Self-help guru, absent father, cheating husband, excellent writer, self-centred prophet, genuine seeker after truth, a ‘decent person trying sometimes to be better’, a very wounded healer, a “bit of a shit”, a paradox.
M. Scott Peck (MSP), the author and pop psychiatrist who so successfully blended psychology and religion in his international bestseller The Road Less Travelled (RLT) was all of these.
Right now I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that M. Scott Peck appears to have been such a fraud. Perhaps that’s the wrong word and an over-reaction on my part. But I do feel a sense of betrayal and it makes me question my belief in psychology as a profession. I know that I will probably come to a more “middle of the road” position with time but for now I’m still in a bit of shock.
Perhaps I should back up here. You’re probably wondering what the fuss is about. Basically it boils down to this. Peck published the RLT in 1978 but it only became a phenomenal bestseller a few years later (selling over 10 million copies worldwide) when he hit the lecture circuit. At the height of his fame in the early nineties Peck was a cultural phenomenon. His message of taking responsibility and facing up to personal problems and moving forward in love and discipline hit a chord with millions of people. But from the mid-nineties (I would guess) it emerged that Peck the man was very different from the message that he preached. He was, in the words of one reviewer, a ‘serial adulterer’, was addicted to gin and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. He also had an estranged relationship with two of his three children.
So what to make of the man and his message?
“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” is one of the catch-phrases of the RLT. But what does this mean? What is the “new psychology of love, traditional values and spiritual growth” that he preaches? Having read the book and quite a few of the reviews, I’m a bit more sceptical about the whole concept of spiritual growth and even more wary of self-help gurus.
“I may meet a woman who strongly attracts me, whom I feel like loving, but because it would be destructive to my marriage to have an affair at that time, I will say vocally or in the silence of my mind, “I feel like loving you, but I’m not going to”.”(p.126)
In the words of Dr Phil: “And how did that work out for you, Dr Peck?”
Peck is good on the art of listening. He talks about selective listening and listening with full attention and rightly says that both are fundamentally necessary for raising a child. There was a link here with what Litlove talks about in her material on motherhood – that the mother often needs to split her attention in two to both pay attention to her child and to care for herself. But MSP doesn’t address the difficulties of this. He’s more about preaching the solution to all of our mental health problems than he is about containment.
Peck also has an incredible sense of superiority and grandiosity at times. He goes to a lecture by a famous man and feels tremendously smug afterwards because he could extract so much value from the talk that others couldn’t. There was also his presidential bid in 1983 and his comments that, basically, we all have God in our unconscious but that some are more godlike than others.
Reading the RLT, I had many reactions. There were sections which were brilliant and which made me glad and grateful that I’d re-read it. And then there were long sections which had me confused and also frustrated and a bit irritated. Take this fairly uncomplicated passage for example:
“Finally, it is only when one has taken the leap into the unknown of total selfhood, psychological independence and unique individuality that one is free to proceed along still higher paths of spiritual growth and free to manifest love in its greatest dimensions.” (p.149)
What is ‘total selfhood’? What are the “higher paths of spiritual growth”? What are the “greatest dimensions” of love? Now I’m sure Peck has a lengthy answer to each of these questions but it’s hard to take them seriously when the evidence seems to suggest that the man was fairly massively self-deluded. The impression that I got was that love and spiritual growth are easily hijacked to fit his agenda. Acting in the name of “Love”, MSP can then lecture anyone and everyone. But is that really love? Should parents be lecturing their children? I read that Peck gave up his private practice in the early 1980s because he found that his patients were “slow” and “did not listen”. Ah well, there you have it.
It was interesting to me to see his attitude to his wife Lily (a medical student from Singapore whom he met and married while they were both at Columbia). In the Introduction to the RLT he writes:
“I would also like to thank my teachers and colleagues. Principal among them is my wife, Lily. She has been so giving that it is hardly possible to distinguish her wisdom as a spouse, parent, psychotherapist, and person from my own.”
Now it’s natural after the fact for me to look for psychopathology wherever it might be found. But one thing strikes me about this quote. The fact that he can barely distinguish his wife’s individuality from his own. How do you love someone if you can’t distinguish their own needs and thoughts and desires from your own?
He also says about Lily :
‘The purpose and function of Lily is to grow to be the most of which she is capable, not for my benefit but for her own and to the glory of God.”
This just doesn’t sit well with me. It’s too easy to disguise your own agenda with that of the “glory of God”.
As a quick exercise I did some ‘discourse analysis’ on the concept of spiritual growth as Peck sets it out in the RLT. What can we say about spiritual growth in terms of discourses, individual gain, subject positions and ultimately subjectivity? What ways of seeing the world or living in the world are provided by the concept? One striking aspect for me is that it is about a path of enlightenment, developing higher and higher awareness while seemingly neglecting (or delaying) the more physical realm. There’s a mind/body split which is interesting, especially since it seemed to be the physical desires that tripped Scotty up: gin, cannabis, sexuality to name the three most obvious ones. There’s also something slightly obscene about a spiritual self-help guru charging $15,000 a pop for a motivational talk. I’m sure it’s all market-related but you get my drift.
On the subject of good and evil, I also found myself at odds with Scotty. It’s easy to speak from a more “enlightened” position but we have the benefits of Melanie Klein here, particularly when it comes to looking at people’s so-called good and bad sides. There’s almost no awareness of projection in the RLT and definitely no consideration of Klein’s concept of splitting, which has been so fundamental to modern psychotherapy. Peck talks about each person having a good, healthy side and a bad, sick side. Evil here is laziness and being good means working almost tirelessly towards spiritual growth and evolution.
“Others of us may be rapidly growing, our dominant healthy self reaching eagerly upward in the struggle to evolve toward godhood; the healthy self, however, must always be vigilant against the laziness of the sick self that still lurks within us … […] within each of us is the original sin of laziness, the ever-present force of entropy pushing us back to childhood, to the womb and to the swamps from which we have evolved.” (p.296)
Apart from noting the interesting indirect metaphorical connection between the womb and the primeval swamp here, I also think it could be helpful to bring in a bit of Winnicott. Is Peck suggesting that we leave behind the playfulness of being a child and be rational (and spiritually evolved) adults? Is this being sane and healthy? Winnicott points out that being sane is often about acknowleding your ‘true self’ as opposed to the false self which arises in relation to strict parental authority or adverse early experiences. I would hazard a guess that MSP’s ‘true self” found lots of expression in his ‘deviant behaviour’ and also in his grandiosity and lust after fame and power.
Writing in the Times Online, Andrew Billen sums it up pretty well in his review of The Road He Travelled, the biography of Peck by the British journalist Arthur Jones:
The paradox of this colossally self-deluded man is that he is, on his better pages, a font, or conduit, of clear-headed advice. The precepts of The Road Less Travelled — that life is difficult and is best approached by discipline, delaying gratification and taking responsibility — could not be more grounded. His dismissal of the myth of romantic love as “a dreadful lie” and insistence that real love is not a feeling but an act of altruism is useful too. As his original intended publisher said, it is a phenomenal book until he blows it in the third section and brings God into it. (May 2005)
I would be interested to read Jones’ biography to see if he gets much beyond the “Scotty was a fraud” sensationalism and explores the wider links with the mental health profession. Just as it helps to see Freud and Jung in their respective contexts, we could benefit from understanding the phenomenon that was M. Scott Peck. What I will take away from this book and the reviews of it are the complexity of the man and his message, and some wonderful stories and profound questions. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts as well.