Off The Road
Arthur Jones Charts The Rocky Life of a Man Who Didn't Always Practice What He Preached
M. Scott Peck's life was difficult.
To the millions of people who read his 1978 masterwork The Road Less Traveled, that's no surprise--after all, the self-help book's very first sentence warns that "Life is difficult." What's surprising is how difficult Peck made life for everyone around him. The man who advised seekers that "commitment is the foundation, the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship" humiliated his long-suffering wife Lily with an endless, anonymous string of infidelities with both women and men. While his book preached that "delaying gratification is the only decent way to live," he smoked, drank heavily, and let his children roll joints for him because they enjoyed his sometimes oppressive company more when he was stoned. "Children who are truly loved . . . unconsciously know themselves to be valued. This knowledge is worth more than any gold," he waxed in his writing, but his funeral notice cold-bloodedly announced he was survived by two children, not three, since one of his daughters despised him.
"You cannot write people out of life," declares writer Arthur Jones, who considers Peck's postmortem excise of his daughter the most "horrifying" transgression recounted in his 2007 biography The Road He Travelled: The Revealing Biography of M. Scott Peck. "I mean, you cannot do that."
Jones, a British-born journalist and author who interspersed stints at The Financial Times, Forbes, and The National Catholic Reporter with book writing (his 10 previous titles include biographies of Pierre Toussaint and Malcolm Forbes) didn't count himself among Peck's acolytes before meeting him. "I am not vested in him as a guru or anything like that," says Jones, a charming white-haired raconteur, from the comfortable drawing room of his historic Monkton home. "Back in England in February  for the launch of the book, [I had lunch] with my sister and brother, and I said, `Why have we not got the awe gene in our makeup?' I wasn't enamored. I took him as a character worth writing about."
As told in Jones' book, Peck was born in 1936 into a patrician New York family whose wealth insulated him from the knocks of the Great Depression. Despite his somewhat spoiled upbringing, Peck still suffered lasting wounds in childhood, especially from his father and older brother, whom Jones describes as "ambitious and sports-minded macho males." Peck, a sensitive boy prone to tears and introspection, could never quite fit into the crisp WASP mold of manhood. Throughout his life he struggled against its strictures--leaving a blue-blooded prep school for a Quaker academy and marrying a non-WASP (Singapore-born Lily Ho, whom Peck backhandedly describes as "beautiful in a Chinese way") while still in medical school. This came as a double slap in the face to Peck's father, who emphasized not marrying until one's fortune was secure. After a steady climb as a military psychiatrist in Okinawa and the Pentagon, Peck left it all behind to become an "ordinary country psychiatrist" after a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar opened him up to the idea of merging religion with psychiatry--a notion that eventually turned into The Road Less Traveled.
"I like to set people in their time," Jones says. "And the great attraction to me was here's a fellow who came out of the hedonism of the `60s, [who] still could see the best benefits of the hippie movement, was sorry he missed out on some of it, but realized it cast people adrift." The Road Less Traveled was published at a time when the `60s utopian buzz had vinegared to a nihilistic hangover and millions of Americans emptied by the excesses of the disco era needed the compassionate kick in the pants Peck's remarkably conservative message provided: face your issues head on, don't shy from pain if it's an opportunity for growth, and open yourself to God's grace.
In marked contrast, Jones paints a picture of how, incomprehensibly, Peck could not follow his own excellent advice. Instead he neglected his kids to attend to his advancing career, facilitating "spiritual growth workshops" and embarking on multiple book and lecture tours--a circuit in which he was happy to take full advantage of how a dollop of fame is a ticket into many women's beds. This plethora of heterosexual opportunity replaced the anonymous cruising in men's rooms that, as a horny teenager, was his most dependable sexual outlet before marrying.
"To be trite about it, he was the wounded healer--the very wounded healer," Jones says. "At the same time, he fits into a category of humanity. He was inspirational."
Remarking how no one enjoys Paul Robeson's baritone any less because he was a Communist, Jones sees a parallel overkill between the outrage over the gap between Peck's advice and practice. "When people feel affronted when they find out [about his personal life], they say, `Yes, but he was a psychiatrist,'" he says. "That's where the affront seems to come in."
Yes, but it is an understandable affront for someone vested in the mental health business. It is unreasonable to dismiss the inspirational qualities of a painting like "Starry Night" because van Gogh could not manage his own affairs, but van Gogh was not giving explicit instructions about how to live one's life. How can a biographer explain this disconnect? Jones is succinct. "He was always in pain," he shrugs. "Psychological pain--that's the most charitable explanation of all this."
Jones came into contact with the subject of his biography at a moment of considerable pain in Peck's life. The aging psychiatrist was divorced and suffering from reduced public stature after publishing less celebrated books such as 2005's Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption, in which he described taking part in exorcisms, and a scourging Rolling Stone profile that depicted him as a spoiled drunk throwing tantrums in hotels. And he was now suffering from the onset of Parkinson's disease.
"About 3 or 4 years ago, I was doing a lot of essays [for the National Catholic Reporter]" recalls Jones, who was editor of the newspaper at the time its reviewer wrote the glowing endorsement that still festoons the back cover of The Road Less Traveled. "[Peck] called me to ask me a favor. And so I granted the favor, and in those conversations I learned he had Parkinson's."
His interest piqued, Jones asked Peck if he could interview him about his experience of the disease. "Well, in the course of interviewing people for that length of time, you talk about all sorts of things," Jones says. "And I was working on a biography of Evelyn Waugh, and finally I said, `Scotty, why don't I do one of you?' And I did, and I found out he was a bit of a shit." He laughs. "But I had no idea going in. I mean, I didn't expect a tower of virtue for anyone. I'd covered the Catholic field far too long to do that."
Peck agreed to cooperate with Jones, even with the understanding that the end result would be unauthorized--a caveat Peck did not easily accept. The book's final chapters recount Peck's numerous attempts to cajole Jones into more of what he described as "community" effort.
"You get a sense that he was also periodically making a great push to try and control what was going in--that intensified after I asked him that question," says Jones, referring to a query about the ethnicity of Peck's extramarital lovers that proved to be a sore spot between them. "He thought I was doing some sort of job on him. I wasn't--I told his story in his words and the words of others."
Nevertheless, the struggle for control of the book's content, usually manifested as Peck exhorting to make sure the final result was more about the grace of God and less about him the man, continued unabated until Peck's death in September 2005.
It is Jones' account through the eyes of witnesses to Peck's final days that is the most humanizing portion of the book. In spite of all his mistakes, what remains is a man--a sinner--desperately trying to reconcile the carnal and divine aspects of being human. Refusing medication that would have made the transition easier to bear, Peck instead chose to remain conscious of the reality of his dying for as long as possible, facing the transformative mystery of death head on. Jones eulogizes his final days thusly:
Distrusting people, distrusting love, distrusting himself, he placed--to the extent he was capable--what little fragment of trust remained, in God. And hoped God understood. He'd written what he'd had to say, and in every book stayed true to his profession of faith. He hoped his readers, too, would understand.
The Road He Travelled was published in the UK in January 2007 but, much to Jones' chagrin, major U.S. publishing houses such as HarperCollins, Random House, and Simon and Schuster are not interested in printing a U.S. edition. "They may have made a mistake," Jones says. "Peck's seven million readers are still alive and they are the major book-buying demographic in the country--women who can afford to buy hardbacks." The UK edition of the book is still available from several major online retailers.
Since The Road Less Traveled still sells very well for a 30-year-old book (it's in Amazon.com's top 1500), is it possible there is a concerted effort by publishers to avoid skewering their cash cow? Jones dismisses the notion. "Nothing like that," he says. "My agent is in New York, all the major houses are in New York, and they are writing from London, saying `The Peck book is out, are you interested?' One never knows, because that's the nature of the publishing business."
The book's rejection is not troubling Jones too deeply--he has already moved on to several other projects, including a fantasy novel for children. ("I'm not an author, I'm a book writer," he quips. "Book writers don't get writer's block.") But his experience of "witnessing"--his description--a deeply flawed man at the very end of his spiritual journey remains.
"What is it?" reflects Jones about the strange balance sheet of Peck's life. "What is it that drives people, the spiritual commitment or spiritual acceptance that makes people be better than themselves? When [Peck] sat down to write, he had a skill coming out of himself that enabled people to pick up his words and improve their lives. That really did happen. It genuinely did. You see that in a lot of great writing. The classical example is the New Testament, or the Old Testament--the way people dip into the scriptures. What is it we're doing? We're not taking Peck's word for it. We're interpreting what's written against our own need and finding a way to use that as a tool, as a lever, to move on. He was a man of one book. And that was the book."
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