What can we learn from the life of Kim Peek — the man who knew everything?
Kim Peek — the real ‘Rain Man’ — was both mystery and marvel. We neglect his legacy at our own risk
Sitting in front of a crowd inside the esteemed Oxford Union building, Kim Peek fielded questions.
“When did the German U-Boat sink the Lusitania?”
Peek answers in an instant: May 7, 1915, adding that it was a Friday.
Another question comes:
“In British history, who was the only prime minister to be assassinated?”
Perceval. Died in the spring of 1812.
And on it went, just like it had thousands of times for millions of strangers who would flock to witness one of the world’s most complex savants publicly flex his encyclopedic genius in the final decades of his life.
Kim Peek — better known to some as the inspiration for the Oscar-winning, 1988 Dustin Hoffman film “Rain Man” — was both mystery and marvel. He could tell you the zip code for any city in the United States. You could give him a birthdate and he would tell you on which day of the week you were born and on which day it would fall this year. Whereas most people with savant syndrome have one or two subject areas of expertise, Kim had 15.
He was a “megasavant.”
Yet, his mind was in many ways an unsolved riddle. He had an IQ of 87 but was reading and comprehending books as early as 16 months old, eventually memorizing an estimated 12,000 books in his lifetime. He couldn’t button his shirt, but he learned to play the piano with both hands in his later years. Scientists could visually understand his abnormalities — Kim’s brain was missing the fibers that link the left and right hemispheres, among other deformities — but there weren’t concrete answers as to how the oddities led to Kim’s superhuman abilities.
The technicalities didn’t matter, though, when Kim was in front of strangers, charming them with his warmhearted mannerisms as he did that day in Oxford, more than 15 years ago. For a man with severe social roadblocks, it seemed that this was his way of conversing with the world around him.
Those gatherings ended more than a decade ago when Kim died of a heart attack. Reflection on the intervening years suggests that we forget the legacy of Kim’s neurological gifts and distinctiveness at our own risk. Advancements in genome editing technology are knocking at the door of an ethically fraught future. Prenatal testing for disorders and birth defects is increasingly common, as is the choice to end prenatal life based on the test results.
Kim was born in 1951, five years before ultrasound examinations were first used in a clinical setting. Now it’s entirely plausible that society wakes up to a future in which it eliminates the very thing that made Kim Peek, and so many other neurologically diverse people, truly remarkable.
Kim Peek lived in Murray, Utah, but it was the public library eight miles to the north that might as well have been his true home. He spent hours at a time perusing the shelves, perhaps cracking open city directories and scanning the left page with his left eye while simultaneously reading the opposite page with his right eye. Lists especially seemed to capture Kim’s attention, although his repertory consisted of everything from Shakespeare to Latter-day Saint scripture, which he memorized in its entirety. 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.
When interviewed about Kim, his father, Fran, maintained he had no idea how his son learned to read but that it started once Kim was strong enough to pull the encyclopedias off of the family bookcase. By the time he was 3 years old, Fran 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.”
Reading the encyclopedia at any pre-kindergarten age is unusual, but it’s all the more remarkable for Kim, who, not long after he was born, was written off as severely handicapped. The neurologist the Peeks visited after Kim’s birth was late for a golf game and only gave them five minutes of his time.
His conclusion: He’ll never be able to learn or walk. He should be put in an institution and forgotten.
To see Kim in the Salt Lake City library was about the furthest thing from the doctor’s prognosis. Not that there weren’t challenges. Occasionally he would misplace his eyeglasses. “It was an all-hands-on-deck” situation, Cherie Willis, a librarian who knew Kim, recalled.
Once he approached a librarian behind the desk. “I see your name is Paul,” Kim said.
“Yes, Paul Reynolds.”
“Oh,” replied Kim. He then gave the exact address for a Harold Reynolds who lived in the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City. It was Paul’s grandfather.
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.
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. “Rain Man” follows the story of a selfish hustler (Tom Cruise) who discovers he has an autistic savant brother (Dustin Hoffman) who was institutionalized as a young child. Cruise’s character begrudgingly travels the country with him, softening his heart along the way as he learns more about his brother’s disability.
The movie is fictional and doesn’t depict Kim’s life, but Kim was a major inspiration for the project. One day, the movie crew brought him on set so actor Dustin Hoffman could shadow him and pick up his mannerisms. After work, Hoffman turned to the Peeks, and Fran recalls him saying, “You need to promise me you’ll take him out in the world and share him. He’s got to come out of his isolation.”
Fran made good on the promise. Inspired by the success of the film and the connections he made with the cast, Kim flourished. By the time Kim died in 2009, the pair had accumulated some 3 million air miles and appeared before an estimated 60 million people. Kim’s memory and lightning calculations were the draw, but the message they preached was more profound. They educated audiences about mental disabilities, lobbied for educational opportunities for disabled people and gave parents of disabled children a glimpse into the relationship of a father and son who shared the same shadow.
“I love the way he’s flowered,” Morrow said in a documentary about Kim. “It belies the myth that people don’t change, especially people with developmental disabilities.”
Prenatal screenings for certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome or spina bifida, have become more accessible in recent decades. The results can provide critical information to doctors and parents, but they also are leading to a morally ambiguous future.
Of the expectant mothers in Iceland who get tested for the presence of Down syndrome in their unborn child, nearly 100% choose to abort the pregnancy. In Denmark, it’s more than 95%. In the United States, it hovers around 67%.
“If no one with Down syndrome had ever existed or ever would exist — is that a terrible thing? I don’t know,” Laura Hercher, a genetic counselor and the director of student research at Sarah Lawrence College, told The Atlantic in 2020.
“If our world didn’t have people with special needs and these vulnerabilities, would we be missing a part of our humanity?”
The Atlantic’s article, by journalist Sarah Zhang, points out the discrepancy between public and private attitudes toward disabilities. On the one hand, never has it been better for someone with Down syndrome or other disorders to thrive: Quality of health care, access to education and employment, and public awareness of disabilities have all increased in recent decades. On the other hand, she writes, the number of children born with Down syndrome has dropped precipitously in the same time frame.
Kim Peek did not have Down syndrome, nor should his story be universalized as a parable about all disabled people and their family circumstances. After all, Kim depended entirely on Fran every day of his life after Fran and his wife, Jeanne Willey Buchi, divorced in 1981. His father dressed and bathed him, calmed his outbursts and accompanied him everywhere he went. “It’s only about 30 hours a day, 10 days a week,” Fran would quip. Behind the wit, though, is the reality of total sacrifice for the care of someone else, and in Kim’s case it was a level of care necessary until the day he died.
Fran was 83 when Kim had his heart attack in 2009. Fran died five years later in 2014.
The Peeks had come to the University of Utah McKay Music Library in 2002 to film a segment for a documentary. Fran was the subject of the clip, so he parted with Kim outside the studio room and left him in the care of Dr. April Nash Greenan, a professor of historical musicology, who was then the library’s director.
“I don’t really know if he knows anything about music,” Fran said as he was turning to go, “but you can ask him.”
Kim knew everything.
Greenan kept asking him questions, becoming more delighted with each answer. She took him into a room with tends of thousands of vinyl records along the shelves, and Kim began to pull them off and look at them. He picked up one that had nothing but a photo of Sir Georg Solti, and he started singing “Chicago, Chicago ...” Puzzled at first, Greenan had a flash of insight: Solti was the longtime conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
He pulled down another album. This one had lettering that merely read “Brahms Quartets,” and Kim started repeating numbers aloud — 51, 67. 51, 67. Again, it came to Greenan: Those were the opus numbers for the string quartets of Johannes Brahms.
As their friendship blossomed, Greenan invited Kim to sit at the piano. They had just been discussing Brahms’ Violin Concerto that day, so Greenan asked him if he could plunk out the melody. The man who couldn’t button his shirt or comb his hair put his fingers on the keys and played the opening scene with all the right pitches.
“Often people with unusual talents or skills are never discovered because those particular skills are not tapped,” observed developmental psychologist Rita Jeremy after examining Kim. “And unless somebody has some inkling from observing them carefully in their natural situation, those skills will probably never be found out.”
The most intriguing aspect of Kim’s musical abilities isn’t that they were hidden for so long, but that they grew with practice. Each time he met with Greenan, he learned more about theory and elements of composition, and his coordination with his fingers improved to where he could use both hands on the keyboard at once, albeit in a choppy, halting way.
What Kim proved in his 58 years of life — with equally superhuman help from his father — is that personal growth is attainable even in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Or, as Morrow put it, “that nobody is ever written off, that change is always possible.”
When Fran died at the age of 88, his headstone was inscribed with a message that Kim would leave with audiences at the conclusion of his appearances:
“You don’t have to be handicapped to be different — everybody is.”