He still sends her flowers. Lots of flowers.

For the first six months after she left, he sent them every day. Variety bouquets. And roses. Lots of roses. First yellow. Now red.

She gives them all away.

"My husband was a pastor," she says. "He almost killed me."

She says she never loved him. Getting married just seemed the right thing to do. She was 22. She believed in God and the institution of marriage.

One April night four months after their wedding, they had their first fight. It ended when he balled up his fist and hit her in the face. "This side," she says, reaching for her left cheek.

Afterwards, they cried together and prayed together. They were born-again Christians. They believed in forgiveness.

"It just seemed the best thing we could do is forgive each other," she says. "As though I needed forgiving."

Kathy stayed for 4 1/2 years. She put him through school and cooked his meals. She says he beat her on the average once every two weeks except for one nine-month period when he was away a lot starting a church. She told no one except another pastor's wife, who said, "You can't leave him. It's not what God wants."

"I researched the Bible myself and felt confident I didn't have any grounds to leave," she says. "I wasn't forgiving, so that was causing tremendous problems in our marriage. Not that his hitting me was causing problems. He was sorry for that. He knew that God forgave him for that so he felt clean. Meanwhile, he knew I didn't forgive him so I wasn't clean. I was a bad Christian. I was on my way to hell if I didn't shape up."

Like all the women interviewed for this story, she agreed to talk on the condition that her name would not be disclosed. The name is not her own, the details are. As it turns out, her story is not unusual.

They are sitting in a small airless room at the Montgomery County Health Department Community Crisis Center in Bethesda. The shelter is filled with bouquets sent by men trying to court their abused and departed wives. The glare of the fluorescent lights is as harsh as the stories they have come to share.

They do not know each other but they know each other's stories. They know each other's fear. It clings to them, to their proper middle-class clothes, along with the rage and hurt. Though they have been promised anonymity, they worry. Fear is a vestige of the power their husbands once held over them.

Three of the four are divorced. One is separated, one remarried. One was the wife of a colonel, one the wife of an attorney, one the wife of a State Department official, one the wife of a doctor.

The details pour out of them, the whys, the hows, the wherefores. They talk about the best way to cover up bruises (patterned panty hose) and the importance of leaving with your jewelry (you might need to sell it). The question deep in the center of them -- why didn't I leave right away -- is the hardest to confront.

They are, after all, talking about the ultimate betrayal.

To be beaten by your spouse -- your lover, your friend -- is a violation of self, of expectation, of trust, of love itself.

"To be beaten is to be made nothing," says the former wife of the colonel, who, she says, beat her regularly for 30 years. "You are not a person. You are not an animal. You have no value whatsoever."

It is a concept so repugnant, so morally unacceptable that we deny it. Wife beating is something that happens to other people. Something that happens to them. Two weeks ago, Charlotte Fedders put an end to that comfortable illusion. The revelation that her husband, the chief law enforcement officer of the Securities and Exchange Commission, is a common wife beater shook the social order and the cozy assumptions people make about money, class and social status.

"It's hard to take in the whole truth that someone has deceived you, betrayed you, lied to you, didn't care a thing for you, has no love for you and the children, all the things you count on," says Marie, the colonel's wife.

"Essentially, they take away all your hope. That's why a lot return. It's not normal for a human being to lose faith and that's essentially what it takes to get away for once and for all. You have to face this disastrous reality, no matter how painful, that there's bound to be something better for me later on."

Someone reads aloud an answer from Eva Vincze, director of women's heath and safety for the city of Alexandria, to the question of why some middle-class women with financial means would stay in abusive relationships.

"They are high achievers," Vincze says. "They need to be perfect in everything. It's more important to them to be successful, to prove they are a good wife."

"Would you like to take the knife out of my back?" says Ann, the former wife of an attorney who she says beat her for 16 years. "That's me. It's the sense of failure. My first therapist said I was the worst overachiever she had ever met. What these women have to realize is they're a particular personality type. We're helpers. A lot of us are oldest children. We're overachieving helpers who say, 'Kick me, just allow me to work on it. I'll make it better.'

"The first time I realized I was a martyr, I refused to be a martyr."

It takes years to sort out the implications of the blame society assigns to the victim, along with the responsibility an individual must take for her own life.

"You are giving permission," Ann says. "There's no question about it. You're not setting limits so consequently you've set yourself up."

Again and again, they are asked: Why did you stay? How could you stay?

"For an individual trying to get out, it's useful to ask that question," says Lisa Lerman, an attorney who specializes in family violence. "For that to be the main question for society to ask means that society is still blaming the victim. Now it is possible to ask why a man beats a woman."

The Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence reported last September that wife beating is a classless crime. The task force heard testimony from doctors, nurses, PhDs and even prosecutors, all of whom had been beaten. "There is no economic pattern at all," says Assistant Attorney General Lois Herrington.

The largest national study, a 1976 survey of more than 2,100 married couples, found that 28 percent of intact families reported at least one incident of abuse. Based on their findings, "It looks like as income goes up you are less likely to be abused," says Suzanne K. Steinmetz, one of the authors of the study and a professor of individual and family studies at the University of Delaware. But the researchers also found that men with a postgraduate education were as likely to be abusers as those with a seventh- or eighth-grade education, she says.

A national crime survey issued by the Justice Department last spring concluded that family violence "may be significantly under-reported."

"We figure that only 10 percent of battering incidents are reported," says Joan Welsh, chairperson of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Very few at the higher income levels are reported to the authorities."

"At the end of four years, I began to hate myself because I allowed myself to stay in the situation," says the pastor's wife. "I couldn't vent my anger on him. I was so ashamed of myself. I really hated myself and really felt I was headed for the nut house. In fact, I begged him to take me to the psychiatric unit because I thought it was my fault. Damn. Nobody hits their wife. I must be the worst wife there is to provoke him this way. I must be the biggest bitch going. I have a stubborn streak. I don't deserve to be hit but I didn't think that then. I thought, 'I never heard of this happening except in the ghetto. I just must be a terrible, terrible person to let this happen.' "

One by one, they tell their stories.

"I'm not shy," says Marie, the colonel's wife. "I was married for 30 years. I've been divorced a year. I was separated three years. When I was referred to the shelter, it was the first time in 30 years that I ever discussed this problem with anybody."

The violence began within the first month of their marriage. "As is typical, the incidents became worse the older he became."

She is 55 now. She remembers being a young military wife, far away from home, far away from her family, and thinking she really ought to go to the police. To the minister. To the only psychiatrist in town, who had an office in the building where they lived. Instead she went to the hospital.

She cannot remember all the beatings. Her memory has disowned the details. "I have a feeling I have a pretty good constitution," she says. "I easily could have lost an eye on many occasions. I should have had many more broken bones than I did. I remember not knowing how to lie in bed because I was so badly bruised. Well, anyway, that really is not the worst. The worst is the psychological damage, the distortion of personality and the control of your being, the isolation."

The doctors said: "Of course, you ran into the ironing board. Naturally, you fell down the stairs."

They were all too ready to believe her lies -- and his.

"Men in higher education levels who are capable of earning larger amounts of money tend to be more sophisticated and can mask their mental condition much more subtly, much more carefully, much more cleverly," she says. "In my case, my former husband has a very high security clearance. In order to get such a thing, you're supposed to be relatively free of defect."

The room expands with laughter.

"We all can laugh," Marie says. "I think that's pretty good or else we'd all be at St. Elizabeths."

Last year, the Montgomery County shelter treated 699 abused women, 2 1/2 times the number they saw in 1982, the last year for which they have complete demographics. Of the 271 women they saw in 1982, almost 25 percent reported a family income of $25,000 or more; 35 percent reported an income of $15,000 or more.

"Upper-class people value privacy too damn much," says attorney David Austern, who is writing a book on the legal rights of victims of crime.

Ironically, money may exacerbate the problem of getting out. "It may make them more stuck," says Nancy King, deputy director of the Center for Women Policy Studies.

"The more you have to lose, the more pressure there is to keep it quiet," Herrington says.

These women worry about ruining their husbands' careers and reputations. They worry about providing for their children. They avoid the shelters and the support groups. If they have access to the checking account, which many do not, they may get away to Paris instead of getting help. If they get help, they may go to a doctor or a minister whose focus is keeping the family together. They may have many things but they don't have street smarts or easy access to the social service system. "She isn't going to get welfare," says Suzanne Edwards, a counselor at the Montgomery County crisis center.

She isn't likely to call the police and isn't likely to find solace if she does. The Police Foundation recently published reports showing that until the last several years police would not investigate domestic violence except in the case of severe injury. In a 1980 survey of the San Diego County police, 83 percent said they filed reports in fewer than 20 percent of the calls they answered. "No one lets the man know he must take responsibility for stopping his own violence and that being sorry isn't enough," Lerman says.

They are beaten up and beaten down. It is a marriage contract gone amok, a vicious cycle of control and dependence. The men depend on their wives to keep their secret, to do their bidding, to be dependent. Power is the issue. It is no coincidence that whenever they had an argument, the pastor always told his wife, "Submit."

"You have to finally find things in your own background which made you the perfect candidate for this match," says Marie, the colonel's wife. "There is a willingness to assume responsibility that is not proper. You don't understand it's not proper. I did not understand I was doing him a great disservice. It makes them more dependent and then that makes them hate you all the more.

"I have a hard time with the word victim. I don't like to think of myself that way. But part of the abuse is to make you feel that you're responsible. Since it's your fault, naturally you're going to stay and try to work it out. One of the things they did for me at the shelter was tell me things that are true: that nobody has a right to do this, that it wouldn't matter which woman it was, that it doesn't matter what you do."

The pastor's wife had a miscarriage. He sent her roses on Mother's Day. She had another. "I ended up in the hospital for two weeks. I should have stayed longer but he needed some things done so I got out. I had a tubal pregnancy that was exploding. Actually, it was kind of nice because it was a holiday. They gave me all sorts of drugs. That part I really enjoyed. And I really enjoyed being taken care of. The dumb bastard never even called my family. I'm sitting there thinking my family doesn't love me. But they had no idea what was going on. He wouldn't let friends come and see me. He was my steady diet for two weeks. I really thought, 'He cares about me and nobody else does.'

A week later, she says, he tried to strangle her. She decided to leave.

"I too was aware that my first husband had a problem very early on," says Ann, who has been divorced from the attorney for seven years. "I remember very clearly walking down a very dusty road at a vacation resort and wanting desperately to call my parents and remembering when you got married, you got married for life."

"For better and for worse," Marie says.

"In sickness and in health," Ann says.

The first time her husband beat her, Ann says, he punched her in the stomach while she was pregnant. Her nausea had enraged him. Usually, the beatings grew out of an argument. Sometimes he threw things at her. Always there was a lot of pushing -- into tables, into walls, into the stairs. "Usually, he would pick up an inanimate object and break it," she says. "That was a good clue to get the hell out. We're not all that smart.

"By the time I had been his wife for five years, I had no self-esteem at all. I was so fortunate that this man allowed me to bear his children, live in his house, drive his car. I truly believed it. I had spoken with a priest. My knees were very sore from praying.

"I was in therapy with a priest or a psychiatrist for 10 years of this 16-year marriage trying to find out what I could do to make him stop acting this way. If I could just be nicer, prettier, smarter, maybe he would stop."

He didn't. Sexually, they became estranged. "When someone has knocked me around, I'm not going to go to bed with him. By the end, we had virtually no sex life, which of course gave him another excuse.

"The final straw for me occurred when I was beaten for the fourth time by our 14-year-old daughter, who was at this point heavily into drugs and alcohol. I remember the final scene. We walked in from a party at a country club and she was standing at the foot of the steps in my robe, very drunk, very out of control. And I was saying, 'We've got to do something to help this child.' And our son said, 'Dad, your accountant called.' He turned and walked into the kitchen and made the call. I knew it was a lost cause."

"It is learned behavior," counselor Suzanne Edwards says. The pastor and the colonel had witnessed some abuse in their childhood homes. Ann's daughter had learned from her father.

"I walked out," Ann says. "I lost the home, the children and the only reason I didn't kill myself was I would be damned to let him have the pleasure of saying, 'See, I always told you she was crazy.' "

In a way, she was. "I was so angry when I left, I was angry, frightened. I was crazy. I didn't think how I'd live. I went from a $200,000 house to a hot plate and a toaster oven. I guess I knew I was reaching the end. I took the sterling and put it in the trunk of my car. I had the hot plate and the toaster oven and the sterling silver."

Later, much later, she learned that he had been sexually abusing their daughter, the same child she had been carrying when he beat her the first time. Neither of these occurrences is considered unusual in such relationships. Later, her children came to live with her. Later still, long after she remarried, she began to talk about it. That was in December.

Elizabeth left home for good in September. She had been married 24 years. "The first three or four years of our marriage were really hell on earth," she says. "I learned survival tactics. There was throwing me out of chairs, twisting my arm, yanking me out of the car."

He beat her when she was pregnant and told her how ugly she looked. When the baby was born, he locked them in the bedroom with a hot plate and a bottle every Saturday and Sunday morning while he slept on the living room couch. He was the breadwinner. He needed his sleep. For the rest of their married life, he slept alone in the master bedroom while she stayed in an adjoining room.

After five years of threatening to leave and being threatened in turn, she says she decided that the only way to survive was to cater to his every whim. The violence abated. The psychological domination was complete. The children had to submit written requests for the use of tissues or deodorant. She had to account for every penny she spent in a ledger. On occasion, he force-fed her. She was not allowed to change the temperature on the thermostat. She was not allowed to utter the words: "I want."

His jobs improved. So did their income. He kept telling her how important he was. "His time was so precious that he would get upset if I didn't answer the phone on the third or fourth ring," she says. "The children picked that up. They would say, 'Mom, you better answer that or you're going to catch it from Dad.' "

Only her children knew the extent of the problem. As they grew so did their awareness of the strangeness of their family. The children began questioning things and so in turn did she. Their daughter moved out, his parents moved in. The violence began anew. One day, they had a fight.

"He tried to choke me three separate times," she says.

Each time he stopped just as she was turning blue. He left before the police arrived.

"I didn't see any way out," she says. "He wasn't changing. We were going to therapy and therapy was mostly to state his position, that he had no intention of changing. He couldn't see anything wrong with himself. I began to get terribly depressed. I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping. The pits came when my daughter left. I literally went into shock. They had to call two ambulances. I had to all intents and purposes stopped breathing. My body functions had shut down. It was my way of saying, 'I don't want to live anymore.' I was taken to the hospital. They ruled out stroke or heart attack. A psychiatrist was brought in. After five hours, he got through to me with the words: 'You're so angry.' "

She went back, hoping for a reconciliation. This is not uncommon. A 1983 survey taken at the Boulder County Safe House in Colorado found that 47 percent of the women who reported an income of $5,000 or more returned to their homes compared with 18.5 percent with an income below $5,000.

"I miss my house and everything in it," Elizabeth says. "I don't want to be attached to material things because it makes you materialistic but there's something to be said about the finances. I think the biggest thing that kept me from leaving was the finances. Not so much it would ruin his job but if I had him arrested and he couldn't work how would we manage?

"That's part of why I stayed. If he was the kind who couldn't hold down a job, it would be 'What are you staying for?' He reinforced that by saying, 'Women would stand in line to be where you are. You have it so good.' I often threw it up to him. I said, 'You mean if President Reagan acted that way that's going to keep Mrs. Reagan there? Just because you have a high position doesn't make it okay.' He leaned that way: the higher the position the more the woman should be able to tolerate because look what you're getting on the other side of the coin."

Everyone nods. Peggy, the oldest woman in the group, who was married to a doctor for more than 30 years, says they never argued at all. He simply threatened. "He said he would finish me off," she says. "He repeated this very often. In the car, many times I was afraid of an accident on the right side."

Three and a half hours have passed. Still, they talk. To retell the stories is to relive them. "The retelling brings back feelings and fear," counselor Suzanne Edwards tells them.

"I'm sure we're all angry," Elizabeth says. "But I think the key is we're all hurting an awful lot and we have been hurt a lot."

As she speaks, Marie begins to cry. She had been so proper, so composed, so much the ex-military wife. In an instant, the fac,ade crumbles as finally it must, which is of course the hardest part. The women surround her and comfort her. She smiles and laughs. It is time to go on with their lives.

Though the pastor and his wife are divorced now, he finds her wherever she goes. He calls. He sends flowers. He writes. The last letter arrived just a week ago. Five pages. Handwritten.

"You see, I still love you. I do care. Why else would I persist? After all it is almost three years since you went out of my life. I have discovered that I can no more stop loving you than I can stop loving Jesus. I have been made in this way and it seems to be my fate. I know I have made mistakes. My biggest mistake was that I was overbearing and caused you to lose some of yourself. Both of us has changed. Yet that which is the greatest part of us is still recognizable. I am not your enemy and do not see you as such."

He closes with a reference to I Corinthians 13:7. "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."