Thoughts on Peck’s “People of the Lie”

M. Scott Peck, is best known for  The Road Less Traveled, followed closely by People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, his second book.

People of the Lie explores the psychology of human evil and possible ways for healing that evil. Peck wrote the book 5 years after Road Less Traveled and after he made a firm Christian commitment and was baptized. Peck takes a distinctly Christian approach towards his topic. Other world views are mentioned ever so briefly, but there’s no ambiguity in Peck’s language: Walking on the path with God (the Christian god) is the way to heal evil.

While I find value in many Christian teachings, I am not a Christian myself and given its obvious bias, this isn’t a book I would have picked up on my own. But, after a discussion with my mother, who read it and was profoundly influenced by it, I decided it was worth a read-through. While I disagree with many of Peck’s premises, there are some useful insights in the book and I’m glad I took the time to stick with the more unpalatable parts.

The book starts out with a case study about a man named George who “made a pact with the devil.” The next chapter outlines why we need a psychological model of evil and what that model looks like (to Peck), drawing heavily from a Christian model for evil. Then we a given a handful of additional case studies, some about those who are more blatant in their evil than others. And then we meet Charlene, the “teaching case.” Reading about Charlene made me fairly uncomfortable. Not because of her actions, but because of the paternalistic way in which Peck talks about Charlene. The boundaries between the two of them, or lack thereof, felt strange to me. This could simply be a symptom of how old the book is (e.g. norms about such things have changed since then), or that I am not a trained therapist (and therefore am not skilled at recognizing the proper boundaries of the therapeutic relationship). After we read about Charlene there is a whole chapter on possession and exorcism (more on that later). Then Peck explores aspects of group evil using the massacre at My Lai as his example. The final chapter is about danger and hope: danger of a psychology of evil, of moral judgment, and of misusing science in the diagnosis and treatment of evil. Peck ends the book by giving a hopeful vision for individual love healing human evil.

The most valuable information in People of the Lie is the way Peck describes how evil manifests. For those who have not yet had direct experience with evil behavior and recognized it for it was, this can be useful. And even for those of us who have, it’s reassuring to to know that the behavior you’ve been subject to is something that is not okay.

Peck explains that evil is inability to tolerate oneself as imperfect. Not being able to tolerate the idea that you are not perfect means that you cannot recognize your need to grow. It means that you need to maintain the pretense of your goodness and perfection above all else. People who demonstrate evil see the world as they want to see it rather than how it actually is. To maintain their version of reality, they must scapegoat others and project their own faults onto them. They must attack any and all who jeopardize their self image. All of this means that those who demonstrate evil are entirely incapable of true empathy and can be utterly destructive in their relationship with others in the name of self-preservation.

Now to discuss the less palatable parts of the book.

There are several outmoded ideas, which isn’t entirely surprising for a psychology book that’s nearly 30 years old. Peck refers to autism as “the ultimate narcissism,” a statement that is simply ignorant and prejudicial according to current thinking. Peck doesn’t make explicitly negative comments about queer people, but something about this description during his case study about Charlene rubbed me the wrong way: “Edie had become a lesbian. Charlene considered herself bisexual.” Throughout the book, I kept finding that I wanted Peck to acknowledge the role of privilege and other structural power dynamics on behavior. Instead, he says “free will is the ultimate human reality.” It’s a tremendous privilege to be able to express your will freely (without interference from your biology, your social status, etc.) and Peck completely fails to acknowledge this. In fact, Peck’s examination of group evil is relegated to a single, over-simplified analysis of the Vietnam war and the My Lai massacre. It’s obvious why Peck selected this example (it’s personal to him), but given the importance of society on evil, I would liked to have seen a more in-depth discussion about how, for the most part, we allow evil to occur every single day.

The chapter on possession and exorcism was the most difficult chapter for me to get through. It’s not because I have a fundamental bias against ritual as a healing practice. Quite the opposite, actually. I think community-based ritual has tremendous healing potential and I’m always curious about different cultures’ traditions in this regard. It’s because Peck approaches possession and exorcism as if it is the most true model for evil and true method for healing it. The possession/exorcism model might work very well for a devout Christian, but not everyone is a Christian nor is everyone going to become a Christian so exploring other models is important.

While Peck acknowledges that good and evil have the same source (God), he nevertheless believes that  good and evil are two distinct paths from which one chooses. To choose the evil path is to be evil. While it might be possible to be cured of your choice, evil, to Peck, is intrinsic. It’s something you are.

The problem with this viewpoint lies with its all or nothing approach. If one cannot be thought of as evil than they must be good. Many abusers take shelter in this misconception. It is more useful, then, to focus on evil as something a person does rather than what they are. This means that a person who is generally thought of as “good” is capable of behaving evilly and visa versa. Cultivating healthy community means we must be vigilant for destructive behaviors, not for judgments about who we think is good or evil, because those judgments are highly susceptible to error.