I just read that Kim Peek has died. Most of us would be at a loss to know what this means, or even who Kim Peek was. The truth of the matter is, he was one of the most unique individuals to ever live, and I’m sure you’ve heard of him even if you don’t know it.
Kim Peek was the man upon whom the 1988 film “Rain Man” was based. The movie was about an autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman, and it shed a humane light on the travails of autism while revealing the extraordinary powers of memory that a small number of otherwise mentally disabled people possess, ostensibly as a side effect of their disability.
The film won four Oscars, including best picture, best actor and, best original screenplay. But it never would have been made if Barry Morrow, one of the writers of the screenplay had not had a chance meeting with Kim Peek, who inspired him to write the film.
Mr. Peek actually was not autistic — not all savants are autistic and not all autistics are savants — but he was born with severe brain abnormalities that impaired his physical coordination and made ordinary reasoning difficult. He could not dress himself or brush his teeth without help. He found metaphoric language incomprehensible and conceptualization baffling.
But with an astonishing skill that allowed him to read facing pages of a book at once — one with each eye — he read as many as 12,000 volumes. Even more remarkable, he could photographically remember everything he had ever read.
Indeed, Mr. Peek, who died Dec. 19 in Salt Lake City, had perhaps the world’s most capacious memory for facts. He was 58. The cause was a heart attack, said his father, Fran Peek.
Almost all documented savants — people with an extraordinary depth of knowledge and the ability to recall it — have been restricted in their expertise to specific fields like mathematics, chess, art or music. But Mr. Peek had a wide range of interests and could instantly answer the most arcane questions on subjects as diverse as history, sports, music, geography and movies.
“He was the Mount Everest of memory,” Dr. Darold A. Treffert, an expert on savants who knew Mr. Peek for 20 years, said in an interview.
Mr. Peek had memorized so many Shakespearean plays and musical compositions and was such a stickler for accuracy, his father said, that they had to stop attending performances because he would stand up and correct the actors or the musicians.
“He’d stand up and say: ‘Wait a minute! The trombone is two notes off,’ ” Fran Peek said.
Mr. Peek had an uncanny facility with the calendar.
“When an interviewer offered that he had been born on March 31, 1956, Peek noted, in less than a second, that it was a Saturday on Easter weekend,” Dr. Treffert and Dr. Daniel D. Christensen wrote about Mr. Peek in Scientific American in 2006.
They added: “He knows all the area codes and ZIP codes in the U.S., together with the television stations serving those locales.
He learns the maps in the front of phone books and can provide MapQuest-like travel directions within any major U.S. city or between any pair of them. He can identify hundreds of classical compositions, tell when and where each was composed and first performed, give the name of the composer and many biographical details, and even discuss the formal and tonal components of the music. Most intriguing of all, he appears to be developing a new skill in middle life. Whereas before he could merely talk about music, for the past two years he has been learning to play it.”
Mr. Peek, who was dismissed as mentally retarded as a child and later misdiagnosed as autistic, led a sheltered life, with few people outside his family aware of his remarkable gifts. Then, in 1984, he met Barry Morrow at a meeting of the Association of Retarded Citizens in Arlington, Tex. Mr. Peek’s father was chairman of the group’s communications committee, and Mr. Morrow had helped create two television movies about a retarded man named Bill (played by Mickey Rooney).
After Mr. Peek displayed his memory skills in a conversation with him, Mr. Morrow set about concocting a story around someone like Kim Peek. “I was absolutely flabbergasted that such a human being existed,” Mr. Morrow said in a 2006 documentary about Mr. Peek.
In “Rain Man,” the autistic character, Raymond Babbitt, has been institutionalized since he was very young but is reunited with a cynical younger brother, Charlie (played by Tom Cruise), who had forgotten about his brother’s existence. (The title comes from Raymond’s recollection of the infant Charlie’s name for him.) The two men take a cross-country trip, and fraternal reconciliation ensues.
The movie, a critical and box office success, was not based on Mr. Peek’s life, but in preparing for the role, Mr. Hoffman visited with Mr. Peek and incorporated many of his characteristics — a shambling gait, peculiar hand movements and occasional blunt utterances — into the character of Raymond.
When Mr. Hoffman won an Oscar for best actor for the performance, he thanked Mr. Peek in his acceptance speech. Mr. Morrow went even further: he gave his own Oscar statuette to Mr. Peek, who carried it with him to public appearances for the next 21 years.
In the wake of “Rain Man,” Mr. Peek became something of a celebrity, emerging from his shell to travel around the country giving demonstrations of his talent and advocating tolerance for the disabled. Fran Peek estimated that some 400,000 people have hugged Mr. Morrow’s statuette.
“We called it the world’s best-loved Oscar,” he said.
Laurence Kim Peek was born on Nov. 11, 1951. (He was named for his mother’s favorite actor, Laurence Olivier, and the title character of Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”; Kipling was his father’s favorite author.) Kim’s head was enlarged, his cerebellum was malformed and, perhaps most crucial, he was missing the corpus callosum, the sheaf of nerve tissue that connects the brain’s hemispheres. It has been theorized that this disruption of normal communication between the brain’s left and right halves resulted in a kind of jury-rigged rewiring.
“Perhaps the resulting structures allow the two hemispheres to function, in certain respects, as one giant hemisphere, putting normally separate functions under the same roof, as it were,” Drs. Treffert and Christensen wrote. “If so, then Peek may owe some of his talents to this particular abnormality.”
When Kim was 9 months old, a doctor said that he was so severely retarded that he would never walk or talk and that he should be institutionalized. When Kim was 6, another doctor recommended a lobotomy. By then, however, Kim had read and memorized the first eight volumes of a set of family encyclopedias, his father said. He received part-time tutoring from the age of 7 and completed a high school curriculum by 14. He spent great swaths of time absorbing volumes in the Salt Lake City Public Library. He never used computers, his father said.
“How he learned to read, I just don’t know,” Mr. Peek said.
Kim Peek’s parents divorced in 1981, and his father cared for him alone until his son’s death. Besides his father, Mr. Peek is survived by his mother, Jeanne Willey Peek Buchi; a brother, Brian; and a sister, Alison, all of Salt Lake City.
“Rain Man” changed Mr. Peek’s life. In the documentary, he confessed that before the film, he never looked anyone in the face.
“Barry influenced me more than any other person,” he said of Mr. Morrow. “He made me ‘Rain Man.’ ”
Though his social skills never fully developed, he grew to be outwardly engaging. He enjoyed being among people in his travels and became comfortable as something of a showman. He began developing mental skills he had never had before, like making puns; his coordination slowly improved, to the extent that he could play the piano. He became more self-aware, even displaying a certain social agility.
During a presentation Mr. Peek gave at Oxford University in England, after he fielded students’ questions about the Lusitania and about British monarchs, a young woman stood and asked him, “Kim, are you happy?”
“I’m happy just to look at you,” Mr. Peek said.