Ben Brewer, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — When actress and author Carrie Fisher was hospitalized during a manic bout, part of the bipolar disorder that has both vexed and enlivened her, she wasn’t allowed to cope privately. As with so much of her life, others stood ready to reveal the details. So she decided to share it herself.
She’s been telling her story since, in autobiographical writings like “Postcards from the Edge,” which became a gritty movie, and “Wishful Drinking,” now a one-woman show. The woman who was Princess Leia in the Star Wars trilogy at 19 and born to Hollywood royalty — singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds — has never lived a fairy tale.
Friday, she shared pieces of her journey during “An Evening With Carrie Fisher,” sponsored by the Utah Film Center. She received the center’s second annual Kim Peek Award for Disability in Media, an honor bestowed because of the candor with which she has tackled the mania and depression that are part of who she is.
Peek's legacy, noted program emcee Carol Mikita of KSL, was his "message of universal respect for differences." Fisher was lauded as having a similar passion for knowledge and the same goal of acceptance for people who are different.
“Would Kim Peek have liked the word 'disability' to describe him?” Fisher asked in a phone interview beforehand. “Disability sounds so broken. Bipolar disorder is challenging; it’s incredibly intense. You have the choice to submit, be a victim, or take it on and fly in the face of it.”
Fisher and Peek had very different challenges and triumphs. Her life was high-profile, particularly after she became Princess Leia, unaware the character would forever be part of her name. Her mental illness, substance abuse, even her relationships were fodder for tabloids. He grew up quietly, largely in obscurity, a child with severe disabilities who was also wildly gifted.
Peek was born with brain abnormalities that included macrocephaly and lack of connective tissue between two sides of his brain. Simple jobs like setting the table or getting dressed were huge challenges and he only learned to climb stairs at 16. He had quirks that seemed bizarre to strangers, like humming loudly to focus. But he had an endearing personality. And his prodigious knowledge across 15 categories, including math, literature, sports, classical music, history and geography, made him a mega-savant. With an incredibly efficient filing system for his photographic and auditory memories, the ability to read two pages at the same time — one with each eye — and retain it, plus mathematical skills that included calculating dates both future and past at lightning speed, he was both odd and inspiring.
“When you met him, you knew within minutes you’d met an extraordinary human being,” says award-winning screenwriter and family friend Barry Morrow, who wrote the movie “Rain Man” after meeting Kim and his dad, Fran Peek, in the 1980s. “In ways off-putting to some. It was not just the vast information stored in his noggin in ways science has not yet figured out, but his sweet humanity.
“He was much more, for me, than the subject of a movie. They come and go . But knowing Kim and his father, watching their relationship, that is one of the bigger lasting lessons I learned.”
Kim died of a heart attack at age 58 in 2009. But not before he’d traveled nearly 3 million miles and entertained and awed millions with his skills and his humility — a reach to rival Hollywood’s best and brightest.
The award’s roots
One actor keeps his Oscar behind bulletproof glass with lasers like you’d employ to protect the Hope Diamond, lint free and clean as microchips for a super computer, says Morrow. Those barriers protect the little guy from the unwanted touch of strangers.
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