The Woman Without A Memory, And What She Says About All of Us

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Memory loss

Many of us—particularly as we age—find our memories betraying us. But for Lonni Sue Johnson, an accomplished artist and musician in her 60s, this betrayal is far greater than most of us can imagine.

Johnson suffers from what's called profound amnesia. She can't form new memories. She can't remember things that happened to her only minutes before, and she can't bring up old memories, either.

But while her brain doesn't work the way it should, it does give us meaningful clues about how our brains work and can be improved.

Michael Lemonick is a senior staff writer at Climate Central and a contributor to Time Magazine, where his piece about Johnson—called The Muse of Memory—is published this week. He joins the program to discuss Lonni's illness and the technology that's now available to help people like her.


Michael D. Lemonick

Produced by:

Ibby Caputo, Kristen Meinzer and Jillian Weinberger


T.J. Raphael

Comments [4]

Betty Garcia

Like Lonnie Sue, my son suffered from a viral Encephalitis back in 2007. He also suffers from memory loss. He seems to remember the events that occurred before he became ill (at the time he was 14 years old), but cannot remember events that have occurred after he became ill. As a result, Lonnie Sue's story really resonated with my family and I. We hope that new innovations in medicine and technology will soon give us an insight into these complex illnesses and maybe even a possible cure.

Nov. 10 2013 10:52 PM
David B from Connecticut

Having dated Lonni Sue briefly in 1993 it is interesting that my memories of her a bit cloudy now. She loved her art, music, and just being her very independent self. To bad she now has no memories of me or of some of fun times we had for a short time here in Connecticut.

Nov. 07 2013 12:53 PM
Leonard M. Klepner from Killington, Vermont

I, my wife and then toddler son were friends of Lonnie Sue and her mother, Margaret K. Johnson. Like Lonnie Sue, Margaret was a most accomplished artist. Margaret's forte was print-making. Lonnie Sue's forte includes posters, magazine cover art and children s' book illustration.

During the interview with John Hockenberry, I believe that Mr. Lemonick mentioned that, despite Lonnie Sue's present limitations, she spent a good deal of time with words and word games. Further in this regard, I believe that Mr. Lemonick alluded to Lonnie Sue's present affinity for alphabet's letters. Mr. Lemonick may not know that one of the children's books Lonnie Sue illustrated was "The Story of Z". The plot of the book was an exploration of the letter Z's struggle for acceptance into the alphabet. Lonnie Sue's accompanying illustrations consist mainly of elaborate representations of the uniqueness of all of the letters of the alphabet.

In tandem with Mr. Lemonick's observation that Lonnie Sue could recognize no other art than her own, I wish to suggest that Lonnie Sue's present devotion to words and word games is not entirely a behavioral phenomenon that has arisen independently. Instead, her present devotion to words and their letters is another active manifestation of the experiences embedded in Lonnie Sue's memory. Perhaps there are other present behaviors that Lonnie Sue manifests that are not really new, but are transmutations, even revivals of experiences with which Lonnie Sue remains connected.

Nov. 06 2013 06:15 PM

When I was 11, my grandma Larson had a stroke. She was mentally very aware but lacked verbal speech. I remember going to visit her at the nursing home and watching The Price is Right, her favorite show. She couldn't form the words, but I know she enjoyed the time as much as I did.

Nov. 06 2013 02:34 PM

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