The story of Ann Hoopes, the wealthy, socially prominent wife of a former Pentagon official, begins 12 years ago, when she first became ill. An operation for an ectopic pregnancy was followed by another pregnancy, a Cesarean-section birth, a hysterectomy, a debilitating attack of hepatitis contracted during a blood transfusion and a gallbladder operation.

She was living on pills and was strapped into a back brace.

She also went to a psychiatrist, but he sent her home; it wasn't in her mind.

Today Hoopes has a new career as founder and director of the Wellness' Center, a holistic health-care clinic in Georgetown. At age 46, she says she feels better and happier than she ever dreamed possible.

"It's so exciting," she says, "to think you could remake your entire body when you were such a mess. I had just about given up hope. Now I feel like a whole new soul."

Help came, she says, from a totally unexpected source: an optometric technique called visual training.

It is a technique so widely controversial that its very mention draws cries of "fraud" from some physicians. A Washington therapist who has observed the technique says professionals are "violent" over whether it is beneficial, or just costly fun and games.

Visual training's most publicized "success" was Luci Johnson Nugent, who as a teen-ager was feared to have a learning disability. After a Washington optometrist treated her for poorly coordinated eyes, her grades shot up and she made her college honor roll. Says a leading detractor, "Her grades went up because she was the daughter of the president."

Hoopes claims that through improved vision her entire body-and-mind system was reached and improved.

Hoopes and her husband, Townsend, undersecretary of the Air Force during the Johnson Administration and now president of the American Association of Publishers, give personal testimony to the visual training technique in a controversial new book, "Eye Power" (Alfred A. Knopf, 168 pages, $8.95).

Optometrists, says Townsend Hoopes, have been criticized for "giving training for short-duration change. During World War II pilots were trained for improved night vision, but unless body training accompanies eye training you will revert back."

Although the visual-training technique is more than 50 years old, Mrs. Hoopes says recent research and refinements have made it so new and effective that "just a very few optometrists on the leading edge are beginning to realize the impact of what this does."

Visual training is basically a program of eye exercises and the use of special lenses for healthy eyes, done under the supervision of a trained optometrist who may call himself a "developmental optometrist." In the Washington area, optometrists estimate there are from 5 to 30 practitioners.

(Most optometrists -- who are not medical doctors, but are considered health-care professionals -- limit their practice to eye examinations and the prescription of glasses and contact lenses. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in treatment of eye diseases and eye surgery. Opticians are technicans who make lenses.)

The goal of visual training is not merely good eyesight -- the patient may, or may not, throw away his glasses -- but improvement of overall visual and body "effeciency."

Correcting faulty vision also can correct a wise variety of other ailments, according to the Hoopes' book, because "vision is the dominant motorsensory system, closely linked to the brain, and thus serves as the master coordinator of every part of the human organism."

Townsend Hoopes, 57, the author of two other books ("The Limits of Intervention" on Vietnam and "The Deveil and John Foster Dulles"), says his optometrist found a "combination of visual and postural flaws was creating a general tension that drained away a good deal of energy."

After eight months of training, plus jogging, walking and swimming, Hoopes felt his eyesight had improved and that life was "easier" and "more interesting." He also found he could do such professional tasks as reading, writing and "problem-solving" in half the time previously required.

"I think more efficiently, therefore I act more efficiently. But there's no way of proving that," he acknowledges.

"It's just a feeling you have, that you have more control over your life," says Ann Hoopes.

Ophthalmologists heatedly denounce eye training, as do pediatricians dealing with children's diseased eyes.

They charge it is totally without scientific validity or medical value, is time-consuming, expensive, offers no guarantees and may cause harm by frustrating and delaying a patient in need of other treatment.

Dr. Herman K. Goldberg of Baltimore, an ophthalmologist and leading critic of visual training, offers the example of an 8-year-old boy who went through one year of visual training, at a cost of $1,800, for an eye-muscle problem "that could have been corrected surgically in 15 minutes."

Optometrists claim they can get the eyes working well together, permanently, through visual training in at least 70 percent of the cases they work with.

In the verbal war between the two groups, ophthalmologists are portrayed as old-fashioned and narrow-minded, unwilling to refer patients for eye training for fear of losing business. Training optometrists are called opportunists and even charlatans, meddling in areas for which they have no credentials.

The controversy is most intense when it deals with learning-disabled children, such as those with dyslexia. In dyslexia, children -- and adults as well -- may reverse letters and whole words, reading and writing "b" for "d" and "saw" for "was." So difficult is it for children to learn under these circumstances that they may become withdrawn, angry, aggressive, tire easily and have problems outside of school.

Training optometrists say they treat dyslexia only if it involves a visual problem -- and it usually does, says Dr. Stanley A. Appelbaum, a Bethesda optometrist.

Ophthalmologists say there is "no known scientific evidence" the training helps children to read.

Meanwhile, a severely disabled child spent five years in daily eye training and still does not read. Another mildly disabled child was forced to take the training in order to enter a private school in Potomac. After one year's training, he did learn to read -- but from a tutor with 30 years' experience with dyslexia. "Visual training may have contributed, but it was not the solution," says his mother.

Says Ann Hoopes: "I have seen so many people unjumble their brains through visual training that I can't help but believe a great part of dyslexia is a visual and coordination problem."

Finally, even critics concede visual training has helpful psychological effects. For children, there may be a benefit from a close relationship with a therapist, says ophthalmologist Dr. Goldberg. For adults, it may give a boost to the ego; someone cares -- in this case, an optometrist.

To Ann and Townsend Hoopes and to others, visual therapy is, simply, a new lease on life.

Recalls Mrs. Hoopes: "With seven children, a big house in McLean and a lot of entertaining to do, I felt like crying all the time." Her illnesses and operations had produced a "near-total collapse of health." She took Valium, sleeping pills, pain pills for her back, aspirin and codeine.

A physiotherapist began her cure with a program of massage and "muscle-and-bone therapy." Next she went to a nutritionist who was a medical doctor; he prescribed no drugs, but only vitamins and a diet mainly of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, skim milk and yogurt.

She also consulted a chiropracter, an iridologist, who "read" her eyes -- and a reflexologist, who performed deep massage of the feet, as well as an acupuncturist and a psychiatrist.

Finally, the nutritionist told Hoopes she was "losing energy through eyestrain" because she was trying so hard to align her eyes.

He referred her to a Washington optometrist. She was skeptical, but also deeply depressed and frustrated by "apparently insurmountable" problems.

The optometrist examined her and prescribed a program of physical conditioning -- walking, jogging, swimming and calisthenics -- as well as new glasses for reading, a different pair for driving and distance, discontinuation of sunglasses, and office eye-training exercises. a

In the beginning, she did three exercises to "shake me out of my bad visual patterns": walking on an 8-foot balancing rail while alternately wearing four pairs of push-pull glasses; tracking with one eye a small steel ball on the end of a wand that she moved randomly, and wearing "double glasses" to see two of everything while doing divergence-convergence exercises.

Strange sensations followed, including the sensation of being "8 feet tall . . . I was afraid to look straight down at the sidewalk for fear I would topple over, and when I returned home the furniture had shrunk to half its normal size."

This was a "transition." And when it was over, the world looked "consistently brighter and clearer, more intense -- the way the world looks in the sudden sunshine after a rain."

Another dramatic transition followed a month later in which Hoopes discovered "the third dimension." In a walk around the block she felt "as though I were putting my feet into three-dimensional space for the first time in my life. I was actually a part of the scene; before, I had always viewed it from the outside, as though it were a flat-land."

Other changes followed. Her back, she says, was realigned so she stood straighter and more comfortably. Her back pains ceased. She could sit up and touch her toes for the first time. She could read music while playing the piano, drive, play tennis and watch a movie without glasses.

Not only does she amaze her friends with a much better game of tennis, she says, but "I can now think and express myself more clearly than I have been able to do for years."

The Hoopes family now lives in a big house set far back off a winding road in the exclusive Spring Valley area of Northwest Washington, with a private pool and tennis courts. Five of their seven children have been in, or are in, eye training and they are frank evangelists for it.

"The biggest point we have to make," says Townsend Hoopes, "is that the body and mind are enmeshed. Vision can affect your whole way of life."