Kim Peek

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Kim Peek, Mormon savant
Kim Peek, Latter-day Saint savant

Kim Peek was a Utah resident, born on November 11, 1951, and the inspiration for the character Raymond Babbit in the movie Rain Man (played by Dustin Hoffman). He was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes casually called the Mormon Church). He has been called the "most prodigious intellectual mega-savant in the world." "He had a photographic or eidetic memory, but also social difficulties, possibly resulting from a developmental disability related to congenital brain abnormalities. He was not autistic and likely had FG syndrome." [1] The main character in Rain Man suffered from autism.

Peek's parents (Fran Peek and Jeanne W. Buchi) were initially reluctant to have Kim publicly identified with the 1988 film that swept the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. They didn't want the attention to harm Kim, especially because of his disabilities. Ultimately, though, Kim became a celebrity in many circles because of his gentle soul and his massive intellect in more than 15 diverse areas, from music and sports to math and history. [2] Most people with savant syndrome have one or two subject areas of expertise.[3]

Peek seemed to blossom after the movie was released. He traveled nearly 3 million air miles and spoke with nearly 60 million people. He was hailed by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ as "an influence for good in the lives of many." Peek was a close friend of President Thomas S. Monson, and the two often talked together. Peek graduated from Seminary 20 times and shared his gospel knowledge with thousands as he traveled the world demonstrating his abilities and inspiring others.

Kim sat beside screenwriter Barry Morrow during the movie's premiere. Afterward, Morrow asked him why he never once looked at the screen.

"I watched it with my heart," Kim replied. And evidently memorized it, as well, along with his beloved Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and thousands of other books he could recite word-for-word.

One of Kim’s favorite things to do was to bring in his Oscar statuette and have people heft it. The Oscar was indefinitely loaned to Kim by Barry Morrow, the screenwriter for “Rain Man.” The award accompanied Kim to all of his public appearances, eventually being so loved the gold plating started to wear away.[4]

Kim wasn’t always Rain Man, of course. Before the movie, he mostly lived his life in a social cocoon. He wouldn’t look anyone in the eye and hardly spoke. Medical professionals thought he was autistic. He wasn’t.
But his social impairments would begin to change after Kim met Barry Morrow in 1984. They were in Texas attending a conference about developmental disabilities at which Fran was the chairman of a committee. Morrow remembers feeling a tap on his shoulder and turning around to find himself inches from Kim’s face.
“Think about yourself, Barry Morrow,” Kim said. And he walked away.
Pondering on the cryptic message, Morrow found himself again face-to-face with Kim. Pretty soon, he realized he was talking to a person unlike any he had ever met. He threw at him every question he could think of, and Kim knew it all.
“Where did you get this guy?” Morrow asked Fran.
Fran was confused.
He knew his son read profusely, but he didn’t know he had been retaining 98% of everything he digested.
Morrow couldn’t get the encounter out of his head. It took several years, but he eventually was able to turn Kim into a character for the big screen.[5]

Kim Peek was reading from the Old Testament as a toddler. Family members say he taught himself to read. He started reading once he was strong enough to pull the encyclopedias off of the family bookcase. By the time he was 3 years old, his father said, he could look up words in the dictionary. “How does he know alphabetical order?” Fran asked his wife. It was Kim who responded, “Well, I know the alphabet.”[6]

Kim Peek had an impressive photographic memory and had memorized an estimated 12,000 books by the time of his death. Surprisingly, the savant's memory was actually improving with age. [7] It appears that Peek was able to read two pages of a book at the same time, one with his left eye and one with his right. He spent hours at a time perusing the shelves of the Salt Lake City Library. You could tell he was finished reading something because he would place it upside down, just as he had since he started reading as a child.[8]

Peek did not walk until the age of four and walked in a sidelong manner. He could not button up his shirt and had difficulty with other ordinary motor skills, presumably due to his damaged cerebellum, which normally coordinates motor activities. In psychological testing, Peek scored below average (87) on general IQ tests.[9]

Memorization was the most noticeable talent manifested by Peek as a youth, but remarkably, new talents and abilities appeared as he reached out after Rain Man was produced. He showed increasing social skills. His sense of humor became more refined. Although he had difficulty with abstractions, his creativity seemed to increase. In late adulthood he began to study the piano. He remembered music he had heard in his youth and was able to recreate it. He also recited musical comparisons while playing.

Kim also enjoyed approaching strangers and showing them his talent for calendar calculations by telling them on which day of the week they were born and what news items were on the front page of major newspapers. Peek had also appeared on television. He traveled with his father, who took care of him and performed many motor tasks that Peek found difficult. [10]

He died on December 19, 2009, at the age of 58 of an apparent heart attack.