When you work at a community newspaper some of the best story ideas come from people in the community who also read your paper and have a general idea of what might work for you. And those people generally request that you consider an idea, as opposed to demand that you consider it.
Robert Landau, the Nassau Street clothier and one of our readers, occasionally sends an idea our way. And usually the idea arrives in the form of a request, not a demand. But one day back in 2011 I got a call from Landau that was not a demand but was at least an urgent request. He had a story idea that involved people from across the Princeton community, from the arts to the sciences. It would be worthy of a book-length treatment at some point. He and the others involved in the story were pitching it to the national press but they also hoped it could be told in a community publication.
But the story had to be told in a way that captured the many nuances. In Landau’s opinion, U.S. 1 was the one publication that could do the story.
I agreed and on September 21, 2011, freelance writer Linda Arntzenius presented a story that lived up to Landau’s advance billing. The subject was Lonni Sue Johnson, whose whimsical art work was well known in both her hometown of Princeton and nationally. Johnson painted a mural at the Bank of America office at 90 Nassau Street, designed a button that people wore on the “First Night” community New Year’s Eve event (which no longer happens in Princeton), and also illustrated the catalogs that promoted the Icelandic woolens of Landau’s clothing store. Eventually she did cover illustrations for the New Yorker magazine as well as designs for national brands.
As her career progressed Lonni Sue had moved from Princeton to New York and eventually to a farm near Cooperstown in upstate New York with a field large enough for her to land the single engine plane that she loved to pilot. Then in December, 2007, at the age of 57, Johnson contracted a case of viral encephalitis that nearly killed her and caused amnesia and aphasia (language loss). She was soon moved back to her family in Princeton. With the help of her mother, Margaret Kennard Johnson (also an acclaimed artist who died in 2015 at the age of 97), and younger sister, Aline, a computer programmer, she relearned how to walk, talk, and even eat unaided. At first, however, the drawing skills seemed to have vanished along with the rest of her long and short-term memory.
It took months for even a glimpse of her art to return. In the year after the onset of the illness, Amy Goldstein, a family friend and professional puzzle writer, gave Lonni Sue some word search books. Johnson reported that working on the puzzles helped clear her mind. Around November, 2008, Johnson had finished working on the puzzle books and — to the family’s astonishment — began creating her own puzzles. Then one day when she was working on her 13th puzzle, Johnson drew a tiny apple in the corner of one of the boxes of the grid into which she had arranged her letters. She drew a tiny pear in another. “This was a momentous cause for celebration,” says Aline. “Her entire life has been about art, and we were so happy to see her regain that aspect of herself.”
At about that time Aline described Lonni Sue’s amnesia and artistic renaissance to former client Robert Landau, who mentioned the turn of events to his wife, Barbara, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins. Skeptical at first, Barbara Landau quickly changed her mind and brought Lonni Sue’s case to the attention of another researcher at Johns Hopkins, Michael McCloskey, who studies adults with brain damage. Their initial research led to an art exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore accompanied by a scientific lecture — all noted in the original U.S. 1 article.
Then the story was picked up by the New Yorker, which reported in its March 30, 2015, issue that the research into Lonni Sue’s brain was continuing at Princeton University. “Johnson is the first person with profound amnesia to be examined extensively with an fMRI,” said the 12-page New Yorker account. “Several papers have been published about Johnson, and the researchers say she could fuel at least a dozen more.”
All that was missing from this equation that Robert Landau envisioned in 2011 was a book. Now the book — “The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love” — has arrived. The author, Michael D. Lemonick, is also part of the extended Princeton community that has gathered around Lonni Sue and her family.
“One day a couple of years ago,” Lemonick writes, “a woman about my own age approached me on the street in Princeton, New Jersey, where I live. ‘I’m Aline Johnson,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure whether you remember me. Have you heard what happened to my sister?’”
There are probably more “writers” in Princeton than there are lawyers, and that’s saying something. But Aline had run into a writer who would take a special interest in Lonni Sue’s case. The son of Princeton University physicist and dean Aaron Lemonick and a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Journalism School, Michael Lemonick has written six other books, published more than 50 Time magazine cover stories, worked as a writer for Climate Central, the Palmer Square think tank, and is currently the opinion editor at Scientific American. Lemonick was very interested in Lonni Sue’s story and in the field of human memory.
Lemonick virtually embedded himself with the researchers studying Lonni Sue’s brain. His book covers the broad expanse of neuroscience. He provides the lay reader with an accessible discussion of how the brain processes visual information, and he explains how the brain can permit someone like Lonni Sue, with no memory, to nevertheless learn without even knowing that they learned.
One of my “rules of life” is that our memory is never as good as we think it is. So I was drawn to Lemonick’s chapter on “false memory.” In it he explains how our memory can play tricks on us, and how others can trick us into creating memories of things that never happened.
Lemonick knows his subject. Most of us might have been puzzled by a clever front-page headline in the New York Times of December 5, 2008. The headline read: “H.M., an Unforgettable Amnesiac, Dies at 82.” Even though Lemonick was not yet aware of Lonni Sue Johnson’s case, he knew immediately who “H.M.” was and why his death was significant. Henry Molaison had been robbed of his memory after an experimental operation in 1953 that was intended to cure bilitating epilepsy. Known by his initials to protect his privacy, Molaison became the subject of many experiments carried out by neuroscientists hoping to gain insight into how the brain, and particularly the part of the brain controlling memory, works.
Lemonick details the advance planning that had been in place to extract Molaison’s brain from his body to preserve it for even more research. The MIT professor who orchestrated the removal of H.M.’s brain asked Lemonick if the Johnsons had similar plans for Lonni Sue. “They hadn’t,” Lemonick reports, “as of the time we talked.”
Interest in Lonni Sue’s brain is not likely to die soon. “The research will go on,” Lemonick writes. “Lonni Sue’s remarkable brain still has many secrets to reveal about the mysterious thing we call memory.”
Michael Lemonick and Barbara Landau will discuss “The Perpetual Now” on Tuesday, March 7, at 6 p.m. at Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton.