M. Scott Peck

Author of the self-help best-seller 'The Road Less Travel(l)ed'

The psychiatrist and writer M. Scott Peck achieved fame with his best-selling 1978 book The Road Less Traveled. It was his first book, and the publisher originally printed 5,000 copies without fanfare. News spread by word of mouth and book sales kept increasing, so that by mid-1983 it had reached The New York Times best-seller list. More than one million copies were sold that year; by now it has sold many millions. Altogether the book was on that best-seller list for a number of weeks equivalent to 13 years. It has been translated into over 20 languages.

Originally called "The Psychology of Spiritual Growth" before the publisher asked Peck to change the title, the book puts forth the view that there is no distinction between the mind and spirit: "psychotherapy and spiritual growth are one and the same thing". Peck assumes that this process is a "complex, arduous and lifelong task" and that, if psychotherapy is to help substantially, it "is not a quick or simple procedure".

In an introduction to the 25th anniversary edition, he wrote that his "naïve fantasy" when the book had first come out was that it would be reviewed in newspapers throughout America. "The reality was that, by pure grace, it received a single review . . . but what a review! For a significant part of the success of the book" he had to give credit to Phyllis Theroux, who "happened to discover an advance copy among a pile of books in the office of the book editor of The Washington Post. After scanning the table of contents she took it home with her, returning two days later to 'demand' to review it." She then set out

to deliberately craft a review that would make the book a bestseller. And so she did. Within a week of her review The Road was on the Washington DC best-seller list, years before it would get on any national list. It was just enough, however, to get the book started.

Peck worked to stimulate sales by copying that review and sending it to several hundred newspapers around the country.

The opening sentence of his book, a paragraph on its own, is "Life is difficult". In Peck's "gloomier moments", he once said, he believed that life is a "kind of celestial boot camp", that "children are done a disservice if they are taught that they ought to be happy. They are in for a great disappointment." He thought life was "replete with obstacle courses, almost fiendishly designed for our learning". The obstacle "most fiendishly designed is sex", he told a Playboy interviewer. Sex was a problem for everyone - children, adolescents, young adults, middle-aged adults, elderly adults, celibates, married people, single people, straight people, gay people - everyone. He thought God "built into us this feeling" that we can "conquer or solve" sex, and "maybe we find someone for a day or two or even a year or two", but then we realise we haven't solved it.

Peck used to tell patients that he could not guarantee them that they would leave therapy "one jot happier", but he could guarantee them that they would leave more competent. He believed that "the greatest event of the 20th century" occurred in Akron, Ohio, in 1935 when Alcoholics Anonymous was established. It was the "beginning of the self-help movement, and also the beginning of the integration of science and religion on a grass-roots level". He thought it taught people about community, about supporting each other, about being more compassionate and at the same time more competent.

"This supposedly Christian culture," he once said

emphasises family values - the family that prays together stays together - as if Jesus had been some kind of great family man . . . The fact is that the Jesus of the Gospels was not a great family man. If anything, he was a breaker-up of families. He set siblings against siblings and children against parents. And he did that because he was fighting against the idolatry of the family where family togetherness becomes sacred at all costs.

A cult grew up around Peck and the book. However, he told an interviewer that he hated cults. He said that, when he got the feeling that there was a Scott Peck cult, he got "very uncomfortable". He said he constantly told people, "Look, I don't want to be your fucking Messiah." Yet he said he wrote the book because he was "under orders" - from God. He said that he did not mean that The Road was "the literal word of God or otherwise 'channelled' material". He said he did the writing, and there are a number of places in the book where he wished he had chosen better words or phrases. None the less, "despite its flaws", there was "no question" in his mind that, as he wrote the book in the "solitude of his cramped little office", he "had help". He could not really "explain that help, but the experience of it is hardly unique. Indeed such help is the ultimate subject of the book itself."

Peck's experience in life generally was that he was "being manipulated by a power beyond" him. He "chose to co-operate" with this power because, so far as he could ascertain, it was "infinitely more intelligent" than he was, and seemed to have his best interests at heart.

He wrote that "a few" had called him a "prophet". He said he could "accept such a seemingly grandiose title only because many have pointed out that a prophet is not someone who can see the future, but merely someone who can read the signs of the times". He thought that one of those signs was that by the time the book was published many Americans were in psychotherapy or were in "Twelve Step Programmes", such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Peck was concerned about what life means. The nihilistic view, he said, "assumes that there is no meaning and, consequently, it doesn't matter what the fuck you do". Then there is what he "loosely" called the existential view, "which holds that there's no reason to conclude that there is any meaning to life" and one should live "as if life were meaningless"; this "is too horrible and destructive to consider". His own view was that life really does have meaning "and part of the reason we're here is to try to figure out what the meaning is".

Morgan Scott Peck was born in 1936, in New York, to an affluent secular family. His father was a successful lawyer and judge. "Scottie" attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an expensive fee-paying school, but left at the age of 15 against his parents' wishes as he was unhappy there, and he finished at a Quaker prep school in Manhattan. He took a course in world religions and "fell in love with Hinduism and Buddhism". When he was 18 he "was a Zen Buddhist - way before it was fashionable".

He entered Middlebury College, in Vermont, where it was mandatory to do Reserve Officers' Training Corps, which trains American college students to become military officers. During his second year he became one of the first ROTC protesters against the military and was expelled for refusing to attend ROTC sessions. He transferred to Harvard, where he majored in psychology, and took a second, medical, degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.

He did his psychiatric residency in the military. He underwent psychotherapy in his last year of residency, "not because it would be a learning experience", but because he "needed" it. He spent nearly 10 years as an army psychiatrist, which he admitted was an odd choice given his college experience. He said that he became opposed to the Vietnam War soon after joining the army, but alleged later that his military experience was a way to study the behaviour of individuals and organisations.

Peck was attracted to his first wife, Lily Ho from Singapore, "perhaps because she was Chinese and had a sort of exoticness". They married when he was a medical student, against their parents' wishes. He said his parents had raised him to be "the ultimate Wasp" (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), and now he was "marrying a Chink". They told him he was ruining his life, that he would have no friends. They disinherited him. "Her parents were equally bad. They were furious because they had lost control." He and Lily had three children - to whom he expressed gratefulness in print for having "suffered from their father's workaholism". The marriage ended in divorce, and he later remarried.

His conversion to Christianity occurred in 1980, when he was 43. He underwent a baptism at a non-denominational ceremony performed by a Methodist minister in an Episcopalian convent. He said he became a Christian as he "wrestled with the ideas of sin and guilt, remorse and contrition". Christianity dealt with those in ways that "made sense" to him. He once said that his commitment to Christianity was "the most important thing" in his life and was, he hoped, "pervasive and total".

Peck's other books include a novel, A Bed by the Window (1990), and a "fable", The Friendly Snowflake (1992), as well as Further Along the Road Less Traveled (1993) and The Road Less Traveled and Beyond (1997). His People of the Lie (1983) was subtitled "the hope for healing human evil", and he also wrote The Different Drum: community-making and peace (1987), which tried to diagnose the ills of communities, America and the world.

Morton Schatzman