Lucky Me: My Journey with Stephen Carnegie
By Barry Morrow
As a writer and storyteller by trade, I’m always searching for great ideas. So I look everywhere – in books, magazines, newspapers – and wherever my feet happen to take me on a given day. I’ve stumbled upon some pretty amazing stories over the years, and always keep my antennae up should another good one come along.
Like it did in 1984 at an Association for Retarded Citizens convention in Texas, where a chance encounter with a 37-year-old fellow named Kim Peek altered my life. Kim had been labeled mentally retarded as a child, so no one was aware of just how brilliant he actually was. Within minutes of our meeting, I was astounded by Kim’s mind and incomparable memory. He knew not only my phone number, but all the phone numbers I’d ever had. Without even pausing to think, he gave detailed driving directions from where we were in Texas to my home in California. Just like MapQuest, only faster. Every question I posed to Kim that day – on diverse subjects such as history, music, geography, and sports – he gave the correct answer. I was left speechless, flabbergasted that such a human being could exist, and I knew then I would have to write something about this remarkable man.
That something became the movie “Rain Man.” I was, of course, proud of the movie’s success (it garnered four Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 1988), and Dustin Hoffman was nothing short of brilliant in his portrayal of Kim’s fictional counterpart, Raymond Babbitt. But an even greater joy for me was witnessing what happened to Kim as a result of that movie. Simply put, he flowered. With the help of his father, Fran, Kim left behind his silent, solitary existence to take his rightful place on the world stage as the only known living mega-savant. As Kim’s confidence grew, he and his father began accepting speaking engagements across the country, then around the world, taking the Oscar statuette that I had won along for the ride. And what a ride it was. Among other things, Kim, who had no formal education, received an honorary degree at Oxford University.
Another remarkable human story came my way again in 2008. It began with a phone call from a clinical psychologist, Larry Beall, telling me of an artist named Stephen Carnegie who could not only paint and draw life-like (virtually photographic) images from memory, and at a furious pace, but did so by using both hands simultaneously. I flew to Salt Lake City to meet this artist, but Stephen, who suffers with mental illness, chose not to see me just then, so we just spoke on the phone while I returned to the airport.
Stephen is an intensely private and reclusive person, so I was surprised when he asked if he could produce a 20th anniversary show honoring “Rain Man,” and the man who inspired that film, Kim. I readily agreed, and the show opened during the Sundance Film Festival at the Salt Lake City library theatre. It was a complicated, four-camera production, featuring a dozen or so acts, sound and lighting engineers, and large screen projections. When those of us who were participating in the show asked to see the script beforehand, we were horrified to learn that Stephen didn’t have one. “I have it in my head,” he said. “But believe me, it’s going to be great!”
The evening before the show, Stephen took all the cast and crew out to dinner in limousines – to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. I learned later that it was during that KFC excursion that Stephen actually came up with his entire show. As he watched us all interacting and getting to know one another, the event sprang to life in his mind, everything from the theme to camera angles to lighting. Somehow, it all worked. The result was a triumph; a freewheeling, emotional, and memorable roller coaster of an evening.
Later that year Stephen asked if I would help him write a series of children’s books. By then, of course, I knew that working with him would be an unconventional journey, but I was hooked once he unveiled his concept for the books. It was stunning. The series of books, which go by the joyful name of Magic in Believing, work by creating wide roadways of self-expression for kids, rivers of shared information, and gentle tide pools of self-directed learning where they can safely dive in and explore the boundaries of their minds. The methodology behind Stephen’s vision is equally innovative, involving the interdisciplinary cooperation of educators, doctors, and that vast legion of college and university students whose talents – aside from collegiate athletics – often go unnoticed and untapped. Magic in Believing will synergistically bring them together.
I’m one lucky story finder. I had the good fortune to meet Kim Peek, then watch his life transform. Now I’m witnessing Stephen Carnegie do the same. Stephen is truly an astonishing artistic savant, and to be recognized as such by the world’s leading expert in the study of savants, Darold Treffert, MD, is a fitting honor. Treffert estimates that, today, there are fewer than 100 individuals in the world who possess gifts equal to Stephen’s.
After two decades of living with severe mental illness, Stephen Carnegie’s life has begun anew. For years he painted only with traditional tools, and solely for himself, but that changed when his work caught the eye of Silicon Valley executive Dr. David Levitt, CEO of Levity Novelty, a maker of innovative iPad and iPhone software. Levitt, a former research scientist and software developer (MIT Media Lab, Atari, Viacom, Interval Research), and a virtual-reality inventor at VPL Research, says that despite Stephen’s disabilities and lack of computer skills, his artwork using cutting edge digital tablets is “phenomenal.” www.levitynovelty.com
One day Kim Peek sat down at a piano and began to play. Until that very instant, he couldn’t. Or didn’t. But that leads me to wonder about Stephen Carnegie, and what other incredible secrets he may yet reveal. Honestly, nothing would surprise me. Like his dear friend, the late Kim Peek, Stephen just keeps adding to his repertoire of talents, which are now being showered like stardust onto his very latest project, the children’s books.
I plan to tag along. This is one story I wouldn’t miss.
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For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD
St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal website: www.daroldtreffert.com