This story was originally published in the March 2017 Princeton Echo.
It’s a story with a promising beginning, a tragic middle, and an as-yet unwritten conclusion — and it’s chock-full of Princeton connections. Michael Lemonick’s new book, “The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love,” recounts the story of Lonni Sue Johnson, a prolific artist and illustrator who had her memory wiped out by a case of viral encephalitis in 2007. And while she has virtually no memory of her past and cannot form new memories, she has — remarkably — resumed drawing and has retained some of her old style.
Johnson grew up in Princeton. Her parents were Maggi Kennard Johnson — an accomplished artist and art instructor who died in 2015 at age 96 — and Eddie Johnson, an engineer at RCA who died of prostate cancer in 1989. Her younger sister, Aline, is a computer programmer and Juilliard-trained cellist who is now Lonni Sue’s caregiver.
It was Aline who brought Lonni Sue’s story to the attention of Michael 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 Princeton native, was a band-mate of Aline Johnson at Valley Road Middle School in the 1960s. He appears at Labyrinth Books on Tuesday, March 7, at 6 p.m. for a conversation on his new book.
Joining him will be 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 trying to get her foot in the door in the 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 regular contributor.
When Robert first heard about Lonni Sue’s condition from Aline, he promised her he would mention 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, 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.”
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. labyrinthbooks.com.