The real-life “Rain Man” could recite dates, scores, and turn-by-turn directions, like Google incarnate

E.L. Hamilton
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Photo:Dmadeo - CC BY-SA 3.0

Baseball, basketball, football, the Kentucky Derby. World history, U.S. history, Biblical history. Zip codes, area codes, all the TV stations and their markets. Classical music identified to the composer, the year the work was completed, and the dates of the composer’s birth and death. Turn-by-turn directions to pretty much any place you wanted to drive.

All of these facts and more, accumulated from reading and memorizing more than 10,000 books, could be recalled by a man who was sort of like Google incarnate. He was the inspiration behind Dustin Hoffman’s 1989 Academy Award-winning performance in Rain Man.

Kim Peek was born on November 11, 1951, in Salt Lake City, Utah, with an enlarged head. Doctors diagnosed mental retardation (the term was acceptable in that era) and told his parents he would likely never read or talk and that they should commit him to a mental institution.

Photo by Darold A. Treffert, M.D.

Instead, the Peeks brought their boy home, began reading to him, and quickly discovered something astonishing: Before he was even 2 years old, young Kim could memorize and recite back every book that was read to him after a single reading. (He didn’t like hearing books twice, so he’d put the book upside down to discourage further reading, a habit he continued to the day he died.)

At age 3, when he asked his parents what the word “confidential” meant, they jokingly suggested he look it up in the dictionary. He did, and set about reading the whole dictionary. And then the phone book too.

What was going on? An MRI showed that Kim Peek had an encephalocele, or hole in his brain. He was missing a corpus callosum, or connecting tissue between the left and right hemispheres. This resulted in his developing language skills in both sides of his brain—and the ability to read and comprehend two pages of a book at once, his left eye on the left page and his right on the right page.

Peek’s abnormally large head contained an abnormally large brain, which may have contributed to his ability to retain large amounts of information. Indeed, his head was so heavy that he was several years old before his neck and shoulder muscles were developed enough for him to hold it up on his own.

Despite his remarkable memorization skills, Kim Peek struggled with other areas of learning. He didn’t walk until he was 4. Buttoning his shirt proved difficult. Though he could memorize huge quantities of numbers, he had trouble reasoning his way through some math problems. His IQ was 87, well below what’s considered “normal.”

Kim Peek, Fran Peek, and the Most Loved Oscar Photo:Dmadeo
CC BY-SA 3.0

Barry Morrow was a screenwriter inspired by compelling struggles of real people. He had just completed Bill, in which Mickey Rooney portrayed a mentally disabled man, Bill Sackter. His sympathetic screenplay won him an invitation to speak at a meeting for the Association of Retarded Citizens, which Kim Peek’s father chaired. There, Morrow met Kim, and was suitably impressed with the young man’s remarkable feats of memorization. Thus was the seed for Rain Man planted.

Kim Peek may have been the “real” Rain Man, but Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbitt, is a composite, not an exact copy. For starters, the movie version is an autistic savant. Kim Peek was not autistic.

Kim Peek and his father,    Fran. Photo by Darold A. Treffert, M.D.

“[Kim] has a warm, loving personality,” his father wrote in the 1997 biography The Real Rain Man. “He truly cares for people and enjoys sharing his unique skills and knowledge capacity.”

But Dustin Hoffman did take time to meet the Peeks, which thrilled young Kim, according to his dad, who recounted in his biography that Hoffman’s parting words were “I may be the star, but you are the heavens.”

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When accepting his Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Rain Man’s Raymond Babbitt, Hoffman opened his remarks by saying, “My special thanks to Kim Peek for making Rain Man a reality.”

Kim Peek died of a heart attack in 2009. He was 58.