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Kim Peek, Inspiration for 'Rain Man, Dies at 58

Publication Date: 2009-12-27

You can see a 5-part documentary The Real Rain Man.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 4
Part 5
This film is informative and inspirational. Note in second film how hard it is for Kim to follow directions. . . and think about what that means--or should mean--in schools.

Tthe psychologist giving him a standard IQ test concludes: "Standardized tests have their limitations. . . . He's not a standard person."--Dr. Rita Jeremy, UCSF Medical Center

Barry Morrow,screen writer for "Rain Man," celebrates Kim's social blossoming, observing that this belies the myth that people with developmental disabilities don't change.

And more.

In video 5, Kim's almost-80-year-old father worries that he won't outlive Kim. Kim says, "My dad and I share the same shadow." His father says, "Maybe he can't reason, but he sure hit that one on the button." At nearly age 80, Kim's father worries about what will happen to Kim if his own health fails.

by Bryce Weber, New York Times

In 1988, the film "Rain Man," about an autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman, 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, for Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass, best original screenplay. But it never would have been made if Mr. Morrow had not had a chance meeting with Kim Peek, who inspired him to write the film.

Mr. Peek 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 remember what he had read.

Indeed, Mr. Peek, who died Dec. 19 at home in Salt Lake City, had perhaps the worldâs 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 Mr. 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.

Kim Peek

author unknown


Kim Peek, who died on December 19 aged 58, was the model for the autistic character Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman.

Hoffman's portrayal of a middle-aged savant's complex interaction with the world through astonishing mental facilities and childlike emotions earned him an Oscar for best actor. But it was Peek, who suffered from Agenesis of Corpus Callosum (a condition similar to autism), whom Hoffman and Barry Morrow â" Rain Man's writer, who also won an Oscar â" acknowledged as the inspiration behind the performance.

When Hoffman thanked Peek in his Oscar acceptance speech, media interest in Peek's highly unusual abilities was immediate. This prompted Kim and his father, Fran, an advertising executive, to embark on a series of speaking tours throughout America, spreading awareness and acceptance of the "different" and the disabled. The public exposure, in turn, led to pioneering scientific research.

Kim Peek was born on November 11 1951 in Salt Lake City, Utah â" both his parents were Mormons. Despite his mother's uneventful pregnancy, Kim's head was 30 per cent larger than normal at birth. He was a sluggish baby who cried frequently, and doctors soon discovered that he had a blister inside his skull that had damaged the left hemisphere of his brain, which controls language and motor skills.

By the time he was nine months old he was expected to be mentally impaired for life. His parents were advised to place him in an institution, but they dismissed the idea, deciding to bring him up normally alongside their other son and daughter.

They were soon astounded by his progress. At the age of 16 months Kim taught himself to read children's books. When he was three he consulted a dictionary to clarify the meaning of the word "confidential"; it was then that his parents realised that he could also read newspapers. Yet for all his brilliance, his oversized head required physical support because of its weight; and, unusually, he was unable to walk until he was four.

When Kim was six, a visit to Utah by the renowned brain surgeon Peter Lindstrom resulted in his being offered a lobotomy. His parents declined, and Kim went on to memorise the entire Bible before his seventh birthday.

At this point he was sent to a local school, but was expelled on his first day for being disruptive. The lack of provision in America in the 1950s for special needs children meant that his father had to have him tutored at home by a series of retired teachers. By the time he was 14, Kim had completed the high school curriculum, though the local authorities would not recognise the achievement and refused to award him a certificate.

Before the release of Rain Man â" by which time he was 37 â" Peek had an insular existence, knowing only about 20 people. Unable to describe his condition, or to dress himself, cook, shave or brush his teeth without help, he was looked after by his mother, Jeanne, until 1981, when his parents divorced. Thereafter his father provided the supervision he required.

At 18 he had been given a job working in the accounts department of a community centre. Spare time was devoted to absorbing literature. He read and immediately memorised thousands of texts, including the complete works of Shakespeare and every story in every volume of the condensed Reader's Digest books.

He used telephone directories for exercises in mental arithmetic, adding each column of seven-digit numbers together in his head until he reached figures in the trillions.

On a rare excursion away from home in 1984, he attended the national conference of the Association of Retarded Citizens in Arlington, Texas, and it was there that he was "discovered" by Barry Morrow. After spending four hours with Peek, the screenwriter approached Fran Peek, asking him if he realised that his son knew every postcode, area code, and road number in every state across America. He urged Fran to share his son with the world.

Not wishing Kim to become part of a freak show, Fran ignored the request. Two years later, however, Morrow contacted him to explain that a film studio had just bought a script he had written.

The story of a selfish yuppie who discovers that an autistic brother he never knew existed has inherited their father's fortune outright, Rain Man put Dustin Hoffman's acting skills to the test in the lead role. To prepare for it he spent time with three autism sufferers, including six hours in the company of Peek. It was Peek's rapid monotone, rocking motions, ability to count cards and childlike emotions that Hoffman copied for the part.

The resemblances between Peek and Raymond Babbitt ended there, however, for Peek was many times more complex and prodigious than his fictional alter ego, despite having the mental reasoning of a child of five. A scene in the film in which Raymond is taken to a casino and beats the house with his astounding skills in mental arithmetic never took place â" despite the best efforts of Morrow, who asked Peek to read a book about gambling before taking him to a casino to try the experiment. Peek refused to enter the casino, saying he thought it unethical.

The success of the film had some beneficial effects on Peek's life. He made many friends, and was awarded the high school certificate he had been denied more than 20 years earlier.

Neuroscientists who conducted tests discovered that he had no corpus callosum, the membrane that separates the two hemispheres of the brain and filters information. This meant that Peek's brain was effectively the equivalent of a giant databank, giving him his photographic memory. He was also the only savant known to science who could read two pages of a book simultaneously â" one with each eye, regardless of whether it was upside down or sideways on. His ability to retain 98 per cent of the information he absorbed led to his designation "mega-savant"'.

After the release of Rain Man Peek and his father embarked on a series of public lecture tours, informing students, prisoners, pensioners and politicians of the need to treat all people equally. "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", read the card that was handed out at each talk. Fran Peek estimated that his son addressed more than two million people.

Wishing to avoid accusations that he was taking advantage of his son's condition, Fran Peek never accepted money for these engagements. The talks were also a chance for Kim to demonstrate his extraordinary memory, including his faultless knowledge of the calendar stretching back 2,000 years.

The five universities which studied him in his adult life decided that he was a genius in at least 15 subjects, including music, geography, history and mathematics. Most savants reach a similar level in one or two subjects. Even more remarkably, doctors found that his powers increased as he aged.

In 2004 a Californian hospital which works closely with Nasa persuaded Peek to undergo brain scans in the hope that a detailed map of his mind might allow them to understand more about many disorders, among them vertigo and motion sickness. By tracking the electrical impulses of Peek's brain, they were hoping to discover how people adapt to forces such as acceleration and gravity.

In 1996 Fran Peek published a book about his son, The Real Rain Man: Kim Peek. Never having any romantic inclinations, Kim Peek did not marry and had no children. His favourite possession was the Oscar which Morrow won for writing the Best Screenplay at the 1989 Oscars. Morrow gave it to Peek, who took it with him whenever he travelled. Kim Peek died of a heart attack. His father survives him.

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