When M Scott Peck wrote The Road Less Travelled 25 years ago, he brought the self-help book into our lives and taught us that all our problems were solvable. The book has been a bestseller ever since - but how has Peck's own life matched up? Edward Marriott finds him on a winding road
When someone tells you how to live your life, how do you respond? If they are a good enough teacher, you may listen. But, at the back of your mind, there always lurks the question: do you practise what you preach? How does your life measure up? Twenty-five years ago, such a book was published. It went on to sell more than 10m copies and exercise an influence far beyond any other book of its kind. The Road Less Travelled, by the US psychiatrist M Scott Peck - his first name is Morgan, but he never uses it - stated that it was the responsibility of the individual to make a success of his or her life. In the words of the opening section, "Life is difficult... [it] is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them? Do we want to teach our children to solve them?" Avoiding problems, "and the emotional suffering inherent in them", argued Peck, "is the primary basis of all human mental illness". He went on to lay out some key techniques: discipline, delaying gratification, accepting responsibility. What made the book ground-breaking was the fact that Peck was the first author to connect spirituality with psychotherapy, belief systems often held to be mutually exclusive.
It is clear, 25 years on, that the book was also ground-breaking in terms of its effect on the publishing industry. "Scott Peck started the whole genre of spirituality and self-help," says Judith Kendra of Rider Books, his UK publisher. "He was way ahead of his time." Without the success of The Road, as it is known to devotees, there would have been far less scope for Adam Phillips, Daniel "emotional intelligence" Goleman, Sogyal Rinpoche, Thich Nhat Hanh, Oliver James or Raj Persaud. As Susan Jeffers, author of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, admits, "Its popularity opened the door for those of us who came after him."
So what of the author? How has his own life measured up to his teaching? Peck, who trained as a psychiatrist in the US military and who has gone on to write some 12 bestsellers, remains an intriguing, influential figure. Coming from an ultra-conservative background, he has trodden a path through life that is contemplative, intellectually curious and often strikingly individual. After The Road, he tackled the subject of human evil in People Of The Lie, controversially describing exorcisms with which he'd been involved. And in The Different Drum he laid out the thesis that the only hope for the world lay in community. He's even started his own charity, the Foundation for Community Encouragement, which runs group therapy workshops and to which he's given some $3m to date.
Now 67, Peck lives in semi-retirement in the same grey clapboard, green-shuttered, lakeside house in Connecticut to which he moved from Washington in 1972 to set up his own psychotherapy practice. He is working on Glimpses Of Satan, a book-length account of the two exorcisms he briefly described in People Of The Lie. In common with most Christians - although unlike the majority of secular psychotherapists - he believes in the existence of a spirit of evil, or Satan, and also in the extremely rare occurrence of demonic possession. (In such cases, psychotherapy can begin only once exorcism has been carried out.)
In person, Peck is unexpectedly good fun. He is a vivid storyteller, an enthusiastic Camel-smoker who claims that his naked passion for cigarettes has made two acquaintances take up the habit; and who, when discussing people he loves or who have meant a lot to him, is easily moved to tears.
Peck was born in New York City, the second son of a "self-made man" who headed the litigation branch of a big New York law firm. His elder brother, David, Peck's senior by four years, died late last year. "He was a sadist," says Peck. "Most of my life I hated him." From the start, their differences were manifest. Peck describes himself as "a physical chicken". His brother, meanwhile, was "very adventurous. Even in his 60s he was riding his bike on ice."
From the outside, Peck's childhood looked secure enough - his parents were "responsible and caring", and ran a home with "plenty of warmth, affection, laughter and celebration" - but on the inside he was suffering. The problem, he wrote in The Different Drum, "was that I was not free to be me. Secure though it was, my home was not a place where it was safe for me to be anxious, afraid, depressed or dependent - to be myself."
Peck's parents "neither desired nor trusted intimacy" and, wanting to make "rugged individualists" of their offspring, dispatched them to the prestigious New England boarding school, Phillips Exeter Academy. David excelled - but Scott did not. At 15, during the spring holidays, he told his parents he was not going back. It was, he remembers, "Lord Of The Flies territory. The school believed that if you couldn't take it, you wouldn't make it."
His parents, reaching the conclusion that he was "mentally ill", sent him to a psychiatric hospital. Peck looks back on his five weeks there with considerable fondness. "I enjoyed it very much. It was an elegant place, I liked the other patients, and I met almost daily with my psychiatrist." This was his first experience of psychotherapy, and it enabled him, he says, to "relinquish" the anger he felt at himself for not having been happy at Exeter.
His depression having lifted, Peck returned to New York and was enrolled in a small Quaker school establishment on the edge of Greenwich Village. It was everything that Exeter wasn't: co-ed, a day school, liberal, with "a sense of community"; "no one was ever excluded". Around the same time, and through the mother of a contemporary from Exeter, a literary agent, Peck struck up a friendship with John P Marquand, one of the foremost US novelists of the 1940s and 1950s. He spent a summer at Marquand's house in Massachusetts. "It was amazing that a man of 64 could be interested in a boy of 20," recalls Peck, his eyes watery again. "It was also my first real taste of power. He was on the board of the Book Of The Month Club and asked me to help him choose books."
At this point, Peck stands up stiffly from his chair and heads towards the bookcase. He walks slowly, his spine bowed, knuckles white on the handle of his cane. His relative immobility, as he makes clear to me, is the result of Parkinson's disease. Peck is "mid-stage", which means that, though his mind is still sharp, his body is beginning to deteriorate. "It's terrible," he says with some anger. "It limits my facial expression, affects muscle control." And sleep is a particular problem: "I take enough sedatives to knock out a horse and wake up half an hour later, wide awake. It takes me 12 hours to get six hours' sleep."
Finally reaching the bookcase, he lifts down a volume: CS Lewis's Till We Have Faces. This is the Marquand connection: a book that Peck, having read the page proofs, told the elder writer was "the best thing I'd ever read". Marquand agreed. Not surprisingly, given such encouragement, Peck was fast nurturing ambitions to be "the great American writer. Fortunately, I had the smarts enough to realise I did not have anything to write about." Instead, having graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and on the encouragement of his powerful father, with whose controlling influence he would later grapple on the psychoanalyst's couch, he entered medical training.
It was at the beginning of his training, doing pre-med courses at Columbia University in 1958, that Peck met fellow student Lily, whom he married a year later. Lily was Chinese, and news of their wedding plans met vituperative opposition from both families. "My parents went ballistic. Every two months we'd go and ask for their blessing and they'd start screaming and yelling. But if my parents were tasteless, Lily's were even worse. One time we went to see them, they refused to let Lily leave their flat. I had to call the police, and Lily's mum bit one of the cops." When they married, only Peck's mother attended the wedding.
Six months later, Peck and his wife had settled in Cleveland, where he was studying at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, when they received a visit from his mother. The rejection they'd experienced, it turned out, ran in the family. "My mother told me - and this took real courage - that 'These kind of upsets happen in all families.' She went on to say how she'd almost broken off her engagement to my father when she'd learned that he was Jewish. This was the great family secret, the fact that my grandmother was Jewish, and I was only being told it at the age of 23." The great family secret: Peck, raised to be a classic Wasp, had Jewish blood.
His whole life, he says, "has been a rebellion against Wasp-dom". While he acknowledges that, even at 15 when he left Exeter, "many of the traits of the Wasp had been tattooed deep into my skin", he claims to have fought a lifelong battle against the shallowness of Wasp culture. "The problem is that Wasp culture worships good taste; and aesthetics, as a 13th-century Muslim Sufi once said, is 'the lowest appreciation of the Real'. All my life I've been looking for the levels beyond aesthetics." From his marriage to Lily, to his pursuit of a "contemplative religious life", he says his choices have been defined largely by the "suffocation" he felt at the hands of Wasp culture.
And yet, for the moment, he was dutifully toeing the line. Four years of medical training segued into four more as a trainee psychiatrist for the US army. He chose the army not only for the quality of its psychiatric training, but also because he didn't want to rely any longer on his father, who'd been paying his fees at medical college. "There were big strings attached." After a year's internship in Hawaii came three years' residency training in San Francisco.
It was around this time that Peck realised that he was badly in need of his own therapy. "I had an authority problem. Wherever I went - school or work - there was always a man, an older man, whose guts I absolutely hated. A different man each time, but wherever I went that man was there. And at the age of 30 my rage against him was so great that I was forced to acknowledge that I was not OK." Psychoanalysis showed him that his authority problem was "rooted in a denial of my dependency feelings and my unconscious search for a perfect father. As soon as the search became conscious, I became able to negotiate a large part of the world that I was failing to negotiate before."
Apprenticeship complete, and with a greater understanding of his own psyche, Peck was now required to repay the army with at least three years' work as a psychiatrist. He opted for Okinawa, where there was a US army population of some 120,000, including troops and their families. Operating as a psychiatrist, trained in the use of drugs, and a psychotherapist, he treated soldiers and their wives. Yet as the Vietnam war became more entrenched, Peck found himself wanting to "undermine the army from within". Guessing that the best place to do this was the capital, he applied for the influential post of assistant chief of psychiatry to the surgeon-general of the army. "I went to Washington," he says, "to lead a rebellion."
This was August 1970, and the opposition to US involvement in Vietnam was nearing its feverish height. Peck believed that the US role was "evil" and felt he could "work from within". Washington, he sensed, "was going to be a hot spot". His work focused on the burgeoning dissension against the war from army officers, race-relations problems within the army and the drug abuse that was prevalent in the military in Vietnam. Most significant was the report he wrote in 1972 on the 1968 My Lai massacre. As chairman of a committee of three psychiatrists, he interviewed the men involved and made recommendations for further research. One suggestion was for an in-depth study of previous military atrocities. His recommendations were rejected on the grounds that they might "open up the army to further challenge".
Disenchanted, "polluted" and watching a military drug-treatment programme he'd started being "destroyed" by the army, he resigned and moved with his wife and three children to Connecticut. His brief experience as a Washington insider has given him strong views on the US, the role of its president and the complexities of world politics. Before the Iraq war, he was emphasising the need for the UN to take effective action, and predicting that George Bush, were he to invade unilaterally, without UN blessing, would "be remembered as one of the most harmful presidents in US history". A peaceful future, he argues, lies with proper international government. He wrote a letter to Bush attacking his bellicose stance, "trying to get through to him the only way I think possible: his religion. The chances of him reading it are nil, but my conscience compelled me to write it."
Back then, when he moved to Connecticut, his concerns were more local. He chose his new home simply because there was no psychiatrist for miles. "I was terrified I was not going to be able to earn a living, and in those days there was an amazing lack of good medical care around here." He opened a private practice, was hired part-time by a local clinic, hospital and jail, and quickly found that he was overwhelmed with work. To cope with the demand, he trained psycho-therapists (including, at one point, Lily), expanded his practice and then, one evening in late 1975, "during one of those rare periods in my life when I haven't been overworked", he was sitting up late in his study when "three words came to me" - "discipline, love, grace".
They were to become the themes of The Road Less Travelled. Peck, describing the moment they came to him, speaks cautiously, aware of how easily he could be carelessly misrepresented. He was, he believes, "called" to write the book: it was, quite literally, a vocation. "It's possible that God wanted something achieved, I don't know, and I certainly don't want anyone to think that it was the direct word of God or anything like that, because I don't think God works as simplistically as that. But there were the words: discipline, love, grace. Around them, kind of in the fog, was the message, 'Write a book'."
He cannot "explain it in a neat, materialist, rational kind of way. But the words came into my mind almost as if they'd been imprinted there. I could practically see them. Anyway, I'd had that experience dozens of times in my life, and it had never seemed like such a good idea in the morning. But two weeks later, when it still seemed a good idea, I reorganised my schedule and set to work."
He lifts another Camel from the softpack in his shirt pocket. For the next two years or so, he would see patients four days a week and write for the remaining three. "Of course, I totally neglected my children during that time and would never advocate that, but I felt that I had to write the book."
Its first title, the rather leaden The Psychology Of Spiritual Growth, was vetoed by his editor at Simon&Schuster. Peck chose The Road Less Travelled and the book, its editor having since lost his job, was published to little fanfare in 1978, with a first print run of just 5,000. It might have sunk without trace had it not been for a notice in the Washington Post - "deliberately crafted", reviewer Phyllis Theroux says now, "to make the book a bestseller". Theroux praised The Road as "not just a book but a spontaneous act of generosity written by an author who leans towards the reader for the purpose of sharing something larger than himself". The book hit the Washington bestseller list, and from there sales built exponentially: 30,000 in 1980, 60,000 in 1981, reaching a high of 600,000 in 1986; it made the nationwide US bestseller list for 598 consecutive weeks. In 1983 it was published in the UK.
Though Peck has written a whole clutch of subsequent books, The Road Less Travelled remains his defining work. Even anecdotally, its impact has been huge: few of my friends and acquaintances are ignorant of it; many claim to have been changed by it. Its effect on Peck, too, was enormous. As the 1980s progressed and his fame grew, he travelled the country giving $6,000-a-go lectures on subjects as diverse as "sexuality and spirituality" and "self-love versus self-esteem". (But he would come to regret his decision to include his address at the end of the book; he's now had some 22,000 letters.)
It might be tempting to imagine that a man who has made his living from diagnosing and attempting to heal the psychic ills of others has his own life sorted. Yet Peck would be the first to say that this is not the case. Though baptised in 1980, and with a firm belief in God, he gives the impression of being still hungry for truth, constantly questing. He also has very secular appetites: for alcohol; for marijuana, with which he "experimented" during his 30s and 40s; and for sex, which resulted in a number of extramarital affairs, a subject he describes in In Search Of Stones, an account of his three-week journey through Britain looking for ancient megalithic stones.
Now, however, Peck is housebound, and it is to visitors that he turns for news of the outside world. Is it true, he wants to know, that marijuana is much stronger than when he used to smoke? Have I been to India? When I mention that the winter landscape around his house - frozen lakes, huddled figures ice-fishing, icicles hanging from barn eaves, endless grey-wooded hills - reminds me of Ang Lee's film The Ice Storm, he writes the recommendation on a notepad.
His interests, too, seem to have broadened with age. He writes poetry, is at work on another book, and grows as excited as a little boy when describing the nearby "ghost town", whose existence, he says, locals superstitiously refuse to acknowledge. From a man whose intellectual concerns are of constantly surprising breadth, perhaps the most unexpected confession is that, when it came to psychotherapy, he does not believe he was that effective a practitioner. "I don't think that I've been able to empathise that well with people suffering from huge problems. Over the years, I have learned to empathise better, but still far from perfectly. Some people are born with a capacity for empathy that's either greater than mine or not so inhibited by narcissism. Whittling away at my narcissism has taken a long time and a lot of work - and I'm still whittling."