Scott linked to Jon Chait’s rather convincing argument that, rather than engaging in a genuine presidential campaign, Carson is just running a new-fashioned grift, which exploits the GOP presidential nomination’s potential to bring in millions of dollars worth of free advertising. I looked a little more into Saturday’s very strange WSJ story about Carson’s fake psych exam at Yale. Below are some thoughts:
What’s wrong with Ben Carson? Carson’s candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination is on its face something between a bad joke and an outright grifting operation, but now that his strong poll numbers are causing real attention to be turned to the man, a disturbing picture is starting to appear.
Carson is an extraordinarily accomplished brain surgeon, but the question that now needs to be asked is whether he suffers from some sort of significant neurological impairment himself.
For example, this weekend the Wall Street Journal revealed that a story Carson tells in his autobiography Gifted Hands, regarding a supposed incident from his undergraduate days at Yale, appeared to be fabricated. Yet the Journal gave a very incomplete and somewhat inaccurate account of the story Carson tells in the book, which is in fact far more disturbing than a normal instance of self-aggrandizing fabrication would be.
The story Carson tells is actually two connected narratives. In the first, during his sophomore year, he is so broke that he doesn’t even have enough money for the bus fare he needs to attend church. He wanders about campus, praying to God to at least send him enough money for bus fare. Eventually he realizes he’s standing in front of a campus chapel. He looks down at the bike racks in front of it and sees a crumpled ten-dollar bill.
The next year, he again finds himself without any money, so he walks across campus to the chapel, praying again for divinely delivered funds. None are forthcoming. That very day, however, deliverance comes in an unexpected form:
Lack of funds wasn’t my only worry that day, however. The day before I’d been informed that the final examination papers in a psychology class, Perceptions 301, “were inadvertently burned.” I’d taken the exam two days earlier but, with the other students, would have to repeat the test.
And so I, with about 150 other students, went to the designated auditorium for the repeat exam.
As soon as we received the tests, the professor walked out of the classroom. Before I had a chance to read the first question, I heard a loud groan behind me.
“Are they kidding?” someone whispered loudly.
As I stared at the questions, I couldn’t believe them either. They were incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Each of them contained a thread of what we should have known from the course, but they were so intricate that I figured a brilliant psychiatrist might have trouble with some of them.
“Forget it,” I heard one girl say to another. “Let’s go back and study this. We can say we didn’t read the notice. Then when they repeat it, we’ll be ready.” Her friend agreed, and they quietly slipped out of the auditorium.
Immediately three others packed away their papers. Others filtered out. Within ten minutes after the exam started, we were down to roughly one hundred. Soon half the class was gone, and the exodus continued. Not one person turned in the examination before leaving.
I kept working away, thinking all the time, How can they expect us to know all this stuff? Pausing then to look around I counted seven students beside me still going over the test.
Within half an hour from the time the examination began, I was the only student left in the room. Like the others, I was tempted to walk out, but I had read the notice, and I couldn’t lie and say I hadn’t. All the time I wrote my answers, I prayed to God to help me figure out what to put down. I paid no more attention to the departing footsteps.
Suddenly the door of the classroom opened noisily, disrupting my flow of thought. As I turned, my gaze met that of the professor. At the same time I realized no one else was still struggling over the questions. The professor came toward me. With her was a photographer for the Yale Daily News who paused and snapped my picture.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“A hoax,” the teacher said. “We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class.” She smiled again. “And that’s you.”
The professor then did something even better. She handed me a ten-dollar bill.
The Journal reported that all the students other than Carson “walked out” of the exam, making their behavior sound like some sort of mass protest, but the actual story Carson tells is far less plausible, and indeed completely bizarre. The Journal revealed no class with that name was ever offered at Yale, nor is there any record in the Daily News’s archives of such a photograph. Yet even if we didn’t have this information it would still be obvious that this story as told couldn’t be true.
Carson is asking readers to believe that all the other 150 people taking the exam decided individually to cheat, and to cheat on it in an utterly preposterous way, by claiming that they didn’t see the notice announcing the exam, even though the professor handed the exam out to them. (“Like the others, I was tempted to walk out, but I had read the notice, and I couldn’t lie and say I hadn’t”).
The story then ends with yet another weird and wildly improbable twist, as the professor gives Carson a ten-dollar bill – thus precisely replicating the earlier miraculous fiscal manna – while bringing along a Daily News photographer to document Carson’s spectacular triumph over temptation.
So what really happened? The true story, it turns out, bears almost no resemblance to Carson’s inspirational tale. In January of 1970 (when Carson was a freshman, not a junior), the Yale Record, a student-produced humor magazine, printed a parody issue of the Daily News, that included an item reporting that series of exams for a psychology course had been destroyed, and that a make-up exam would be held on the evening of January 14. According to a report next day in the Daily News, “several” students fell for the hoax, and showed up to take the fake exam, which the pranksters took the trouble to produce, and that closely resembled the actual exam, which had been administered two days earlier.
Incredibly (a word that is difficult to avoid using repeatedly when discussing Ben Carson) the eminent Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon posted a reproduction of the Daily News report on his Facebook page yesterday, as proof that the Wall Street Journal was incorrect when it suggested that Carson had fabricated the story told in Gifted Hands.
But of course Carson’s “proof” strongly suggests that the story he tells in Gifted Hands is false in practically every detail, except for the fact – if it is a fact, as we have only Carson’s word on the matter – that he fell for a hoax.
When one remembers that the point of Carson’s elaborate fabrication was to emphasize his exceptional honesty, the question arises whether Carson is a pathological liar, that is, someone who lies compulsively, and in ways that are so excessive and out of control that they seem unconnected to any practical purpose. (Carson’s real life story is compelling enough that concocting bizarrely improbable tales of this sort seems both totally unnecessary and potentially self-destructive).
It’s also possible that Carson is so severely narcissistic that he is actively delusional, and is no longer capable of distinguishing his fabrications about his past from his actual past. In other words, by now Carson’s transformation of a trivially embarrassing incident into an elaborate story of providential delivery and personal triumph may be so complete in his own mind that he has literally forgotten that he made it all up.
That someone whose behavior raises such questions is as of now a leading contender for the GOP’s presidential nomination is a grim comment on the political pathologies driving that process.