for a meeting with Catherine Lanigan, author of Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile, and Marshall's neighbor on the HCI list. Marshall had wanted her to discuss the ins and outs of securing display space in the large chain bookstores.

"I can probably count on 10 fingers," Troy says, "the things that Marshall's ever asked us for in his whole life. And he's saying, I need to do this book because I want to help people, and we're like, you know, it's something he wants to do, and we know how he affects people...OK, let's go in with our eyes wide open and try to make some smart decisions. And really, after the letters started coming in, we had people who had lost children to suicide, or whatever, everything you can imagine. If there are any people who have been helped by this book, it's worth it, because it hasn't been any real trouble to us."

In early March, Marshall appears as an "honored guest" at a fund-raising event for the upcoming Austin International Poetry Festival. The fund-raiser is held in a private home on Austin's north side, and Troy accompanies her son, as do his aunt Cindy (her name tag reads, "Aunt Cindy") and grandmother, referred to by Marshall in Kiss of God as GM (her name tag reads, "Marshall's GM").

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