You may have seen the movie Rain Man (starring Dustin Hoffman), but what you may not know is that his character, Raymond Babbit, was inspired by a real person named Kim Peek.
Kim was a man with a rare condition called savant syndrome, which gave him exceptional abilities including a phenomenal memory.
As creative license is often used on the big screen, we thought it was worth shedding some light on the true story of Kim Peek, and revealing some fascinating facts about the life he actually led. You will probably even find that it’s more interesting than the movie version!
While his mum’s pregnancy was fairly uncomplicated, Kim was born in 1951 with a condition which caused his head to be abnormally large – macrocephaly. Doctors also found that he had damage to his cerebellum, and the bundle of nerves (the corpus callosum), that usually connects the two hemispheres of the brain was also missing.
When Kim was nine months old, doctors broke the news that he’d never be able to walk or talk and they strongly advised that Kim should be placed in an institution. Kim’s parents thankfully dismissed the idea, and chose to raise him at home with their other children as planned.
When he was just over a year old, Kim started memorising entire books that were read to him – after only hearing them once.
Actually, after he’d heard a story, he’d make sure he put the book upside down on his shelf to show he knew it off by heart, and to make sure that nobody would try to read it to him again.
Placing books upside down once he’d finished them is actually something Kim continued doing his whole life after he had finished reading a book.
Growing up, Kim did have trouble with his motor skills and wasn’t able to do tasks like buttoning up his shirt. Also, because of the weight of his head, he was not able to walk until he was 4 years old, and then in a sidelong manner.
When Kim was only six years old, doctors started recommending he have a lobotomy to ‘cure’ his non-stop talking, fidgeting and pacing – and at age seven, he was expelled from school for his supposedly uncontrollable behaviour.
Fortunately, instead of following the advice, his parents arranged tutors to come and teach Kim at home. By the age of 7 he’d memorised every single word of the bible, by 14 he’d completed high school, and by 18, he was employed full-time in a payroll position (for which he never needed a calculator).
Over time, Kim’s reading became so fast he could get through a decent sized book in just half an hour. How? He developed an amazing skill to read both pages at the same time, one with his left eye and one with his right (even if he was reading the book upside down or sideways)!
And when we say ‘scan’, we don’t mean flip through – Kim remembered up to 98% of what he read. Pretty handy if you’re cramming for an exam!
It’s estimated that in his lifetime Kim read and memorised as many as 12,000 books.
Kim’s reputation for being a walking encyclopedia became renowned, and five universities decided to study him over his life. All five declared Kim a genius in multiple subjects (including maths, music, geography and history). While people with savant syndrome often show exceptional ability, most of them only reach this standard in one or two subjects, while Kim boasted at least fifteen!
Kim’s talents stretched much further than just reading and retaining books – he also memorised musical compositions note-for-note, could provide driving directions between almost any two cities in the world, and if someone gave him their address he’d be able to tell them the names of the people who lived next door (through memorising the phonebook)!
He could also do calendar calculations (like work out what day of the week it was on June 24,1632), and later in his life, he even developed the skills to play the piano from memory.
It’s fair to assume that without Kim, the blockbuster hit probably would never have existed. In 1985, screenwriter Barry Morrow met Kim Peek by chance, and was so blown away by his mind that he decided to write a story about a savant who was rediscovered by his brother. This eventually became the famous film, Rain Man.
In 1987, Dustin Hoffman requested to meet Kim, to help him prepare for his role or Raymond Babbit in Rain Man. Kim’s mother, Fran, remembers Dustin’s parting remark to Kim being “I may be the star but you are the heavens.”
Although Kim was the inspiration, the movie did end up having some fairly big changes – for example, Raymond is shown to have autism, but Kim didn’t actually have autism (although he was originally incorrectly diagnosed with it).
Following the success of the film, Kim received lots of requests to make public appearances – and together with his father, he set off around the world promoting messages of equality to students, pensioners, prisoners, and politicians.
It’s estimated Kim gave lectures to over two million people, but he never accepted a cent for any of them.
After Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar for his star performance as Raymond, he even gave the statue to Kim to take with him on his speaking tour – it has since been known as the “Most Loved Oscar Statue” because it has been held by more people than any other.
In psychological testing, Peek scored below average (87) on general IQ tests, he also found it difficult to follow directions, and he continued to have difficulty with his motor skills throughout his life – for example he wasn’t able to find the silverware drawer at home or dress himself.
Unlike many people living with savant syndrome, Kim didn’t have autism, nor did he have difficulties with social understanding or communication. A 2008 study concluded that Peek probably had FG syndrome, a rare condition that causing symptoms such as low muscle tone, an abnormally large head, and developmental delays.
Some think that due to the lack of connection between the two hemispheres (the missing nerves), his brain could have developed different ‘wiring’ that enabled him to think the way he did. But really, it’s still a mystery to this day why Kim was so exceptional.
Sadly, in 2009 at age 58, Kim had a heart attack and passed away at home. Although this meant his life was fairly short, there’s little doubt that he made an enormous impact on the world in the time he was given.