By Melony Shemberger
The Academy Award-winning movie Rain Man, introduced the term, “savant,” to the mainstream in 1988 when actor Dustin
Hoffman portrayed autistic savant
Raymond Babbit. While the film dispelled misconceptions about autism
and improved the public’s awareness
of the condition, a misleading association continues to occur between
autism and savant syndrome. The two
conditions can be related, but not all
savants are autistic.
The term, “savant,” has been part of
cognitive psychology for more than a
century. Today, savant syndrome remains perhaps one of the most fascinating phenomena in the study of
human differences. The rare, but extraordinary, condition can be congenital or be acquired by an otherwise
normal individual after suffering a
traumatic brain injury or disease.
Those possessing savant skills have a
heightened ability to solve intricate
mathematical calculations, sing with
perfect pitch or play a complete piece
of music after hearing it only once, or
memorize population statistics, telephone books or dictionaries.
It is often said that, because of the
extraordinary abilities involved,
human memory and cognition will
never be truly understood until the savant is understood. In his latest novel,
Memory Man, acclaimed storyteller
David Baldacci seeks to understand the savant through the title character Amos Decker, a big, burly man with massive memory who must
solve his own family’s murder.
Decker became a savant at the start of his pro football career. At age
22, he was the only person from his hometown of Burlington to go pro.
However, on his first game play, a violent helmet-to-helmet collision
eliminated him from the sport for good, and resulted in a perfect memory that enabled him to recall any date or replay any scene or event in detail. Specifically, the neurological condition that Decker possesses is a
capacity for exceptional memory called hyperthymesia, or a “mental
DVR” as Decker often referred to his turbocharged brain. Essentially,
he can never forget anything.
Along with hyperthymesia, Decker has synesthesia, in which his sensory pathways also have crossed so that he counts in colors and sees
time as pictures in his head. Plus, he associates color with people or objects. Decker is not autistic, but he refrains from physical contact. He
does not express sympathy nor empathy. Jokes or humor also don’t register with Decker.
After a short-lived football career,
Decker worked for two decades in law
enforcement, first as a police officer and
then as a detective. Having a “mental
DVR” for memory is a trait many police
detectives would desire to recall crucial
elements in a case, but for Decker, such a
so-called gift also meant he could remember tragedy in all aspects. Returning
home from a stakeout one evening,
Decker discovered his wife Cassie, nine-year-old daughter Molly and brother-in-law Johnny Sacks had been murdered.
Decker’s superior memory of that night
takes over his life. He leaves the police
force, loses his home and ends up on the
streets, accepting freelance jobs as a private investigator.
More than a year later, a man turns
himself in to the police and confesses to
the murders. Simultaneously, tragedy
strikes Burlington, and Decker is asked
to help with the investigation as a con-
sultant. Without revealing the crux of
the story, in the end, Decker learns what
really happened to his family that night.
Baldacci is no stranger to writing nov-
els. However, Memory Man is a fast read
that contains solid narration, dialogue
and action. The 416-page hardcover and
sixty-five chapters, meaning that each
chapter averages between four and six
pages. Baldacci’s technique of writing
short chapters sets a quick pace for the
story, leaving suspense calculated just
right at the end of most chapters. Plus, if
pressed for time, a reader can digest at
least a chapter inside of a few minutes. The problem is a reader will find
difficulty in reading just one chapter. Baldacci’s latest work easily tells a
captivating story, one that has a lesson. Through Decker, David Baldac-
ci crafts a message that the gifts people might desire, like a perfect mem-
ory, can present challenges for others.
Melony Shemberger, Ed.D. (Tennessee State University) is an
assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Murray State
University in Murray, Kentucky. She is a former public relations practitioner
and radio and newspaper journalist, who specialized in education and
court news reporting. She continues to cover education for a community
newspaper in west Kentucky. A 2014 Donald Reynolds Business Journalism
Professors Fellow, she will serve 2015-17 as a Provost Faculty Teaching
Fellow on her campus. She received a Love of Learning Award in 2014 to
pursue research on C.M. Reckert, The New York Times’ first female financial writer who had a
storied forty-four-year career. Shemberger serves as vice president of the Phi Kappa Phi chapter
at Murray State. She also serves on the Phi Kappa Phi Forum Advisory Council. Email her at
A Not-So-Glorious Gift