The Mystery of Memory: Ashley Nickell Reviews The Perpetual Now by Michael D. Lemonick

Penguin Random House (c) 2017

Lonni Sue Johnson was a thriving creative and intellectual that shared her whimsical art, viola performances, and passion for flying with all who loved and admired her. The abrupt spread of viral encephalitis however would prove to leave behind severe brain damage, despite doctors treating the problem before it took her life. Lonni Sue now lives in a very limited sense of present time as the encephalitis ravaged her hippocampus, the spot of the brain associated with memory but still not entirely understood by the world of medical science.

The Perpetual Now follows Lonni Sue’s story, before and after her brain trauma, alongside similar cases that have helped neuroscientists learn more about the concepts of short-term and long-term memory. Most notably, the iconic case of Henry Molaison, better known to the medical world as HM, is presented from the initial brain surgery that left the man unable to form new memories, through the series of experiments he participated in, all the way to his death and the significance of examining his brain post-mortem.

As I never found myself leaning toward scientific or medical fields, I was fully intrigued by HM’s history. This book only uses his case as an anchoring point for comparison with Lonni Sue’s situation, which is understandable when I realized that anyone who might have an interest in neuroscience or memory would most likely know his story. Lonni Sue’s is much more modern and proves that there is still so much more to investigate when it comes to the human brain.

Author and award-winning science journalist Michael D. Lemonick starts this story off on a personal note as he runs into Lonni Sue’s sister Aline, someone he had not seen since middle school. Hearing about what happened to Lonni Sue, he constructs chapters that weave in and out of her behavior, scientific details of brain processes, and the introduction of HM. I found it rather difficult to jump in and commit to this book at first as I felt like there was serious information overload right out of the gate.

However, as I became comfortable with the storytelling, it transformed into a much enjoyable reading experience. After learning that Lonni Sue was no longer able to retain short-term memories or even remember large fragments of her long-term memory, Lemonick transports his audience back to her youth, which is both engaging and frustrating. Life with her mother, father, sister, friends, and colleagues is told through interviews and we are able to piece together a solid idea of the woman she once was. Although with the interruption of textbook-esque chapters on neuroscience, the transition becomes jarring once more.

This intimate look into Lonni Sue’s life, both before and after her trauma, is an inspiring example of positivity. She is not a one-trick pony by any means as she became well-known for her illustrations, some of which graced the cover of The New Yorker. She even conquered her fear of flying solo and ended up getting her pilot’s license and owning her own private plane. This journey is quite emotional and effective as we know exactly how severe her life will change.

Having a damaged hippocampus surprisingly never left Lonni Sue in a panicked, depressed, or confused state. Her creativity was still very much intact, even if it did not manifest itself the same way as it had before. This was mind-blowing as I feel that without remembering what happened as soon as yesterday, I would become frightened. With the help of her sister, Lonni Sue lives her life without worrying about missing out on any other opportunities.

Despite being heavy with scientific information, research, study results, and contemplations within neurology, Lemonick writes in a comprehensive and novice-friendly manner. I never felt confused by any technical terminology, but perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that neuroscience is still so mysterious.

I understand that The Perpetual Now definitely holds more insight into Lonni Sue’s experience, however with the occasional mention of similar cases, I found myself curious for further details. While I enjoyed reading about Lonni Sue’s career and creative growth prior to becoming an amnesiac, there was definitely an unnecessary amount dedicated to her family before she was even born.

This casual read is terrific for those curious about matters of the brain, but who have zero prior knowledge of these subjects. As it was quite easy for myself to grasp, I could see how this would not provide much more for those interested in medical science. Lonni Sue’s story within is an enjoyable read, but I think I would be interested to see it in more of a traditional biographical format.

3/5 Stars

The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love

Michael D. Lemonick
304 pages