By Darold Treffert, MD
Kim Peek was the inspiration for screen writer Barry Morrow’s 1988 Oscar-winning movie Rain Man. Mr. Morrow had earlier been involved in writing the story for the television movie Bill, about a mentally retarded person sensitively portrayed by Mickey Rooney. As a result of that interest, and ability, in 1984 Mr. Morrow was invited to attend a Communications Committee meeting of the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) in Arlington, Texas. Kim’s father, Fran, was Chairman of that committee. Kim met Mr. Morrow there and, according to Fran’s book The Real Rain Man, they spent several hours together.
Kim astonished Mr. Morrow by correcting the ZIP codes on membership lists they perused, being familiar with almost every author and book in the library, quoting an unending amount of sports trivia, relating complex driving instructions to most anywhere and giving Mr. Morrow “my date of birth and day of the week I was born, the day of the week this year, and day of the week and year I would turn 65 so I could think about retiring.” They also discussed events of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam. Mr. Morrow decided to write a script inspired by Kim Peek’s abilities and it was that script — Rain Man — that eventually evolved into the movie, making ‘savant’ a household term.
In the course of his preparation for playing the part of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman met with Kim Peek and his father in February, 1987. Fran Peek described that “special day with Dustin” at length in his book about Kim and chronicles in some detail Kim’s encyclopedic memory feats as shared with Mr. Hoffman including facts about British Monarchs, the Bible, baseball, horse racing, dates, times, places, composers, melodies, movies, geography, space program, authors and literature. Dustin Hoffman’s parting remark to Kim, according to his father was: “I may be the star, but you are the heavens.” When Dustin Hoffman accepted his Oscar in March, 1989 he opened his response with: “My special thanks to Kim Peek for making Rain Man a reality.”
Along the way to its completion, the original script for the movie Rain Man underwent a number of modifications. While Kim Peek served as the initial inspiration for the story, Raymond Babbitt, as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, is a composite savant with abilities drawn from a number of different real life individuals. The main character in that movie, Raymond Babbitt, was modified to be an autistic savant. The story thus is that of a person who is autistic but also has savant skills grafted on to that basic autistic disorder. It is important to remember, therefore, that not all autistic persons are savants, and not all savants are autistic. In preparation for his role, Dustin Hoffman spent time with several other autistic savants and their families, as well as with Kim.
Fran Peek described his son this way: “Kim is not behaviorally autistic. He has a warm, loving personality. He truly cares for people and enjoys sharing his unique skills and knowledge capacity. Known as ‘Kimputer’ to many, his knowledge-library includes World and American History, People and Leaders, Geography (roads and highways in U.S. and Canada), Professional Sports (baseball, basketball, football, Kentucky Derby winners etc), the Space Program, Movies and movie themes, Actors and Actresses, the Bible, Mormon Church Doctrine and History, Calendar Calculations (including a person’s day of birth, present year’s birthday, and the year and the date the person will turn 65 years old so he or she can retire), Literature/Authors, Shakespeare, Telephone Area Codes, major ZIP Codes, all TV stations and their markets. He can identify most classical music compositions and tell the date the music was written and the composer’s birth date and place of birth and death Kim has read (and can recall) some 7600 books. He also keeps current on world, U.S. and most local events by reading newspapers, magazines and by listening to the media. He reads constantly He can also describe the highways that go to a person’s small town, the county, area code and ZIP code, television stations available in the town, who the person’s pay their telephone bill to, and describe any historical events that may have occurred in their area. His expertise includes at least 14 subject areas.”
Kim Peek was born on November 11, 1951. He had an enlarged head, with an encephalocele, according to his doctors. An MRI shows, again according to his doctors, an absent corpus callosum — the connecting tissue between the left and right hemispheres; no anterior commissure and damage to the cerebellum. Only a thin layer of skull covers the area of the previous encephalocele.
With respect to early development, Kim’s father indicated that at age 16-20 months Kim was able to memorize every book that was read to him. His parents moved Kim’s finger along each sentence being read. Kim would memorize a book after a single reading and having read that particular book he would put it aside, upside down, so that no one would attempt to read it to him again. Throughout the rest of his life, all reading materials were placed by Kim upside down or put backwards on a shelf.
At age 3 Kim asked his parents what the word “confidential” meant. He was kiddingly told to look it up in the dictionary and he did just that. He somehow knew how to use the alphabetical order to locate the word and then proceeded to read, phonetically, the word’s definition. Kim did not walk until age 4. At that time he was also obsessed with numbers and arithmetic, reading telephone directories and adding columns of telephone numbers. He enjoyed totaling the numbers on automobile license plates as well. Beginning in 1969, Kim worked at a day workshop for adults with disabilities. Without the aid of calculators or adding machines, he prepared information from work sheets for payroll checks. He took extended leaves from work so he and his father could spend time together as emissaries for people with disabilities in community settings across the nation.
Life changed dramatically for Kim after the movie which he inspired became so popular and well accepted. Following that movie, Kim, according to his father, developed a confidence to meet people and to address audiences. Prior to the movie, his father reports, Kim seldom looked into the face of another person. However, due to the numerous requests for appearances, Kim traveled across the country with his father. As a result of these interactions, Kim grew considerably socially and developed increasing self-esteem. In the feedback received, many commented on Kim’s positive influence on children and parents toward creating better awareness, recognition and respect for people who are ‘different’. His father quoted Kim as saying: “Recognizing and respecting differences in others, and treating everyone like you want them to treat you, will help make our world a better place for everyone. Care… be your best. You don’t have to be handicapped to be different. Everyone is different!”
In addition to making national presentations, Kim and his Dad also made numerous local presentations to detention centers, nursing homes, schools and other places where Kim’s message about accepting diversity and differentness was always well received along with the inspiring impact that Kim’s remarkable abilities themselves left on all his audiences.
There have been numerous television programs about Kim including 20/20, Good Morning America and others. Kim and his father traveled with the mission and purpose to inform persons about savant syndrome, and to share Kim’s message of inspiration. Barry Morrow, describes it thus: “I don’t think anybody could spend five minutes with Kim and not come away with a slightly altered view of themselves, the world, and our potential as human beings.”
In 2004, NASA studied Kim, hoping to use of MRI and CT scans to create a three dimensional model of Kim’s unique brain structure with the purpose of better understanding him and his remarkable abilities. Those new imaging studies were carried out at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital in Salinas, California as a joint project with NASA.
In the 2005 Focus Productions documentary Brainman, there is an interesting interaction between Daniel Tammet and Kim Peek, two memory giants, which shed light on how their massive memories share some similarities, yet also differ, pointing up the complexity of ‘memory’ as we know it. Yet unless and until any model of memory function can fully incorporate and account for these two incredible memory capacities and abilities, it remains an incomplete model.
Kim and his father Fran took their first trip abroad to England in January, 2006 for filming some parts of The Real Rainman by Focus Productions. On that trip Kim made an appearance at the Oxford Union Debating Society, demonstrating his remarkable grasp of U. K. history and other topics. In March, 2006 Kim and Fran flew to Germany where they were guests on the very popular Kerner show. Colourfield Productions of Dortmund, Germany had previously included Kim, along with some other prodigious savants, in their Beautiful Minds: Journey into the Brain program.
Interviewers and film crews from Sweden, Germany and a number of other countries, visited with and/or filmed Kim and Fran. I had a chance to spend several days with them in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for filming a portion of The Real Rain Man. Portions of that film were also produced in California where some special imaging studies were carried out at the University of California-San Francisco including MRI, Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), and Fiber-tracking (DTT). Dr. Christensen had also carried out some earlier MRI studies on Kim. Some of those MRI images on Kim are included in the Scientific American article referenced below.
Kim always had a massive store of musical knowledge about specific compositions, composers, date of first performances, subsequent derivations of more modern pieces from original compositions, etc. But late in his life, through contacts with a music professor and teacher, Kim not only continued to demonstrate, and even add to, his vast fund of knowledge about music, but he began to play music as well. He also showed a remarkable understanding of the organization, content, style and ‘rules of music’ itself beyond his huge musical fact database.
Additionally, not only did Kim begin to demonstrate increasing comprehension of what he so extraordinarily put on his mind's hard drive, he also exhibited a quick wit, humor, and ability to make puns, the latter being very clever and sometimes taking a fair amount of time for those around him (including me) to catch the connection. Some of the savant mnemonists of the past — and there have been only several — had massive stores of information, but generally within much more narrow realms than Kim’s 15 areas of expertise. Those other savant mnemonists also generally lacked comprehension of the vast store of memorized data. For me, the transition that Kim showed from memorization, to word ‘improvisation’ to creation of puns and wit is the same transition seen in some prodigious musical savants — first memorization, then improvisation, then creation and composition.
In January 2009, a number of celebrities gathered in the auditorium of the Salt Lake City Library, Kim’s favorite destination, to honor Kim and his father Fran on the 20th Anniversary of the Oscar-winning movie Rain Man. Celebrities included Barry Morrow, who wrote the script for the movie after having met Kim in the summer of 1974. He was joined on stage by musician and producer Steve Carnegie and was joined by cell phone by Mickey Rooney who had played “Bill” in the television movie by that name some years earlier portraying another person—Bill Sackter—who also overcame disabilities to inspire millions.
On Saturday, December 19, 2009, I received a sad phone call from Fran Peek about dinner time on Saturday. He called to tell me Kim Peek had died suddenly of a heart attack earlier that afternoon. Kim had not been ill and he and his Dad were looking forward to the holiday season. They had been opening Christmas cards earlier in the day and Kim liked them all. Kim had his 58th birthday that November.
There has never been, and there will never be, another person like Kim Peek. His talents were unique, exceptional and spectacular. And the story of the love and bond between he and his Dad was inspirational. Their willingness to share both the skills and the story with so many audiences world-wide so unselfishly was their gift to us. Kim said, “Rain Man changed my life.” Well, Kim, you in turn, along with your Dad, touched and changed our lives as well.
That night I looked up and saw a new star in the heavens. It shown brightly but it had a uniquely different shape than all the rest. It was truly one of a kind. Kim was one of a kind.
Kim went home that Christmas.
Fran Peek, Kim's Dad, died on April 5, 2014 in Salt Lake City. Kim preceded him in death in 2009. Together they were an inspiration to so many - Kim with his mountain of memory and Fran with his mountain of love of love and caring for, and about, Kim.
Kim always said he and his Dad "shared the same shadow." And what a broad, enlightening shadow it was. I will never forget these two very good friends who will, in my mind, always share the same inspiring shadow.
Peek, F., & Anderson, S. W. (1996). The real rain man, Kim Peek. Salt Lake City, Utah: Harkness Pub. Consultants.
Peek, F., & Hanson, L. (2008). The life and message of the real Rain Man: The journey of a mega-savant. Port Chester, N.Y: Dude Pub.
Treffert, D. (January 01, 2010). In Remembrance Kim Peek, 1951-2009. Wmj Madison-, 109, 2, 61-62.
Treffert, D. A., & Christensen, D. D. (January 01, 2005). Inside the mind of a savant. Scientific American, 293, 6, 108-13.