What artist does not want their name to be known long after they are dead and gone? Very few.
Princeton artist Lonni Sue Johnson may well end up in that category but for a reason only partially related to her art. Johnson, known for her whimsical covers and drawings for the New Yorker and New York Times, as well as catalog illustrations for Landau’s clothing store on Nassau Street, among many other professional credits, had her life and art disrupted in 2007 when viral encephalitis wiped out the part of her brain.
To this day Johnson lives with virtually no memory of her past life and little ability to plan for the future. But with the help of her mother, prominent Princeton artist Margaret Kennard (Maggi) Johnson, and her younger sister Aline, Lonni Sue learned how to function again in the present, and has resumed her painting and taken up playing the viola — she played at a memorial service for her mother, who died at the age of 97 in 2015.
As Michael Lemonick reports in his new book, “The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love,” many neuroscientists now believe “that procedural learning involves multiple memory systems working together. The promise of Lonni Sue’s case is that it might help clarify, in ways that have never been possible before, not only what the important distinctions are between these different systems, but also how they work together to create our rich experience of the world, past and present.”
It was Aline Johnson who brought Lonni Sue’s story to the attention of Lemonick, a veteran science writer who has written six other science-related books, an instructor at Princeton University, and the opinion editor at Scientific American. Lemonick, a middle school band-mate of Aline growing up in Princeton, is a graduate of Harvard and the Columbia School of Journalism.
Lemonick will appear at Labyrinth Books at 122 Nassau Street on Tuesday, March 7, at 6 p.m. along with Barbara Landau, a professor of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University who has been closely involved in Lonni Sue’s case.
Besides her professional interest in learning more about how memory works, her involvement in the case is also personal. Landau is the wife of Robert Landau, the owner of Landau’s woolens store on Nassau Street. When Lonni Sue was a young illustrator breaking into the commercial art world, Robert Landau saw her work at Gallery 100 — on Nassau Street where Starbucks is now — and hired her to design covers for Landau catalogs as well as advertisements to run in the New Yorker, where Lonni Sue eventually became a contributor.
When Robert first heard about Lonni Sue’s condition from Aline, he mentioned the case to his wife, who also grew up in Princeton and graduated from Princeton High a few years before Lonni Sue. Barbara Landau, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Penn, initially was skeptical about helping, since her area of interest was kids’ brains and how they grow. But she ended up talking to Aline for three hours and concluded that Lonni Sue’s case was “unbelievably fascinating.”
As Lemonick writes, scientists studying the brain view a patients with amnesia as an opportunity to learn more about how the brain functions. But one important difference “between Lonni Sue and most other patients with media-temporal-lobe amnesia was the breadth of her expertise before the encephalitis struck. She’d been a serious amateur musician, a pilot, an extraordinarily successful artist. She was accomplished in all sorts of fields that required extensive learning and memory, and which depended on an enormous storehouse of knowledge. Exploring what she’d retained and what she’d lost in each of these areas would be an unprecedented opportunity for the scientists, and for the field of memory research in general.”
Michael Lemonick & Barbara Landau: The Perpetual Now — A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love. Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street. Tuesday, March 7, 6 p.m. www.labyrinthbooks.com.
For more on this story, see Richard K. Rein’s column, page 31.