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Peck, M. Scott

M. Scott Peck

American psychologist and author M. Scott Peck (1936–2005) rose to national prominence when he published The Road Less Traveled in 1978. The book was one of the most popular self-help books of all time, selling ten million copies. With subsequent books and public appearances, Peck ascended to a position of influential and spiritual leader.

Though Peck is not responsible for establishing the literary genre, his name became synonymous with "self help" books. The unique vision he communicated in a series of books published from the late 1970s to the late 1990s was characterized by a blend of science, spirituality, psychology and philosophy. His writings struck a chord in the latter part of the twentieth century, and many readers were influenced by his work.

The future spiritual teacher was born on May 22, 1936, in New York City, New York, the second of two sons of David Warner Peck and Elizabeth (Saville) Peck. Peck's father was a prominent lawyer who later became a judge.

Religious matters and spiritual philosophies, in one way or another, found their way into Peck's life during his early years. He once described his half-Jewish father as someone trying to pass as a WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant). Peck attended a Quaker day school while growing up and, fascinated by religion, he became a Zen Buddhist when he was 18 years old. (Later in his life, he flirted with Jewish and Muslim mysticism when he was in his thirties and he converted to Christianity in his forties.)

As a child, Peck had literary ambitions and dreamed of one day writing a great novel. However, his education took him in other directions. After being expelled from Middle-bury College in Middle-bury, Vermont, during his sophomore year—he refused to attend mandatory ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) classes—he attended Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. Peck later admitted that his father's connections got him into the school. At Harvard, Peck studied social relationships and he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in 1958.

Studied Medicine

Peck also enrolled in a pre-med course at Columbia University in New York City, attending night classes while working during the day in Bellevue Hospital's psychiatric division. From there, he went to Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. His experiences at Bellevue fostered in him a negative impression of psychiatry, so he intended to become a general practitioner. He received his medical degree in 1963.

While studying at Columbia, he met the woman who would become his first wife, Lily Ho, who was from Singapore. They were married in 1959, during Peck's first year of medical school, and eventually would have three children. Both Peck's and Ho's parents strongly disapproved of the union. Peck's father disowned him for a while, but the estrangement was short-lived, and David Peck even helped pay for his son's medical school tuition.

Joined the Army

Upon graduation from Case Western, Peck joined the U.S. Army, reasoning that it was the least expensive way to continue his medical education. It also provided him with a wage sufficient to support a family.

Oddly enough, Peck joined the army as a psychiatrist. He was not exactly enthusiastic about the service—he became opposed to the Vietnam War—but he was grateful for the opportunity to observe how individuals and organizations behaved. From 1967 to 1970, he was head of psychology at the U.S. Medical Center at Okinawa. From 1970 to 1972, he served as assistant chief of psychiatry at the Surgeon General's office in Washington, D.C. He resigned with the rank of lieutenant colonel and he earned a Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster.

After leaving the army, Peck moved to New Preston, Connecticut, where he established a private psychiatric practice. He operated the practice successfully from 1972 to 1983. In 1976, he experienced a flash of literary inspiration, and he started writing a self-help book that combined psychology with spirituality.

Produced a Best-seller

Two years later he submitted the manuscript, which he titled The Psychology of Spiritual Growth, to Random House, who turned it down. Simon and Schuster then purchased it for $7,500 and changed the title to The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth.

Initially, the book enjoyed modest sales. That would change, however, thanks to word-of-mouth recommendations, as well as a rave review that appeared in The Washington Post. An enthusiastic reviewer, Phyllis Theroux, called it a "magnificent boat of a book." Comparing it to other spiritual self-help books, she said Peck's work "is so obviously written by a human being who, both in style and substance, leans toward the reader for the purposes of sharing something larger than himself." She later said that she wanted to write a review that "would force people to buy the book."

To help increase sales of the book, Peck copied the review and sent it to newspapers throughout the country. In its first year after publication, The Road Less Traveled sold 12,000 copies in hardcover and 30,000 copies in paperback. In its paperback edition, the book became a publishing phenomenon. Sales figures doubled over the next two years. By 1983, the book finally entered the all-important New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for 694 weeks, or more than 13 years.

Eventually the book sold more than ten million copies, and royalties made Peck a wealthy man. It was translated into 20 languages and led to successful sequels including Further Along the Road Less Traveled (1993) and The Road Less Traveled and Beyond (1997).

Opening his book with a simple, declarative statement, "Life is difficult," Peck advanced the notion that existence is full of problems that can only be effectively remedied through self-discipline. Further, it is the nature of the human condition for people to avoid problems, but this only creates even more trouble. Only through self-discipline, delayed gratification, and accepting responsibility for one's own actions, all combined with a spiritual and active love, could people transform weakness into strength and overcome life's difficulties. Moreover, the love that Peck spoke of was "real love," as opposed to "romantic love," which he felt was a lie. "Real love," on the other hand, fosters spiritual growth, he believed.

The book provided the kind of message that resonated with the public. In addition, Peck imbued his writing with a conversational and comforting style that helped readers accept what was essentially a demanding and complex remedy. Interestingly enough, Peck himself was a man with very human flaws and habits, which he readily admitted. In interviews, he described himself as a self-delusional neurotic who was fond of gin, cigarettes and marijuana. He also indicated that he had trouble with relationships, an admission made evident by his marital infidelities and his inability to relate well to his parents and his own children.

At the same time, however, he continued on an evolving spiritual path, which would take him from Eastern mysticism into Western Christianity. The road he was taking included some activities and enterprises that would seem incongruous or even odd. In 1980, when Peck was 43 years old he was baptized by a Methodist minister in an Episcopalian convent, a place he had frequently used as a retreat. In 1983, he considered running for president with the expressed purpose of being "a healer to the nation," but health concerns forced him to reconsider.

The following year, Peck and his wife helped establish The Foundation for Community Encouragement, a nonprofit educational organization designed to advance principles of community. The international foundation included 70 trained leaders who conducted workshops for the general public as well as churches, schools, government agencies, prisons, universities and businesses. Peck eventually retired from the foundation's board of directors, but he maintained his ties through an "elder" status. For his work, Peck received the 1984 Kaleidoscope Award for Peacemaking and the 1994 Temple International Peace Prize.

Became a Prolific Author

Following the success of The Road Less Traveled, Peck wrote a number of other books. In 1983, he published a second book, entitled People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. This followed his conversion to Christianity, and the book examined the human soul, combining psychology with religion. Peck postulated the idea that some patients come out of psychiatric treatment with their self-destructive behaviors fully intact and even more firmly ingrained. He also maintained that some people are evil, and that their treatment should include exorcism of demons. Los Angeles Times book critic Malcom Boyd wrote that the book "is a curious mix, linking professional expertise with personal opinion, case history with moral preachment, political liberalism with religious dogmatism. It is a stubborn, sometimes arrogant treatise…. Yet useful and promising creative ideas are in these controversial pages."

By this time, Peck had lost interest in his private practice and went on the lecture circuit, earning $15,000 for each appearance. In 1985, he released a third book, What Return Can I Make? Dimensions of the Christian Experience. As with his previous books, it was published by Simon & Schuster. The volume contained both essays and audio commentary. (In 1995, the book was re-released by Harpers under the new title, Gifts For the Journey: Treasures of the Christian Life.) This was followed by The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace in 1987.

Peck's fifth book, published by Bantam in 1990, was a work of fiction entitled A Bed by the Window: A Novel of Mystery and Redemption. In 1996, he published a second novel, In Heaven as On Earth: A Vision of the Afterlife, an allegory about the life after death involving Christian concepts of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell.

In between the works of fiction, Peck authored The Friendly Snowflake: A Fable of Faith, Love and Family (1992), aimed at both children and adults. Peck's son, Christopher, created the book's illustrations. That was followed the next year by A World Waiting To Be Born: Civility Rediscovered, a book about organizational behavior published by Bantam. Also in 1993, Peck released sequels to The Road Less Traveled including Meditations from the Road and Further Along the Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey toward Spiritual Growth, a collection of edited lectures (1979–1993), both published by Simon & Schuster.

In his next book, In Search of Stones: A Pilgrimage of Faith, Reason and Discovery, published by Hyperion in 1995, Peck frankly wrote about his extramarital affairs. The book was his personal favorite, and it recounted a 1992 trip he took with his family to see the neolithic monuments in Great Britain. Susan Cheever, a noted author herself, and the daughter of writer John Cheever, reviewed the book for The New York Times, calling it "an engrossing mixture of travelogue and sermon." Peck described the book as "the closest thing to an autobiography that I will ever write."

Continued on "The Road"

In 1997, Peck completed yet another follow-up to The Road Less Traveled, this one titled The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety. As with the other "Road" books, this one was published by Simon & Schuster. It was a collection of lectures that addressed the importance of personal spirituality within psychological treatment. It also provided readers with Peck's concept of a four-step process of spiritual development that, he suggested, went far beyond the development obtained by religious zealots, recognized saints and the average churchgoer. The work met with mixed reviews. Reviewer Matthew Scully, writing in American Spectator suggested that Peck had lost the "clarity and humility" that characterized the earlier "Road" books. On the other hand, reviewer Ray Olson, writing in Booklist praised it, calling it a "compelling" book.

Peck addressed "topical" matters in his next book, Denial of the Soul: Spiritual and Medical Perspectives in Euthanasia and Mortality, published by Harmony Books in 1997. As indicated by the title, Peck wrote on the controversial subject of euthanasia from a spiritual perspective, and he took a strong stance against physician-assisted suicide. Like his previous book, it generated mix reviews.

Peck followed this with somewhat lighter matter. In Golf and the Spirit: Lessons for the Journey, published by Harmony Books in 1999, and featuring illustrations by Christopher Peck, he employed the sport of golf as a spiritual metaphor. Even so, reviewer Ian Dunlop, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, commented that Peck took himself too seriously in the work. But other readers and reviewers felt that the unique metaphor provided an accessible way to discuss complex spiritual and philosophical matters.

Suffered Illnesses Late in Life

Peck's later years were personally difficult, fraught with illness and divorce. He suffered from Parkinson's diseases and experienced an impotence that curbed his extra-marital activities. His first wife, Lily Ho, left him in 2003. After the couple was officially divorced, Peck married Kathleen Kline Yates Peck in 2004. In his final years, Peck was semi-retired. He continued to write and he also performed management consultant services.

Peck died on September 25, 2005, at his home in Warren, Connecticut, from complications arising from pancreatic and liver duct cancer. He was survived by his second wife and the three children from his first marriage, including son Christopher and daughters Belinda and Julie.

Near the end of his own road, in the introduction he wrote for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Road Less Traveled published in 2003, Peck wrote: "The most common response I have received to 'The Road Less Traveled,' in letters from readers, has been one of gratitude for my courage, not for saying anything new, but for writing about the kind of things they had been thinking and feeling all along, but were afraid to talk about."

Although his more conventional and traditional colleagues in the mental health profession sometimes criticized the way he blended spirituality and science, Peck received distinctive honors from his profession and academia. In 1992, he was selected by the American Psychiatric Association as a distinguished psychiatrist lecturer "for his outstanding achievement in the field of psychiatry as an educator, researcher and clinician." In 1996, he received the Learning, Faith and Freedom Medal from Georgetown University.

Periodicals

The New York Times, September 28, 2005.

Washington Post, September 28, 2005.

Online

Billen, Andrew, "Gin, cigarettes, women: I'm a prophet, not a saint," timesonline.com, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,8123-1606175,00.html (December 20, 2005).

Contemporary Authors Online, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 21, 2005).

"M. Scott Peck," telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/news/2005/09/28/db2801.xml (December 21, 2005).

"M. Scott Peck Biography," mscottpeck.com, http://www.mscottpeck.com/html/biography.html (December 21, 2005).

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