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Scott Peck, 69; 'Road Less Traveled' inspired readers, influenced market

(Correction: Because of an editing error, the obituary of author M. Scott Peck in yesterday's Globe misidentified the source of a comment on the United States in the late 1970s. It was President Carter who described America as suffering from a national malaise.)

WASHINGTON -- M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist who wrote the landmark self-help book ''The Road Less Traveled" but said he often had a hard time following his advice of self-discipline, died Sunday at his home in Warren, Conn. Dr. Peck, who had Parkinson's disease and pancreatic and liver duct cancer, was 69.

Dr. Peck was enjoying a brisk private practice in Connecticut when he wrote ''The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth," (1978). Translated into 20 languages, it sold more than 10 million copies, spent eight years on The New York Times bestsellers list, and launched a franchise of books, including ''Further Along the Road Less Traveled" (1993) and ''The Road Less Traveled and Beyond" (1997).

With a compassionate narrative style, Dr. Peck's books emphasized personal responsibility and self-discipline. ''Life is difficult," he wrote in the opening line of ''The Road Less Traveled," moving on to address themes he labeled discipline, love, growth and religion, and grace.

''Though demanding, Peck's gospel was as brimming with hope as an Emerson essay, as full of American can-do attitude as a Super Bowl halftime show," a Los Angeles Times critic wrote in 2003, marking the 25th anniversary of the book.

Although Dr. Peck said one publisher dismissed it as ''too Christ-y," ''The Road Less Traveled" was credited with boosting the publishing industry's interest in self-help texts, especially those with a spiritual flavoring. Dr. Peck was sometimes regarded as the modern father of the genre, but he had trouble with those who called him a prophet, which many of his followers did.

He said he was repulsed and pleased by some of the cult aspects that formed around him. ''Half the time when people want to touch my robe," he once told Life magazine, ''it feels incredibly icky -- yuck!" The rest of the time, ''it feels very good, honest, right."

Dr. Peck became one of the best-known psychiatrists, speakers, and spiritual teachers of his generation, even if some in his field came to frown on his meshing of mental health and spirituality.

Reared in a secular home, he traveled along a religious track that ranged from Zen Buddhist (at 18) to a flirtation with Jewish and Muslim mysticism (in his 30s) to Christianity (at 43).

In later books and interviews, he described himself as a flawed man who had a weakness for cheap gin, marijuana, and women. He wrote openly of his extramarital affairs in what he called his favorite book, ''In Search of Stones" (1995), nominally about a trip to Great Britain looking for ancient stone monuments.

''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." He later said his philandering stopped when he became impotent.

Born in New York City, Morgan Scott Peck grew up on Park Avenue, his father a self-made Wall Street lawyer and judge who hid his Jewish heritage. As a child, Dr. Peck's one impairment, he told The Boston Globe in 1985, was a propensity to, as his parents told him, ''think too much."

''I was raised by my parents to be the ultimate WASP," he said.

That meant an education track paved for him through Phillips Exeter Academy, with an expected destination of Harvard University. Instead, Dr. Peck said, he took a detour.

Despondent, he dropped out of Exeter, which he later derided for its ''Spartan, almost vicious adolescent culture." At 15, he ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

''When I left Exeter I felt very badly about myself," he said. ''I thought there was something wrong with me, and my parents thought I must be crazy. . . . Why was I out of step with this golden track that had been laid out for me?"

The few weeks in the hospital offered him both a chance to recover and to reflect. ''In short order I felt better about myself," said Dr. Peck, who called the experience his turning point. ''I haven't worried about being on an aberrant track since."

He attended the Friends Seminary in Greenwich Village, a small Quaker school, where he was introduced to Eastern thought. ''I was hooked on Zen at the age of 17. It's fashionable now, but back then it meant you were queer or a commie," he said in 1985, describing the religion as ''a training school par excellence in paradox. Without that training, I don't think I'd be able to swallow the God-awful paradoxes in Christianity."

After a stint at Middlebury College, where he protested attending required ROTC classes, he made it to the original destination, Harvard, with help from his father's connections.

After his Harvard graduation in 1958, he married a woman of Chinese descent, and his father disinherited him briefly. He graduated from Case Western Reserve University medical school in 1963 and joined the Army because it was the cheapest way to continue studying medicine, he said.

He spent nine years as an Army psychiatrist, becoming a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. After the atrocities at My Lai in 1968, he wrote to superiors unsuccessfully requesting a study of earlier military massacres.

He resigned in 1972 to start a private practice in Litchfield County, Conn.

Dr. Peck received a $7,500 advance from Simon & Schuster for ''The Road Less Traveled" and said he had a feeling it would be a great success. Sales, however, were initially slow, propelled mainly by word of mouth and endorsements from Alcoholics Anonymous and religious groups. A big boost came from author Phyllis Theroux's rave in the Washington Post (''a clipper ship among Chris Crafts, a magnificent boat of a book.")

With the nation in a ''malaise," as President Clinton characterized it, and many Americans searching for meaning in their lives, Dr. Peck's ideas resonated. The book became a phenomenon and reportedly netted Dr. Peck $300,000 in annual royalties.

He was skeptical, however, of how many people had actually read it. So was Time magazine, which in 1994 wrote that the book's lingering appeal ''may not be that people actually read it and are elevated. Rather, it appears, they buy it to give to irritating friends. Making a present of 'The Road Less Traveled' has become a socially acceptable way of saying, 'Estelle, your insulation is beginning to char.' "

Dr. Peck also wrote ''People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil" (1983), a case study of human pretenses; two novels; and a children's book, ''The Friendly Snowflake" (1992). He had a long fascination with exorcisms that he explored in ''Glimpses of the Devil" (2005).

His marriage to the former Lily Ho ended in divorce.

He leaves his wife of one year, Kathleen, three children from the first marriage, and two grandchildren.

Speaking of his conversion to Christianity, he said he had an appreciation of Jesus Christ as someone ''who was almost continually frustrated," he told Omni magazine. ''He was a man who was often angry, scared, sad or even prejudiced on occasion."

He had little regard for what he told another interviewer was the ever-smiling ''wimpy Jesus." He once hung up the phone on a bothersome caller, justifying the action by saying that Jesus would have done the same.

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