“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” Hamlet (Act II, Scene II).
Last week I ran across some notes I made after viewing a 2008 cable TV documentary, Beyond Ordinary: Twin Savants, originally aired as an episode of the UK’s television series Extraordinary People. It featured the lives of Flo and Kay Lyman, born in New Jersey in 1956, who remain today the world’s only female autistic savant twins. Indeed I found the pair both well beyond ordinary and quite exceptional. And now eight years later, I still do.
Savantism is a rare condition in which those affected with a developmental disorder, often presenting as a form of autism, are typically capable of acts of genius that far exceed normal levels of human cognitive ability. On the autism scale, Flo and Kay can be found right about where you would pinpoint Raymond Babbit, Dustin Hoffman’s character in the film Rainman. In the movie, Hoffman portrays the archetypal autistic savant, showing incredible mental recall but little pragmatic understanding of the basic aspects of life most of us take for granted every day. Technically geniuses, autistic savants like the fictional Raymond and the very real Flo and Kay have problems socializing, understanding emotions, and for the sake of personal comfort and security must adhere to a strict regimen.
In their particular case, for any given day of their lives Flo and Kay can describe in detail what the weather was like and even what they had for breakfast. They display an amazingly complex memory that enables them to catalog historical dates, details about their favorite pop music, and especially everything involving their beloved entertainment celebrity, Dick Clark. Anyone over 60 will remember Clark as the charismatic bee-bop host of American Bandstand, counting down the hits during the infancy of rock ‘n roll; anyone over 20 has probably seen him preside over the annual New Year’s Rockin’ Eve television special broadcast from New York’s Times Square, until ceding official emcee duties to Ryan Seacrest in 2006.
Flo and Kay’s unique obsession with Dick Clark and his dominating influence in their lives began in 1974 with Clark hosting the popular daytime game show, $100,000 Pyramid. They watched the program religiously, cataloging every question and answer, even writing down the number of times buzzers and bells sounded during the show.
Their fascination with Clark was intense and personal. Over the years, Flo and Kay collected anything and everything they could get their hands on pertaining to Clark. They filled their bedroom with thousands of photos and souvenirs about their TV hero. Commenting on their irrational compulsion, a brother-in-law remarked that “It was pretty much like a shrine in there.” A nephew, characterizing their idolization of Clark, said “It’s as important as air to them. They need food, water and air, and Dick Clark.” In 1996 when Pyramid was cancelled without warning, the two went through a dark personal crisis, but nothing like the one they experienced in 2004 when they heard that Clark had suffered a severe stroke. It was almost the end for them.
Several times the twins actually got to meet their TV hero, whom they often referred to as their “personal savior.” Until his death of a heart attack in 2012, they received birthday wishes annually from Clark and his wife and had maintained an ongoing friendship with him. They said they want to be buried with all their Dick Clark memorabilia, adding that he was like the father figure they never had.
Reflecting on all this makes me wonder to what degree many of us may bear some sort of an obsession, with someone or something. Maybe it’s not as obvious as with the twins. Maybe it’s secret or repressed. But I am guessing that at some point it eventually comes out and shows it’s true face. Proverbs 23:7 says “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Whatever I strive for, whatever I am driven by, what “turns me on” (to use a phrase from the ‘70s), that’s what will flow out of my life. It could be a phobia, a fantasy, or disturbing, even destructive behavior. Unless . . .
Avoiding that shipwreck by dropping anchor in both faith and reason, I often find counsel by thinking back to my earliest experience in parochial school, to my first grade class, and to my introduction to the Baltimore Catechism, the standard Catholic school religious teaching text used in the United States from 1885 to the late 1960s. It was a little blue booklet full of questions and answers, all about sin, sacraments and the dire consequences of straying from the faith. For what it’s worth, I can only remember the first two questions: “Who made me?” and “Why did God make me?” Are these not the timeless concerns of every spiritually curious child and adult?
The answer to the second question has remained constant, from the time of Adam’s forming from the dust of the earth to this very day: “To know, love and serve Him, and to be with Him forever in heaven.” Period. That’s it. My ultimate goal, my purpose is expressed even more simply in the Church of England’s venerable Westminster Catechism of 1646: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Solomon, a wise man, says that anything else is “vanity and striving after the wind.” (Eccl. 1:14) He should know because he had it all and tried it all.
So then, what about my obsession, my striving, my consuming preoccupation? What shall be the appropriate focus of my attention and the object of my devotion? David wrote “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God.” (Ps. 42:1) If I choose to imitate the psalmist’s ambitious craving for intimacy with the God Who is my personal savior and is actually focused on me a million times more so, then maybe it might be said about me that “his heart is like a shrine to the Lord,” and “all he needs is food, water and air, and Him.” Sounds like a rather rational obsession to me.