A veteran science journalist uses the story of Lonni Sue Johnson, a young woman who suffered a severe infection that destroyed her hippocampus, to illuminate his journey into the murky subject of memory itself.
Scientific American opinion editor Lemonick (Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet’s Twin, 2012, etc.) skillfully employs both a personal voice—he knew the victim’s sister from middle school—and a scholarly authority as he travels through the incredible life of Lonnie Sue, a successful artist (among other projects, she produced covers for the New Yorker) and writer whose life changed forever in late 2007 when the infection hit her. Her nonagenarian mother and her sister swooped in to care for her in ways that seem miraculous in today’s warehouse-the-elderly and -disabled culture. Since the destruction of the region of the brain responsible for “relational processing,” Lonni Sue has maintained a cheerful, friendly manner (despite her inability to remember people she has just met) and shows an astonishing capacity for word games. She can also still play her viola, can describe how to fly a plane (she had a pilot’s license), and can draw—and much more. Lemonick focuses on her case and biography, but he has larger goals: to acquaint us with the history of research on memory, to review some of the most notable cases in memory loss, and to help us comprehend current theories about types of memory—and how memory works. (He even provides a bit of film criticism—Memento comes off fairly well; 50 First Dates does not.) Although there are some familiar names—Oliver Sacks, William James—most of his references are to working neuroscientists today. His great accomplishment is helping us see the “new” Lonni Sue as a most remarkable person.
An absolutely memorable book.