M. Scott Peck

People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil

VTR Date: December 21, 1983

Guest: Peck, M. Scott


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. M. Scott Peck
Air: 12/21/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Recently I was quite intrigued by the title of a new Simon and Schuster book, and then enormously taken by the substance of the volume itself, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Let me read you just two sentences from the book. “Knowing so little about the nature of evil, we currently lack the skill to heal it. Our therapeutic ineptness is hardly remarkable however in view of the fact that we have not even yet discerned evil as a specific disease.” It is a thesis of this book that evil can be defined as a specific form of mental illness and should be subject to at least the same intensity of scientific investigation that we would devote to some other major psychiatric disease. An extraordinary thought, for me at least, that evil should become a psychiatric diagnostic category. And so, as The Open Mind enables me to do so often when a book is quite so provocative, I’ve invited its author to join me today. Dr. M. Scott Peck, formerly the Army Medical Corps Assistant Chief of Psychiatry, and now in private practice.

Thanks so much for joining me today, Sir. I do appreciate the opportunity to introduce the book to our audience and to discuss its meaning with you. And I wanted to begin by asking why you feel, what is the significance of making evil a diagnostic category?

PECK: Well, Richard, I think I’d like to start off on a note of optimism. This doesn’t seem like a very optimistic period. But I am an optimist, and I think that the human race is improving. And in my first book, The Road Less Traveled, I make some note of that. And when I suggest that we study human evil, I am suggesting this precisely because I think that we have grown to the point where it is no longer the norm. I don’t think that you could have ever considered something to be a psychiatric disease or something that you could isolate and study were it the norm But I think that the human race has grown up sufficiently that human evil is actually not the norm. And so this kind of thing doesn’t get in the papers, but just two weeks ago I was in Nashville and left my credit card in a store, and they went to great trouble to send it back to me, and to locate me and send it back to me without any charge or anything like that. And so I feel really very good about the human race and its battle with evil but I’m suggesting we’ve reached the point now where we could speed up that battle by really beginning to get to know it. But I also think it’s rather desperate though that we do so. I don’t want to be a cockeyed optimist, because we’re in very dangerous straits. You know that up until 30 or 40 years ago the danger to our life came from outside of us in the form of disease and plagues and floods and droughts and bears in the forest and the like. What we called natural evil. Well now, today with our technology we have largely tamed natural evil, yet our situation is just as precarious if not more precarious than it was before from our own weaponry. And we realize that the danger today comes from the evil within us. Human evil. And before it’s too late, while I think it has diminished over the centuries, before it’s too late I think it’s high time we got on with studying it and got to know what our enemy is.

HEFFNER: But why make it a diagnostic category? Does that make it easier to handle?

PECK: Well, I think that it puts it in perspective as something which interferes with full human growth and potential, not only in the people who have it but also in the victims of evil.

HEFFNER: You say “who have it,” so that you are using the metaphor of disease for evil.

PECK: I am saying that there are evil people. The great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, talked about that there are two types of myths about evil, about people who were sliding into evil, and people who have slid, who have crossed a kind of line. And I describe different types of people in People of the Lie, so for instance after the introduction, which is entitled “Handle With Care,” and that’s maybe something we ought to talk about because it is a dangerous book in some ways, I talked about George, a man who made a pact with the devil and was sliding into evil. But he was able to reneg on this pact which he said was all in his mind, and go back. Now there are other people who seem to have slid, who seem to have crossed that line where they can no longer come back. And I’m saying that these people can be identified. There are certain things which categorize them. They have not been identified by psychiatry thus far, but yet psychiatrists as well as lawyers and other people come in contact with them quite frequently. And they comprise perhaps two or three percent of the population, the people who have slid over the line. There are a great many more who are in danger.

HEFFNER: but usually we talk about these diagnostic categories as a means of expediting cure. Therefore you must be saying, if we can diagnose evil we can cure it. Is that a fair statement?

PECK: Yes. Well, I don’t think that we can hope to cure something, as I said, that we haven’t even dared to study. And I think that as one old priest said, he said, “Scott, I’m glad that you called evil a disease. It is the ultimate disease.” And I see no reason why we should not consider it a disease as we would anything else that keeps us from reaching out potential or anything else in our character which makes us hurtful or difficult or sometimes vicious people.

HEFFNER: But this then, in your estimation, is not a matter of wishful thinking. You’re not making it a diagnostic category in order to infuse some hope into the situation.

PECK: I think it is a diagnostic category like any other conglomeration of human traits which are biologically or psychologically rooted which cause self-destructive or other kinds of destructive behavior. I don’t see it as being any different from any other kind of disease. I don’t think that is should be regarded as some kind of moral issue while other kinds of human aberrations are regarded as medical kinds of issues.

HEFFNER: Why not?

PECK: I think that is should be researched and studied.

HEFFNER: Why not, Doctor? Why should it not be conserved as we have always considered evil, a question of morality, and leave a disease to those who study traditional disease? Why do you insist that we move it out of the category of morals?

PECK: Because strangely enough, even though I’m writing a book about evil, and saying that there are people who are evil, one of the things I ultimately hope to lead people away from is name-calling and blaming and trying to kill evil or kill those people because they’re evil or they’re, because the Russians or the Chinese or whatnot, we think they’re evil, let’s go bomb them. As a matter of fact, the definition for evil, the best definition I know was, you know, given to me by my son, who was eight years old at the time. Because of my laziness I like to begin my research close to home. And so when I began to work on People of the Lie some six years or so ago I began by asking my family what they thought evil was. And I began with my wife and my daughters, who were adolescents at the time, and they gave me very thoughtful, well-reasoned kinds of definitions, but nothing that I couldn’t have thought of myself and nothing that really grabbed me here. And then forgetting that he was the family guru, I finally turned to my son Christopher, who was then eight, and in a rather condescending way, I said, “Well, Christopher, what do you think evil is?” And he said, “Oh, Daddy,” he said, “that’s easy. Evil is ‘live’ spelled backwards.” ‘Live’ spelled backwards. Evil is a force which is against life. It seeks to kill life or human liveliness. So it was no accident for instance that Jesus in the Book of John said of Satan, he said “You were a murderer, a killer from the beginning.” And of himself he said, “I am come that there might have life and have it more abundantly.” What a wonderful world. And evil is that which seeks to crush life or liveliness or the abundance of life. It is an anti-life force. And if we start going out to kill it, exterminate it, we then become contaminated by it, because of course we become killers.

HEFFNER: You want to cure it instead?

PECK: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: Well then let me ask if you wouldn’t, if you were successful in adding this to the standard diagnostic categories, whether we might not find that just as now in the criminal justice system we find that someone that we find as exculpatory in a sense, one’s mental state, one’s illness, that one is not possessed but one is diseased, may we not then find that this character or that character must not be punished for the crime he has committed because he has been ill with evil?

PECK: Well, you’re getting into the whole issue of the insanity defense. And actually probably only two or three percent of the people that we give psychiatric diagnoses to nowadays who we think suffer from psychiatric illnesses would psychiatrists ever call crazy or insane or invoke that kind of defense.

HEFFNER: But you will broaden the field with this new diagnostic category, “Evil.”

PECK: Yes, but it is not designed to relieve the evil of their responsibility. To the contrary. The book, one of the hopes is that people from reading the book will start assuming more and more responsibilities for their sin and their sinfulness.

HEFFNER: But as a society we generally have said, “Poor soul.” Now that’s an interesting – I didn’t mean it as a slip – “Poor soul. He is a schizophrenic. He is manic depressive.” Now we must say, “He is evil.” That’s a rather strange juxtaposition of diagnoses, isn’t it?

PECK: Well, again I think that the evil people are poor souls. Literally and figuratively. And are to be met, or they’re very easy people to hate because they’re often very manipulative and destructive kinds of people. But underneath, while on the surface they often look like they’re people who have got it all together and they’re very into looking that way, underneath they live their lives at a level of sheer terror that is greater than most of us have any kind of experience of. And I think that they are to be thought of as poor souls and to be pitied and to try to help them rather than to exterminate them. And to exterminate them would again tend to contaminate us because to kill evil you become a killer.

HEFFNER: In the past we have frequently institutionalized people who have suffered from one or another of the traditional diagnostic category diseases. Would you see the same thing as happening with people who suffered from evil?

PECK: Again, Richard, from the stand point of psychiatrists and diagnosticians, most people suffer from mental illness, which has been much the same as the term religious have used as sort of well-ingrained patterns of sinfulness or not thinking or whatnot. So for instance, there is a study done right here some years ago called The Midtown Manhattan Study where they studied a cross-section of people in Manhattan and even conservatively estimated that some 60 percent of people could use some kind of psychiatric help. The thing that’s nice about being a psychotherapist is that we get to deal often with the brightest and the best and the most courageous of people. Unlike your stereotype of people who are mentally ill, the people that come to a psychotherapist come because they’re more courageous. Everybody has problems. What lots of people do, including the evil, is to try and pretend that they don’t have problems, or to drink them down, or to disguise them, or to take them out on other people. And it’s only the more brave and wise and courageous among people that come to see a psychotherapist. They’re rather the healthiest part of the population. But we therapists see enormous numbers of people out there with quite crippling mental illnesses who are not in hospitals or not in prisons. They are managing to make by, but not as well as they could if they received some kind of treatment. And so, no, the evil would not be locked up unless they, it would not require any change in our legal system whatsoever, unless they could be convicted of crimes for which they should be locked up like anyone else who commits such crimes. Actually you, when you go into a jail, you can give psychiatric diagnoses to just about everybody in the jail. And rather seldom are these people who I would call evil. What the people in jail say is that “the real bad guys are not in here; they’re out there.” And while there’s a certain sort of self-justificatory quality to this, there’s also a certain correctness. The people that I’m calling people of the lie are into looking good, and they place a high premium on that. They’re into disguising their own evil from themselves as well as from others. And so they place a high premium on respectability, and their crimes are often much more subtle than those that get people in jail.

HEFFNER: I do want to ask you about the ways and means by which you identify the people who are diseased in this way. But first I’d just like to continue this other train of thought. There has been so much talk in recent years, perhaps the last generation, of the biochemical basis for other kinds of mental illness, other kinds of psychiatric disorders, schizophrenia, manic depression, et cetera.

PECK: Alcoholism.

HEFFNER: Right. Now, do you find the same thing to be true with this new category of mental disease?

PECK: Well again, I don’t know. We haven’t scientifically begun to study this category, which is what I’m suggesting that we do. One editor who read a primitive version of this book said, “Well, surely, Scotty, you don’t mean to suggest that there might be any kind of biological cause for evil.” And I said, “I don’t know what to suggest. I think it ought to be investigated like everything else. You can’t make judgments about what causes a phenomenon until you’ve been willing to study it,.” And I think that biological as well as psychological studies should be done of human evil, and that we should look everywhere to increase our understanding of it.

HEFFNER: But, Dr. Peck, scientists as we know generally in a research project have some thesis, some hypothesis from which they work. What would your own hypothesis be in terms of the potential for a biochemical basis for this new disease, or this newly-categorized disease?

PECK: My suspicion, Richard, is that there will be found a biological component to human evil. Now, I’m very careful in my use of words. I’m saying “biological component”; I’m not saying “the cause.” We still like simple answers. We like to think that this causes this and that causes that. Actually, most all diseases are like the trunk of a tree that has a number of roots and a number of different causes that go together. And I think 100 years from now when we look back on the history of American medicine and put things in perspective, I think we’ll realize that the last 30 years of this century was a time when we’ve come to recognize that virtually all disorders are psychosomatic. Back when I was in college I was taught that schizophrenia and manic depressive disease and alcoholism were what we called functional disorders by which we hedged a bet a little bit and said will maybe someday we would discover a biological cause. But we really knew that they were psychological and we had all kinds of psychological theories. And now we’ve realized with these diseases over the past 30 years that they all have biological components. Now, that does not mean that they’re totally biological disorders. They are also related to child raising. They’re also related to the mysterious kind of human soul that people have and the choices that people make. And diseases are a very complex kind of phenomenon. I think now also we’ll recognize by the end of the century that cancer and heart disease are also largely psychosomatic disorders, that as well as having biological components which we now recognize that they also have psychological components.

HEFFNER: You know, as I read People of the Lie, and then your subtitle, The Hope for Healing Human Evil, I hope you’ll forgive me if I couldn’t help but think that here is a good, concerned human being who has been interested in theology and religion as well as being a professional, trained psychiatrist, who want so much to find some ray of hope for the manifestation of evil throughout man’s history and in our own time. And so he’s created evil, made evil into a diagnostic category. And that by itself gives us some hope. You have hope for curing all the other diseases. Is that – I don’t mean it as an unkind thought – is that totally off the wall, that thought?

PECK: Well, it was written to some extent out of frustration in trying to deal with human evil. But it was very much written in hope. And actually the hope that we’ve talked about is just one of five hopes in the book. So, you remember I talked about people who are sliding into evil. And I think that if we become more sophisticated about evil that we will not only perhaps be able to heal those people who have slid over the line, but we will also be able to help those people who are sliding to stop their slide or to not start the slide in the first place. So that’s the second hope. The third hope that is expressed in the book is that in those cases, the case of the spider phobia and the case of the voodoo dream, you may remember, were patients who were victims of evil and been victims of evil people and whose healing was not able to be accomplished without identifying them to be victims of evil, without specifically identifying their parents as having been evil in certain ways, and that their healing, full healing could not have occurred were the therapists in these cases not willing to use specifically the word, the diagnosis of evil. Fourth, I talked about a rare condition, as far as I can ascertain, but nonetheless one I believe in, possession, where there is an issue of evil involved. Possessed people are not evil. As a matter of fact, I see them as potentially holy people. But they are in battle with evil and again they cannot be helped in this battle unless the reality of evil is recognized. Lastly, and most importantly, I deal with the phenomenon of group evil, which is where I think the greatest danger comes from. And I used in the book a study of Mai Lai where good American boys killed, slaughtered over 500 unarmed and innocent people. And I deliberately used a study of American evil because the battle against evil, Richard, begins at home; it begins with self-purification. It doesn’t begin by trying to fight the evil people out there or over there. And the last and greatest hope is that as we study evil and as we are willing to focus on it we will be able to do much to prevent group evil, which is where the greatest danger is obviously coming from. It’s from groups that wield atom bombs and hydrogen bombs.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, Norman Cousins was my guest here on The Open Mind, as he had been many times before, fairly recently. And I asked Norman whether he had moved from the concern that I always identify him with, as a world federalist, as someone interested in international organization for so many years, whether he had out of hopelessness moved from world affairs to the more personal internal concerns for human health, individual human health, or whether he had done that because there wasn’t very much hope of bringing about world peace and world order? I don’t know whether Norman would say yes or no. But here again I had the felling, particularly as I came to the end of the book and read your chapter on Mai Lai, that in a sense it had begun there, as a way of explaining this incredible phenomenon of this kind of evil. And you’re right, you started at home; you didn’t start someplace else, you didn’t start with the Holocaust, but with our own holocaust. And that there was just no way of getting hold of that unless one were to say it’s an illness and we can diagnose it as such. Because if we can diagnose something as an illness we can then cure it. And so I couldn’t help but think – and you’ve mentioned that chapter on Mai Lai here – that that was really where it all began.

PECK: Well, this may raise the hackles of a few of your audience, but the first time I can ever remember, Richard, using the word “evil” in my mind was when I was 14. And I was listening to Senator Joseph McCarthy making a speech over the radio. And at the age of 14 I didn’t know anything about communism, I didn’t know anything about the issues, but I remember feeling terrible about the snide, nasty quality of that man’s voice and the destructive innuendoes that he was making. I remember feeling so wretched about it without even understanding the issues of going and flipping off the radio and saying to myself that was the voice of evil. And you’re correct, I’ve been very concerned over the years with the issues and have been involved in my, since the late teens in the disarmament movement. But again you’re asking about despair. To the contrary. I go around the whole country speaking in the churches, and I am actually very pleased by how well the disarmament movement is doing.

HEFFNER: Oh, I meant despair in a somewhat different sense. I meant, as I read the book I had the feeling of such a good person here who was so concerned about the evil he felt that it was almost as if it were a trap that you would have to fall into. It’s one, there would be one way of dealing with the evil in our lives, and that is if it were indeed an illness, because we can cure illness. And I’m not saying, and I know that you don’t accept that. I must say to you though that it was this feeling that pervaded my reading of the book, a wishful thought, if only it were a diagnostically identifiable illness, by gosh and by golly, we do cure such illnesses, and therefore evil is an illness.

PECK: Well, currently, as we’ve acknowledged, we do not have a cure. But it is very specific what goes on in evil people. The psychodynamics are very specific. It’s very identifiable. We, all of us, Richard, you know, can commit evil and do commit evil. And we, all of us, are sinners. The, indeed, the one prerequisite to be a Christian if you really want to join the club is you have to be a sinner. Only sinners are allowed. Only people who can accept that they have a, that they do less than they ought to, do not do as well as they could, that they betray themselves, they betray the best of which they are capable; only people who acknowledge their own sinfulness can truly be on this spiritual journey. Now, what characterizes those people who are people of the lie who are evil is their refusal to think of themselves as sinners and to bear the pain of their own sin, and it’s a very precise kind of problem and defect.

HEFFNER: Indeed – and we only have a minute and a half left – tell me, why did you call it People of the Lie?

PECK: Because these people are, one of the guiding motives of their life is to disguise their own evil from themselves as well as from others. And so they’re constantly engaged in a kind of disguise and cover-up of their evil, and they do this primarily with lying. Now, one of the places that the evil can be found with greater than normal concentration is often in churches or in very pious kinds of positions, because if your predominant motive is to disguise your evil from yourself as well as from others, what better way to do this than to be a highly visible Christian, or if you’re in an Islamic culture, a highly visible and pious Muslim. But their piety is part of their disguise. It is not a genuine piety or truly humble piety. To the contrary. Underneath, they’re very arrogant people. As I said, that rather than acknowledging their own sinfulness they believe that they are perfect. And it is this belief that they’re perfect that causes them to strike out to try and maintain their own self-image of perfection. They’re often very sophisticated people, Richard. And at cocktail parties and what not they’ll say, “Oh, I’ve got my faults like everybody else.” But deep down inside themselves they feel themselves to be without fault. And when there’s evidence in the world that they have fault then they set about trying to exterminate the evidence rather than to try to heal themselves.

HEFFNER: Dr. Peck, thank you so much for joining me today in this discussion of this absolutely fascinating book.

PECK: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I do hope that you will join us here again on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”