Boomer Guru: How M. Scott Peck, “the Nation’s Shrink,” Guided Millions but Lost Himself on the Road Less Traveled
By Arthur Jones
209 pages, $19.95
By William L. Morris
Starting around 1980 the baby boom generation (born between 1945 and 1957) began hitting a wall. They’d had so many highs (more than a few artificially generated) that the lows came as a shock. The boomers – especially the women – began to doubt the path they were on.
Self-help books appeared purporting to help. The most popular was “The Road Less Traveled” by M. Scott Peck. The author hit just the right note of religious and psychological probity though he was not especially qualified in either field. He could write and was good looking and put on a good show. Behind the scenes he had little to say and drank, smoked and carried on with both men and women.
He did his spiel all over the world for decades until a Rolling Stone reporter heard him chew out a minion at a hotel registration desk. He reported it and Peck decided he didn’t need the aggravation of travel any longer. He quit the circuit and retired to his two houses in Connecticut and California and watched his money from book sales pile up.
But Parkinson’s disease stopped him in his tracks. Surrounding himself with three adoring women, he lived out his life, dying at the age of 69 of liver and pancreatic cancer. He was worth $6 million at the time of his death. One of his daughters refused to go to his funeral.
This book, based on extensive interviews with Peck and his friends and family members, has been available in England for several years under another title. For some unexplained reason it has only now appeared here. Maybe it has to do with his family’s reticence to go public. It claims to be newly edited but if so there’s more work to be done in that regard. There are many statements that, though they are taken from taped conversations, should be edited till they make more sense. Here is an example:
“He wasn’t the young, the spunky, the good-looking man wanted man by every woman that he thought he was.”
Apparently Peck was eager to play a big role in the creation of this book. He had an unusual compulsion to admit to his many shortcomings. One of the characteristics of a narcissist is to be boastful.
People either loved Peck’s books or they hated them. Scholars tended to be in the second group, citing a lack of original ideas and scholarly habits. The same criticism can be leveled at Arthur Jones. There’s very little scholarship involved. No footnotes and no index.
Peck himself admitted that most of his work was done by others and he merely organized and popularized it. And popular he was — for a while.
One of his first gigs was here in Buffalo in 1979. Two prominent churches joined forces to bring him to town. “I read my speeches,” Peck says. “It was absolutely awful.” However, “There was such a kind attitude dumped on me, such a good feeling going around,” Peck says.
The fanatical admirers of Peck’s self-help methodology were predominantly women probably for the same reason that women are thought to ask for directions when they get lost whereas men won’t.
The story of his life, sketched in some detail here, makes for uncomfortable reading. His father was a famous and wealthy judge. His house was often filled with famous people like the Dulles brothers and George Marshal (think Marshall Plan). These three august personages arranged for Judge Peck to head up the commission that managed to rescind the judgment of the Nuremberg Trial and free many Nazi sympathizers so they could rebuild Germany and also help the American industrial post-war boom.
Alfred Krupp, owner and CEO of Krupp Industries, was one of the most infamous examples of the people Peck’s commission freed. His factories used forced labor during the war. But all was forgiven and his property was restored to him by the Peck Commission and his company provided the seamless rails for most of our railroads.
Judge Peck’s mother, Juliet, came from the German-Jewish community in Buffalo, but the fact that he was therefore Jewish was a well-kept secret.
Scott Peck bristled under his father’s influence and grew to hate the WASP lifestyle his father and older brother embraced. Peck hated Exeter and left in his senior year after an undistinguished career there.
But this didn’t keep Peck from getting into Harvard. His father served on the admission committee. Peck flourished at Harvard. He liked talking about ideas though he wasn’t fond of original research. His senior thesis was totally fudged. It became the basis for “The Road Less Travelled.”
There is mercifully very little of his self-help message here. You can easily get that elsewhere if you are so inclined.
The last third of the book is especially badly written. It reads like a soap opera involving three woman (one by telephone) and Scott Peck as his health deteriorates.
His wife, the mother of their three children, had wisely divorced him and moved eight miles down the road.
It’s a bad sign when an author loses interest in his subject.
Peck was by all accounts a very unpleasant person to be around unless you needed psychological and religious counseling. Then he shone. But lock up your wives and daughters. He had a special message for them.
William L. Morris is the co-inventor of The News’ Poetry Page. He now lives and writes in Florida.