This article was published online on March 2, 2021.
One day in early 2020, Jordan B. Peterson rose from the dead. The Canadian academic, then 57, had been placed in a nine-day coma by doctors in a Russian clinic, after becoming addicted to benzodiazepines, a class of drug that includes Xanax and Valium. The coma kept him unconscious as his body went through the terrible effects of withdrawal; he awoke strapped to the bed, having tried to rip out the catheters in his arms and leave the intensive-care unit.
When the story of his detox became public, in February 2020, it provided an answer to a mystery: Whatever happened to Jordan Peterson? In the three years before he disappeared from view in the summer of 2019, this formerly obscure psychology professor’s name had been a constant presence in op-ed columns, internet forums, and culture-war arguments. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, published in 2018, sold millions of copies, and he had conducted a 160-city speaking tour, drawing crowds of up to 3,000 a night; premium tickets included the chance to be photographed with him. For $90, his website offered an online course to better understand your “unique personality.” An “official merchandise store” sold Peterson paraphernalia: mugs, stickers, posters, phone cases, tote bags. He had created an entirely new model of the public intellectual, halfway between Marcus Aurelius and Martha Stewart.
The price of these rewards was living in a maelstrom of other people’s opinions. Peterson was, depending on whom you believed, either a stern but kindly shepherd to a generation of lost young men, or a reactionary loudmouth whose ideas fueled the alt-right and a backlash to feminism. He was revered as a guru, condemned as a dangerous charlatan, adored and reviled by millions. Peterson has now returned to the public sphere, and the psyche-splitting ordeal of modern celebrity, with a new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life—an intriguing title, in light of his recent experiences. The mystery deepens: What really happened to Jordan Peterson, and why has he come back for more?
Growing up in Fairview, Alberta, Peterson was small for his age, which fostered both a quick wit and a fascination with the power and violence of traditional masculinity. He once recounted in a Facebook post how he’d overheard a neighbor named Tammy Roberts joking with another girl that she wanted to keep her surname, so she would have to marry “some wimp.” Then she turned around and proposed to the teenage Jordan. He spent a youthful summer working on a railroad in Saskatchewan, with an all-male group that nicknamed him Howdy Doody, after the freckle-faced puppet. As a student, he visited a maximum-security prison, where he was particularly struck by a convict with a vicious scar right down his chest, which he surmised might have come from surgery or an ax wound: “The injury would have killed a lesser man, anyway—someone like me.”
How to be a greater man was very much on Peterson’s mind. Raised in a mildly Christian household, he decided as a teenager that “religion was for the ignorant, weak and superstitious.” He yearned for a left-wing revolution, an urge that lasted until he met some left-wing activists in college. Then, rejecting all ideology, he decided that the threat of the Cold War made it vital to understand the human impulse toward destruction. He began to study psychology.
Alongside pursuing his doctorate, teaching at Harvard and then the University of Toronto, and raising a family—he married Tammy in 1989, and yes, she took his surname—Peterson started work on his first book, a survey of the origins of belief. Its ambition was nothing less than to explain, well, everything—in essence, how the story of humanity has been shaped by humanity’s love of stories. Maps of Meaning, published in 1999, built on the work of academics like Joseph Campbell, the literature and religion scholar who argued that all mythic narratives are variations of a single archetypal quest. (Campbell’s “monomyth” inspired the arc of Star Wars.) On this “hero’s journey,” a young man sets out from his humdrum life, confronts monsters, resists temptation, stares into the abyss, and claims a great victory. Returning home with what Campbell calls “the power to bestow boons on his fellow men,” the hero can also claim the freedom to live at peace with himself.
In the fall of 2016, Peterson seized the chance to embark on his own quest. A Canadian Parliament bill called C-16 proposed adding “gender identity or expression” to the list of protected characteristics in the country’s Human Rights Act, alongside sex, race, religion, and so on. For Peterson, the bill was proof that the cultural left had captured public-policy making and was imposing its fashionable diktats by law. In a YouTube video titled “Professor Against Political Correctness,” he claimed that he could be brought before a government tribunal if he refused to use recently coined pronouns such as zhe. In the first of several appearances on Joe Rogan’s blockbuster podcast, he made clear that he was prepared to become a martyr for his principles, if necessary. His intensity won over Rogan—a former mixed-martial-arts commentator with a huge young male fan base and eclectic political views (a frequent critic of the left, he endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2020). “You are one of the very few academics,” Rogan told Peterson, “who have fought against some of these ideas that are not just being promoted but are being enforced.”
The fight over C-16, which became law in 2017, was a paradigmatic culture-war battle. Each side overstated the other side’s argument to bolster its own: Either you hated transgender people, or you hated free speech. In Peterson’s view, the bill exposed the larger agenda of postmodernism, which he portrayed as an ideology that, in denying the existence of objective truth, “leaves its practitioners without an ethic.” (This is not how theorists of postmodernism define it, and if you have a few hours to spare, do ask one of them to explain.) He was on the side of science and rationality, he proclaimed, and against identity politics. Feminists were wrong to argue that traditional gender roles were limiting and outdated, because centuries of evolution had turned men into strong, able providers and women into warm, emotionally sensitive nurturers. “The people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence” is how he later phrased it. (This was during Donald Trump’s presidency.) The founding stories of the world’s great religions backed him up, as did the hero’s journey: It is men who fight monsters, while women are temptresses or helpmates.
The mainstream media began to pay attention. Peterson had posted some advice on the Q&A site Quora, which he turned into his second book, 12 Rules for Life, a mashup of folksy wisdom, evolutionary biology, and digressions on the evils of Soviet Communism. (His daughter, Mikhaila, is named after Mikhail Gorbachev.) It stresses the conservative principles of self-reliance and responsibility, encouraging readers to tidy their bedrooms and smarten themselves up to compete for female attention—a message reinforced by a questionable analogy involving lobsters, which fight by squirting urine from their faces to establish their place in the mating hierarchy. “Parents, universities and the elders of society have utterly failed to give many young men realistic and demanding practical wisdom on how to live,” David Brooks wrote in a New York Times column. “Peterson has filled the gap.” He offered self-help for a demographic that wouldn’t dream of reading Goop.
Yet the relentless demands of modern celebrity—more content, more access, more authenticity—were already tearing the psychologist’s public persona in two. One Peterson was the father figure beloved by the normie readers of 12 Rules, who stood in long lines to hear him speak and left touching messages on internet forums, testifying that he had turned their lives around. The other Peterson was a fearsome debater, the gladiator who crowed “Gotcha!” at the British television interviewer Cathy Newman after a series of testy exchanges about the gender pay gap and the freedom to give offense. His debates were clipped and remixed, then posted on YouTube with titles announcing that he had “DESTROYED” his interlocutors.
I know this because one of them was me: Our interview for British GQ, which has garnered more than 23 million views, is easily the most viral moment I’ve ever had. While dozens of acquaintances emailed and texted me to praise my performance and compare Peterson’s stern affect to Hannibal Lecter with a Ph.D., mean comments piled up like a snowdrift below the video itself. I was “biased and utterly intellectually bankrupt,” “dishonest and malicious,” and “like a petulant child who walked into an adult conversation.” What kind of man, several wondered, would marry a dumb, whiny, shrill feminist like this? (Quite a nice one, thanks for asking.)
Peterson lived in this split-screen reality all the time. Even as he basked in adoration, a thousand internet piranhas ripped through his every utterance, looking for evidence against him. One week, Bari Weiss anointed him a leading culture warrior, including him in a New York Times feature as a member of the “Intellectual Dark Web.” Ten days later, the newspaper published a mocking profile of him, reporting that his house was decorated with Soviet propaganda and quoting him speculating about the benefits of “enforced monogamy” in controlling young men’s animal instincts. After he was accused of pining after Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, he quickly posted a note on his website arguing that he meant only the “social enforcement of monogamy.”
The negative publicity affected him deeply, and it was endless. After the Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra charged him with peddling “fascist mysticism,” Peterson tweeted that Mishra was an “arrogant, racist son of a bitch” and a “sanctimonious prick.” He added: “If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily.” Even sleep brought no relief. Peterson is a believer in dream analysis, and after one particularly ill-tempered interview in October 2018, he blogged about a nightmare that followed. In his dream, he met a man who “simply would not shut up.” The man reminded him, he wrote, of an acquaintance at university in Canada he calls Sam, who drove around in a Mercedes with swastikas on the doors, saying the worst things he could, unable to resist inviting attacks. “I can’t help myself,” Sam had told Peterson. “I have a target drawn on my back.” Eventually, at a party, Sam overstepped the line; he was about to be assaulted by a mob until another acquaintance “felled him with a single punch.” Peterson never saw Sam again. In his dream, the Sam-like man talked and talked and “finally pushed me beyond my limit of tolerance … I bent his wrists to force his knuckles into his mouth. His arms bent like rubber and, even though I managed the task, he did not stop babbling. I woke up.”
It is hard to resist reading the subtext like this: Peterson had spent months being casually described as a Nazi and associated with the alt-right, labels he always rejected. He had metaphorical swastikas on his car door. He couldn’t resist putting a target on his own back, and he, too, couldn’t stop talking. Indeed, in May 2019, after railing against left-wing censoriousness—now widely called “cancel culture”—he met with Viktor Orbán, the proudly illiberal prime minister of Hungary, whose government has closed gender-studies programs, waged a campaign to evict Central European University from the country, and harassed independent journalists. Orbán’s state-backed version of cancel culture—or, to use the correct word, authoritarianism—apparently didn’t come up in their meeting. Peterson had previously told an interviewer to describe politicians like Orbán not as “strongmen,” but as “dictator wannabes.” Nonetheless, the visit—and the posed photograph of the men in conversation, released to friendly media outlets—gave intellectual cover to Orbán’s repressive government.
All that time, the two Petersons were pulling away from each other. As the arguments over his message raged across YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and traditional media, he became an avatar of our polarized media climate. People were consuming completely different Petersons, depending on their news sources. When I saw him on his speaking tour at a theater on Long Island, the first question he was asked was not about pronouns or the decline of Western civilization; it was When was the last time you got drunk? The second was a heartfelt plea that will be familiar to any new parent: How can I get my baby to sleep?
The past two years have clearly been hell for Peterson. In a June 2020 video interview with his daughter, he looked gaunt and restless as he described his struggle with drug dependency, a torment that he revisits in the “Overture” to Beyond Order, his new book. As he describes it, an allergic reaction during the 2016 Christmas holiday manifested as intense anxiety, leading his family doctor to prescribe benzodiazepines. He also started following what Mikhaila calls the “lion diet,” consuming only meat, salt, and water. In 2019, “the tumultuous reality of [being] a public figure” was exacerbated by a series of family health crises culminating in his wife’s diagnosis, in April, of what was thought to be terminal cancer. (She has since recovered.) Peterson—who notes that he had been plagued for years by “a tendency toward depression”—had his tranquilizer dosage upped, only to experience rising anxiety, followed by the ravages of attempted withdrawal. He was at the edge of the abyss—“anxiety far beyond what I had ever experienced, an uncontrollable restlessness and need to move … overwhelming thoughts of self-destruction, and the complete absence of any happiness whatsoever.”
Throughout this turbulent time, Peterson was working on Beyond Order. He makes no claims that his suffering provided a teachable moment (particularly, he notes, when a pandemic has upended lives everywhere). He also declines the opportunity to place his addiction in the context of the prescription-drug-abuse crisis. Peterson seems to have softened his disdain for religion, and as for Tammy, “passing so near to death motivated my wife to attend to some issues regarding her own spiritual and creative development.” Notably, Peterson is not ready to give up on the hero’s journey, despite the terror he has endured. “All of that misfortune is only the bitter half of the tale of existence,” he writes, “without taking note of the heroic element of redemption or the nobility of the human spirit requiring a certain responsibility to shoulder.”
This book is humbler than its predecessor, and more balanced between liberalism and conservatism—but it offers a similar blend of the highbrow and the banal. Readers get a few glimpses of the fiery online polemicist, but the Peterson of Beyond Order tends instead to two other modes. The first is a grounded clinician, describing his clients’ troubles and the tough-love counsel he gives them. The other is a stoned college freshman telling you that the Golden Snitch is, like, a metaphor for “ ‘round chaos’ … the initial container of the primordial element.” Some sentences beg to be prefaced with Dude, like these: “If Queen Elizabeth II suddenly turned into a giant fire-breathing lizard in the midst of one of her endless galas, a certain amount of consternation would be both appropriate and expected … But if it happens within the context of a story, then we accept it.” Reading Peterson the clinician can be illuminating; reading his mystic twin is like slogging through wet sand. His fans love the former; his critics mock the latter.
The prose swirls like mist, and his great insight appears to be little more than the unthreatening observation that life is complicated. (If the first book hadn’t been written like this too, you’d guess that he was trying to escape the butterfly pins of his harshest detractors.) After nearly 400 pages, we learn that married people should have sex at least once a week, that heat and pressure turn coal into diamonds, that having a social life is good for your mental health, and that, for a man in his 50s, Peterson knows a surprising amount about Quidditch. The chapter inviting readers to “make one room in your home as beautiful as possible” is typically discursive, but unusually enjoyable: Peterson knows his Wordsworth. (It is not free from weirdness, however. At one point, he claims to have looked at 1.2 million paintings on eBay while selecting his living-room decor.) His prose also lights up when he describes the wonder of watching his granddaughter encounter the world.
On the rare occasion that Beyond Order strays overtly into politics, Peterson still can’t resist fighting straw men. What Peterson sees as healthy ambition “needs to be encouraged in every possible manner,” he writes.
It is for this reason, among many others, that the increasingly reflexive identification of the striving of boys and men for victory with the “patriarchal tyranny” that hypothetically characterizes our modern, productive, and comparatively free societies is so stunningly counterproductive (and, it must be said, cruel: there is almost nothing worse than treating someone striving for competence as a tyrant in training).
But who is reflexively identifying all male ambition as innately harmful? If any mainstream feminist writers are in fact arguing that the West is a “patriarchal tyranny”—as opposed to simply a “patriarchy” or male-dominated society—he should do the reader the favor of citing them. Is he arguing with Gloria Steinem or princess_sparklehorse99 on Tumblr? A tenured professor should embrace academic rigor.
Peterson writes an entire chapter against ideologies—feminism, anti-capitalism, environmentalism, basically anything ending in ism—declaring that life is too complex to be described by such intellectual frameworks. Funny story: There’s an academic movement devoted to skepticism of grand historical narratives. It’s called … postmodernism. That chapter concludes by advising readers to put their own lives in order before trying to change the world. This is not only a rehash of one of the previous 12 rules—“Clean up your bedroom,” he writes, because fans love it when you play the hits—but also ferocious chutzpah coming from a man who was on a lecture tour well after he should have gone to rehab.
The Peterson of Beyond Order, that preacher of personal responsibility, dances around the question of whether his own behavior might have contributed to his breakdown. Was it really wise to agree to all those brutal interviews, drag himself to all those international speaking events, send all those tweets that set the internet on fire? Like a rock star spiraling into burnout, he was consumed by the pyramid scheme of fame, parceling himself out, faster and faster, to everyone who wanted a piece. Perhaps he didn’t want to let people down, and he loved to feel needed. Perhaps he enjoyed having an online army glorying in his triumphs and pursuing his enemies. In our frenzied media culture, can a hero ever return home victorious and resume his normal life, or does the lure of another adventure, another dragon to slay, another “lib” to “own” always call out to him?
Either way, he gazed into the culture-war abyss, and the abyss stared right back at him. He is every one of us who couldn’t resist that pointless Facebook argument, who felt the sugar rush of the self-righteous Twitter dunk, who exulted in the defeat of an opposing political tribe, or even an adjacent portion of our own. That kind of unhealthy behavior, furiously lashing out while knowing that counterattacks will follow, is a very modern form of self-harm. And yet in Beyond Order, the blame is placed solely on “the hypothetically safe but truly dangerous benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medication” he was prescribed by his family doctor. The book leaves you wishing that Peterson the tough therapist would ask hard questions of Peterson the public intellectual.
To imagine that Peterson is popular in spite of his contradictions and human frailties—the things that drive his critics mad—is a mistake: He is popular because of them. For a generation that has lost its faith in religion and politics, he is one of notably few prominent figures willing to confront the most fundamental questions of existence: What’s the point of being alive? What kind of personal journey endows our existence with meaning? He is, in many ways, countercultural. He doesn’t offer get-rich-quick schemes, or pickup techniques. He is not libertine or libertarian. He promises that life is a struggle, but that it is ultimately worthwhile.
Yet Peterson’s elevation to guru status has come at great personal cost, a cascade of suffering you wouldn’t wish on anybody. It has made him rich and famous, but not happy. “We compete for attention, personally, socially, and economically,” he writes in Beyond Order. “No currency has a value that exceeds it.” But attention is a perilous drug: The more we receive, the more we desire. It is the culture war’s greatest reward, yet it started Jordan Peterson on a journey that turned a respected but unknown professor into the man strapped into the Russian hospital bed, ripping the tubes from his arms, desperate for another fix.