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Yale Alum: It 'Wouldn't Surprise Me' If Carson Fell For Magazine's Prank

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AP Photo / David Zalubowski

Aspects of the retired neurosurgeon's biography have come under intense scrutiny in recent days, including an anecdote in his 1990 book "Gifted Hands" about being dubbed the "most honest" student in a psychology course he took during his junior year at Yale. His camp pushed back hard Sunday on a Wall Street Journal report that called his telling of that tale into question.

Carson posted an article from the Yale Daily News to his Facebook page by way of corroborating his version of events. The article, dated Jan. 14, 1970, explained that the school's humor magazine, The Yale Record, published a notice for a psychology exam makeup session as part of an issue parodying the News. The WSJ noted that, according to the Yale Daily News' timeline, the "hoax" exam actually was held during the second semester of Carson's freshman year.

Carson referred repeatedly to a "notice" about the makeup exam in "Gifted Hands." He wrote that the other students filtered out of the room after agreeing that they could simply pretend they never saw notice of the makeup testing session. As for himself: "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," he wrote.

“That does sound like a Yale Record kind of prank because it’s intense, you know. It goes on and on,” Michael Gerber, a satirist who is credited with rebooting the Record in 1989 and now serves as the historian for the foundation overseeing the magazine, told TPM. "That wouldn't surprise me."

Two former Yalies who managed the Record around that time were Tim Bannon and “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau. Bannon did not immediately respond Monday morning to a request for comment from TPM. Trudeau responded to TPM with a brief email: "I’m sorry, afraid I can’t help on this one."

Gerber cautioned that the two men, who graduated in 1970, may have already left the Record before it published the parody issue of the Yale Daily News and would therefore have no knowledge of the prank.

Carson also wrote in "Gifted Hands" that once he remained in the room as the lone person taking the exam, the professor for the course handed him $10 and a Yale Daily News photographer took his picture. Gerber said it was possible that the professor and photographer were playing roles as part of the prank. He also said Carson's recollection of having someone take his picture sounded like the kind of thing Record staff would do to round out the "hoax."

“The taking of the picture actually is what makes me think—that actually rings very true too because it would be fun to have documentation of it," he added. "That’s what you do when you have a prank is you figure out some way to be able to, five years later, be like ‘Oh yeah, here’s the picture.’”

Neil Steinberg, the author of "If At All Possible, Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks," told TPM that he didn't recall coming across the Yale psychology exam "hoax" in his research.

"There was sort of a common say-the-class-was-canceled prank. That kind of thing was done a lot," Steinberg said.

Now a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, Steinberg added that it wouldn't put Carson "outside of the realm of humanity" to embellish the tale a bit for his own benefit.

"Over the passage of time when you look at youthful exploits—something happened and then as they retell it, if you're a certain personality like Ben Carson, you make it more and more to your own glory," Steinberg said.

At this point, it's unclear exactly which pieces of Carson's retelling of the exam "hoax" were part of the Yale Record prank. The retired neurosurgeon did say that his "Gifted Hands" co-author muddied some of the details, like the name of the psychology course.

“You know, when you write a book with a co-writer and you say that there was a class, a lot of time they’ll put a number or something just to give it more meat,” Carson said on ABC's "This Week." “You know, obviously, decades later, I’m not going to remember the course number.”

About The Author

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Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at catherine@talkingpointsmemo.com.