APPLETON, WIS. -- President Reagan wasn't there Wednesday night, but his eldest son seemed to wish his father were in the audience as he provided a poignant glimpse of himself to about 150 strangers gathered on a cold and blustery night in this close-knit Fox River community of about 58,000.

Although he was there to speak about being sexually abused as a child for more than a year by a day care counselor, Reagan repeatedly brought up the president's name and, at a press conference preceding Wednesday night's dinner, admitted that it was hard to talk about being "an imperfect child in a perfect family."

Perhaps the most shocking revelation of the evening came when Reagan told the audience that the counselor who molested him had also taken photographs of him in the nude and had him help develop them in the darkroom. The last thing the man said to him, a line Reagan has said he has not been able to forget, was, " 'Wouldn't you like to have your mother {actress Jane Wyman} see one of these?' "

"You think about it -- the pictures -- every single hour of every day," said Reagan. The memory of one picture in particular, of him standing naked against a rock, "has stayed with me for the last 35 years. I worried about where it would show up . . . I've worried about the press who were looking for something bad in Dad, and it'd be me."

The event was a fund-raising dinner for the Life After Assault League, founded by rape victim and Appleton resident Kay Zibolsky, 43, who had written Michael Reagan after reading about his sexual abuse as a 7- and 8-year-old. As Zibolsky tells it, the phone rang one afternoon and a voice said, "Hey Kay, Michael Reagan here." The following dialogue ensued.

Zibolsky: "Michael Reagan ... Michael Reagan ..."

Reagan: "How quickly we forget ... the son of the president of the United States."

Zibolsky: "Oh, that Michael Reagan."

The two, both of whom had kept their secret for years (Reagan for 35, Zibolsky for 27), struck up an immediate friendship ("We talk all the time," says Zibolsky), and Zibolsky asked Reagan to speak at the LAAL dinner. His appearance at a $35-a-plate black-tie dinner had been promoted for weeks in Appleton.

Though his glib, game-show persona (he hosts "Lingo," shown in Canada and three U.S. cities) still dominated, Reagan presented a picture of a man whose rebellious facade has been a cover-up for the terrible pain of his "roller coaster life." He was remarkably candid in talking about his efforts to scrape away "the personality I've hidden behind for so many years" and forge a new identity.

"I want to be remembered," he confided, "for being a Christian and being a good father."

"The evening allowed the real Michael to come out," Zibolsky said yesterday.

Reagan, who now attends rape treatment sessions twice a week in California, says the hardest part is dealing with the continuing rage. "Many times I've thought it would be easier to die than deal with the anger ... and would rather have been anyplace in the world than telling my father."

Originally Michael Reagan had planned to simply send Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Wyman a copy of his book manuscript with a note suggesting that they read it and "ask questions later." But because of a leak about his upcoming book, "On the Outside Looking In," in the National Enquirer and Penthouse magazine, Reagan had to talk about his molestation last spring. "Because of the press," he said, "I had to tell my mom on the telephone."

He went on: "When I finally told Dad and Nancy it was as if all of the pieces in the puzzle fell together and they finally understood."

He told his wife Colleen on Nov. 6, 1986, "the day before our 11th wedding anniversary ... the hardest thing was to tell the first person and trust she wouldn't walk out the door. The longer the time goes by, the harder it is." Reagan stressed over and over again that "kids need to know what sexual abuse is and have to talk about it. We think that we're the perpetrators. I for 35 years thought I was the bad guy. I didn't know I was the victim."

Referring to the pain that sexual abuse can cause in a family, Reagan said, "It's hard, it's hard for a parent. It happened in the president of the United States' household. It can happen in any household."

On his upcoming book, rumored at one point to be a kind of "Daddy Dearest," Reagan said that he's "told Dad that you'll see things that don't make Ronald Reagan look good, but I hope you'll read it all." The greatest problem for the publisher, he said, "is that it makes my father seem very human."

In the book, due to be published in March, Reagan also discusses his feelings about being adopted by President Reagan and Jane Wyman and his memories of being raised in a Hollywood family. He doesn't hide his anger at always being referred to as President Reagan's "adopted" son. "That happened," he says, "42 years ago."

Writing the book, he said, is a way of "reassuming that power I lost 35 years ago. Now I'm in control of those pictures. There are 32 nice ones in my book. Family ones."