BROOKLINE, MASS. -- In the weeks since the governor's wife revealed her 26-year addiction to prescription diet pills and subsequent cure, only two nasty letters have reached the Dukakises' modest duplex here. "They were unsigned," Kitty Dukakis says. "I knew just by the envelopes. After 25 years in this business, I can just tell."

There were well over 200 pieces of positive mail, but still, the anonymous attacks hit home. "Michael says, 'Why do you even talk about that?' " Dukakis recounts. Her husband, whose presidential star has been rising of late, "is so pleased and proud. He says, 'That's part of your ethnic makeup. You have to think about those two letters!' It's crazy!"

Yet for those who know how intense Kitty Dukakis can be -- whether she's helping the homeless or promoting Michael Dukakis' career -- the hand wringing over two letters comes as no surprise.

Tightly wrapped, a compulsive smoker, alternately described as "warm" and "volatile," Dukakis, 50, has been a mildly controversial presence on the Massachusetts political scene ever since her husband first won the governorship in 1974. She was once shooed off the state senate floor by the senate president, who advised her that her unsubtle lobbying approach might not sit well with the governor's detractors. A few years later, in a touching display of emotion at a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, she dropped to her knees before a Thai general when it looked as though she might not get in to see the little boy she had come to take home. She ultimately prevailed.

"She has a reputation of being overbearing -- generally caused by a few incidents," says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who sided against Michael Dukakis when the governor lost his reelection campaign in 1978 but has since supported him. "She would park her car in the spot reserved for the minority leader ... and once there was an incident where she yelled at Michael in front of people." But the criticisms, Frank says, "have been mostly unfair. She is simply a woman who will not accept being relegated to decorative status. She will do what she wants to do."

Which is probably why Dukakis' friends, political allies and enemies alike weren't shocked when she chose to tell the world about her former addiction in the middle of Michael Dukakis' presidential effort. During a visit to a Massachusetts community hospital on July 8 -- almost five years to the day after she started her treatment -- she told the hushed group that she had taken 5 milligrams of Dexedrine every day (except for one three-month hiatus) from 1956 until 1982.

While not unprecedented -- in 1978, Joan Kennedy admitted to being a recovering alcoholic, and after she left the White House, Betty Ford sought help for alcohol and drug abuse -- Dukakis' announcement came at a time when the spotlight had turned toward her husband. Ever since Gary Hart dropped out of the race, the governor -- once the longest of long shots -- has been looking more like a Democrat to be reckoned with. An East Coast media favorite, he's raised a notable $4.7 million and attracted numerous idealistic youths (and more important, perhaps, a few key Hart staffers) to his fledgling campaign. Last Sunday, during an Iowa debate, his Democratic opponents clawed at him as if he were the undisputed front-runner. Lest anyone doubt that the Duke was hot, Playgirl magazine recently named this shortish, beetle-browed, serious-looking man to its "10 sexiest" list.

So despite the Dukakis campaign's protestations to the contrary, the announcement did not come without political risks. For the most part, Kitty Dukakis insists, the response has been "just incredible." She retells her story at most campaign stops, and when she doesn't, she's invariably approached by someone who wants to know more. There was the man at O'Hare International Airport who approached her the next day, telling of his wife's similar dependency. Friends of friends have asked her to help someone they know who has been addicted to a "substance" -- drugs or alcohol. And the positive letters have flooded in.

"From people who themselves have been chemically addicted, people who have family members or friends ... just people thanking me for what I did, for coming forward," she says. "People asking help who are still chemically addicted.

"You talk about emotional," she says, settling her graceful frame against the sunshine yellow couch. "This has been incredibly emotional."

"It was what Kitty wanted to do all the way," says John Sasso, the longtime Michael Dukakis aide who is managing his presidential campaign. "She wanted to share her experience to help other people ... And when someone is comfortable with what they are doing, it tends to make you comfortable, too."

Dukakis went to Sasso in March to tell him her secret. She also told him she wanted to go public. Like all of the Dukakises' friends and aides who have commented on the subject, Sasso says he didn't know of her drug dependence before she volunteered the information.

He had been managing Dukakis' difficult 1982 effort to reclaim the governorship from Edward J. King when Kitty abruptly disappeared, said to be ill with hepatitis. A few weeks earlier, she had finally sought her husband's help. Once, in 1975, Michael Dukakis had stumbled on a vial of diet pills -- but for the most part, he had not grasped the extent of his wife's predicament until she confronted him with it.

Dukakis measures her words carefully these days. She says she isn't tired of talking about her problem with drugs, but her staff cautions a reporter otherwise. This particular morning, she is just back from a Democratic governors conference on Mackinac Island, Mich. It is 8:30 a.m., and her hairdresser has already visited and left her home. She sits primly in a gray cotton shift with a neat white collar. She doesn't touch a cigarette throughout an hour-long interview.

Was it difficult, she is asked, for a straight arrow like her husband to understand a drug dependency? "It's very hard for someone who is not dependent to understand that," she says. "I tease Michael about taking an aspirin a year. He's a doctor's son, and I think doctors' sons are very cautious about taking things."

But "from the moment I decided I needed help, that I could not do this myself," she notes emphatically, "Michael was right there with me."

They told their three children the truth, she says. ("She flew to New York to tell me," says John Dukakis, her son by a previous marriage. "I was shocked.") But then they concocted the hepatitis cover story for friends and aides. In reality, Kitty checked herself into Minnesota's Hazelden Clinic -- a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility -- on July 14, 1982. Her children met her there a week later for family counseling.

What made her decide to seek help? "It wasn't a quick revelation, but I was increasingly unhappy with myself and the way I behaved and my moods," she says. "It's an accumulation ...

"Six months after I started taking {the amphetamines} I knew I had a problem, because I couldn't stop ... and I certainly didn't continue taking them for the weight issue," she says, and then laughs. "I gained six pounds of fudge at Mackinac Island! That's not an issue with me. It's much more that I didn't think I could function without them. Even though I was taking small amounts, they had taken on a life of their own." She has said she blames her several miscarriages on the pills.

When she finally faced up to her dependency, she says, "I was very rough on myself. I needed to pat myself on the back once in a while and say 'that's okay.' "

Part of her therapy has been to help others, which she has quietly done for five years. But there came a time, she says, when she was ready to take it further. Most political observers assume her decision was prompted by the desire to confront a potentially damaging revelation before the press did. Neither Kitty Dukakis nor campaign staffers, however, will admit to political motivation.

The need for a public forum threw the campaign into orchestration mode for three months. About a week before the actual announcement, an intermediary called the Southwood Community Hospital in Norfolk, Mass., which runs a large and sophisticated addiction treatment program.

"We were asked if Mrs. Dukakis could make a major announcement here and we said fine," says John Dalton, a senior vice president. "She had been very involved in this issue since 1983, helping us significantly in several areas; we just surmised they were establishing a broader campaign role for her."

Dalton said he was not surprised by Dukakis' revelation. "When you've been in this business awhile," he says, "and someone shows as much interest as she has in drug abuse, you always ask yourself why."

The thing people have been most curious about is: How come Michael Dukakis didn't ask himself why? How is it that the candidate, widely viewed as a serious family man, could have missed his wife's addiction to amphetamines, commonly known as "speed" because of the fast-talking, fast-moving highs and crashing lows it causes?

Kitty Dukakis gives the only logical answer.

"That's the way I was when I met him, and how would he know?" she says with a smile and a shrug. "I was a moody person then."

Actually, Katharine Dickson first met Michael Dukakis at Brookline High School, when she was 13 and he 17, long before she took her first diet pill. He doesn't remember, which drives her crazy. "I remember talking about it that night," she recently told Washington Post reporter David Broder, "calling up friends and saying 'I met Michael Dukakis ...' "

They ran into each other once again, when she was a freshman at Penn State and he was a senior at Swarthmore. This time it was on a ticket line for a concert, and he does remember. But by her sophomore year, Kitty had met and married John Chaffetz and had moved to California. It was shortly before this marriage that she recalls taking her first amphetamine, for weight control.

The marriage ended in less than two years, and she returned to Boston with an infant son. "Right around that time Michael had called me," recalls Sandy Bakalar, a former girlfriend of the governor. "He said that there wasn't anyone out there to date and did I know anyone nice. I said, 'Do you remember that adorable Kitty Dickson?' "

When the two were reintroduced, friends say he fell for her instantly -- one of the few events in his life, it seems, that took the methodical and cerebral politician by surprise.

Kitty Dukakis doesn't like to talk about her first marriage. Her son legally changed his name to Dukakis when he turned 18, 11 years ago. "It was something I didn't want to deal with earlier," says John Dukakis, now working to organize the South for the governor's campaign, and who had been using his stepfather's name since he was 7. "I have a relationship with my natural father."

How did Michael's family view his attraction to a divorce'e with a small child?

"I think his parents weren't as excited about the whole prospect," Kitty recalls. "Obviously. I was divorced. We were different religions ..."

In fact, they seem living testament to the axiom that opposites do attract. She is Jewish; he is Greek Orthodox. She is tall and willowy; he is short and compact. She is expressive; he controlled.

"Michael is just a much calmer and {more} deliberate person," she says. "At the same time, I've learned an enormous amount from him in terms of listening ... One of my problems in the past has been impatience and an inability to listen to all sides." From her, she says, he has learned "how to argue better, how to discuss things better."

Dukakis says the couple have learned to make "accommodations" with respect to his need for orderliness and her propensity toward chaos. "Every once in a while he'll say, 'How can you stand the piles of stuff on your desk?' That's usually the cue for me to get the top layer off."

Their house (which seems amazingly uncluttered this day), sits on a nondescript middle-class street. Inside, the rooms are sparsely furnished with Scandinavian-style pieces.

She jokes about her husband's reputation for cheapness. "Michael has been complaining about our cleaning bills," she says. "They are three times what they were because I'm on the road all the time." Then, showing off a a string of gray and white beads she bought in Michigan, she smiles and says: "See, Michael will look at these and say, 'Things! More things!' "

The daughter of Harry Ellis Dickson, associate conductor and violinist for the Boston Pops, Kitty Dukakis has always gone her own way. She has been a dance teacher, a travel agent and, briefly, an entertainment reporter for a local television station. A few years ago, she earned a master's in broadcasting from Boston University. She is currently director of the Public Space Partnership Program at Harvard. And from the start, she immersed herself in her husband's political career -- sometimes to the irritation of those close to him.

"I have not been the good, quiet governor's wife," she says. "I have not been a traditional spouse."

She has taken her share of grief for her unquiet style. Two years ago, The Boston Globe reported that while waiting for a passport check on an international trip, Kitty Dukakis "prodded" the governor to let the checkers know who he was rather than stand in line. More recently, a Boston Herald columnist dubbed her "the Dragon Lady of Brookline" because of a report that she had berated an airline pilot on the way back from Michigan when the plane was delayed.

Still, everyone agrees she gets results. With the help of her statehouse staff, for example, she is credited with devising a plan whereby the state shares with charitable organizations the costs of maintaining shelters for the homeless -- increasing the number of shelters from two to 60. She has also worked to reunite Cambodian refugee families, once traveling to Thailand to locate the younger brother of a Massachusetts woman. She eventually was able to bring him to the United States, and still corresponds with the family.

"You see these wives who love to operate behind the scenes -- well, Kitty's never played that game," says Jackie O'Neill, whose husband Tom was Michael Dukakis' first lieutenant governor. "And that makes some people up here uncomfortable."

"When {Michael} was first governor," recalls former state senate president Kevin Harrington, "I was the floor leader and he was able to get a provision through to create an arts council ... But he couldn't get funding for it." Kitty Dukakis asked to meet with him, Harrington says, "and she talked about needing $25,000 to receive matching funds. I was able to get her the funding. But you know, it wouldn't have even occurred to her husband to be that practical. His idea was to let someone else worry about it."

The governor's wife is certainly "not placid," Harrington says. "She tends to be a bit intense. I don't say that pejoratively. With Kitty, you know exactly where you are -- no nuances."

Still, friends say she has seemed more at peace in the last few years. She herself says she's different, a "better wife and mother," for one thing. Talking to her children about drug use, she says, used to be "difficult ... I did caution them. I felt funny doing it but I did."

That's not been a problem since her revelation. Now Dukakis confidently tries to deter others. It's part of her therapy, in fact, to seek out other substance abusers and help them help themselves. "She was so good to my father until he died," says Richard Gaines, editor of the Boston Phoenix; the elder Gaines, a volunteer in the governor's '82 campaign, had a drinking problem. "Looking back, I now understand."

Dukakis has answered some letters, but hopes to phone all the substance abusers who wrote her. "I am going to try to work on individual cases," she says, "because I can speak from experience."

What's been most important to her about that experience? She thinks for a minute.

"I feel better about myself as a person, as a human being," she says. "I have much more confidence in myself. Not that I didn't have confidence. But it was a false sense of confidence. Now I give myself credit for the things that I do instead of giving the pills credit.

"Now I am the way I was when I was 18 years old.