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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The real "Rain Man" dies...

... and he was incredible!

Remember the movie "Rain Man" with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise? It was based on an autistic savant who couldn't deal with the demands of daily living but was gifted with the extraordinary powers of memory that a small number of otherwise mentally disabled people possess, perhaps as a side effect of their disability. It won four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor--Dustin Hoffman, Best Original Screenplay for its two authors) and wowed audiences who typically asked, "Is that for real?"

Well, it was.

Kim Peek died last week at age 58. According to the New York Times, "Peek was not autistic -- not all savants are autistic and not all autistics are savants -- but he was born with severe brain abnormalities. He could not dress himself or brush his teeth without help. He found metaphoric language incomprehensible and conceptualization baffling."

Yet, Peek not only taught himself to read but could, with astonishing speed, read facing pages of a book at once -- one with each eye -- and remember everything he read... in all of the 12,000 books he did read! He possessed a wide range of interests and expertise in math, chess, art and music. He could answer diverse questions on history, sports, geography and movies. He knew every calendar date specifically and all the ZIP codes in the U.S. as well as the TV stations serving those ZIPs.

He was better than Mapquest as he knew all the roads and mileages. If you asked him how to get from Toledo to Tupelo, he could not only give you the route but tell you all the things you would see on your way.

He knew classical music... every detail of every composition... and in mid life, taught himself to play it. He knew it so well that his father had to stop taking him to performances... as a stickler for accuracy, he would correct the actors or the musicians. "He'd stand and say" 'Wait a minute! The trombone is two notes off,'" his father recalled.


He knew Shakespeare... oh, yeah.  "He was the Mount Everest of memory," said an expert on savants who knew Peek for 20-years. And he never used computers.

When he was nine-months-old, a doctor judged him so severely retarded, he recommended the boy be institutionalized since he would never walk or talk. At age six, another recommended a lobotomy. By that time, however, he had read and memorized the first eight volumes of the family's encyclopedias. So much for the lobotomy.

Dustin Hoffman (who spent time with Peek to learn his characteristics, movements and utterances before the filming), accepting his Oscar for the portrayal of Raymond Babbitt (the name used in the movie), thanked, then gave it to Peek. Peek carried it with him to public appearances for the next 21 years. His father estimated that some 400,000 people have hugged that Statuette. "We called it the world's best-loved Oscar."

Kim Peek... hmmm. That name rings a bell.

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