"This was really our very first crisis," says Jo Ann Hinckley. "I couldn't have asked for a better life or a finer husband or more beautiful, well-behaved children."

"We worked hard and things went well for us," says Jack Hinckley. "And we moved up the ladder and we bought homes and sold them. We just thought we had it all together. We were proud people."

"And so smug, too," adds Jo Ann. "Smug about our life style, about Jack's accomplishments as a businessman and leader, about my accomplishments as a homemaker and mother."

"And then all of a sudden," Jack says, "the bottom fell out."

The Hinckleys are ensconced in their Falls Church office at the American Mental Health Fund, which they founded last year to raise public concern and, ultimately, research money for mental illness. They are talking about their book, "Breaking Points," the saga of their wayward son.

John Warnock Hinckley Jr., born 30 years ago to comfort and privilege, is currently residing in the maximum-security John Howard Pavilion at St. Elizabeths Hospital, diagnosed with "process schizophrenia." He was committed there indefinitely after a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity in the March 30, 1981, shooting of President Reagan, White House Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and police officer Thomas Delahanty outside the Washington Hilton hotel.

"As John's parents, we hope and pray that someday he will be released. But we don't speculate on that now," Jo Ann Hinckley says. "We think John's come a long way in the last three years -- and so do his doctors."

"We just take one day at a time," says Jack. "It would be foolish for us to make predictions."

Their lives since the shootings have been anything but predictable. They have put their dream house in Evergreen, Colo., on the market (asking price: $295,000), Jack has retired from Vanderbilt Energy Corp., the independent oil company he built from the ground up, and they are poised, via "Breaking Points," to bare their souls to the world.

"After the trial, the last thing in the world we wanted was to do anything of a public nature," says Jack. "We just wanted to go back to Colorado and be private people again. We had had it."

"People are now looking to us for answers," says Jo Ann. "And we don't have them. We are trying to find the answers for ourselves, and for the other people out there who are hurting like we are."

It is Tuesday, the day of the Hinckleys' weekly family therapy session at the hospital in Southeast Washington. Jack is sprawled behind his desk in an attitude of command. His wife sits on the other side, her hands folded in her lap.

The interview has been granted under unusual conditions. By prior agreement, it could not appear until today, when the Hinckleys launch a 13-city publicity blitz for their book. They have also let it be known that they're "not willing to discuss such issues as gun control, the insanity plea, the place of psychiatrists in the courtroom, etc.," although these are issues raised in the book.

"The reason," says Jack Hinckley, who acknowledges their support for both gun control and the insanity defense, "is that these are controversial, and if we do talk about those things, they get all the attention and everything else we want to say is lost."

But how, after all these years in the media maelstrom, could they possibly hope to control it?

"Well," he says with a grin, "we're still naive enough to try."

"Doing an interview is one of the most painful things I go through," says Jo Ann Hinckley, a smile fluttering briefly across her face. "I have to really psych myself up. Or, really, Jack has to psych me up. If we were dealing with a happy subject, it would be so much different. But what we're dealing with is not a happy subject. So many people have been hurt."

The president, Secret Service agent McCarthy and police officer Delahanty have all but recovered from their gunshot wounds, but James Brady, who initially was not expected to survive the bullet in his brain, still has years of therapy ahead of him.

"When I saw Brady on the ground after I shot him," John Hinckley said after his June 1982 acquittal in an unauthorized phone call from St. Elizabeths to The Washington Post, "it was like it was just a mannequin . . . I had no emotion about it . . . I really feel sorry for him now."

Brady, McCarthy and Delahanty are suing their assailant for a total of $54 million. The Hinckleys have retained Williams & Connolly, the firm that defended their son successfully in 1982, to defend him in the civil suit.

"Oh, we'd love to speak with the Bradys," says Jo Ann Hinckley. "But I think it would be so painful for them -- much more than it would be for us."

"We still pray for Jim Brady morning and night," Jack says.

"We really admire his courage so much," says Jo Ann. "And I think we both believe that the Bradys really can't harbor bad feelings against Jack and me. I really think that deep in their hearts, they have some compassion for Jack and me as parents."

"And I keep hoping," says Jack, "that they will understand why it happened, too. That it wasn't an evil act. That they can come to accept that."

Sarah Brady says the Hinckleys have contributed to a special fund established to pay her husband's medical expenses. "My heart certainly went out to them," she says. "I have a son, and for anybody with children, that would be a terrible, horrible thing to go through."

She says her husband continues to improve, riding horseback twice a week, reporting to work at the White House once a week and sometimes walking with a cane, although he still depends on his wheelchair. Still, "we don't mention the Hinckleys too much. It's a difficult subject, and whenever the name is brought up -- when you turn on the 'Today' show or the 'CBS Morning News' and see them on -- it brings back memories of painful, hard times. I imagine it's harder on Jim than it is on me."

The Hinckleys have earmarked all proceeds from the book for the American Mental Health Fund and "other charities." The Brady fund is reportedly among these, but "that's a private matter," Jack Hinckley says.

"I think we've done remarkably well, all things considered," Jo Ann says. "I don't cry as much. Our tears have stopped a little. But we'll always have the heartache."

"You cannot imagine our feelings the night of the shooting," Jack says. "I was convinced we were destroyed in every way -- physically, spiritually, financially. I thought we would never recover. We might as well have been killed . . . I was really ready to give up. I did consider suicide . There were so many problems, and we couldn't seem to handle any of them."

"You know, to this day," Jo Ann says, "a phone ringing still bothers me, especially a call late at night or early in the morning."

"Me, too," her husband agrees.

It was from a phone call from The Washington Post that Jo Ann Hinckley learned that her son had shot the president. She ran to her next-door neighbor's house and collapsed on the kitchen floor. Later, deeper into the nightmare, other calls would bring news that John had taken an overdose of medication, that he had tried to hang himself in his cell.

The ringing telephones, their son's obsession with actress Jodie Foster, Jack Hinckley's suicidal depression, the family's abiding religious faith -- all these and more are covered in "Breaking Points." Coauthored with Elizabeth Sherrill, who has ghosted for Charles Colson, among others, the book is being widely syndicated, including an excerpt in this Sunday's Washington Post Magazine. It has an initial printing of 60,000 and figures to be a big seller for Chosen Books of the Zondervan Corp., a publisher of Christian tomes based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"We laughed together, we cried together and we prayed together," says Sherrill, who sculpted the book out of hundreds of hours of conversation with the Hinckleys as well as Jack's private journal, and who became a close family friend in the process.

"I've got to tell you," Jack Hinckley says, "there are places in the book that still bring tears to my eyes. I just tried to read it again, but I could only read a page or two at a time and then I'd have to put it down. It is still that strong in our memory. It has been four years."

John Hinckley, too, has read the book.

"He likes it," says his mother, "but parts of it are very painful to him."

Pain is an integral part of the Hinckleys' weekly family therapy sessions, which have been going on for the last year and a half. "We sit down with John and a doctor, who's kind of a moderator but he doesn't take sides," says Jo Ann.

"The doctor's main role," says Jack, "is to make sure that we talk through the difficult points. Our tendency, like yours, would be to avoid the difficult things and talk about the easy, simple things."

The Hinckleys say their youngest son is much improved. Last Christmas, members of the family, including John's older brother, Scott, and his sister, Diane, were allowed to visit him in a private room without the presence of hospital staff.

They report that John has given up the fantasy love affair with Jodie Foster that apparently inspired his attempt to kill the president. And although he still favors black boots such as the Travis Bickle character wore in "Taxi Driver," the film in which Foster played a child prostitute, Jack Hinckley sees nothing ominous in this.

"At least I don't think so," he says.

"One of the things I've noticed," he adds, "is that he will look you in the eye. Before, he would always look down. He's asserting himself a little more. If something upsets him, he doesn't hide it anymore. Before, he would never respond. The worst thing he would do was maybe get up and walk out of the room, but he would never say anything."

"He's learning to relate in his ward," says Jo Ann. "I think he's making friends of the other patients there."

Indeed, he has reportedly formed a special friendship in the last several months with fellow patient Leslie deVeau, the Friendship Heights housewife who shot and killed her 10-year-old daughter and then turned a 12-gauge shotgun on herself in March 1982.

DeVeau, 41, whose left arm was amputated as a result of the self-inflicted wound, was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. She is named on the acknowledgments page of "Breaking Points" as one of those who have "encouraged us through their letters, prayers and expressions of love."

"John had been living in a world with very few contact points with real people, and this, by golly, was a real person who really did exist and respond to him," says Sherrill. "It couldn't very well be romantic in there, I don't think. It may be romantic in John's feelings. I'm sure that there's love there. The point for Jack and Jo Ann is that it's real love. It isn't something out of a magazine."

"As little as they are able to be together and see each other, it has been good that somebody outside of the family has been interested in him and cares about him," says his sister, Diane.

"I think we're getting too much into John's personal life now" is all Jo Ann Hinckley says when asked about the relationship. "And I'd think we'd rather not go into it any further than that."

John Hinckley, for his part, is not permitted to talk to reporters. He can write to them, however, and often has done so. Last fall, after hospital authorities denied his request for expanded privileges, including media interviews, he wrote to Newsweek magazine comparing himself to Andrei Sakharov, and offered himself to the Soviets in exchange for the dissident physicist.

"John has the same First Amendment right that you do," says his father. "And it makes life difficult for us. I still dread picking up the paper every morning, wondering if there's going to be something upsetting in there."

The Hinckleys, however, dispute the recent claim of George Carpozi Jr., a deputy news editor at the National Star, a supermarket magazine, that John has agreed to collaborate on a book to be titled "The Day I Shot the President." Carpozi says Hinckley has written him voluminous letters, agreeing to cooperate with the project in return for 25 percent of the profits.

"There has been no new material sent to this man," Jo Ann insists.

"There's a big misunderstanding about that," Jack says, "and John is trying to straighten it out." He declines to elaborate, but adds, "I think we can assume that John will not get a penny out of it -- if that will relieve everybody's mind."

For the past year the Hinckleys have been shuttling between Colorado and a two-bedroom apartment in McLean and hitting the road to raise money for the American Mental Health Fund. They say they plan to build a house on land in Williamsburg, Va., within striking distance of St. Elizabeths and the fund's Falls Church headquarters.

Their small office is staffed by two paid employes and the occasional volunteer. Jo Ann often helps with clerical work, and Jack serves as chairman. "There was a period there that we were so bogged down, I was coming in every day," Jo Ann says. "I have never seen Jack work harder on anything, even when he was still with Vanderbilt."

By most accounts, Jack Hinckley is still an oil man at heart. "One of my biggest problems," he says, "has been adjusting to the nonprofit world. I just came from an all-day meeting with presidents of other mental health groups, and I told Jo Ann last night, if I had to put up with that every day I couldn't do it."

Yet a large donation, like a gushing well, does have its satisfactions.

"Oh yeah," he says, practically licking his lips. "I can't tell you what a thrill that is . . . Jo Ann thinks that I get too aggressive in asking people for money, which I probably do. But I just know that people need to be asked to give, and if you don't ask them, they're not going to give . . .

"Our goal for the American Mental Health Fund is to conquer mental illness with research. We're not out there to deal with mental illness. We're not out there to help the people who are suffering from it now -- even though their needs are horrendous. We just decided that we're going to conquer it."