At 5:30 a.m., when most people are slumbering, Kim's dad shoos him into the shower. If Kim dawdles, his father rushes him a little by helping him scrub.
Dressing is harder, but Kim manages it alone, while his father cooks breakfast. In the kitchen, his father inspects him, straightening a seam here, a button there. Sometimes Kim puts his shirt on backwards, or inside-out.Kim's movements are slow, his gait slightly awkward. His speech is clear, but he jumps from subject to subject, confusing listeners by "giving you the predicate, but not the subject," his father says.
His memory for many things is prodigious and seemingly infallible. He can rattle off the players in the baseball major leagues for 1961, or tell you what day of the week July 3 fell on in 1611. He knows incredible facts about classical musicians and their works.
But if you ask Kim to set the table, he may not remember where the silverware is kept.
Kim is a contradiction, either the very best or among the worst at performing a variety of tasks.
Kim is a savant.
The dictionary says a savant is an eminent scholar. In Kim's case, it means more. He is brilliant in a number of areas: music, history, geography, calendars, literature, sports, movies, current events, weather and numbers, all greatly enhanced by a photographic memory. The usual savant (if something that occurs in one in 7 million births can be considered usual) has one or two areas of expertise.
When he was born 36 years ago, doctors discovered a water blister on the lower right side of Kim's skull, similar to hydrocephalus. He developed motor skills much later than other children, and to a lesser degree. Doctors told his parents he was mentally retarded, and they accepted that fact, determined to do what they could to give him a worthwhile, happy life. But there were things about Kim that confused his family. When he was 3, he asked, "Dad, what does `con-fi-den-ti-al' mean?" Without thinking, his father told him to look it up in the dictionary. The child did. He read, understood - and retained - almost everything he could get his hands on.
Besides Kim's alleged retardation, he has impeded motor coordination. His hyperactivity and short attention span kept him out of public schools, and he instead relied on home teachers for a couple of hours a week. In his spare time, he memorized phone books and atlases, and read copiously on any subject that caught his attention.
In a crowded coffee shop, I meet Kim for the first time. The evening will be both fascinating and frustrating to me, because there is so much knowldege behind that face.
I tell Kim I was raised in Idaho Falls, and he rattles off telephone prefixes. He tells me about main roads in the city, the television station's tower on 17th Street. On learning my birthday, he says I was born on a Monday (I knew that). My birthday in 2020 will also fall on a Monday (a quick look at a perpetual calendar later confirms it.) My father was born on a Wednesday.
We play games for awhile: Show me what yu know. When Kim is excited, his speech sticks like a needle caught up in a record groove: "I went to the, I went to the, I went to the park."
He likes certain actors and actresses, and associates a dominant feature with each one. Alistair Cooke has white hair, therefore, white-haired men are Alistairs. Johns are bald like john Gielgud, Jeremies have beards and mustaches like Jeremy Irons. I am a "nice newspaper Hazel," because I have blonde hair like Hazel on Kim's beloved "Upstairs, Downstairs." As we talk, I look around the shop and point out a few Johns and Jeremies of my own.
Kim often speaks in a code only those who know him well can understand. He is playing, stimulating himself and those around him with shared jokes and memories. I am left outside the conversation until his father explains, or interrupts with a quiet, "Tell her what you're talking about." He always has a logical story for the seemingly incomprehensible jumps the conversation takes.
"Can I tell you some other stories I remember?" Kim asks, lightly touching my hand to get my attention. He talks about the Crusades (1095-1291 A.D, headed by Richard the Lion-hearted...), the singing of the Constitution, the separation of church and state. I am presented a mini history lesson. Occasionally, his thoughts skip beyond me as he talks about old slogans, or hums a tune and explains it history. I cannot always follow the conversation, but there is no doubt in my mind that he could trace his mental transitions for me, if I could think fast enough to follow it.
When Kim was young, doctors considered a lobotomy, but his parents refused. At 16, he was enrolled in a psychiatric program at Primary Children's Hospital, where he learned to walk up and down stairs a step at a time. At 18, he entered a day workshop and education program for handicapped adults, living at home and riding the bus to and from work. He handles the payroll there, adding the columns across while keeping a mental tally of the columns down.
Just four years ago, during an extensive Medicaid evaluation that included brain scans, doctors determined Kim is a savant, and not retarded. His brain hemispheres are fused together and into his brain stem. The result seems to be an extraordinarily large "data storage area," but his motor skills suffer a great deal because connections are cut off.
"I can't help wondering what would have happened to Kim if he had received early skills training," said Jean Pugmire, professor emeritus in the College of Elementary Education at Utah State University. Dr. Pugmire has known Kim - and been charmed and enthralled by him - for seven years. "We know so much more now than we did when he was young. He would never have developed great motor skills, but it would have been much easier for other sections of his brain to take over those functions when he was young.
"Kim walks fairly well now. He can do many things. But he doesn't have survival skills; and he doesn't feel the need to develop them now, because he's happy with the pattern of his life. We have built on Kim's intelligence," she said, "but not on some other things. Kim can do many things - if he wants to."
His father admits that not learning all the survivor skills "provides good security" for Kim. "A third party could get him to do some things he won't do for me because he knows I will do them for him."
Because of his one-hemisphere brain, Pugmire said, "Kim cannot screen out anything. He is stimulated by everything around him, so it is hard for him to concentrate on any one thing. He has extremely sensitive hearing. Think of it. I think it would be unbearable to hear and see and smell everything without filtering."
Kim has developed tools to aid his concentration, and some of them are disconcerting if you don't know what he is doing. At home, he twists a piece of venetian blind rope to help him focus. He paces. He shakes his hands. Most often, though, he hums to block out all the thoughts running simultaneously through his mind.
Kim is caught in the middle of a sentence, looking for a word that seems to elude him. Unexpectedly, he makes a low-pitched sound, like a drone. I believe he is having a minor seizure, and turn to a family friend, an inquisitive look on my face. "He's concentrating," she tells me. 'That hum lets him focus." Withing seconds, the droning stops and he completes his thought.
"You have to sit down and listen to Kim to appreciate him," Pugmire said. "Really listen. In a one-on-one give-and-take conversation, he doesn't play word games. He explains his thoughts. He helps you make the transitions with him. It's hard at first, because he leaves out unimportant words, but once you understand that, it gets easier. He has been labeled so many things - emotionally disturbed, mentally retarded, etc., for so many years. Now we know about his brain and it has made it logical as to why he was doing so many things. We can understand him on a different level."
Recently, Kim and Pugmire spent time together at the USU bookstore, where they wandered down the aisles of books and Kim "gave me summaries of all the stories," she said. Pugmire is no longer surprised by the range of Kim's intelligence.
What does come as a surprise is that Kim himself sees nothing unusual in his ability. "He just assumes that everyone else knows everything he does," his father said.
Kim participated in a series of workshops at USU. "He was not just an example. He read the material and understood it," Pugmire said. "Because of that, he had great questions and comments and was very much a part of the workshop. The other students were fascinated by him, but he was in no way there as an example. The hands that reached out to him were the hands of friendship."
After one of the workshops, Pugmire and her colleagues set out to see if Kim's areas of expertise were as broad as they believed, or if by some fluke they had asked questions to which he knew the answers. They invited people who were experts in history, psychology, math, science, athletics and music to attend a session to ask him questions. The only rule: Each expert had to know the answer to the question he asked.
"Kim answered all but one question accurately and in detail." He couldn't answer a question about hard rock music - a subject Pugmire said "he viewed with complete indifference."
As the world - and the medical and scientific community - learn more about Kim, his corner stretches and grows. He's one in 7 million, all right. But people are beginning to accept his abilities and liabilities. As he gets out more, his social skills keep improving. As Pugmire put it: "The longer and more you know him, the fonder you become of him. You get past the things that are different to find the person of quality."
Kim, a savant, is the subject of a soon-to-be-released movie based loosely on his abilities, if not on his life.
Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise star in "Rain Man," the story of a young man (Cruise) who takes his brother (Hoffman), a savant, on a trip across the country.
Barry Morrow, who wrote the script (he's best known as the author of the book upon which "Bill," the TV movie starring Mickey Rooney, was based), got the idea for the movie after meeting Kim and his father.
As is frequently the case, the movie takes a few sharp turns away from the real-life subject's reality. In "Rain Man," for instance, there is a gambling sequence in a Nevada casino where the savant wins large sums of money by memorizing the cards and figuring the odds, something Kim's father said Kim has no ability to do.
"But overall," he said, "this movie has been a fascinating experience for Kim. And he's loving it."