Self-Help Guru M. Scott Peck Seeks the Road to Peace—for the World and Himself
The story of the house's transformation is a typical Peckian parable: Sickness begets chaos, which, through hard work and a touch of grace, leads to growth and resurrection. "Psychotherapy and spiritual growth are one and the same thing," says Peck, enunciating a message he's been preaching since 1977, when he wrote The Road Less Traveled. Far from being at odds, Peck claims, the psychiatric and religious views of the human personality complement each other: Both point to unconditional love and transcendent faith as the way to a meaningful life. Issued in obscurity, The Road, as its devotees call it, grew by word of mouth into a publishing legend that has sold 2.5 million copies and spent more than four years on the paperback best-seller lists. Faithful readers prescribe the book to friends for every existential ill, and its success has catapulted Peck from his private psychiatric practice in quiet New Preston, Conn., to the dizzying orbit of self-help guru to millions. "Theologically he's very sound," says Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., senior minister at Manhattan's Riverside Church. "He's a populist in the best sense of the word, who makes understandable to a large audience some of the most important ideas of our day."
Now, with his latest best-seller, The Different Drum, Peck is expanding his mission. No longer simply the psychiatrist ministering to personal suffering, he is an evangelist seeking to save America from the afflictions of social alienation, institutional corruption and the arms race. Subtitled Community-Making and Peace, Peck's new book proposes, in effect, a form of group therapy for the entire nation as a means of establishing tolerance and universal love, which Peck believes could help us achieve a wiser and more compassionate democracy. To help spread the word, Peck and Lily have put up $350,000 to endow the Foundation for Community Encouragement, based in Knoxville, Tenn., as a headquarters for the new movement.
By embodying his work in an institution, Peck is hoping to solve his evangelist's dilemma. "What happens to successful evangelists," he says, "be they Robert Schuller or Jim Bakker or what-not, is that they develop these huge machines around them and the work that they do, and when they have a stroke or commit an indiscretion, the whole thing collapses. I did not want to be in that position." Peck, though his public may lament it, is slowly but surely trying to remove himself from center stage, not just for the sake of his mission, but for his own sake as well. Last year, he confesses, the burdens of being M. Scott Peck, M.D., the phenomenon, sank Scotty Peck the man into a deep depression. "I was feeling trapped by my fame," he says, "trapped by my addiction to feeling responsible for everything, and I was on a kind of treadmill."
Self-scrutiny and personal revelation are Peck's stock in trade, and as he sits stretched on a reclining chair in the middle of his sunlit backyard, squinting at the bright day, he seems to be straining to see into his own perplexity. The slight tremor in his hands as he smokes a cigarette hints at an undercurrent of stress. His driven nature and his Christian faith have led him to give of himself to the point of exhaustion. He recently had to undergo surgery for a painfully arthritic neck inflamed by tension. "Like most diseases, it's psychosomatic," he says with a smile. "It comes from sticking your neck out."
That he has done. Despite the evidence that it had struck a deep chord among some of its readers, The Road Less Traveled was all but ignored by Peck's fellow psychiatrists, and his second best-seller, People of the Lie, though well received by many psychotherapists, raised eyebrows with its accounts of his participation in Christian rites of exorcism. One reviewer assumed he discussed those episodes to boost sales, but Peck is convinced that he witnessed cases of demonic possession. "The fact of the matter," says Peck, "is that I didn't feel I could address the subject of evil with integrity without dealing with the question, Is there such a thing as an evil spirit? When I started researching I didn't really think that there was, and then I gradually discovered that there was and had to lay it out."
Peck finds himself assailed not only by skeptical intellectuals who cannot accept his religious convictions, but also by fundamentalists put off by his personal habits. "There are some people who love the books but are so incensed that I smoke or I swear that it drives them away," he says. He also finds himself stung by gossip about his private life, including the charge that' he has a drinking problem. "I do like my martinis in the evening," he readily admits. But he sees no danger in his regular cocktail hour. "I've asked myself if I'm an alcoholic or not," he says, "and conclude, for the moment, I'm not."
Despite the signs of strain in Peck, there is in his almost boyish face a hint of some unclouded presence, as if through his labors he has somehow been rendered up or clarified. Though he offers the prospect of joy to his audiences, the ironic secret of Peck's popular success is that he refuses to soft-pedal his prescriptions, to offer any assurances that life can be lived without suffering. He is the psychiatrist who confesses his own neuroses, the preacher who analyses his own sins, thereby reassuring his audiences that they are neither so crazy nor so damned themselves.
Peck strikes a vulnerable stance in part to discourage any cultism among his fans, and he is ambivalent about the adulation he sometimes receives. "There are people who literally want to touch my garments," he says. "About half the time, it feels okay. It feels kind of legitimate, that there is something they get from me which is constructive and leads them on. The other half of the time—it's a visceral kind of thing—I feel it's exactly the wrong thing, and yuck." Such encounters offend the whole thrust of his message, says Peck: to get people to take responsibility for themselves. As he puts it, "I don't want to be your goddamned messiah. I don't need you as followers, I need you as co-workers."
Peck's friends and co-workers speak of him only in the warmest terms. They note that for a wise man who is often expected to have all the answers, he is remarkably open to what others have to say. One fellow self-help star with whom Peck shares a friendship is Richard Bolles, author of the best-selling job-search manual What Color Is Your Parachute? "The common denominators in the people I really get along with well are that they are all open, growing and playful," says Bolles. "When I met Scotty he was all three of those things. If I write and tell him I have this question or that about the direction he's taking, he'll write back and say, 'I share your concern in spades.' "
Although his books, cassette tapes and speaking fees have made him a millionaire, Peck lives modestly. Most of the money goes to support his foundation, to pay his and Lily's six assistants, and to cover the cost of travel and other business expenses. His books were written mostly on yellow legal pads during flights on a seemingly endless round of speaking engagements. "Nothing interferes with my prayer life more than book sales statistics," says Peck; he frets about how much money he and Lily will be able to pass on to their son and two daughters. "We have no social life, unless there's an agenda" he says.
Peck calls himself a "responsibility-aholic," and among the stacks of books and piles of papers in his cluttered study is a photocopy of an inspirational message: "Do not feel totally, personally, irrevocably responsible for everything. That's my job. Love, God." Peck's regular recreation is a short hike around a route he calls the loop, down along nearby Lake Waramaug and back, during which he always carries a walking stick made by his daughter. "My father always had a walking stick," he says, "and among the few times I felt close to my father when I was a kid was when I went walking with him."
Peck's father, a retired judge, is a self-made man from Indiana who came East and became the youngest senior partner ever at the illustrious Manhattan law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. That heritage has made the son a complex mix of patrician WASP and populist—one who urges a traditional ethic of hard work and self-discipline while putting forth exhortations to peace, love and personal growth that recall the social and psychic rebellions of the '60s and '70s. After graduating from Harvard in 1958 with a degree in social relations and a desire to write, Peck bowed to his father's wishes and went into medicine. He met Lily, who was born and raised in Singapore, in physics class during his postgraduate pre-medical studies at Manhattan's Columbia University.
"We got married over her parents' and my parents' dead bodies," says Peck. His family objected to an interracial marriage, while her father, a conservative Chinese Baptist minister, didn't want his daughter marrying a man who, at the time, showed a speculative interest in Buddhism. Peck's movement from agnostic mysticism to nondenominational Christianity and his baptism in 1980 caused considerable strain in the marriage since Lily was rebelling against her father's strict fundamentalism. "As I moved toward becoming a Christian, the words that started having an increasingly positive tone for me had an increasingly negative tone for Lily," says Peck. They have since grown beyond that stage and now share the same mission, he says.
Peck regards The Different Drum and the creation of the Foundation for Community Encouragement as the culmination of his work. "For the first time in 11 years I don't feel called to write," he says. "And that feels very good, actually. It feels like God has let me off the hook, given me a kind of vacation." Yet it's difficult to imagine Peck taking time off. He seems compelled to take on others' burdens, and sometimes it's not clear whether he wants to make theirs lighter or his heavier. For Scotty Peck, despite fame, fortune and the love of millions, the opening sentence of The Road Less Traveled remains as true as ever: "Life is difficult."