A blindfolded woman poises on a steel cable suspended above a rushing stream. Her safety harness provides some balance and reassurance, but it can't quell the water's loud roar below and it doesn't steady her faltering two-inch foothold. She slowly makes her way across, pausing every few steps. A friend cheers her on. "Keep going, keep going!"
The woman is a rape victim, and stalking the high wire is not adventuresome thrill-seeking; it is part of an unusual sexual assault recovery program. Combining counseling with rigorous outdoor activities, the program can help rape and incest victims confront -- and overcome -- their often crippling sense of powerlessness. Therapists say the imprint of helplessness left by sexual assault can linger, haunt and debilitate victims long after the attack, sometimes stalling recovery indefinitely.
The three-day, at times grueling "wilderness therapy" program includes rock climbing, rappelling, hiking and team exercises to build trust, such as forming a human ladder to climb a wall.
Exercises such as walking a tight-rope over a river -- blindfolded -- are daring, confidence-building stunts that can boost a weakened psyche and for some, trigger a dramatic catharsis (victims are often blindfolded during their assault).
One wilderness therapy program based in Denver has been run jointly for four years by a team of sexual assault therapists who practice under the name Ending Violence Effectively (EVE), and Outward Bound, a nonprofit outdoors organization.
A similar, state-subsidized program for sexual assault victims at the Santa Fe (N.M.) Mountain Center, has served rape and incest victims referred by state mental health agencies for five years.
Participants are counseled by therapists before, during and after the exercises. About 200 women have participated in each program so far.
"During the rape, there's a separation of mind and body; it's a defense mechanism, a way to survive the violence," says Carolyn Agosta, EVE therapist and co-director. "So my partner and I decided we needed some physical activity for victims, because in therapy you can be very intellectual about what's going on.
"But when you're in the wilderness, you can't hide from feelings, because the challenge is constant and you don't know what's going to happen."
The program, says Agosta, forces women into physically demanding situations that evoke the same feelings of helplessness experienced during the rape, and then provides the chance to conquer them, by crossing the river, scaling the rock or simply hiking the hill.
The result, says Agosta, can be a restoration of power so concrete and instantaneous "It would take six months of therapy to do what we do in a weekend."
Even with incest victims, whose experiences of abuse are often established early and reinforced through repeated incidents, wilderness therapy can spur an emotional turnabout, according to Santa Fe therapist Reina Attiaf, who accompanied incest victims on a rafting excursion. "People who have been victimized fall into a helplessness pattern that this weekend can break."
"The programs might be effective, but participants would have to be heavily screened," cautions Dr. Virginia Sadock, associate professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center and director of the Human Sexuality Center there. "If you have somebody whom the idea frightens, that compounds the issue. Those who are uncomfortable will feel more out of control."
Elisa Rivetti, counseling coordinator for the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, believes the programs could be effective as long as participants receive the attention of trained therapists. "The experience," she says, "could be a wonderful way to address issues like trust, mistrust, power, lack of self-esteem."
Hollace Miller, 32, a business manager for a Denver car dealer, says she rebelled initially at her therapist's suggestion that she attend a wilderness weekend two years ago. "I didn't want to go on the weekend at all. I said, 'Go up in the mountains and scare the hell out of yourself?' "
Her reluctance, however, turned to grudging respect and finally acceptance with the second day's events. "During the trust walk, one of us would be blindfolded, and the other would lead us around . . . When I was raped I'd heard steps behind me but couldn't see and was attacked from behind, so the trust walk brought up some strong memories of the night of my rape.
"At one point we could hear there was a river below us, but we didn't know the river is only a few feet below the wire. One of my biggest issues was: I'd been a powerful, professional woman in business. I remember when I was raped I was wearing a navy blue suit . . . here I was wearing blue jeans and a hard hat. I was concerned about my dignity, but who knew if I was losing my dignity? Everyone else was blindfolded.
"After the rape I had swallowed a lot of terror. I'd remembered I was scared, but not how it felt to be scared. While I was on the trust walk I was made to touch a car. I was raped in a car [unbeknownst to the partner leading her]. I broke down and cried. When I say I cried, I really sobbed. It was the first time I'd allowed myself to grieve. I had shed tears over the rape before. But they were always tears of anger and embarrassment."
"I'd been in therapy for five months, but it [wilderness therapy] was what began my therapy."
Wendy Greenberg, 27, a Denver biologist, also signed up for wilderness therapy last year with little initial optimism. But like Miller's, her turnaround was quick, cathartic and healing. "That weekend, I remember going from not feeling like I was alive to being happy."
Her immediate relief was the result of an intense and excruciating incident -- graphically reliving her rape -- that took place during the weekend.
"There was a man from Outward Bound teaching us some of the outdoors things, and he looked like my rapist," says Greenberg. "When we were rock climbing and I had to depend on him, I got a severe headache."
As soon as she finished the climb, Greenberg sat down with therapist Agosta and "I flashed back to the time of my attack. I had been beaten in the head, and I felt like I was covered with blood, and actually had the taste sensation of blood in my mouth."
When it was over, "It was a turning point. The next day I felt alive again. It seemed to clear my system. The headaches stopped . . . I remember it was my birthday that day and the Outward Bound counselor picked me a bouquet of flowers."
Most of the sessions bring with them moments of heightened emotion, says Darvin Ayre, director of health services for the Denver Outward Bound.
"Often, sexual assault is in a rural outdoor environment. When things come up, we stop and deal with it," he says. "A person can freeze. I say, 'you need to understand that this is not an assault. You can trust, build a bond with these other women.'
"But if someone absolutely refuses [to do one of the exercises], I honor that. I appreciate seeing that they're going to set their limits."
Participants complete some of the events with difficulty, acknowledges Agosta.
"More than 95 percent of the women do all the events," she adds.
One participant in the Denver program, who has since become a wilderness therapy coordinator for EVE, says she found the exercises too easy and thus missed out on the program's physical challenge. She was challenged in a different way, however, with the trust exercises.
"Anything physical I could do," says 23-year-old Robin D'Harllecourt. "I was thinking, 'I'm on [athletic] scholarship, and I can't hurt myself,' . . . but climbing the wall [in which participants hoist each other over a wall] was one of the most powerful experiences. It was like looking at my life . . . I had a difficult time trusting other people.
"Through certain activities like standing in a tree six to seven feet above a group of people, then falling into their arms, I learned I could trust again."