Fear and Flying

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

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."

Elizabeth Black takes her turn.
Paul Trapani
Elizabeth Black takes her turn.

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.

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