A tale of two Carsons

Story highlights

  • Ben Carson: Names of some victims of childhood violence are 'fictitious'
  • At the core of Ben Carson's narrative of spiritual redemption are his acts of violence as an angry young man
  • But nine friends, classmates and neighbors who grew up with Carson told CNN they have no memory of the anger or violence the candidate has described

Detroit (CNN)Ben Carson, the soft-spoken, Yale-educated brain surgeon who has surged in the GOP presidential race, has written and spoken powerfully of divine intervention at several pivotal moments in his life.

At the core of his narrative of spiritual redemption are his acts of violence as an angry young man — stabbing, rock throwing, brick hurling and baseball bat beating — that preceded Carson's sudden transformation into the composed figure who stands before voters today.
    In his 1990 autobiography, "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," Carson describes those acts as flowing from an uncontrollable "pathological temper." The violent episodes he has detailed in his book, in public statements and in interviews, include punching a classmate in the face with his hand wrapped around a lock, leaving a bloody three-inch gash in the boy's forehead; attempting to attack his own mother with a hammer following an argument over clothes; hurling a large rock at a boy, which broke the youth's glasses and smashed his nose; and, finally, thrusting a knife at the belly of his friend with such force that the blade snapped when it luckily struck a belt buckle covered by the boy's clothes.
    "I was trying to kill somebody," Carson said, describing the incident -- which he has said occurred at age 14 in ninth grade -- during a September forum at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.
    But nine friends, classmates and neighbors who grew up with Carson told CNN they have no memory of the anger or violence the candidate has described.
    That person is unrecognizable to those whom CNN interviewed, who knew him during those formative years.
    All of the people interviewed expressed surprise about the incidents Carson has described. No one challenged the stories directly. Some of those interviewed expressed skepticism, but noted that they could not know what had happened behind closed doors.
    Gerald Ware, a classmate at Southwestern High School said he was "shocked" to read about the violence in Carson's book.
    "I don't know nothing about that," said Ware, who still lives in southwestern Detroit. "It would have been all over the whole school."
    CNN was unable to independently confirm any of the incidents, which Carson said occurred when he was a juvenile.
    Ben Carson is pictured third from the left.
    Carson's campaign adviser and business manager, Armstrong Williams, declined repeated requests by CNN to provide details about the history of violence Carson has described, including the identities of his alleged victims and witnesses. CNN also asked the campaign for documentation of any disciplinary actions that resulted.
    "Why would anyone cooperate with your obvious witch hunt?" Williams wrote in an email last Friday. "No comment and moving on...... Happy Halloween!!!!!"
    CNN contacted the campaign once again Wednesday afternoon to share its findings and received the same response.
    In a media availability during his book tour in Florida on Thursday after publication of CNN's piece, the network's Sunlen Serfaty asked Carson about the investigation and why CNN could not find anyone who could corroborate the story.
    "I don't want to expose people without their knowledge, but remember, when I was 14, when the knifing episode occurred, that's when I changed, that's when most of the people I talked to began to know who I was, they didn't know me before then," Carson said.
    CNN interviewed people for this report who knew Carson as early as elementary school.
    Serfaty later reminded Carson that CNN spoke to elementary, junior high and high school classmates who knew him throughout his life and that none of them could recall violent incidents. Carson then responded that the only people who would know about the encounters were the people who were victims.
    "‎Why would anybody know about, you know, private incidents like that?" Carson said. "I was generally a nice person. It's just that I had a very bad temper so unless you were the victim of that temper why would you know?"

    'No exaggeration'

    Carson's improbable rise from an impoverished childhood in Detroit to become one of the top pediatric neurosurgeons in the nation has been a cornerstone of his appeal to voters of all political persuasions. In a December 2014 Gallup poll, he was ranked as the sixth-most admired man in America, behind President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, and former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
    Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist, has connected to evangelical voters in part by describing his own spiritual journey.
    He said he has felt the hand of God at several key moments in his life, including a dramatic near-miss traffic accident and receiving an A-grade on a chemistry exam for which he felt badly unprepared.
    The most lasting miracle, though, was his sudden transformation from an angry, violent young man into the composed figure who stands before voters today.
    He writes in "Gifted Hands" that his religious epiphany took place in the bathroom of his family's tiny home in southwest Detroit, after he says he had tried to kill a young friend over a dispute about what music to listen to on the radio. It was the last in a string of violent acts that Carson says were spurred by a roiling anger that threatened to derail his dream of becoming a doctor.
    Crying, and praying to God for deliverance, Carson found his answer when he picked up a Bible and opened it to the book of Proverbs and a passage on the importance of controlling one's temper.
    Carson writes in his book that he spoke directly to God in that moment: "Lord, despite what all the experts tell me, You can change me. You can free me forever from this destructive personality trait."
    When he left that bathroom, he told voters at the September Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco, "I was a different person."
    In "Gifted Hands," Carson said friends who didn't know him as a kid "think I'm exaggerating when I say I had a bad temper."
    "But it's no exaggeration," he wrote, before detailing two more "crazed experiences."
    Carson, 64, has given vague and shifting accounts of the violent incidents over the years, most notably one involving his mother.
    In his autobiography, he described attempting to hit her during an argument over clothes. He said his older brother, Curtis, intervened, wrestling him away and pinning his arms to his side. In a subsequent account of an argument with his mom over clothes he said he tried to attack her with a hammer when his brother disarmed him. Attempts to reach Curtis Carson were unsuccessful. Ben Carson has said on the campaign trail that his mother, Sonya Carson, is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
    At an event last Friday in Arkansas, Carson was asked about his shifting versions of the stabbing incident.
    "The explanation is that that occurred over 50 years ago," Carson told reporters during the media availability. "Have you ever played that party game where you whisper into the person's ear and then they tell it, and by the time it gets all the way back around it's a different story? That's what we're talking about here."
    The litany of violence Carson has admitted to, including potential assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder, has been at the core of Carson's story of redemption and personal growth.
    Rather than distance himself from his long-ago juvenile conduct, the candidate has continued to use the stories to define the depths from which he has emerged.

    Memories of a quiet child

    Friends and classmates interviewed by CNN in recent weeks, however, recalled Carson as quiet, bookish and nerdy.
    "He got through his day trying not to be noticed," Robert Collier said. "I remember him having a pocket saver. He had thick glasses. He was skinny and unremarkable."
    Brad Wilson remembered him as an obedient child who would not defy his mother's rule against crossing the street, even when she wasn't around to enforce it. He would not even cross the street to ride bikes alongside his friend, Wilson said. Instead the two would wheel around the block -- both on their own sides of the street.
    It's the image of the quiet kid with the pocket-protector that endures in Carson's hometown of Detroit, not the flashes of violence Carson also describes.
    "I personally do not have knowledge of those incidents," said former classmate Dorian Reeves. Reeves said he overlapped with Carson in elementary, junior high and high school. "I wondered, 'When did that happen?'"
    Carson's polite, subdued demeanor continued in high school when he joined ROTC and ultimately became a commander of his unit, classmates said.
    Ware, the classmate at Southwestern High, said Carson's writings about violent acts, the attempted stabbing in particular, were the subject of discussion among a group of classmates planning a reunion several years ago.
    Nobody "knew anything about that happening," Ware said. "Take my word for it: Everyone at Southwestern would know about it if something like that happened."
    A 10th person who knew Carson, junior high and high school classmate Jerry Dixon, initially said in an interview that he had no recollection of altercations or violent episodes involving Carson.
    "He was a quiet, shy kid, not too outgoing," said Dixon, who played football and said he and Carson were in different circles.
    "Bennie stayed home a lot or went to the library to work. We would have been at the ballfield, so maybe he would have come by to watch."
    Dixon said he had never heard about incidents involving bricks or bats, or the assault with the lock. When asked directly whether he knew of Carson's claim that he had once stabbed a friend in the waist, Dixon said he had heard talk about an incident like that back in those days, but didn't know "if it was just a rumor or what" and couldn't provide any further detail.
    The classmates interviewed by CNN were verified as having attended school with Carson through the yearbook for the 1969 class at Southwestern, as well as a 1969 graduation program that listed the names of the graduates. Most declined to discuss their political leanings, but expressed admiration for Carson. None said they had animus toward him.
    Carson has identified the victim of the knife attack by the first name of Bob. He said the boy he hit with the lock in his hand was named Jerry. Responding to a request last week, the campaign declined to provide the last name of either boy.
    When Carson was asked about Bob and Jerry on Thursday afternoon, he said that those names were "fictitious."
    "I don't like to generally bring them in, the names I used for instance are fictitious names because I don't want to bring people into something like this because I know what you guys do to their lives‎," Carson told reporters in Ft. Lauderdale.
    Carson does not provide a precise timeline for his acts of violence, but refers to two specific incidents that occurred in junior high school and high school.
    He writes that the lock attack occurred in seventh grade and was preceded by Jerry taunting him for saying "one of the all-time stupid things of the year" in English class. An argument ensued, Jerry shoved him and "my temper flared," Carson wrote.
    "I swung at him, lock in hand. The blow slammed into his forehead, and he groaned, staggering backward, blood seeping from a three-inch gash."
    The encounter contrasts with other aspects of his seventh-grade life. That same year, Carson described himself as a top pupil who shied away from a fight when older white kids called him a racial slur and whacked him with a stick.
    "I looked down at my feet, too scared to answer, too frightened to run," Carson wrote in his book.
    He said the attempted stabbing of Bob -- a moment of "pathological anger" -- occurred in the ninth grade. That incident led to his prayerful session in the bathroom. Since that day, he wrote, he has "never had a problem with my temper."
    The classmates and friends interviewed by CNN said they did not know the identity of Jerry or Bob. CNN attempted to contact students in Carson's class with those first names but was been unable to locate any Bob or Jerry who said they were the victim of such an attack.

    'I believed everything he told me'

    Timothy E. McDaniel, Southwestern's class president in 1969, said he and Carson have been friends since junior high school and remain in touch to this day. McDaniel, an attorney, considered himself Carson's closest friend in those years. He said he never saw any evidence of the anger or violence Carson has described.
    "I did not witness those things. I don't have, really, any independent knowledge of those things," McDaniel said in a recent interview.
    He said the two first discussed the issue decades later — after Carson had written about it -- in a "really deep conversation" at Carson's home in Baltimore.
    "I said, 'Ben, you hid it from us all those years,' and he said he was just too embarrassed to even talk about it," McDaniel recalled. "I was surprised at some of the things he said. But, you know, he said them honestly and I believed everything he told me."
    In "Gifted Hands," Carson described himself as slow to anger, but wrote that once he reached his boiling point, "I lost all rational control."
    "I had what I only can label a pathological temper — a disease — and this sickness controlled me, making me totally irrational."
    "Totally without thinking, when my anger was aroused, I grabbed the nearest brick, rock, or stick to bash someone," he wrote. "It was as if I had no conscious will in the matter."
    For part of that time, Carson lived on Deacon Street, in the same neighborhood as McDaniel.
    McDaniel described the area as a close-knit community where "everyone knew everyone" and "everybody looked out for each other."
    He said if parents saw a kid acting out, they would feel free to impose discipline even if the child wasn't their own.
    "They would call your parents up and when you got home, you would get disciplined again," McDaniel recalled. "So that kept everybody from getting into really serious trouble."
    It's not just classmates who were surprised to hear about Carson's account of his dark side.
    Siblings Steve and Marie Choice, who lived next door to Carson when he was a teenager, were similarly baffled by his accounts of burning anger and violent outbursts.
    Both said they found it difficult to reconcile with the polite, easygoing older boy next door who went to school in his ROTC uniform and often toted a musical instrument in its case.
    Steve Choice said he found the account of Carson going after his mother with a hammer particularly difficult to fathom.
    "That just seems out of character for him," Choice said, noting the respect that the Carson boys showed their mother, who was struggling to support the family. "That is just truly hard to believe — that he would do something like that."
    "I just never seen him, you know, talk back to her or anything," Choice said.

    'This is my story'

    In a campaign video on Carson's website, the candidate stands in front of a dilapidated and apparently abandoned house. Images of piled garbage and graffiti-scarred buildings roll past as the candidate speaks.
    "I'm Dr. Ben Carson, and this is my story," he says. "Poverty and the mean streets of Detroit could have defined my life." He goes on to say how his mother's love and education allowed him to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor.
    Carson does not identify the house in the video as his own.
    The family left their Deacon Street home after his mother discovered that his father was a bigamist, and divorced him. The family bounced around -- initially moving in with Carson's aunt and uncle in a rat and roach-infested Boston tenement, according to his autobiography.
    When he returned to Detroit at about age 10, Carson lived for several years in what he described as an "upper-lower-class neighborhood" near the city's Delray section, before returning to his former house on Deacon Street in eighth grade.
    "It was a smoggy industrial area crisscrossed with train tracks, housing little sweatshops making auto parts," Carson wrote in "Gifted Hands."
    The nearby Delray area today is blighted and abandoned -- representative of Detroit's urban decline. The images in the campaign video are consistent with the appearance of that area.
    Those images, however, bear little resemblance to the house on Deacon Street — the neighborhood and home where Carson spent his early childhood years, and his time in Detroit from eighth grade until high school graduation.
    That home, where he lived next door to Steve and Marie Choice, sits on a tree-lined block of well-kept, middle-class houses. They are homes to government employees and automotive industry workers, as they were when Carson was young, according to the Choices, who live in the same house they did when they and Carson were kids.
    "This has always been, I would say, a pretty decent neighborhood — people working, kids playing," Steve Choice said in an interview on the block where his family and the Carson family lived. "We used to keep the doors unlocked. Doors would be open at night. You could just walk in. And you know it was pretty safe at that time."
    Steve Choice remembered the Carsons getting a pool table for their basement and young Ben beaming as he hosted games with other neighborhood kids. Marie Choice recalled Carson's mom, Sonya, taking great pride in the flower garden she planted and tended in front of the house.
    Beyond that tranquil, supportive environment at home, Carson did, however, grow up during a tremendously turbulent time in Detroit -- a period that would have presented many opportunities for confrontations for a young man with a hot temper.
    The Detroit riots erupted in the summer of 1967 while Carson was in high school, and one classmate, Kevin Fobbs, who entered ROTC as a freshman when Carson was a senior commander, described their alma mater as a cauldron of racial and societal tensions.
    ROTC members in uniform, Fobbs said, faced almost daily encounters with fellow students who sympathized with or were part of the Black Panther movement.
    "I was pushed around a lot in high school in that first and second year," Fobbs said in an interview. He said he could not recall Carson ever being involved in any kind of physical confrontation.
    Walking around school in their uniforms, Fobbs said he, Carson and the other ROTC members were a constant target, shoved around and called "Uncle Toms": "Basically they would cast aspersions on why you would turn against your own race in order to embrace 'baby-killers,' the military, and the white establishment itself."
    But Fobbs said he never saw Carson lose his cool -- and said he never heard of any of the prior violent episodes Carson has described.
    The ROTC circle was small and close-knit, Fobbs said. "As a school, it's big, it's a couple thousand kids, but we were a very small unit, so you would have heard about that within like half a day." At the same time, Fobbs acknowledged that Carson simply may not have wanted to talk about those explosive incidents with the younger cadets.
    The Carson that he knew would calmly tell the younger ROTC members to ignore the insults hurled at them.
    "'Forget that, leave that at the door,'" Fobbs said Carson told them. "'Inside here, this is a safe haven.'

    The Hand of God

    Carson has felt the hand of God at key moments throughout his life.
    He felt it when he and his future wife, Candy, were spared from a car accident when he fell asleep while driving 90 MPH and narrowly missed careening into a ravine and moments later being struck by an 18-wheeler.
    "God spared our lives because he wants us to do something," Carson said he told Candy at the time, according to an account in the Baltimore Sun.
    Carson felt God's influence again at Yale when he went to bed feeling unprepared for a chemistry test he had to pass in order to continue his pre-med studies. A shadowy figure came to him in his dreams, he said, with most of the questions that would appear on the exam the following morning. He scored a 97.
    "For whatever reason, the God of the universe, the God who holds galaxies in His hands, had seen a reason to reach down to a campus room on Planet Earth and send a dream to a discouraged ghetto kid who wanted to become a doctor," Carson would later write in "Gifted Hands."
    Divine intervention has been a theme, not only in Carson's past, but also in his run for President.
    Before he was nudged into the race by the Draft Carson movement, fueled in part by evangelicals who dominate the early state GOP contests, he said he planned a leisurely life of retirement with his wife.
    "The Lord had a different plan," he told his San Francisco audience in September. "I just said, 'Lord this is not something that I particularly wish to do, but if you really want me to do it you'll have to open the doors," he said, adding that he was speaking of the difficulty of putting together a national organization and the millions of dollars needed to win.
    "And if you open the doors I'll walk through them," Carson said, recounting his conversation with God. "And if you close the doors, I'll gladly sit down."
    "He keeps opening the doors."