"When this is over," Cathleen Crowell Webb has said, "I want to go home to New Hampshire and stay where it's quiet and put this behind me."

That may turn out to be as hard for the nation as for Cathy Webb, the woman who says she "cried rape" eight years ago.

On the basis of Webb's testimony, a pale young man with sinkhole cheeks named Gary Dotson spent six years in jail until he was released last week on bail. Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson and the state's Prisoner Review Board will consider Dotson's plea for clemency today at a hearing in Chicago.

Whether Dotson returns to the hard light of his jail cell or home to his friends and family, the Webb case, like that of "subway vigilante" Bernhard Hugo Goetz, has taken on a passionate life of its own, forcing consideration of a horrible crime and the nightmare of a legal system gone awry.

Webb's wan expression and remote manner has become as familiar as Goetz's rangy carriage and raging pronouncements on New York City street crime. It has fascinated the press and the public. The "Donahue" show recently featured men who have been falsely accused of rape. Lawyers and judges are on their guard, explaining the nuances of recanted testimony, and feminists are anxious, wondering about the legal repercussions in future rape cases.

"There's a fear that this case is the start of a revisionist view of rape, that once more the testimony of women in rape cases will be doubted routinely," says Susan Brownmiller, author of the influential book on rape, "Against Our Will." "There's a part of me that doesn't want to believe (Webb). She made a fool out of the law and she made a fool out of the women's movement. But if Dotson is innocent, she obviously owes him a hell of a lot more than an apology."

On morning television and radio call-in shows, in newspapers, before a recent Senate subcommittee and in a bylined cri du coeur in People magazine, Cathy Webb has told how she "invented" a rape because she feared she was pregnant after having sexual relations with a boyfriend; how she rehearsed trumped-up testimony and convinced a jury of Dotson's guilt; how, six years after Dotson's conviction and three years after her conversion to fundamentalist Christianity, she told the truth -- but the judge would not free Gary Dotson.

What could be more fascinating than a woman who has both lied and told the truth on such a grand and tragic scale? What crime could tear more at political and sexual attitudes? And what could be more baffling than a judicial system that seems to reject the truth and returns an innocent man to jail?

There were an estimated 186,000 rapes in the United States last year -- less than half of them reported. Still, most feminists and legal experts agree that the treatment of women who accuse men of rape has improved in both the precinct house and the courtroom. Since the late 1970s more than 40 states have passed rape shield laws limiting the latitude of a defense attorney to examine a rape victim's sex life.

Despite the old "cry rape" myths, studies show that rape victims are no more likely to lie than victims of any offense -- an estimated 2 percent recant their testimony. The Webb case, though, has shone a harsh light on that small percentage. Similar cases in Annapolis and Chester, Pa., attracted more interest than they might have before the Webb case.

For many social critics, the issue is how the case may affect the way we think about rape, the way rapes are investigated and prosecuted.

"Obviously," says Brownmiller, "this case is going to be fresh in the minds of rape victims and people who investigate rapes and people who are going to sit on juries. You have to wonder what kind of effect it will have."

Ms. magazine editor Gloria Steinem says she "doubts if the case will somehow be used against other women." But, she adds, "The thing to remember about Webb is the enormous cost of coming forward, the emotional why of it all. I wouldn't compare her to Mr. Corporate Embezzler who lies about stealing the $50,000 and causing the mailroom boy to spend 10 years in jail."

After Webb testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing, Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) warned that the "sensationalizing of this issue may further paralyze women in seeking justice in rape cases," and Ellen Frank, an American Psychological Association expert on rape victims, said she feared the case would reinforce old notions about rape testimony.

Midge Decter, author of "Liberal Parents, Radical Children" and a frequent critic of feminism, believes the case is not an exception but rather an inevitable event, the dark side of the change in rape laws:

"It's occurred to me, as I'm sure it's occurred to many men, that rape has become a special crime that does not require the same standards of evidence that other crimes do. Rape has become a fashionable form of victimization and it was inevitable that there would be a gross miscarriage of justice sooner or later. I know it's now like going against apple pie and motherhood, but all the emphasis on rape lately, with the great listing of standards of evidence, has gone to another extreme.

"The Webb girl seems pretty wacky to me. She's clearly lying. The question is when."

Decter's analysis is disputed by Charles Nesson, professor of law at Harvard and a specialist in evidence. "She's (Decter) all wet," he says. "It's obvious she's never sat through the old rape trials where the abuses of the victim were obvious and extreme. It's hardly a point of controversy by now that the rape shield laws are a necessary aid to rape victims and a fair trial."

"I wonder about Cathy Webb," Brownmiller says. "She says she decided to tell the truth after discovering God. I wonder if she knows the story of Potiphar's wife."

The biblical story concerns Joseph, a slave in the house of Potiphar, whose spouse attempted to seduce Joseph. He resisted, but Potiphar's wife "cried rape" and Joseph spent years in the prisons of the Pharaoh. The story has its variations in the Koran, Egyptian folklore and Celtic mythology.

And in the United States, there are countless horror stories of women who accused men of rape and encountered a judicial process that made them feel more like the accused than the victim. In John Henry Wigmore's classic modern treatise on judicial evidence, lawyers and judges are warned about "errant young girls and women" who are capable of "contriving false charges of sexual offenses by men."

Webb, if she is to be believed now, did just that.

Her life has been unremittingly pathetic, a 23-year-long litany of rejection and despair. Her mother was institutionalized. Her father sent her off to live with strangers. She tried running away at ages 12 and 13 and attempted suicide. Webb later found some happiness with new foster parents, but after sleeping with a boyfriend at age 16, she says she became terrified, afraid she was pregnant and a disappointment to the only people who had ever cared for her.

At a special hearing earlier this month in a Cook County courthouse, with Dotson present, she described leaving her job at Long John Silver's seafood restaurant on July 9, 1977, feeling desperate and alone, and finally deciding, as she told People, "to make it appear that I had been violently attacked."

She described how she tore her own clothing and scratched herself with a shard of glass, how she faked a description of her assailant. She told of her anguish upon seeing Dotson sentenced and how she hid her secret from her husband, her friends and her fellow parishioners in Jaffrey, N.H.

"I'm suspect of some of the interest in this case," says Steinem. "Some of the interest sounds like, 'Ah, you see, all those women aren't telling the truth about rape.' But whatever the facts on the (Webb) case, you can't pick up a newspaper without reading about a rape-murder, or several of them. The tragedy there is so much more acute and yet it's ordinary, it doesn't get on the cover of magazines."

From the Webb case, many have learned how difficult it is for a court to act upon recanted testimony. The celebrated case of the "Scottsboro boys" in 1931 involved two white women from Alabama who falsely accused nine black men of raping them; eventually, one of the women, Ruby Bates, recanted. After three trials, the last of the Scottsboro defendants was released from jail in 1951.

Reversals on the basis of recanted testimony are extremely rare. It has never happened in Illinois.

Prof. Paul Rothstein of the Georgetown University Law Center, an expert on laws governing recanted testimony, says, "What this case has done in legal circles is bring up the issue of whether the law makes it too difficult to overturn a verdict long after the normal appellate options have been exhausted. What this does is give the public pause about any preconceived notions that everyone who makes a charge about something like rape or child abuse is always telling the truth. It tells us that the legal system gives us no certainty, that verdicts are not 100 percent certain."

Judges view recanted testimony with skepticism. "With something like narcotics or organized crime," Rothstein says, "you have obvious problems with safety, that people may change their minds because someone has gotten to them. This case is a little different, but there are possible motives for a false recantation.

"I don't know what the truth is here but it's not one-sided. I'm speculating, but there are reasons to wonder about her new story. Maybe her religion is working another way, making her feel that (Dotson's) served his time and now let's turn the other cheek."

"The problem is that we always fix on cases that are radical exceptions," Brownmiller says.

"On a gut level," says Nesson, "what you have to ask is whether the rape was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. I understand the judge's reluctance to accept recanted testimony. I understand the need to go through all the proper steps and not just make a snap decision. But on a gut level, I think it's clear doubt has been cast on the conviction of Gary Dotson."

Perhaps there will be a just, if not a happy, ending to the story of Webb and Dotson as there was in the case of Potiphar's wife and Joseph. After correctly interpreting the dreams of the Pharaoh, Joseph won a pardon and rose to the office of prime minister.

A decision on Gary Dotson's clemency bid is expected within a week. Cathy Crowell Webb says she prays for his release.