The death of a public figure can be a body blow when it's someone who has directly affected your life. So it knocked the breath out of me for a moment when, watching TV with the sound off during a phone call, I saw that M. Scott Peck had died last Sunday. He was 69 and suffered from pancreatic and liver duct cancer, as well as Parkinson's disease.
In its obit (linked above), the New York Times absurdly identifies Peck as a "self-help author." He was actually more of an anti-self-help author, whose most famous book, The Road Less Traveled, began with the words "Life is difficult" instead of hawking a formula to make it seem easy. Something of a "love" junkie when I first read the book back in the '70s, I remember appreciating the book's painful but bracing splash of ice water when Peck explains that actual love, which is work, begins with the death of infatuation.
It's a digression from what I want to say here, but the Times obit is rather preoccupied with the sales history of the book, which provides a bit of a nostalgia trip back to a more commercially innocent time:
Unlike the huge best sellers of today . . . which arrive in bookstores accompanied by blaring trumpets of publicity, "The Road Less Traveled" went all but unnoticed when it was released in 1978.
Simon & Schuster initially printed only about 5,000 copies, one of which was sent to Phyllis Theroux at The Washington Post. Ms. Theroux was later quoted as saying that she spent two weeks writing a review "that would force people to buy the book."
That eventually happened, but only after Dr. Peck labored to stimulate sales by copying the review and sending it to several hundred newspapers around the country. The hardcover book sold a respectable 12,000 copies, and the paperback edition sold 30,000 in its first year.
That number doubled in each of the next two years, and in mid-1983, five years after publication, "The Road Less Traveled" reached the New York Times best-seller list for the first time. It has since spent 694 weeks on the list, the equivalent of more than 13 years.
End of digression. I wouldn't put The Road Less Traveled on a list of the ten books that most powerfully impacted my life, but I admired it and learned from it. The book of Peck's that became really important to me was People of the Lie, his analysis of the nature of human evil, which he regarded as a psychological and spiritual illness. Strangely, I can't remember why this book first hit me so hard. I don't believe I have ever had to struggle directly with an evil person -- a family member or lover or teacher or guru (though we did have one wreaking havoc in our karate organization for a while). But I know quite a few people who have been intimately victimized by evil, and I have always given them this book, which can be a life- and sanity-saver, because above all, the evil create confusion the way a squid cloaks itself in ink. They are masters of making trouble while appearing pure as the driven snow, and they can drive you mad.
I am restating here much of what I said in this post on the occasion, last winter, of the publication of Peck's last book, Glimpses of the Devil, which fleshed out the hints in People of the Lie that he had actually participated in exorcisms. Go to the Amazon link at the title and look how violently readers disagree over the quality of this book -- one star or five. Several suggested that Peck himself might have become possessed, and one calls it "A Comic Book with Scott Peck as the Superhero!" Then read a couple of the interviews with Peck from earlier this year -- on Beliefnet and Salon -- and decide for yourself.
Mercurial, arrogant, adventurous, almost too willing to get in over his head: these are some of the words that come to me for Scotty Peck (though you can see from his interviews that he wasn't without humility, either). Exorcism was only one of the controversial issues he got embroiled in; open marriage was another, which might seem to comport oddly with his stern lectures on the labor of love. Honesty seemed to be, for him, the value that trumped all: how very Sixties. I interviewed him once for a magazine article in the '80s, and I was struck by his sense of his own importance. This wasn't the only clue, but after our conversation he had what obviously seemed to him a really bright idea: he told me he needed an assistant, someone to answer his mail, field phone calls and the like. Did I need a job? The notion that a working journalist might drop everything to become his secretary -- that he was entitled, that his work was that important -- surprised and amused me. But then, a sense of one's own importance can sometimes be a useful vehicle for accomplishing things of value.
For confronting and unflinchingly describing the dynamics of human evil, and for having the unmitigated gall to go on his own unauthorized, risky spiritual adventure, I honor and will miss M. Scott Peck.