NEVER GUILTY, NEVER FREE

By Ginny Foat with Laura Foreman. Random House. 307 pp. $17.95.

GINNY FOAT has long since vanished from the notoriety she briefly enjoyed two years ago; with an effort, one may recall that she is the former president of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women who in the fall of 1983 was tried on, and found not guilty of, murder charges that had been trumped up by a vengeful ex-husband. The trial caused the predictable stir in the press, not merely because Foat was a person of some minor prominence but because her path to that prominence had been rather peculiar: before discovering her feminist vocation she had worked in a number of jobs such as waitress and cocktail hostess, had been married four times -- two annulments, two divorces -- and had been beaten, severely and frequently, by the husband who eventually tried to pin the murder rap on her.

This being the case, it came as no surprise that, hard upon the verdict in her favor, Foat made it be known that she would write a book about her life; in the age of celebrity, everybody who manages to accumulate a total of six minutes' exposure on the evening news writes a book, or permits one to be ghosted. What is rather more surprising, though, is that Foat, with the assistance of Laura Foreman, has managed to write a better book than we had any reason to expect. Though she no doubt will join the tawdry procession of "authors" peddling their wares on the talk shows, it remains that there is considerably more to Never Guilty, Never Free than the mere exploitation of notoriety; it is at once a powerful, disturbing depiction of the abuse to which Foat allowed herself to be subjected, and a moving demonstration that a smart, determined person can overcome the errors, misjudgments and flounderings of her own past.

Foat was born in 1941, the daughter ofItalian-American parents who moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York when she was relatively young. She grew up a child of her time, wanting "to do the right thing, to be a good girl," which in the early '60s still meant marrying early and building a life around domesticity. This she attempted to do in 1961, but the marriage didn't take and neither did domesticity. She did get pregnant, but her husband was not the father -- "the pregnancy was the consequence of an incident that happened during one of the rocky times when Tony and I were separated" -- and since the marriage was about to end, she chose to sneak out of town, have the baby, and give it up for adoption.

This she did, but the temper of the times made it a traumatic event: "A woman who had an illegitimate child was a worthless tramp. A woman who had premarital sex, or any sex outside of marriage, was a slut -- at least if she got caught at it. . . . I was tarnished now. I was dirty and used and old. Nothing in the world was pretty or clean or hopeful anymore. There was no promise to life." Small wonder, then, that when Jack Sidote came into her life not long thereafter she was ripe for his attentions. He was a smalltime punk, one of those guys who puts up a tough-guy front and boasts of imaginary associations with the mob, but she loved "what I saw as his confidence, his aura of strength and power." Even when he began to beat her, she clung to him: "Loving Jack was my rock, the one solid truth of my whole life, and nothing was going to shake it."

SO IT WAS that Ginny Galluzzo entered bondage. She left her hometown and began a bizarre journey with Jack and a teen-aged boy he'd brought along to assist in whatever grand schemes lay ahead. They drifted from city to city, gradually moving from Florida through Louisiana and Nevada before arriving, as so many lost and drifting Americans have, in California. Ginny paid their way, waiting tables and tending bar, while Jack drank himself intoviolent furies, going on the attack against her, beating her furiously and then apologizing tearfully, drunkenly. Not merely did she stay with him, she eventually married him. Her sad explanation has the ring of absolute truth:

"I stayed because I had nowhere else to go and I didn't know what else to do. I stayed because I was afraid of being alone and because I was ashamed. I stayed, eventually, because I was afraid of what he would do to me if I left. At the time I had no way of understanding what was happening to me. I thought that I was being beaten because there was something wrong with me, some shameful flaw in me, that brought it on. That had to be true, I thought, because other women, good women, weren't being beaten by their husbands or lovers. Oh, maybe it happened in the slums sometimes, to poor, degraded people who couldn't help themselves. But it didn't happen to people I knew, to the women who lived next door, or down the street, or back in New Paltz. It was happening only to me. I was guilty, for some reason, and I was alone."

She wasn't alone, of course, and neither was she guilty; how she came to learn both of these truths is the burden of the remainder of her story. She tells about a third marriage, to Ray Foat, in which she began to discover a sense of her own worth, and then about her gradual comprehension that much of what had been bad in her life had occurred not because she was "a worthless tramp" but simply because she was a woman. This led her to NOW, then a young and relatively small organization in which she rose rapidly because she was a willing, energetic worker for the feminist causes that suddenly had become so important a part of her life.

She writes about this period with a nice blend of passion and dispassion, and she spares the reader the excesses of feminist rhetoric to which her own experience probably entitles her. This period, in any event, is not what the book is really about, nor for that matteris the trial, to which she devotes the concluding chapters. The heart of Never Guilty, Never Free is to be found in those passages -- to call them shocking is no exaggeration -- where Foat describes the beatings she received and her own fearful collaboration in them. The feminist material is familiar and the trial is a matter of public record, but when she writes about the beatings Foat is a voice from behind the bedroom wall, a voice that speaks with real authority and urgency.

When you get right down to it, there's something miraculous about Ginny Foat's story. She came from a working- class, ethnic family and did not go to college; she worked in mean jobs, drifting from one to another, with no hope of ever breaking out, and drinking heavily; she got caught in a ghastly marriage in which for a long time she seemed trapped; ultimately she married four men and had sex with others, in the process violating middle-class proprieties and casting herself in the eyes of society as a loose woman; then she twice got herself hauled into prison on outlandish murder charges. She ran up just about as many strikes against herself as it's possible to imagine, yet she overcame them all. There's no telling what will happen to her once this book has its moment in the sun, but considering how much she has made of how little she's been given, the prospects look good.

If, incidentally, the book somehow manages to become a success, that almost certainly will be because it is bought by women. No doubt they will find too much in it with which to sympathize, but they are also a converted audience. The people who really need to read Never Guilty, Never Free are men.