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Recapturing the Life of a Still 'Stubborn Child'

June 21, 1985|ANN MORRISSETT DAVIDON | Davidon, a writer teaching at Villanova University, once worked with disturbed children at Chicago's Orthogenic School while studying with its director, Bruno Bettelheim. and

Stubborn Child by Mark Devlin (Atheneum: $15.95)

Horrendous experiences can destroy lives, yet sometimes strengthen them. Mark Devlin spent most of his battered young life in state institutions, trying to survive the blunderings and cruelties of custodians and his own desperate feelings of confusion and rejection. The miracle is that Devlin, now 37, not only survived to tell his story but that he tells it so lucidly.

Despite brutal beatings by a drunken father and a distraught mother trying to rear six children on welfare, Devlin recalls being curious, adventurous and liked by neighbors in his early childhood. Perhaps this haphazard ego-reinforcement enabled him to develop the stubbornness that was both his "crime" and saving grace. But his dangerous home life caused him to have screaming nightmares, to become a chronic bed wetter and to be increasingly disruptive at home and in school.

Home for Wanderers

His mother got rid of the problem by placing Mark, at 7, in the New England Home for Little Wanderers. The West Roxbury Court then charged him with "Being a Delinquent by Reason of Stubbornness," a Massachusetts statute passed in 1654 and still on the books at Mark's "trial" in 1956.

The court report notes that Mark had been an average student, but disrespectful; bright, but "talents were being wasted." He had often played truant, came to school with inadequate clothing and no lunch. Mark's mother said that his father had smashed Mark against the wall, thrown him under beds, etc., since he was an infant.

Sent to Roslindale Detention Center for Boys, Mark was found by a psychologist to be an "uninhibited, but likable boy . . . product of an extremely punitive, rejecting and sordid environment." These are the official reports that Devlin later sent for and reproduces at the beginning of this unnerving book.

A Less-Benign View

Devlin's own report on Roslindale presents a less-benign view of what went on there. Locked into a dark room, he screamed for his mother and kicked at the door in terror, until a man threatened him with obscenities typical of the language and attitudes to which he was exposed throughout the rest of his childhood--with a few fortuitous exceptions.

Sent next to John Augustus Hall, Mark tried to run away in 1959 and was then sent to Lyman School for Boys. When he tried to escape in 1961, he was sent to "the granddaddy of them all, the place most feared and respected: the Institute of Juvenile Guidance." Thus, at 13, he was one of the youngest among real criminals: pimps, thieves, murderers. Paroled in January, 1964, Mark tried to live a relatively normal life but got into trouble again--persuaded by a friend to snatch a pocketbook--and by October was back at IJG. The cruelties and disappointments that he was subjected to through these years cannot be adequately summarized. Only a kind teacher or administrator that he occasionally encountered helped maintain Mark's hope and--probably--sanity.

Paroled in 1965 at age 17, Mark went "home" again (his mother had moved many times, taken up with another drunkard who beat Mark). His search for a decent job was hindered by his criminal record and inadequate education. Music--the one bright aspect of IJG due to an encouraging teacher--obsessed him; but his dream of going to music college was thwarted (no high school diploma); the space in his mother's closet where he practiced clarinet and sax was denied him; the night course in music theory proved too difficult. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Angela, became pregnant.

Hope of a Good Job

Moving from one insecure place and job to another, Mark finally took off with a friend in a stolen car for Florida, where he hoped to get a good job and send for Angela and the baby. He ended up in the Petersburg, Va., Federal Reformatory.

Later placed in a halfway house in Boston, he was soon back at the reformatory. In May, 1973, then 25, he was released--"maxed out." Subsequent years were spent in and out of affairs, apartments, flophouses, petty crimes, jail.

But he had started to write this book, encouraged by Boston's Real Paper editor, Mark Zanger. In the erratic course of this writing, he became reconciled with his mother--the source of so much anguish during the years he had pathetically awaited visits and packages from her that never materialized. In this brief epilogue, we also learn that Mark, his self-destructive impulses subdued, forgives his family and tries to forgive the jailers who treated him so cruelly; yet we are left wondering what Mark is now doing with his life. However, he is managing; he is "definitely still a stubborn child," he tells us--and only such a stubborn will could have pushed him to persist in writing this painful, powerful book.

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