For months the New York Times best-seller list pegged Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day this way: "a memoir by autistic savant who can perform extraordinary mathematical calculations." It's a correct description, though it misses much of what makes Tammet so interesting, including the fact that the writer is gay.
Tammet ignited our imagination, first with the 2005 U.K. Brainman and more recently through his appearance on 60 Minutes, each chronicling his talents for numbers and language. He once recited the irrational number pi to more than 22,000 decimal places from memory, a feat that took five hours, set a European record, and raised thousands of dollars for charity. He learned Icelandic--one of the world's trickiest languages--in just one week. While his nickname at school was "Rain Man," Tammet is mentally more agile than Dustin Hoffman's character. (Though equally cinematic--Warner Bros. Pictures has optioned Born on a Blue Day for adaptation into a feature film.) Furthermore, Tammet, who was diagnosed at age 25 with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, has a remarkable ability to explain how his brain functions.
Tammet, now 28, grew up in a poor family in London, where his parents managed to cope with his autism and childhood epilepsy while raising eight younger children. Tammet first became aware of his homosexuality at age 11. He endured a spell of unrequited love at 16 (he consoled himself by listening to his favorite singer, Karen Carpenter). At 20 he met Neil Mitchell, a computer programmer. Six months later they moved in together in a house an hour outside of London. Tammet doesn't believe there's a neurological link between his homosexuality and his extraordinary mental abilities. There is a connection in his life, however: Both have helped him understand and appreciate the wide range of human experience. What once made him a "freak" on the playground, he says, now makes him friends around the world.
Your book is a best seller. You've been on 60 Minutes. What has the reaction been?
I get letters and e-mails, sometimes hundreds a day, from people who feel for all sorts of reasons that they are outside the mainstream of society. Maybe they see me as someone they can relate to. My Asperger's means I've found it difficult my whole life to relate well to people and make myself available emotionally. What was once a barrier is now a bridge.
Scientists are studying your brain. What are they trying to learn?
My brain seems to be what I would describe as hyperassociative. It makes connections between information very rapidly and connections and relationships between very different things. It may sound prosaic, but scientists have no idea how people add 9 and 7 and get 16, much less how they do multiplication, and my case may shed some light on that. Some scientists believe there may be a little Rain Man in everyone, if only there were some way to unlock it.
On 60 Minutes, Morley Safer was so enthralled with your mathematical abilities, he never even talked about your being gay. Is that typical?
I wonder if I've been talking about so much other stuff that it's almost snuck past. It is mentioned in many articles but often just in passing. It's treated as just one part of my story, which is as it should be.
You seem to have had a remarkably easy time with your sexuality.
I never, ever felt growing up that the feelings that I had were unusual or anything that I should be self-conscious about. That may be one of the blessings of my autism.
Meaning, you don't know what society expects?
Yes. I approach things very intellectually. So I understood that most people will be attracted to the opposite sex but that some people will be different.
When did you first realize that you were different?
I realized that I was attracted to boys when I was about 11, and I remember very clearly that process of suddenly wanting to be closer to the other boys. …