Mommy's little angel

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

Viewed from outside the prism of this nurturing, Marshall's writing contains perfect nonsense ("Tame teach grow / Tame talk matters / Teach tame / Tame teach"), lines of elegant simplicity ("To judge another is to judge God") and new-age doggerel ("Marshall has been here for millions of lifetimes") about which it is difficult to know what to say. Kiss of God is padded with letters to relatives, phrases written to stuff inside Easter eggs, birthday cards, school assignments, and a condolence letter "sent to Princes William and Harry upon the death of their mother, Princess Diana."

Marshall's recent writings, most of which are made up of correspondence with admiring readers of his book, also contain notes of creeping arrogance.

A reader named Jackie Noyers wrote to Marshall that he was an inspiration in her own struggles to communicate clearly.

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.

"Jackie, you must read my book, Kiss of God," Marshall wrote back. "Read my book and you will find God."

Marshall's admirers, for their part, do not encourage humility.

"I was led to your book by a great spiritual force," wrote one.

"I know that you are the pathway to God."

"God in his infinite wisdom created Marshall to be his dwelling place on earth for a time."

"I feel an urgency to connect with you."

Some write testimonials to the healing power of the book or ask advice on questions of faith and suffering and death. These are answered with nonspecific platitudes about listening and love.

I ask Troy whether it concerns her that Marshall is taking on the public personae of angel, oracle, and messiah.

"Whether that's a gift from God, I can't answer that concretely, but I think he's got something that people want," she says.

The sole negative to arrive hitched to Marshall's rising star, she says, is the occasional implication that Marshall's writing may be more "facilitated" than "augmented."

"The only limit I would place on any of this is if Marshall were put at risk," Troy says. "We certainly don't want it to get out of hand. I guess it could, but you know, the book sold a lot of copies, and no one's camping in our lawn."

I ask her about a press release that has been sent to me by Phenix & Phenix. The headline reads, "Silent Child Communicates with Angels."

Certain religious persons, I suggest, might take that statement as blasphemy, and certain skeptics as fraud. What were her thoughts on the claim?

"Really? I think that's too much. It's a little sensational to me, I think. I hadn't seen what they're sending out."

"Yeah," Charlie agrees, "that would not be very appropriate."

"I'll call them," Troy says. "No, we do not want to encourage that. We appreciate your telling us, because it really shouldn't say that."

Two weeks later I spoke with Meg La Borde at Phenix & Phenix. Marshall, she said, had written the headline himself, and it had raised red flags even in the publicist's offices.

"So I talked to Troy and I told her, I said, 'I don't know if we should send this out to the press, you know? We don't want The National Enquirer jumping all over this.'"

The solution that La Borde and Troy and Marshall came to was this: That particular press release was sent only to religious media. Secular media got an identical press release with the headline "Child Prodigy Who Can't Walk or Talk Impacts Lives." I received the angel release, La Borde explained, by mistake.

It is likely, Troy says, that Marshall will publish a second book in the near future, and a portion of text has been submitted to HCI, though no contracts have yet been signed and many details remain to be worked out. He is overloaded already, spending several hours on good days responding to his voluminous correspondence.

It might take the boy 30 minutes to spell out a brief poem, several minutes to spell out a single phrase. Then there is the editing.

And there are still bad days. Between Marshall and Coulton, Troy says, she can count on at least two trips to a doctor's office each week.

A new book will likely consist of writings culled from the e-mail correspondence, since this has come to take up most of Marshall's writing time.

Marshall is pushing, though, for a new book to come out in the fall of this year, rather than the fall of 2001, as Troy had suggested.

"The good poor people need my thoughts," she says he wrote to her, explaining his rush.

Marshall has also taken an interest in giving his books away for free. The Balls have not yet determined a suitable method to accomplish this, but Troy suggests that people, especially troubled teens, might write to Marshall via the Web site and ask for a copy, and then they will try to find a way to send out a book for free.

"There are so many people who could be helped."

As for herself, Troy says, she has no agenda of her own at work in Marshall's publishing career. "I just listen to what he wants."

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