To Creation and Beyond: The Remarkable Life of Leslie Lemke | wisconsinacademy.org
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To Creation and Beyond: The Remarkable Life of Leslie Lemke

Leslie Lemke sits at the piano

On a warm summer night in June of 1980, Leslie Lemke gave a piano concert in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. That concert was my introduction to an extraordinary man and his surprising talent.

Leslie’s talent stems from a rare but remarkable condition called savant syndrome in which a person with an underlying disability such as autism or other central nervous system illness or injury also has some extraordinary ability that stands in stark contrast to their overall handicap.

I’ve been engaged in savant syndrome research since 1962, writing and publishing widely on the subject, participating in numerous broadcast and documentary productions, even consulting for the movie Rain Man. Today I’m a research consultant on autism at St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac. But I was working in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health when I got to know Leslie and his incredible story.

Leslie was born in 1952 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Because of his premature birth, Leslie developed retinopathy and had to have his eyes surgically removed during the first several months of life. A profoundly ill baby, Leslie was not expected to live more than a few months. He was given up for adoption by his mother and placed in the care of May Lemke, a nurse-governess, in a sort of hospice-type arrangement. But May Lemke was determined that Leslie would live. And live he did. 

Leslie grew up blind and cognitively disabled. Yet, although he has never had a lesson in his life, Leslie’s piano skills are innate and extensive. While Leslie has spasticity in his hands, which makes it difficult to even hold eating utensils, that spasticity disappears when he sits at the keyboard. Leslie can play back a musical piece of any length flawlessly after hearing it once. In fact that is what caught May’s attention late one night when he played back Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 after hearing it for the first time on the sound track of a movie he had listened to with his family earlier that evening. It was then the miracle of Leslie’s talent came into “full bloom,” according to May.

Savant syndrome and innate talent

Today, Leslie’s musical repertoire seems bottomless and his talent endless. Having once heard a piece, he simply never forgets it. 

It seems incredible—until we begin to consider how rare his talent truly is.

Savant syndrome affects males four to six times more frequently than females, and skills typically occur in five general areas: music, art, calendar calculating, mathematics or mechanical/visual-spatial skills. Whatever the skill, it is always associated with massive memory of a habit or procedural type—very narrow but exceedingly deep within the confines of the special skill. In some cases massive memory itself is the special skill.

While admittedly based on a subjective scale at this point, savant skills lie on a spectrum of abilities. Most common are splinter skill savants who have obsessive preoccupation with and memorization of music and sports trivia, birthdays, license plate numbers, historical facts, train or bus schedules, navigation or maps. Talented savants are those in whom musical, art or other special abilities are more conspicuous not only in contrast to individual limitations, but also in contrast to peer group abilities whether disabled or not. Prodigious savant is a term reserved for those extraordinarily rare individuals in whom the special skill is so outstanding that were it to be seen in a non-impaired person such a person would be termed a prodigy or genius.

Such is the case of Leslie Lemke who, by now, the reader of this article might recall hearing about or seeing along with his mother May on one of their many television appearances during the 1980s. Some might recognize their marvelous story of love and hope from the 1983 movie The Woman Who Willed a Miracle in which Cloris Leachman played the role of May Lemke.

Leslie Lemke, at home behind the piano.

Leslie first gained national attention after his 1980 concert when the story of May Lemke and her remarkable son was covered on a special Christmas edition of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. A slew of appearances and performances soon followed: 60 Minutes, That’s Incredible, The Oprah Winfrey Show (three times), and subsequent rounds of many other TV talk shows. Leslie began to book concert hall appearances and, during the 1980s and 1990s, he toured in Norway, Japan, and in cities throughout the United States.

At this time savant syndrome was still a little known phenomenon. It was Dustin Hoffman who put savant syndrome in the international spotlight. Moved to tears by Leslie’s performance on 60 Minutes, Hoffman played the lead role of Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 movie Rain Man. While Rain Man was a marvelous movie—accurately and sensitively done—it left viewers with the impression that, like Raymond, all savants are autistic. In reality, approximately one in ten people with autism has some degree of savant skill and approximately one out of 1,400 people with mental retardation or central nervous system deficits other than autism have savant skills. As such, savant abilities are not limited to autistic disorder. Hence not all autistic persons are savants, and not all savants are autistic.

Indeed, there are other savants like Leslie who have astounding musical abilities. About the time of the Civil War Thomas Bethune—known popularly as “Blind Tom”—traveled the globe and became the most highly celebrated black concert artist of the time. His story is remarkably similar to Leslie’s in that Bethune was blind and cognitively disabled, but his musical genius exploded on the scene, untrained, as a child.

Like Leslie, Bethune also sang, had an incredible repertoire of over 7,000 pieces, and eventually composed his own pieces, including some as long as twenty pages. Separated by a century in time, their stories parallel each other remarkably. What separates Leslie from other present-day musical savants is that he not only plays piano, but also sings in a beautiful baritone voice and creates his own songs and lyrics, all in the absence of any formal musical training. 

I have had the privilege of seeing and hearing Leslie for over thirty years now, and he is a continual reminder of the beauty of music; the power of love; the strength of faith; the tenacity of belief from family, friends, and caregivers; and the depth of human potential—a potential sometimes hidden at first.

From replication to improvisation to creation

Even today, Leslie can still play back—and sing—nearly any song that an audience member might provide as a challenge. It is almost impossible to “stump Leslie,” however hard people may try. But if it is a song Leslie has never heard before, you will get a song anyway. He will make one up on the spot, lyrics included.

If Mary presses Leslie as to whether in fact he performed the requested song or not, Leslie will often answer with a confession: “I’m making it up,” he’ll sheepishly say. So he composes on the spot, often in a very witty way. Leslie also composes his own songs, such as “Down on the Farm in Arpin” or “Bird Song” in which he imitates the birds he loves to listen to, cleverly weaving their songs into his own.

In creating these songs and incorporating elements of bird song and other localized sensations, Leslie demonstrates a transition I have seen in other savants as well. Whether playing back a song just heard or drawing an entire city—building by building—after a thirty-minute helicopter ride, this process begins with remarkable memory repetition. 

But savants become bored with such precise repetition, stunning as it is. So they begin to improvise. Leslie will play back a song dutifully, for example, but after completing it will then launch into a five or ten minute “variation on the theme” concerto, beautifully crafted. Other savant-visual artists might place a tree where there was none in the scene, or remove a telephone wire that seems to interfere with the picture. 

After improvisation comes the creation of something entirely new, such as Leslie composing on the spot while sitting outside like he loves to do on his little farm—or during his live concerts. In the case of artists with savant syndrome, entirely new and creative paintings, drawings, or sculptures emerge. This transition demonstrates that savants are not mere tape recorders or copy machines. They can improvise with originality and create something entirely new.

The case for multiple intelligences

An intelligence quotient, or IQ, is a score derived from one of several standardized tests designed to assess human intelligence. Leslie has a measured verbal IQ of 58. Performance scales were not used to test Leslie because they heavily depend on performance that is impeded by his blindness. Other tests concluded he was functioning in the moderately retarded range of intelligence.

How does one reconcile these tests with Leslie’s astonishing musical capabilities? I have watched again and again a TV clip of a concert in which Leslie was asked to play a piece of music he had never heard before at the same time that another pianist was playing it (rather than after the pianist completes the piece). Leslie waited about three seconds after the pianist began, and then, while continuing to listen (input), he processed the music and played back (output) what he had just heard seconds before. Leslie was parallel processing, just as some translators are simultaneously able to do as someone speaks, rather than pausing to translate their words or sentences in short bursts. This kind of parallel processing does not occur when a person’s IQ is only 58.

Leslie and many other savants I have met make a persuasive case for multiple intelligences. Intelligence quotient is a useful tool for measuring standard intelligence. But savants, 70% of whom have IQ below 70, also show what I perceive to be musical intelligence, artistic intelligence, or mathematical intelligence, to name several forms. And there are other types of intelligence as well in all of us, in my view, as others have proposed as well.

Equally striking, however, is the fact that these forms of intelligence in savants are there innately. They come “factory installed.” Clearly Leslie, and many other savants, know things they never learned in the sense of learning that you and I might recognize. To me, the only mechanism that makes this possible is a kind of genetic memory or ancestral memory. Such memory is the genetic transmission of not only skills and abilities, but also the inherited knowledge accompanying those skills such as the “rules” of music, art, or mathematics.

Savants seem to inherit the nature part of the genius equation. Nurture, then, contributes mightily to the advancement of their skills and abilities. I discuss genetic and ancestral memory at length in a chapter titled “Savant syndrome: A compelling case for innate talent” in Scott Kaufman’s recent book The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent and Greatness.

My convictions about the presence of genetic memory—a little Leslie Lemke, perhaps, in all of us—has been reinforced by the surfacing of dormant talent in the acquired savant following some sort of central nervous system trauma or disease. I discuss such cases in an article titled “Accidental Genius” in the August 2014, issue of Scientific American.

Leslie today and tomorrow

Leslie is alive and well today, and still playing marvelously, in North Central Wisconsin. He lives with Mary Parker, May’s daughter, who has lovingly taken on the caregiver role after May died in 1993. Leslie could have been a millionaire, but instead Leslie and Mary live a very modest lifestyle in an aging home in Arpin. Mary feels, as did May, that Leslie’s gift of music is a miracle that should be shared unselfishly with others without undue gain or exploitation.

Today Leslie is more verbal than ever before, more musically accomplished, and, increasingly, more creative and witty. His transition from replication to improvisation to creative ability has been impressive, and is a blueprint for similar progress I have seen in other savants—especially if one observes them over enough time rather than as a single snapshot.

Some fear that savant skills might somehow disappear as suddenly as they appeared. This has not happened to Leslie, nor to any of the other savants I have had the privilege to follow. And, just as with the other savants, family encouragement, unconditional love, patience and belief are vital ingredients to growth and progress in these extraordinary people. Interested readers can learn much more about Leslie, May, and Mary, and savant syndrome in general in my 2010 book Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant or by visiting savantsyndrome.com.

Leslie returned to Fond du Lac in April of 2011 for his “And Sings My Soul” concert at Marian University and I visited Leslie and Mary just this month at his favorite summer camp. I am pleased to report he is as talented, vibrant, vigorous, and special as ever. There is much to report about Leslie these days, all of it good. We are lucky to have this remarkable man in our midst, so close by. He is truly an inspiration and a Wisconsin treasure. 

Contributors

Darold A. Treffert received both his medical schooling and psychiatric residency training at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He went on to develop the Children’s Unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute where, in 1962, that he met his first savant. Dr. Treffert has been engaged in savant syndrome research since then.

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