M Scott Peck
Pop psychiatrist who ignored his bestselling advice on adultery
Psychiatrist M Scott Peck, who has died aged 69, made millions with his first book by advocating self-discipline, restraint, and responsibility – all qualities he openly acknowledged were notably lacking in himself. The Road Less Travelled was first published in 1978. It eventually spent 13 years on the New York Times bestseller list to create a paperback record, sold 10 million copies worldwide and was translated into more than 20 languages.
The opening words were: “Life is difficult.” This was a pronouncement to which Peck could personally attest. He spent much of his life immersed in cheap gin, chain-smoking cigarettes and inhaling cannabis, and being persistently unfaithful to his wife, who eventually divorced him. He also went through estrangement with two of his three children.
Peck wrote openly of his adulterous affairs in another of his total of 15 books: In Search of Stones: A Pilgrimage of Faith, Reason and Discovery (1995), based on a visit to Britain to see ancient stone monuments. Never lacking in personal honesty, at least in print, he once said he had “the rare privilege of being able to give advice without having any responsibility”.
Peck, whose personalised car number plate was THLOST, also spent much of his life seeking religious fulfilment (he was baptised a Christian at 43 after embracing Zen and then Sufism), and used this to explain his infidelities. “There was an element of quest in my extramarital romances,” he wrote. “I was questing, through sexual romance, at least a brief visit to God’s castle.” Such visits, however brief, ceased when he became impotent, he disclosed.
The Road Less Travelled was written while Peck was running a successful private practice in Connecticut, but he received only $7,500 for publication after one publisher had dismissed it as “too Christ-y”. Although a slow starter, its eventual massive success established Peck on the lecture circuit as well as confirming a valuable new genre for American publishers.
Peck was born in New York, the son of a lawyer who later became a judge. His education at the Phillips Exeter academy was unhappy and he later attacked its “Spartan, almost vicious adolescent culture”. After psychological counselling, he moved to the Friends seminary, a Quaker school near Greenwich Village. There he read about Zen and became a Buddhist, but retained an ambition to write “the great American novel”. After briefly attending Middlebury College, from where he was expelled for refusing the required officers’ training classes, he entered Harvard thanks to his father’s influence. He graduated in social relations and, despite his literary desires, began studying medicine at Columbia University before graduating from Case-Western Reserve University school of medicine in Ohio in 1963.
While at Columbia Peck met and married Lily Ho, a Chinese student from Singapore. This caused his father, who was half Jewish but always concealed it, to disown him (her parents disapproved, too). But he later relented and paid his son’s tuition fees.
Then Peck joined the army because, he later said, he needed the regular pay to support his wife and a family; yet he also opposed the Vietnam war, then escalating. He rose to become assistant chief of psychiatry at the US surgeon general’s office in Washington DC from 1970 to 1972, when he left the service with the rank of lieutentant colonel.
Years of private practice began and he incorporated case histories into the Road book and others. After its success he followed with another bestseller, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983). It was well received by critics, but with reservations about “moral preachment”. His books included two novels and one for children. Other non-fiction included The Different Drum (1987) and sequels to his first book, Further Along the Road Less Travelled (1993) and The Road Less Traveled and Beyond (1997). His last work was Glimpses of the Devil (2005), recounting his fascination with exorcism.
The success of his books was partly based on their mystical-spiritual content and although Peck always eschewed the idea of being a guru, there were cultish aspects to his popularity. Of this he said: “Half the time when people want to touch my robe, it feels incredibly icky – yuck! The rest of the time, it feels very good, honest, right.”
He and Lily divorced in 2003 and he remarried last year. He is survived by his second wife, and his two daughters and one son by Lily.
· Morgan Scott Peck, author and psychiatrist, born May 22 1936; died September 25 2005