Boundless horizons: Troy and Marshall Ball in the front yard of Listener's Hill.
Boundless horizons: Troy and Marshall Ball in the front yard of Listener's Hill.

Mommy's little angel

You were right about God, Marshall.
He is a Good God.
And you, you there, with imagination in your eyes
And hope forever forwards in your soul, you are
A Good Person.
You are a human being and isn't it exciting to be one?
Isn't it glorious this life God has graciously given
Despite our own flaws despite our misunderstandings
He gave a gift again in Him and life is Good.

-- excerpt from a poem written to Marshall Ball by one Chris Robinson, reproduced on the Marshall Ball Web site

Chris, Are you telling me that fine poem is what you think? We do not agree. Marshall is not what you called me. Marshall is your angel. We need to listen. Take time to listen.

-- Marshall Ball, in response

The boy lives on a hilltop west of Austin. He is 13 years old, born with an as-yet-undiagnosed condition that renders him unable to speak, unable to walk and unable to communicate without the aid of an oversize letter-board and a friend or family member to support his elbow as his forearm falls, pecking out letters of the alphabet one at a time.

The alphabet added up to a book of brief poems, letters and inspirational thoughts published last year, Kiss of God: The Wisdom of a Silent Child. Kiss of God was released under the imprint of Health Communications, Inc., which also publishes the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and quickly became a best-seller on the USA Today and lists. With the sales have come publicity appearances on Oprah (three times) and articles everywhere from the Austin American-Statesman to People magazine to the London Sunday Times, and with the appearances and articles have come more sales. HCI reports having moved 180,000 copies. The author's mother says half a million.

A boy who cannot speak, he espouses the virtues of listening. Kiss of God's cover is a collage in which a painting of a winged angel trumpets near the superimposed boy's ear.

He calls himself an angel and a teacher and a thinker. Those who feel themselves touched by his writings call him a prodigy and a messenger and a prophet.

His parents call him Marshall.

If you are invited to meet Marshall, you will drive out of town into the rolling country near Lake Travis, through an explosion of upscale, khaki-colored strip malls and the ubiquitous tan limestone mini-mansions that have replaced the once ubiquitous mesquite scrub on the prime hillside real estate. You cut off the rural route onto a narrow, meandering asphalt road into the hills, and then off that road onto an unmarked drive that rises to the Ball property: approximately seven acres encompassing a compound of homes and guest homes and stables and barns and gardens and kennels and miscellaneous outbuildings. The hilltop is a hive of activity, with construction crews carving out a new road and several structures in various states of renovation and members of the Ball extended family, including blood relatives, therapists and hired caretakers, milling about on a typical Saturday afternoon.

Marshall has named his home Listener's Hill.

When you arrive, the boy is being wheeled about the grounds in a wheelchair by his mother, Troy, an attractive blond with an open smile and the look and bearing of a woman long familiar with horses, which she is.

Before Marshall grows cold and wants to go inside the main house -- a desire communicated by his unhappy-sounding wail -- Troy shows me to Marshall's "Thoughtful House," a small stone cottage dedicated to the boy's occasional retreat from the bustle to listen to music, or to silence. Hung from an exterior wall is a near-life-size sculpture of Christ nailed to the cross. Just outside the doorway the path expands into a limestone pavilion chiseled around the perimeter with four of Marshall's phrases: "A good feeling begins with God," "Going to God gives good answers," "Nothing comes from bad feelings" and "Begin to feel God today."

Most parents cherish the communications of their children, but Troy and her husband, Charlie, know there's something more to Marshall's painstaking utterances, something deserving more than a scrap of construction paper held to a refrigerator door by magnets. They know this by their own awed experience of their firstborn's precocity, and they have found their judgment supported by the continuing barrage of letters and e-mails testifying to the impact that Marshall's book has had on readers of all ages, all walks of life, all around the world.

So because Marshall is special, and because his parents are persons possessed of the necessary means, they have had their son's words -- words that for five anxious years remained hidden and unsuspected in the mysterious recesses of his young mind -- carved in stone.

The main house is comfortable and spacious, freshly remodeled around the frame of an older structure, anchored by a central kitchen appointed with expensive appliances and heavy granite countertops. The kitchen opens onto a loft-ceilinged living room whose generous windows open in turn onto an expansive vista of the surrounding hills and what would be the shimmer of Lake Travis in the distance, if the drought-impaired shoreline hadn't fallen so low.

Charlie Ball, curly-haired and the quieter of Marshall's parents, is outside, supervising the work crews; he will be in shortly.

Marshall Ball has been removed from his wheelchair and perched on a soft couch. He wears jeans and a knit shirt over skin so fair as to approach translucence. His limbs are thin from disuse, and he likes to chew on his hands, putting all four fingers into his mouth at once. He makes sporadic vocalizations -- not recognizable words, but undulating moans -- and arcs his neck in haphazard patterns. His green eyes loll from one place to another without betraying recognition, and his mother crosses the room calmly and frequently to right him when he tips onto his side, or to pull his hand from his mouth.

Troy Ball prepares hot tea and settles in to recount a story that she has already recounted so many times, to so many people, that its highlights, which are her highlights, are almost second nature. The repetition does not bother her, because she has taken it as her role to share her gift, her son, with the world, and since Marshall's own words are so often elliptical and questioning and vague, the world comes to Troy for specific answers. She is happy to tell the story because she wants Marshall to be understood, and she is concerned that he may not be.

"You worry about your child," she says. "You worry that the information gets conveyed correctly."

Troy spent her early years in Houston, and later moved with her parents to a ranch between Sealy and Bellville, where she finished high school. Charlie was raised in Odessa. Both had the advantages of well-off families, and neither was raised in what they would term a "fanatically religious" household. Nor, they say, did either family exhibit any noticeable literary bent. There is no family history of the condition afflicting Marshall.

Charlie and Troy met while both were in college at Texas A&M. After Charlie graduated, he left the country for Southeast Asia, where he worked several years in offshore construction. Charlie ended up back in Austin by accident, he says, when a business he had invested in with a college roommate began to fail.

"So I came back to try to salvage it."

Charlie stayed on, and he and Troy were married in 1985.

"We were just your prototypical yuppies, with just your regular, selfish yuppie lives," Charlie says.

Ten months later, Marshall was born.

He was a full-term baby, and was sent home normal. It wasn't until the boy was nearly nine months old that his parents realized that their son wasn't developing normally, that he couldn't hold his head up properly, that his skin was so sensitive to touch that he would pull his hand away from an embrace.

Doctors, unable to diagnose the problem, suggested that it might somehow trace back to a complication with the birth itself. Two years later, when Marshall's little brother Coulton was born, he too was sent home apparently normal. But by the time Coulton was six months old, it had become apparent that he shared with his sibling strikingly similar symptoms.

"It's kind of hard," says Troy, "to really begin to understand what it's like to go through, having children and then realizing that they're notŠ life isn't going the way you thought it was going to. You have this image of what it's going to be like if you have children, and they're going to grow up and then they're going to go off to college and life's going to be a certain way. And when you have children who are born different it's really hard. You go through a lot of guilt. You know, did we do something wrong? Did we do something to ourselves that caused this problem?"

In those early years, Troy says, they held garage sales to raise rent money and relied on the support of their families. Marshall has always been sickly and slow to recover from illness, and Coulton required constant attention just to get enough calories into him to avoid tube-feeding.

Troy volunteers that the divorce rate among parents of chronically ill and special-needs children is "through the roof."

"There's this enormous financial responsibility as well as a physical strain on your life. And it really took Charlie and I getting to the point where all these conceptions that we had, about how things have to be a certain way in order for life to be good, had to just go down the drain. We had to get to the point where we could see the good in what we had. And very fortunately, at a young age Marshall started showing us what we had."

Until the age of three Marshall gave little sign of being aware of the world beyond his head. He did not communicate, and Charlie and Troy had no way of knowing what, if anything, he might be thinking. He was so sensitive to touch that he didn't play with toys.

"We basically said we're going to have to set some goals, we're going to have to be productive people, because we've got to provide an income that will provide for these children's needs now and in the future. And we need to figure out a way to build an environment where it's possible to do things with them without enormous effort on our part. I mean, if you have to go put two children in a car and drive even a block down the road to go to a swimming pool, it takes so much energy, and after you've done that for a year or two, you're likeŠ it's too much to transport."

Troy works part-time as a high-end real estate broker, Charlie took a job as director of real estate and construction with the Dell Computer Corporation, and the two began fleshing out the hilltop compound with their children's needs in mind. By 1993 the Balls felt secure enough to adopt a third son, Luke, as an infant. They say they weren't certain of the wisdom of this until Marshall expressed his wish for a healthy baby brother. A number of trusts were established to care for the boys in the event that they outlive their parents, in which case Troy's family would assume their care. A swimming pool was installed on the grounds.

During our conversation around the kitchen counter, Coulton is wheeled in by a helper. Luke comes tearing through the house with several friends, and at least three other people -- a landscape architect, others of uncertain provenance -- come and go. Several phones ring. Troy quotes property prices expressed in quarters of millions of dollars to callers and invites them to drop by a 2 p.m. walk-around. The last time it rings she unplugs it.

Having said farewell to their prior conceptions of the good life, and despite his apparent defects, Marshall's parents decided early to treat the boy as "a perfect child," and to offer to him whatever stimulation and enrichment they could muster.

Troy read to him (Thoreau, Rumi, Emerson, Frost), played music for him (Bach is a favorite), talked to him, counted numbers for him, showered him with affection.

Finally Marshall responded.

"So one day he's sitting on my lap and I have this toy, and I just happen to have picked it up, and he's sitting here and I'm holding him like this" -- with one arm around his abdomen -- "and I have one hand supporting his torso, and he just leans forward, topples."

Toppling, Marshall hit the toy with his forehead, activating a button that made the sound of a cat's meow.

Troy asked if he could do it again. Marshall did. She asked if he could hit the dog button. Marshall toppled and punched the dog button with his head. They went through all five animal sounds on the toy with Marshall activating the correct button each time.

"It was the first time I actually had any kind of evidence from him that he was actually with me, and knew, understood. So once we realized that he was trying to make connections with his head, we started doing things like Marshall, do you want to go inside, or stay outside?" -- indicating each option with one or the other outstretched hand -- "and he'd touch this hand or that hand.

"Then of course we were able to take that and start extending it."

The Balls hired a speech therapist who devised word games for Marshall. Dr. Keith Turner, of UT's special education department, worked with the Balls to develop tests to reflect Marshall's skill levels for special ed teachers at his school. The tests, "naturalistic assessments" designed to evaluate a child's ability to function within his own environment, seemed to indicate an innate intelligence beyond the boy's years.

Troy and Charlie developed a letter-board, marked into two-and-a-half-inch squares containing letters, numerals and oft-used phrases. There is one box for the letter "i" and another for the word "Marshall." In his writings, Marshall refers to himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third.

Charlie has arrived at the main house, and he takes Marshall onto his lap on the built-in bench of the breakfast nook. With his left hand Charlie props the board in front of his son, and with his right he cups Marshall's right elbow as the boy's clenched hand darts to spots on the board. It is not said what Marshall is writing, if anything, and I cannot see Marshall's choices from where I sit. Visiting for the first time, and uncertain as to how to go about it -- Marshall seems to be having a bad day -- I have failed to address Marshall directly. Neither has Troy offered an introduction.

The phrase "facilitated communication" describes a process, largely discredited as fraudulent, whereby the parent or aide of an autistic child places a hand over the child's hand and helps guide it to placements indicated by the child's muscular movement. It is widely theorized that in such cases the facilitator is engaged in conscious or subconscious manipulation of the child's hand.

Troy Ball is aware of this. She raises the subject first, drawing a distinction between facilitated communication -- not, she says, what's happening here -- and "augmented communication," which is her name for the process by which her son communicates to the world.

Troy's mother, Louise, later told me that she was uncertain during her first experience holding Marshall's elbow and transcribing for him, unsure that she knew how to do it.

She has since transcribed many of Marshall's communications, as have his aunt Cindy and a family friend and "educational consultant" named Laurence A. Becker.

Becker, who earned a multidisciplinary Ph.D. in "Creative Learning Environments" from The Union Institute in Cincinnati, associates himself with savant and prodigal artists. He also maintains at least a semiprofessional interest, he says, in the subjects of yurts, nutrition, athletics and gang member rehabilitation. Asked how he makes his living, he responds that he's "making a life, not a living."

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 homeschooling 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.

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 five. 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."

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, 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 purposefully 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 ten 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 peopleŠ Okay, 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 is scheduled to appear 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").

A large leather chair has been set up in a corner of the living room, and Marshall spends the afternoon ensconced there, in Troy's lap, or Cindy's. Troy has brought a carton of Kiss of God for sale, and Marshall will be available to sign copies by pressing his finger into an ink pad and then transferring his fingerprint onto the title page.

The living room and kitchen, laid out with a spread of finger foods and soft drinks, are crowded with poetry aficionados whose five-dollar entrance donations will benefit the festival. Some will bid on items up for auction, including local restaurant gift certificates, original artworks and an early edition of Kiss of God.

Other have come simply to get close to Marshall.

One woman with a British accent has driven up from Katy. She has an autistic nephew in England, and after seeing Marshall on Oprah and reading about him in People, she bought several copies of the book to send overseas. Kiss of God has been an inspiration to her family, she says, and she has taken the liberty of working up some of Marshall's writings into small, decorative wall hangings, the words printed on good linen paper and surrounded by embroidered cloth frames. She hopes to receive permission from Troy to expand on this project with future writings. Perhaps they could be sold.

A thin man with a thin moustache and searching eyes identifies himself as a local chiropractor. He also has come specifically to meet Marshall, whom he considers a great healer.

The thin man tells me that as a child he was often disregarded in conversation, and told to be quiet, and that out of these experiences he developed a stutter and a shell inside which he retreated from the world. He has been embarked on "healing work" for the past 20 years, he says, and Marshall's book touched him. He set about reading Kiss of God closely, "one letter at a time, the way that Marshall wrote it," in order to more properly plumb the book's depths. The more he reads, he says, the more depth he finds.

The poetry festival's president, a portly man in a bright vest, stands to address the crowd, recognizing Marshall and the "powerful impact" of his poetry, its ability to "change lives." He himself, he says, has purchased multiple copies of Kiss of God to distribute as gifts.

Laurence Becker stands next, introducing himself as Marshall's "mentor, student and friend," and telling the story of transcribing "My Harmony Prevails to be Free," which changed his life as well.

"I was blown away."

The president, a pediatrician by day, stands again and reads his own poem, dedicated to Marshall. The poem is about "wildflower children," and even its author wasn't sure of its true meaning, he says, until he met Marshall.

As he reads, a woman sitting on the fireplace hearth nods her head and makes frequent noises of agreement -- "yes" and "uh-huh" -- witnessing loudly enough for anyone in the room to observe that she's getting it.

Next an elderly woman with platinum hair and a purple silk shirt reads from Marshall's book, followed by the event's host, who does the same.

Marshall sits on Aunt Cindy's lap in the leather chair, wearing khaki slacks and a blue oxford shirt. At the boy's feet, on the floor, holding his knees to his chest and gazing upon Marshall adoringly, sits the thin chiropractor.

Troy is introduced, and she stands before the crowd to recount the highlights of the story again.

Marshall's poetic use of the language is discussed, and Troy tells how she has been tripped up by certain words that were unfamiliar to her, Old English usages or archaic Scottish words like "brough," which Troy looked up and found translated as "halo."

The crowd oohs and ahs at this discovery, and Troy shrugs to acknowledge the mysterious wondrousness of it.

"Now you tell meŠ" she says. "I can't do that."

Then there are words that Marshall has simply made up for their pleasing sounds, like "lornful" and "Tacirring" and "Mearwild," the latter two of which are names Marshall has given to his grandmother's ranch near Brenham and his family summer property in Colorado, respectively.

"Where this comes from," Troy says, "I have no idea."

The festival chairperson, a heavyset redhead in a leopard-print pantsuit and white Reeboks, with a heavy purple amethyst hung around her neck, nods in agreement.

Miracles, as they are commonly defined, are not uncommon. The Virgin Mary's appearance in a pancake, the amputee who paints with his nose hairs, Stephen Hawking, Harlan Hubbard, Bobby Fischer, all manner of seemingly inexplicably oddities -- savants and geniuses and unlikely permutations of the species -- pop up with enough regularity to keep biographical history interesting. The only thing more common may be the pedestrian world's hunger for the miraculous.

Marshall sates this hunger. He has been both allowed and encouraged in this task by a family intent on providing for him every available enrichment, every possible opportunity for growth and fulfillment. A family driven by love to view him as complete in and of himself, a perfect child who, said another way, is faultless. Troy and Becker both use the metaphor of seeds: You must care for them and nurture their potential consistently, long before you have any inkling of the sort of tree they may grow to become.

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.

"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 humbleness.

"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 unspecific platitudes about listening and love.

I ask Troy if 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."

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. 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 per 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 determined a suitable method to accomplish this yet, 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."

Marshall -- confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak, sickly, forever dependent -- wants to be a teacher, an angel, a pipeline to a nondenominational God, and a healer.

And because his parents are wealthy and devoted, because he is their perfect child, and a faultless inspiration to thousands of people who never realized how good they had it until confronted with his story -- the same thousands who desperately hope that somehow their own lives can change nonetheless, perhaps through the words of this silent boy -- Marshall Ball gets to be all of that.

Who would ever tell him otherwise?

"It's completely up to him," Troy says. "It always is."

E-mail Brad Tyer at


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