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Tribute to a Brother

Jay Lawrence Johnson was born on March 2, 1953, in Lawrence, Kansas, to Dale Ladsworth and Carmen Jean Acosta Johnson. Sometime during his second year, the young family went to central Mexico to study the Mazahua culture. To this day, the Mazahua elders remember the red-headed baby with the deep-dimpled smile.

Sister Heidi was born in 1956, Father Dale graduated with a PhD in Psychology, and the family moved to Houston, Texas. Brother Paul was born there in 1957. Jay was delighted to have younger siblings. He treated us as the favored subjects of a benevolent king, leading us into adventures that pushed precisely at the limits of our capabilities. Big brothers make the best babysitters, their motto being "If I bring them back alive, I've done my job." It's a policy that fosters bold and new experiences, even if a few knees are skinned along the way. Jay was the acknowledged leader of the block in suburban Bellaire, where he marshalled our kids in the Christmas tree wars against the kids in the next block. He would send scouting parties out to climb the back yard fences and bring back more trees. Our fort was impregnable. Designed by Jay, the softer firs lined the interior for comfort and the sharp-needled spruces ringed the exterior for defense. Jay and Dad built a scary maze for the Halloween festival at our elementary school - far and away the most popular event at the fair.

Jay had a happy childhood, as did we all: camping across the Western states, tagging along while our parents did research in Mexico, Guatemala, New Mexico, Washington State, and North Dakota, where we would stay with our indulgent grandparents. We went to Expo 67 in Montreal and saw buffaloes in Mount Rushmore National Park. We visited museums and monuments wherever we went. I have a clear memory of sitting in the Remington Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Jay and I on either side of Mom with Paul in her lap, while Mom told us stories about the scenes in the paintings. They were pretty grisly stories, as I recall. We loved them.

Jay was an Eagle Scout. He played the French horn. He lettered in swimming at Lanier Junior High School. He was Vice-President of the senior class at Lamar Senior High School. He painted in oils and made sculptures in clay. He loved science fiction and philosophy, pranks and puzzles, drama and debate. Our friends were always interested in what Jay was doing, what Jay thought - he was always in the vanguard of whatever caught his wide-ranging attention. He loved to sweep other people up with his enthusiasm and persuasive speech. He rallied a thousand students at his high school to march against the war in Vietnam. With his red hair and green eyes, expansive gestures and rich voice, his warmth and charisma, he was a compelling personality even as a boy.

Things must have started to change for Jay in his senior year of high school, though what may have been early signs of schizophrenia were camouflaged by the fluorescence of popular culture near the end of the war in Vietnam. He smoked pot and took acid - so did everyone, except the nerdiest nerds. There was a whole literature extolling the virtues of alternate realities that would have intrigued Jay even if he had not been developing schizophrenia. He cut a hole in his wall, to hide his stash, he told us. There were revolutionary books on just that very topic in wide circulation in anti-war circles. He cut a hole in the wall in Paul's closet to give secret access to the crawlspace under the exterior stairs. That was scarier, especially for Paul, but who were we to argue with Jay? He was going to Harvard, after all. Being forgiveably self-absorbed in my own high school years, I don't remember much about Jay's first two years at Harvard. I do remember the day when Mom & Dad came to get us out of school, because Jay had just been sent home by the San Francisco police. The Jay we knew was gone: the poor boy we got back was wracked with terrifying delusions: John F. Kennedy crawling down his spine to kill him. He called me St. Anne and Paul St. Paul and worried about having bear's feet. It was 1973.

Jay with a puppy

There was little anyone could do for Jay for the next twenty years. He would run away, be missing for months on end, and then be found by some kindly law officer and sent home again. Eventually he was committed to the Texas State Mental Hospital, which could do little more than drug him into a stupor. Then in the '90's clozapine was developed, and Jay was able to begin to have something like a life again. Although it damaged his physical health, the clozapine made it possible for Jay to live in a quarter-way house - a residential care facility in San Diego - and to spend a few months each year in Taos with my parents. To me it seemed that the drug took the terror out of his delusions, so that he was able to stay in one place and be with people. He could hang out with the family at Christmas, go to the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico with the Taos Archaeological Society, and take art classes in the summer. He couldn't pay attention to anything for more than a couple of minutes, but he could be there, be with people, and that was a huge improvement over his previous condition.

Jay had twenty years of so of that relatively stable and comfortable life. My parents managed to provide him with as much pleasure, as much activity, and as much of a creative life as he could possibly enjoy during that period. But then he was stricken by another bolt from the blue, in the form of appendicitis. The complications that ensued were too much for his poor physical condition, and he died in the hospital in San Diego on October 8, 2005. He was 52 years old.

That's the true story. Things were better for Jay in his last years than we could have hoped for in the earlier decades of his illness, but still, that story isn't good enough for my brilliant brother. Jay loved science fiction, so I am going to give him an alternate history: a story of how his life might have been without the schizophrenia.

Jay would almost certainly have majored in mathematics at Harvard. He had the gift, and no professor worth his salt would have let that go undeveloped. He would have graduated in 1975, shortly after Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft. Those were exciting times for the mathematically-inclined. Given two parents with Ph.D.s and the belief that math is a game best played by the young, Jay would have gone right on to graduate school. I think he would have gone to California - Stanford or Berkeley - drawn by the wildfire of creative energy in the computer field. Xerox Parc invented the graphical user interface in 1973; UNIX was re-written at Berkeley around that time, launching the Open Software Revolution. Jay would have been in the thick of all that, fruitfully exploiting his gifts somewhere in the nexus of art and mathematics. He would have invented some deceptively simple thing that we all use every day, like the clickable icon or a file compression algorithm. It would have made him rich, as a side effect, but money and fame would never have been what motivated him. He would have liked earning money as proof of his cleverness, and loved giving money away, but holding on to it would not have held his interest. Jay loved ingenious things, tricky useful things, and he would have revelled in the passionate optimistic anarchy of the early days of software development. He would have been a vocal and persuasive advocate of open systems and free tools for everyone.

He would have married - more than once, I suspect. He would have had a few kids, and drifted into teaching as he grew into middle age. I can see his house as clearly as if it had really existed: a rambling Arts & Crafts beauty with wraparound porches, high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The exterior would have been landscaped by Paul K. Johnson. The interior would be crowded with artifacts from around the world and art created by Jay and his friends and his children. There would always have been lots of people gathered around his dinner table: siblings, friends, students, all coming by to ask, "Hey, Jay, what do you think about this?" He would examine the thing or thought in question and reply, in his rich, rumbly baritone, "All right!" He would have encouraged all of us to push the limits of our capabilities, to stretch our creative wings and soar as high and wide as we dared.

That's where I see him now, in my imaginary memory: holding court at his table, surrounded by family and friends and the colorful clutter of a full, creative life, arguing with cheerful ardor about truth and beauty. Jay Lawrence Johnson, rest in peace.

Heidi Anna Johnson, Ph.D.