Stubborn Child, Struggling Man

updated 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On April 6, 1956—10 days before his eighth birthday—Mark Devlin was taken to a Boston courtroom and charged with the crime of "Being a Delinquent By Reason of Stubbornness." While he sat fearfully and watched, a stern-faced man dressed in black robes questioned a team of teachers, social workers and psychologists about him. Mark was, they said, an intelligent, hyperactive and troubled boy with a history of skipping school and running away from home. His family life was "unhappy," they said. His father was "a heavy drinker," abusive and frequently absent. His mother was struggling to raise five other children on welfare. "Mark," read one psychologist from his report, "is in need of a placement which will offer him the love and acceptance and stability he has never had."

A few minutes later the man in the black robes declared Mark a "stubborn child" and sentenced him, under the power of a 300-year-old Massachusetts statute, to a juvenile prison.

Except for brief periods of "parole," Devlin remained incarcerated for the next 10 years. Then, at 17, he was released into a world he barely knew. "I spent my entire developmental years in prison," he says. "It was the only kind of life I knew. And suddenly I was released to go free."

Not surprisingly, he faltered. He stole a car, was sent to federal prison and then spent years living—frequently drunk—as a derelict on the streets of Boston. Somehow, despite ordeals that would have broken most people, he managed to write a starkly moving memoir. Last month Devlin's Stubborn Child (Atheneum, $14.95) appeared, garnished with praise from such literary big names as Jessica Mitford and Justin Kaplan. "No one has ever read a book anything like this," raved author Frank (Stop-Time) Conroy, director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts. "It stands alone, as isolated and vulnerable as its author."

But Stubborn Child is no rags-to-riches story, and Mark Devlin is no Horatio Alger. Even now, between promotional appearances and television interviews, Devlin, 37, is still troubled, still unemployed, still stalking the hard, cold streets of Boston. "Writing a book and working out the past hasn't cured me," he admits. "I still can't seem to relax and settle down."

Obviously Mark Devlin has not yet recovered from the psychic wounds of a childhood spent behind bars. He still gets nervous and hyper when he talks about his years in prison, and he still feels the need for a few 16-ounce Budweisers to comfort him while he tells his story. It is not difficult to understand why: His childhood seems like something out of a Dickens novel. He tells of random beatings, forced farm labor and solitary confinement. He recalls the joy of winning parole at age 11, only to go back to jail for the "crime" of feeding his family's dinner to hungry dogs. He remembers how one sadistic "master" made the boys kneel on rough pock-marked concrete for hours, and how a retarded boy became so frustrated that he punched his hand through a window—cutting his arm "so deep that we could see the fat hanging out." But, he says, it was the little things that hurt him most: the Christmases spent alone in a cell, the terrifying nightmares brought on by the older boys' stories about the flesh-eating monsters that lived outside the jail and always the painful longing for his mother. "Some nights I felt so empty and lonely I cried myself to sleep," he writes. "If any of us wanted to cry, we had to wait until the boys on either side of us were asleep."

Devlin's portrait of those prisons is confirmed by Pasquale Prencipe, who taught music at the Institute for Juvenile Guidance, a maximum security facility that Prencipe now describes as "nothing but a stinking, rotten hole." Devlin was brought there in handcuffs at age 13, punishment for the crime of escaping from a less secure prison. Later he tried to escape from the IJG, too, and was punished by being locked alone in a darkened cell, for 30 days, clad only in his underwear. "Mark was a real problem boy," says Prencipe, 57, now a music teacher in a New Hampshire high school. "He was a pretty wild kid, very bright and loaded with energy. He learned how to survive in that system. It was rough, and he was rough."

That system was reformed in the early 1970s, when Massachusetts closed most of its juvenile prisons and repealed its "stubborn child" law. "Today," says Ed Kennedy, public information officer for the state's Department of Youth Services, "Mark Devlin would probably end up in a group home or a foster home."

But those reforms came too late to help Devlin; he was left to shift for himself. For a while, in the early 1980s, it seemed as if he wouldn't make it. He was living on the streets of Boston, working odd jobs, drinking heavily and sleeping in doorways, bushes and abandoned buildings. "I had given up trying to become a part of society," he says. "I was descending into a netherworld." Miraculously he kept writing, obsessed by the need to tell his story. He carried a nylon bag that contained—along with his clothes—manuscripts and documents, pencils and paper, a dictionary and a thesaurus. "I wrote most of the book in bars where I would sip a beer for two or three hours," he says. "I hated writing, but I was compelled to write. Telling the story became my whole raison d'etre."

Devlin completed several manuscripts—"thousands of pages"—only to have them repeatedly rejected by publishers who told him he had no literary talent. Each rejection would plunge him into despair and drink until he could gather himself for another attempt. Finally, in 1983, he rewrote the book again in three intense days and nights in a Wendy's restaurant. "It was stronger, tighter, clearer," he says. "I was proud of it." His friend, Boston newspaperman Mark Zanger, paid to have it typed, and Atheneum bought it with an advance of $5,000. For Devlin publication is vindication, proof that he is not the criminal he was branded at 7. "The ironic thing is that the crime I was imprisoned for was the very thing that saved me from going under—my stubbornness."

But there is another, more poignant irony to Devlin's story: During his worst days on the street, he was saved by the one person he resented most—his mother. For decades he had blamed her for permitting his imprisonment and he harbored, he admits, "a lot of hatred for her." After his return from federal prison, he avoided her for years until they met on a Boston street. "Mark was hostile toward me," recalls his mother, Christine, 60, now working as a department manager in a Boston hotel. "I kissed him and told him I loved him. He said, 'I can't say that to you, Mom. I don't know you. I have to get to know you all over again.' "

He got to know her in the early 1980s, when he was living on the street. Cold and hungry, he would visit her office, and she would give him coffee, food, a few dollars and a place to get warm. "She essentially became my benefactor," he says. "Whenever I was down and out, I'd go see her, and we'd talk about old times. We went through our catharsis. I'd break down and say, 'Mom, why did you do it to me?' and in the same breath say, 'It's okay, I understand.' And she explained to me that she was trying to get me help, that she had five other children to take care of, and she couldn't handle me."

"It took us until about 1981 before he actually said, 'Mom, I love you,' " she says. "Last year he bought me a beautiful birthday present. We have a very good relationship now."

Devlin strolled into his mother's office one recent morning and kissed her with an unshaven face. "What's the matter, Mark?" she asked with a wry grin. "Did your face have a falling-out with your razor?" She pulled out a plastic BIC Shaver, and he shrugged, smiled and headed for the nearest men's room, returning with a face even his mother could love.

Despite their reconciliation Christine still worries about her son. She knows he remains unemployed and unsettled. "He wants to live off his book," she says. "I keep telling him it doesn't work that way. He's got to get a job. He scares me. He really scares me."

He scares his friends, too. They worry about his drinking, about his dangerous life on the street, about his seeming inability to hold a job. "The regular life is very hard for him," says Zanger. "He's very sensitive, almost paranoid. I think he has a need to keep himself on the edge. He's had periods where he's had a job, an apartment and a girlfriend, but then he tears it all up. He has a fear of success that is so overwhelming that he lives on the street to avoid dealing with it."

Devlin is intelligent and introspective enough to know that Zanger is right. When his book promotion duties are finished, he vows he will get a job and settle into an apartment. But he recognizes that it won't be easy. "I'm still not out of the woods," he admits. "I still have lapses into incredible anxiety and paranoia. I'm considering therapy at this point."

Meanwhile he remains homeless, or as he puts it with a wink and a grin, "I'm still a concrete cowboy and a roads scholar." These days, high on the heady triumph of publication, he struts the streets of Boston as if he were its official laureate, telling the kinds of stories you don't hear on the tour buses. In the South End he points out good bushes for sleeping and discourses on what kinds of cardboard boxes make the best beds. Downtown he notes bars where he wrote and restaurants where he worked for a week or a month. On the Common he motions toward another clump of bushes where he once slept and recalls, in wildly comic detail, waking up with a rancid, red-eyed rat perched on his chest. Finally he arrives at his favorite spot, a little park along the waterfront where he likes to gaze out past the gently swaying sailboats toward the sea. "I live in a fairly sordid world," he says. "This is my catharsis. Here, I sit and dream of a better life. It cleanses me. Just because I'm down and out doesn't mean I'm out for the count."

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