Honesty is necessary for anyone serious with soul formation, Jesus changing us with his love and truth. Therapy assists us in that. If you believe you have the honesty but not yet the courage to visit a therapist or do not believe plopping down a decent sum for an hour of their time each week, then I have a book for you.
People of the Lie, by psychotherapist M. Scott Peck, has joined my top ten list. Every page pushed me, carried me forward, probed me with self-examining questions (do I really want truth?), helped me understand others and notice excuses and scapegoating ("the genesis of human evil" - 74). I better understand what sin looks like and why the modern church struggles to see transformation beyond moral behavior happening in the pews.
Be warned. If you’re not willing to explore your soul, this book can make you a worse person, a better hider. I agree with C. S. Lewis when he says (I paraphrase), truth will either make you better or worse; of all bad men religious bad men are the worst; of all creatures, the most demonic is the one who stood in the immediate presence of God (from Reflections on the Psalms). I know people who need this book for their own recovery; but I wouldn’t recommend it to them if I do not perceive a willingness to let light shine in. For "the pretense of the evil [person] is designed at least as much to deceive themselves as others." (106) This book will be a real hope, when they are ready. But not before.
For those who are ready, expect morsels on every page. Peck formats his book in conversations, followed by analysis. Both captivate the reader as Peck writes satisfyingly well. His conversations peek into the psychotherapist’s room, talking with patients, asking questions, giving evaluations. Through the candid dialog, you see the patient’s hang-ups, hear how Peck sees or feels befuddled by an issue, how the patients deliberately make excuses, hide, ignore, protest, put up defenses in their words or their posture. Through the book, the author grows as he weighs problems and soberly estimates his own abilities.
Though complex stories of hiding human evil form the backbone of the book, Peck starts with a couple of simpler one to give the reader eyes to see evil. For example: parents give their son a gun for Christmas and don’t understand why he’s depressed. On evaluation, Peck discovers the older brother committed suicide with this same gun. When Peck questions the parents, they thought it odd the gift would cause a problem and protested that with their lack of money, the gun was a perfect, coveted gift for a boy his age. But it is very likely, Peck replies, they are sending their son a message that they’d like him to use the gun on himself, just as his brother did. They continue the scapegoating that they are uneducated, blue-collar, cannot be expected to know these kinds of nuances...
That story is a clear sign of something evil in the parents, a deliberate ignorance, though they seem typical friendly people when you meet them.
Peck believes more evil people live outside of prison than in prison. In fact, most in jail are not truly evil people. They acted out of neurosis or tough times. But evil people are deliberate hiders, long-term, masquerading in law firms, churches, politics, and local supermarkets.
Evil often stems from parenting. Children become victims that have an opportunity to break out or remain in the web of deceit. One story unfolded of a woman and her very co-dependent, passive-aggressive mother. The mother craftily shaped her own identity with her daughter's. The mother resented the father and had frequent sexual liaisons. The daughter learned to do the same and even compared notes with her mother. They both stood against her father. As the years passed, the daughter discovered her father wasn’t such a bad guy as she was brought up to believe. And whenever she tried to separate from her mother, her mother would mischievously find a way to suck her back in (you have to read the dialogue to see how these things play out in real life).
A fascinating part of the story is this woman’s phobia spiders. She transferred her fear of her mother to spiders, never wanting to be honest about her mother, refusing to blame her for being evil, insisting other reasons explain why she sits in the therapists chair. The spiders represented the feeling of being trapped, stuck, a victim sucked of blood. As she grew toward heath, she admitted that her fear of spiders was her emotional response to her feelings toward her mother.
That related to my own life as I've worked to unpack the story. I have a phobia, not of spiders, but of needles. I’m the worst case I know of. I don’t pass out: I go into panic attacks, low blood pressure, heavy sweats. This happens at movies, doctor's waiting rooms, dentists chairs. I’ve even had a dentist poised to call the ambulance (I know, crazy, huh?). I pondered the cause of my transference to this irrational phobia. I think I found it. I’m still experimenting. I’ve shared my theory with my own therapist and she affirmed it. But time will tell as I heal from evil done to my soul, evil that I blamed myself for as a child instead of blaming the perpetrator. Children are prone to self-blame, I’m learning, and that goes very deep.
"Whenever there is evil, there's a lie around." (135) Lies that cover up, paint a rosier picture, create pretense, refuse to disclose certain truths. While all lies are evil, not all liars are evil people. They slowly grow evil as they continue to lie. It is possible to have a vice and then become your vice. The question for us is not whether or not Satan, the Father of Lies, has a finger in our lives. The question is how much and what we are doing about it? The older we get the more calcified we can become, the further we grow away from truth, light, and love when we are unwilling to face our problems, the lies we insulate around us to protect us from having to face our spouses, our children, our parents, our belief systems, ourselves.
Peck gradually leads the reader to the most severe kinds of evil: the demonic. As the book begins, he disbelieves in the devil. But through analysis, he bumped into two particular cases of demon possession, where Satan took residence in a person.
The demonic is not another form of schizophrenia, for schizophrenia is a disorder where the multiple personalities do not know one another. For the demonically possessed, the patient does know this other personality that traps the patient, suffocating them within.
Peck describes pieces of two different exorcisms in which he participated. He notes consistencies these demonic personalities had and the lies they spewed (interestingly , some of the lies are ones that we often hear praised in spiritual conversations). I read part of this section before sleep one evening and I dreamed bizarre pictures filled with fear. I don’t recommend reading that section at night. But for all that, I came out the other side of that chapter very encouraged, not only with the limitations of Satan’s power in the physical world, but also with the power of humans individuals who love. We are made in the image of God, after all.
Peck includes a perspective-shifting chapter on “group evil” where he describes how institutions can make us all culpable of certain crimes. This chapter validated thoughts I've about huge institutions, the craftiness of power-brokering in the name of virtue, the rhetoric to disguise real intentions. The larger the institution, the easier evil can hide and wreak havoc, including governments and churches.
For example, we follow orders and few know who is ultimately responsible. Even our tax money goes toward evil things, making everyone guilty of some kinds of evil at some level. The ones at the top, generals, presidents, and CEOs, are not the ones who pull the trigger on the ground. Foot soldiers and employees do that. Citizens foot the bill. Everyone does as they are told, blind to the consequences up and down the chain.
The last chapter of the book, on love, is worth the price of the book. The impact of the final section means more when you read the book all the way through.
I disagree with some aspects of Peck’s theological views, like his view that Satan will have a chance at the end of history to make a choice of redemption. But despite theological disagreements, his view of love and evil are not easily dismissed and are well worth your attention.
The way out of evil? Love, which begins with noting the evil within yourself and facing it, which sometimes means therapy. Love is a light that will change the direction of evil. Only the love of individuals can sacrificially absorb evil and set others free. This is the love modeled by Jesus, the love he gives us, the love his Spirit empowers in us. "People can deliberately allow themselves to be pierced by evil of others...to even be killed in some sense and yet still survive and not succumb. Whenever this happens there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world." (269). Facing evil, though painful, is liberating, cleansing, a relief for everyone who wants to be whole.
Peck is a huge proponent of appropriate humanness. I wish he were alive so I could thank him for shining the light of love and truth and letting me know just how far the love of God goes.