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Fear and Flying 

How best-selling author Sam Keen uses the trapeze to help troubled teens and women

Wednesday, Aug 16 2000
Sam Keen -- a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, best-selling author of books such as Fire in the Belly, and former consulting editor for Psychology Today -- is an explorer of the human psyche and a proponent of "personal mythology," on which he gives lectures and seminars throughout the world. But more recently Keen has become a "catcher," the name used by circus folk for the vague swinging figure on the far end of the flying trapeze who plucks the "flyer" from the air before gravity regains the upper hand. With his long, sinewy frame and scrupulous focus, Keen is uniquely tailored for the role, but his silvering hair might give some casual observers pause. Keen came to the trapeze late in life, at the age of 62, when he satisfied childhood curiosity by attending one of the first public classes led by Stephan Gaudreau at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. There were only two students and plenty of air time. Keen was hooked. After a while, he arranged to have a portable rig brought to his land in Sonoma County, in the hills above Napa, where Gaudreau agreed to teach fledgling flyers.

As documented in Keen's recent book, Learning to Fly: Trapeze -- Reflections on Fear, Trust, and the Joy of Letting Go, the trapeze became much more than recreational hobby or artistic expression. It became a tool.

"With the trapeze, you're always on the edge of fear," says Keen from the deck of his small writing studio overlooking a circus-sized jungle gym surrounded by trees. "It forces me to be in conscious contact with my fear, instead of allowing it to move underground. It keeps [fear] in the forefront where I can carry on a conversation with it."

Early on, Keen found his experiences with the trapeze enhanced every aspect of his life, urging him to take interesting risks of both the personal and professional varieties. His fellow students, by then known casually as the Sonoma Trapeze Troupe, had similar responses, and it occurred to Keen that trapeze work might benefit troubled teens and women in crisis. With the help of two anonymous benefactors (and fellow flyers) Keen set up a permanent trapeze rig on his land and, with the assistance of Jorge Scott, another instructor from the School of the Circus Arts, he launched Upward Bound, a program that works in conjunction with treatment centers and safe houses throughout the area.

"The way a person deals with their fear on the trapeze is very similar to how a person deals with fear in their life," says Keen. "You see it: Those who just say no, no, no, and refuse to touch the ladder. Those who have to face their trust issues with the instructor. Those who just jump in. You see it at work."

Down a narrow hilltop road, through a gate marked "heartheartheart," we pass into the tree-filled crater of a long-dead volcano. The "path," succinctly denoted as such, leads over a tiny brook where two small dogs live out a canine fantasy, chasing butterflies and making mud. Elizabeth Black, a sunny-eyed art therapist from Athena House, greets us at the mouth of a large clearing where 12 women and two peer counselors sit in a semicircle facing a sun-dappled trapeze that rises into the treetops overhead. Despite their smiles and colorful workout clothes, the women bear the tatters of addiction and abuse: It lies in their purposeful indifference, their dusky voices, and their quick-moving eyes, which flicker like moths between interest and suspicion. I know the face.

In front of the women stand three trapeze instructors, joking about fear.

"We still get scared when we go up," says Scott Cameron, the instructor who helped Keen transition from being a flyer to a catcher, "but we have fun. Everyone will work at their own comfort level. The experience is here, if you want it. It's fun."

"Everyone is going to be facing different levels of fear," says instructor Corinna Sampson, who was introduced to the trapeze while vacationing at a Club Med. "How you deal with fear and react to it here is going to be up to you. Remember, safety is not an issue: The equipment is very safe; all of us have been doing trapeze for years. Trust may be an issue. Today, when you get to an uncomfortable place, please try to push yourself just a little further. Try to get through it and past it, the way you might have to in your day-to-day lives."

Cameron leads the group over to a swinging bar standing over a thick safety mat between two trees. The women are asked to remove their shoes and attempt a knee hang. Immediately, the archetype personalities in our group emerge: The showboats who leap to the challenge with boastful surety; the rebels who prove themselves, then shout "Don't watch me!" as they jump from the bar; the reluctant wallflowers who become invisible so as not to be pulled from the crowd; the class clowns who hide their insecurities behind jokes about "wider grips for wider hips"; the pessimists who declare their failure before touching the mat; the serious studies who do what they're told without complaint or triumph.

Cameron says it's the same with nearly every group, whether the students are corporate executives or halfway-house residents. The reactions, he assures me, will be amplified on the trapeze.

Thirty feet might not sound like much, but the lengthy climb up the spidery ladder, past the voluminous safety net, to the larger-than-standard (but-not-nearly-as-large-as-it-should-be) platform is enough to challenge at least one or two phobias. Sampson clips a safety line to my harness and asks me to hold on to one of the anchoring cables as she pulls the trapeze toward us with the help of a 10-foot-long pole called the "noodle." She asks me to grab the trapeze with my free hand and tells me to place my toes over the edge of the platform. There is no doubt that the trapeze is going to pull me off the platform. I can feel it. I am being flung through space. Sampson shoves her hand through my harness and uses her body as counterweight. "Now, let go of the cable and grab the trapeze with your other hand." This is no small request, but I make the grab, and, despite misgivings about my grip, I bend my knees and jump. From the ground, guiding my safety lines, Cameron shouts out simple commands: "Swing your legs, forward, back, forward. Hook your knees. Let go with your hands. Arch. Reach for the catcher's trapeze. Bring your arms up. When you let go, grab your knees." If not for the deft manipulation of Cameron's safety line, my somersault would have landed me on my head. The women below laugh. Nine-year-old Téa Sampson scurries from her lounging pad in the net and unhooks me with a matter-of-fact smile. I'm happy, but not eager to try the "catch."

Up the ladder I go, somehow more afraid of the height now than I was the first time. (This is an unforeseen reaction.) I grab the bar, bend my knees and let gravity pull me off the platform. (Tenacity wins out over grace.) I reach toward the catcher, and Sam Keen's hands are around my wrists before I can blink. My knees forget to let go of the other trapeze and Keen pulls me off. "The catcher always wins," he says with a wink. He drops me into the net. It's exhilarating, but I understand the reactions before me: Laura Allard's eagerness to show off what she learned last time; Monica Johnson screaming bloody murder as her beaded braids trail behind her; Sylvie Thompson panting ("Oh my god, oh my god, I can't, I can't") when asked to place her second hand on the trapeze, followed by the shallow sound of panic ("I'm OK, I'm OK") as she swings back and forth over the net; Dana Stock howling and landing, face down in the net, laughing; Kathleen Cooley announcing that she is going to cry, and asking over and over again that Sampson not let go of her; Heidi Quezada refusing to go up the ladder, then doing a double backflip into the net; Wendie McCormick worried about the "red badge of courage" she earned when her face hit her safety line. "It doesn't hurt at all," she assures me with a tough grin, "but how's it look?"

After a second round, the women gather to talk about the experience, laughing excitedly, their eyes moving with an animated keenness.

"I didn't think I could do it," says Quezada. "I definitely pushed myself to let go. And it felt really, really good. It was a really good high, something I don't have to feel guilty about."

"I was the sissy la-la with tears in my eyes," says Cooley. "I had trouble trusting the person who was holding on to my belt. I've trusted other people to hold me and wound up on the ground. But it felt good to do. I'd do it again. I'd be scared, but I'd do it again."

"I didn't think I'd be scared," says Thompson. "I'm a thrill-seeker. I like roller coasters. I didn't expect such a rush. It wasn't until my butt dropped in the net that I realized how scared I was, and I was bawling my eyes out. I was caught by this burst of emotion. Weird."

"I'm afraid of heights and I don't trust people," says Charlotte Howard. "I couldn't even look down from the ladder. I had to focus on the bathroom, but I did it."

Renee Miranda didn't. "I enjoy watching the other girls," she says at the end of the bull session, "but I won't ever do it. It makes me nauseous."

"Are you afraid?" asks Cameron.

"Sure, I guess," says Miranda.

"What's wrong with being afraid?"

Miranda shrugs. "Maybe next time."

"Maybe you could sit in the net?" suggests Corinna Sampson.


"Do you want to sit in the net?"


"How about the ladder," presses Sampson, "can you take a few steps up the ladder?"


"Two steps?"


"One step?"


"Will you touch the ladder?"


The women all laugh and gather up their stuff, carrying away their variant experiences.

"There are metaphors in flying," says Jorge Scott, "personal metaphors."

And, evidently, nausea. Personal nausea.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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