In recent days, the press has run Ben Carson’s anecdote about attempting to stab his close friend as a teenager through the wringer: What were the circumstances? Why don’t his friends remember it happening? Did it really happen it all? But one explosive question—perhaps the most important one of all—remains unanswered: Was young Ben Carson really a fan of the magazine Psychology Today?
In his 1996 memoir Gifted Hands and elsewhere, Carson uses the stabbing story as part of a larger redemption tale; as a young man, he was plagued with a violent temper, and only his faith in God could save him. The Gifted Hands version goes like this: After an adolescent Carson and his friend Bob get into an argument about which radio station to listen to, Carson pulls a camping knife from his pocket and thrusts it “with all the power of my young muscles” toward Bob’s belly. Blessedly for both men, Bob is wearing a large belt buckle, which snaps the blade and renders Carson harmless. Young Ben realizes with a shock that he just attempted to murder his buddy, then runs away and shuts himself in a bathroom with a Bible to pray the anger away. It works miraculously: Ever since that fateful day, he’s never had an issue with his temper.
But before reaching for the Bible, the already medicine-inclined teen consults another, equally vaunted, publication. That’s right: I’m talking about Psychology Today. Carson is sitting on the tub, contemplating his misdeed, when he considers the magazine:
“Lord,” I whispered, “You have to take this temper from me. If You don’t, I’ll never be free from it. I’ll end up doing a lot worse than trying to stab one of my best friends.”
Already heavy into psychology (I had been reading Psychology Today for a year), I knew that temper was a personality trait. Standard thinking in the field pointed out the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of modifying personality traits. Even today some experts believe that the best we can do is accept our limitations and adjust to them.
Tears streamed between my fingers. “Lord, despite what all the experts tell me, You can change me. You can free me forever from this destructive personality trait.”
You can see why Carson has trotted out the story so many times since then. It’s dramatic, uplifting, and shows a respect for medicine coupled with knowledge that even its most closely held principles are no match for the awesome power of God. A perfect origin story for the neurosurgeon-turned-evangelical-candidate.
But did Ben Carson really consult Psychology Today before arriving at his revelation? In Gifted Hands, Carson writes that he was in ninth grade at the time of the attempted stabbing, and he’s subsequently pinpointed his age at 14 years old. Given Carson’s birth year of 1951, that would put the knifing in either 1965 or 1966. Psychology Today published its very first issue in May 1967.
Gifted Hands claims that Carson runs to the bathroom immediately after trying to kill Bob, and indicates that his thoughts of the magazine came during this restroom reverie, not after. (One paragraph later, he’s wiping his nose with toilet paper, then standing up and sitting back down on the john.) Carson writes that he’d been reading Psychology Today for a year at that point—but the magazine wasn’t first published until at least five months later.
Why would Carson tell this non-truth? To establish his credentials as a kid who was always interested in the brain? Is he retroactively jumping on the popular publication’s bandwagon, like a latter-day Springsteen fanatic who claims to have purchased Greetings from Asbury Park the week of its release? Or is it simply an innocuous “false memory”— a topic that Carson, as a Psychology Today reader, surely knows well?
We’ve reached out to Carson’s campaign spokesman for comment and will update if and when we hear back.