A tribute to Kim Peek: megasavant who inspired Rain Man

As part of an assignment for a writing course I’m taking, we have to choose somebody who has already died and to write their obituary. This is pretty far outside of my comfort zone but I took the opportunity to do some research on the savant Kim Peek, whose story I find both fascinating and extremely moving. What follows is no more than the result of some online research but I hope that it conveys how privileged I think the world has been to be exposed to this man and his incredible mind:

The first neurologist to see the baby Kim Peek was late for a golf game and told his parents that their son was “mentally retarded” and that he should be put in an institution. Half a century later psychiatrist Dr Darold Treffert described him as “a living google” and a “stellar savant”. Born on November 11 1951, Peek was the son of Mormon parents Fran Peek and Jeanne Willey Peek who resolved -in spite of advice from doctors- to take care of Kim in their own home and “to keep him happy and healthy”. Jeanne Willey Peek enjoyed an uncomplicated pregnancy but when Peek was born it was discovered that his Corpus Callosum-the part of the brain joining the two hemispheres- was absent. This resulted in an impaired ability to carry out motor tasks and to communicate conventionally but also served to facilitate the storage of an immense quantity and variety of information. Peek was not only reading encyclopaedias before the age of two but was also memorising their contents. At that age he developed the habit, which he maintained until his death, of turning books upside down upon their completion. Peek would read twenty or thirty books a day and was the only person known to be able to read separate pages of text with his left and right eyes simultaneously, regardless of the angle at which the book was placed. Peek managed to memorise over 9000 volumes using this method and was able to recall the facts, figures and historical events contained in them with astounding accuracy.

At the age of six, Peek was sent to a mainstream school but was expelled on the first day on account of “disruptiveness”. Lacking support from the American social services of the 1950’s, Peek’s parents employed retired teachers to educate him at home. Although he completed the High School curriculum at age 14, he was refused a certificate by the local authorities.

Peek’s life took a dramatic turn in 1984 when he visited a conference of the Association of Retarded Citizens in Arlington, Texas and was accosted by screenwriter Barry Morrow, who was much taken by his exceptional ability. Morrow’s script, which was later to become the highly successful Rain Man film starring Dustin Hoffman, was inspired by this first encounter. Though Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt differed substantially from Peek, Hoffman spent six hours with Peek, studying his mannerisms and attempting to imitate his particular habits which included rocking motions and monotone utterances.

In spite of Fran Peek’s initial reluctance to put his son on ‘show’, Hoffman made a particular appeal to him to “take him out and show him to the world”. The opportunity to do just that arose when Hoffman paid tribute to Peek during his Oscar acceptance speech, which propelled him to the attention of the media.

Peek’s parents had separated in 1975 and after the success of Rain Man, Peek spent the remainder of his life with his father touring the world and speaking at conferences and schools. As a matter of principle, they did not accept money for these appearances. Peek loved to challenge audience members to ask him difficult questions and was delighted at the impressed response his great knowledge elicited. At one event a little girl ventured forth to the microphone with the question “Who built outer space?” to which Peek replied in monotone (and to great applause) “God made the heavens and the earth”. At each talk Peek and his father left a card behind them which read “”Learning to recognise and to respect differences in others and treating them like you want them to treat you will bring the joy we all hope for”. The unwavering commitment of Peek’s father to just that message and the willingness of people to listen to it ensured that he will be remembered (in psychologist Larry D Beal’s words) as “an amazing human being that life could have very well passed over”.