Some thoughts on The Road Less Travelled

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.

29 Responses to Some thoughts on The Road Less Travelled

  1. That was a really interesting post, Pete. I read TRLT when I was young, and your analysis is much more comprehensive and informed than my reaction at the time. When I was older I tried one of Peck’s subsequent books and got no further than the first few pages. My reaction was much like yours.

  2. Harriet says:

    I’ve never read the book, but it sounds intense. As for M. Scott (what does the M stand for?), well, does one need to practice what one preaches? Just because he knows all of the answers doesn’t mean he has to follow his own teachings. I’m a cynic – my rabbi turned out to be a pedophile and is now in jail. But he was a good rabbi! Just a bad person.

    As for “total selfhood”, well I would think that is opposite of “incomplete selfhood”, right?

  3. litlove says:

    How interesting – I’ve never read Scott M Peck, but have no taste generally for the invocation of the gnomic in self-help. Airy-fairy just doesn’t do it for me. But I suppose this is why I prefer psychoanalysis to pop psychology – in the former, the person giving the advice (as it were) is as much under scrutiny as the person receiving it, and there is no notion of ‘answers’, more an emphasis on process, digression, complication. Great review, Pete.

  4. Pete says:

    Lilian – Thanks. I’m also not sure that I could stomach another one of his books. One of my colleagues said that Peck’s life shouldn’t detract from his advice but for me it’s difficult to separate the two.

    Harriet – The M stands for Morgan. As for being intense, I would say the first two sections are pretty easy reading and pretty good. I do think that we should try and follow our own advice or at least put in more disclaimers about how and when it works and when it doesn’t. I think the trouble with the “thou shalt not” kind of advice is that it’s either-or. I prefer the complexity.

    Litlove – Thanks. I’m not sure that MSP’s advice would qualify as airy-fairy since he’s advocating struggle and difficulty. But he definitely loses the plot along the way and he blurs religion and psychology quite confusingly. But I agree about therapy – process is so much better than getting the answers given to you.

  5. Dorothy W. says:

    Oh, dear. When it comes to literature, I have no problem with writers who are thoroughly messed up, but self-help is another matter… I remember being moved by Peck’s book long ago when I read it, though, and there’s something valuable about that. I think it’s possible he could have access to some kinds of wisdom without being able to practice it.

    • Pete says:

      Dorothy – I agree completely. There’s a duplicity in Peck’s claiming to have the answers and prescribe them for others when he had such difficulty living out his own advice. But there’s a lot of good advice there amidst the confusion.

  6. doctordi says:

    I don’t think I’d be able to separate his life from his advice either. This goes straight to my suspicion – bordering on disdain – toward so-called self-help gurus and spiritual leaders – so many of them crumble under the least bit of scrutiny, and they have dirty laundry just the rest of us. I think it’s inherently bogus to claim some higher-ground, especially when some of these people – in whom millions place their faith – really roll around in filth. Not a fan of his hypocrisy, but I loved your post, Pete.

    • Pete says:

      Di – Thanks. Part of me still hopes to find a self-help guru that could stand up to rigorous scrutiny. But I generally prefer people who are quite open about their faults so maybe they wouldn’t have such a hunger to be a guru.

  7. If you really want to go off the deep end, try his book “People of the Lie.” It’s even more frustrating and paradoxically confusing than TRLT, because I really think he grasps the basic concept of what makes people truly evil, and how society at large focuses on the “visible” crimes rather than the small life-destroying, soul-sucking things that people do, particularly as parents. However, his chapter on demonic possession, and his case study of a woman who probably had borderline personality disorder, have to be seen to be believed. The case study in particular is absofreakinglutely jaw-dropping.

    My jaw was so far dropped that I went on to read his book about demonic possession, and I’m not sure my jaw ever did get re-aligned after that one. I was particularly amazed at his blaming a client for her own “possession” because she allowed the devil to enter her soul when she didn’t protest her father’s sexual abuse of her, though she was “old enough” at the time to know it was wrong. According to Peck, this failure to protect herself caused a crack in her being that permitted Satan to enter her.

    He is also quite sure that most, if not all, cases of multiple personality disorder are actually cases of demonic possession, because he has never seen an actual case of DID. As someone who has DID, I am horrified by this supposition, and consumed with pity for trauma survivors who landed in his office only to be told that their compartmentalized shadow selves were actually Satan.

  8. Pete says:

    David – Thanks so much for this. I’d heard about those two but didn’t realise he was so extreme in his views. I find it really scary how psychology and religion can combine to demonise people like that. He had some very good ideas and such damaging ones at the same time. I’m also interested in your thoughts on DID – quite a controversial (or not well understood) diagnosis from what I can gather.

  9. Psychology and religion have a lot in common, in a lot of ways, I think … and when misused, can have the same damaging errors of dogma preached and practiced by people who have lost sight of their own fallibility. I think Peck was an interesting case of someone who had lost that sense of humility in *both* realms, and who applied the dogmas of both in ways that were quite scary … and like many very scary dogmatic people, there are shining kernels of truth in what he says. For those unable to sort the wheat from the chaff — readers and clients who are intellectually confused or emotionally vulnerable — that’s a potent and dangerous combination.

    I think DID is fairly well understood by therapists who specialize in dissociative trauma disorders, and not at all understood by those (like Peck) who do not. It’s also a condition that has been misportrayed in the media so often that the general public has a largely incorrect idea of what it is. DID is essentially an extreme form of post-traumatic stress disorder, with its own particular presenting symptoms and quirks, and of course that is a very simplistic explanation, but it’s also an accurate explanation.

    I was an unusual DID client in that I knew I had it before I arrived in the therapist’s office — I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but I was able to very clearly describe the psychological phenomenon of not experiencing parts of my personality as actually belonging to me, and the confusions and complications this caused. It was also clear to me prior to an “official” diagnosis that whatever I had was a type of extreme affect state compartmentalization, and that the problem is not the personification of the affect states (most people do that; otherwise they wouldn’t be able to survive in different situations) but the lack of fluency between the states.

    So — my point in saying this is that I can vouch for the fact that there really is such a thing as DID that isn’t iatrogenic. Most people with DID are far less conscious of their inner worlds when they get to the therapist; they just have the symtpoms, and no way to explain or make sense of them. As with any psychological diagnosis, the therapist has to provide a framework and draw the information out. Unfairly, this is frequently seen (by people who don’t know much about DID) as the therapist “creating” the condition … which makes about as much sense as saying that a therapist who leads a codependent to see her behavior as codependent has created codependency in the client.

    Anywhoo, I could go on endlessly here, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I’m happy to answer questions, though, either here or via email.

  10. Pete says:

    David – I also don’t buy the iatrogenic (brought on by the therapy) argument for DID. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I guess the whole multiple personality thing got dramatised by the media whereas it’s more about the dissociation and the circumstances in which it happens. I’ll resist prying into what brought on your dissociation and how it manifested (although I am curious). I’ll definitely read your blog with an added curiosity now 😉

  11. Dear Couch Trip,

    Thanks for your 2009 piece on “The Road He Travelled”. Like many, M.Scott Peck, the Road Less Travelled, and several other Peck books touched me and engaged me in an almost mysterious way. I was a Peck fan and follower for years even attending one of his lectures. He helped me increase the use discipline, responsibility, and selflessness as practical and “spiritual” tools for conducting my life. Much of his writing I found vauge and obtuse but nevertheless still somewhat poetic. I attributed the obtusness to my inability to udnerstand rather than what it was; Peck seeking to use walls of vaugeness to avoid difficult realities. Nevertheless, in times of emotional difficulty his wrintings provided me a sort refuge and guiding light.
    However, it was the man and the fact that he could, with honesty and consistency, live the spiritual life about which he so inspirationally wrote. Knowing that someone could grow to live such a life offered me hope and a reality to strive for. So, when “The Road He Travelled” exposed Peck as a manipulating fraud who was apparently little more than a very sophisticated L. Ron Huubard, the loss was shattering. I thank Aurthor Jones for truth.
    But in the final analysis, my romance with the Road Less Traveled and the Peckian movement speaks, I think, to an spritual angst and emptiness that goes with the human journey. The My journey with Peck continues to be insturctive if somewhat bittersweet.

    • Ellie says:

      Thank you for this answer. I also loved his book and when I recently found out how he lived it was very shocking for me. More then anything else how he fail to love his children. I felt very silly for looking up to his book as my guidance …but now when I see your point of view…I agree…it’s all part of us imperfect humans.

  12. CARLOS says:

    Just saw this while looking for more information about The Road Less Traveled. I tihnk M. Scott Peck was a man with his own demons. It was pretty hard even for himself to observe his own principles, because he set high standards. But I believe his basic principles (as described by Wikipedia, I’ve yet to read the book) are more sound than…. here it comes… The Secret. Between this and Peck, I’d say Peck in more believable. The Secret is just a total fraud. Of course, you would sieve out the questionable thing’s in Peck’s work. But Peck’s idea seem much more sound indeed.

  13. Christopher says:

    My father likes to read books which tell him what he likes to hear. So when the uninspired title of “The Road Less Travelled,” wasn’t there a poem of the same title written, or something, appeared on his living room table I wondered what he was getting into now. Not wanting to waste too much time I looked through the table of contents and decided on page 69 under the heading “The healthiness of depression.” I thought this was an interesting heading as I assume and have read a few books to the contrary and consistantly see on the news the negative implications of individuals under a depressed state (property damage, community despair and death), and public service commercials with the bold statement “Depression Hurts.” Again I thought “interesting heading.” Typically when I read peoples opinions I suspend their ideas in my head as best I can to see how they want me to form their matrix. This is a healthy skeptic approach to foreign ideas. One that when employed in regard to religious ideas is often roused from deep thought when you realize your being sold something you don’t want and especially don’t need. As I read murming dubiously “Yes” and “OK” I came upon the sentence that made me put the book down and back away, while never turning my back to it. What he wrote was “This ‘secret’ is the central wisdom of religion” Thats the kicker, don’t need to go on to find out this guys is full of it. What he’s trying to say is “I’m sorry I’m a contemptuous shit, but please fit into these neat little boxes I’ve made here so that when I go to a fast food restaurant someone will be there to make me a burger.”

    • Christopher,
      Respectfully , here is what I see in your TRLT comments and this is just my personal impression, nothing more. In one post you manage to publicly insult and disrespect your father, expose your deep ignorance of American poetry, and speak with uninformed pontification on Pecks “The Road Less Travelled”. You might want to consider becoming just a little more learned, thoughtful, and reflective in your public communications.

  14. Joseph says:

    Just a thought about inconsistency – may be he was genuine when he wrote the book – but later strayed from his own ideal? We are all mere weak human – we CANNOT be strong and consistent all the time. Once you can accept this – then, like eating a fish, just eat the flesh and leave the bone – we do NOT have to swallow the whole fish – In the Bible, I can think of David and Solomon – in modern days, we can see the many tele-evangelists or even Clinton. When we are young, we are all enthusiastic, idealistic and honest, it is when we get old, wealthy, lazy and succumb to temptations.

    • Liana says:

      I agree with your thoughts overall about the sinful nature of humans. We all try to be “good” and we have great thoughts and wisdom when we are on the right track. But, boy oh boy, when we are derailed, watch out! I believe the fight gets harder when we know more about the Bible and how we are supposed to live. Temptation is always there. And we have all fall short of the glory. Peck’s book did help a lot of people, and I am glad he wrote it. But he is a man, doing what humans do, fall into sin. We can’t dis-count some of the great things he wrote and lie to ourselves about his talent (in those instances). But surely, if some of it was crap, which I hear some of it was, then don’t take it’s advise. People who smoke, drink, and do other bad things may have something important to say….sometimes. His book came at a time when people of that initial era needed some direction and spiritual guidance. People didn’t want to see themselves as bad, (once bad always bad) they needed hope and to forgive themselves in order to get on with their lives. They were in ruts. People today get in ruts. It is has sold through the years because people are still searching for the same thing.

  15. Greg P says:

    Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people. -Carl Jung-
    I respect the opinions posted here and the article itself. That said, show me someone with zero problems in life, I will show you someone with zero life. I would listen with strong skepticism to any person whom has no experience in the arenas of which they speak. We can only recognize those traits in others that are alive in us, hence, recognition. If there is any part of the written knowledge that has struck a cord on our very small harp, I challenge, listen to the music.
    Often times, I find I desperately seek alternatives to growth and change. The reason, it can be a very scary and painful thing to shatter my perceptions, to truly admit my failures and accept them. To experience true growth, I must have the courage to drink the water.
    Further, what many believe, and what I know to be true, the reason for me being a great councilor, life has been kind and given me many opportunities for growth.

  16. therapyjourney says:

    Very interesting. I am reading the RLT right now, from a position of not knowing any of the backstory, myth or history of the man. Just that the book is one of the seminal reads in therapy and general discourse of love, spirituality and personal growth. I’m finding it very life-affirming and eye-opening nevertheless, but can’t help thinking everything after the section on Love is overkill.

    I won’t write too much because I’m aware your post was written many years ago and might not be checked anymore, but there is my little bit, for what it’s worth. Thanks for this enlightening post, whatever the truth is about MSP.

    • Pete says:

      Hey, thanks for the comment. I enjoyed reading your review and of course I wish you all the best for your therapy journey too. I’m currently wanting to end the therapy with my current therapist but I’m not yet ready to start a new one. I think I need a fresh approach to this.

      • therapyjourney says:

        Interesting. Oh, and thank you. 🙂 Do you believe that love is a necessary part of the process of therapy – that a therapist must love their patient for the therapeutic process to have a successful outcome?

        I was extremely surprised when I read that part of the book, given that love as an expression of our energy is a limited resource.

  17. Hey…I want to use this piece for my students, but I don’t have your last name to be able to reference – can you please send it me.

    Steve Gunther

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  19. Very good analysis. I like it. Scot Peck is a very complex person.

  20. james says:

    Huge disappointment on finding out the guru is greatly imperfect is deeply empowering and necessary to counter deification of the man. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”.

    Similarly the Christian story holds that God became man, suffered and died.

    So we can sit alongside Peck the man, rather than bow down before Peck the God (the idol (ideal)).

    His failings do not mean that most of the time he is ill-disciplined and gratification driven.

    I would agree he is self-important and somewhat deluded.

    When we are creative we expose ourselves. In my opinion RLT is quite a creative work. Peck the creator put himself out there and he happened to be faulty. Look at the mess the other Creator made!!

    Reminds me of Alan Watts. Hugely wise and instructive but alcoholic and philanderer.

  21. Jane Mc Closkey says:

    the book is drivel and makes me rather sick. A woman I respect in AA gave me the book — she said it helped her so much in early sobriety. I think I will pass on this book, I purused it and that is enough for me. Thank you for articulating what I felt. Reminded me a bit of that other silly little book, the four agreements, I think that was the title.

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