By Mariette Hartley with Anne Commire

Putnam. 286 pp. $21.95

Actress Mariette Hartley would have us believe she's not what she appears. The woman who, with James Garner, bantered her way through those 250 memorable commercials for the Polaroid One-Step camera eventually took to wearing T-shirts that read "I am not Mrs. James Garner." And this engaging memoir demolishes the rest of her carefully constructed public persona. That gorgeous, smart, sassy, confident, happy woman we've seen in films and TV shows, she tells us, is nothing but artifice.

Well, maybe not the gorgeous part; she sure didn't get those cheekbones from any makeup department. And not smart and sassy, either. Her book sparkles with the spunk she showed parrying with Garner. But confident and happy have been, for most of her life, pure acting technique.

In fact, she started acting that role as a small child to hide -- from herself and others -- just how bad things really were. Her parents were suicidal alcoholics; her first husband, a violent abuser. She has spent her adult life building, even more than a successful TV and movie career, a stable psyche and a happy second marriage on the wreckage of her youth.

One thing that's genuine is the well-born Northeastern manner. Her father was a Harvard man; her mother, the daughter of pioneer behavioral psychologist John B. Watson and a niece of FDR's interior secretary, Harold Ickes. Hartley hails from Cheever country, from the moneyed, hard-drinking Connecticut suburbs heavily populated by account execs, commercial artists and other toilers in the vineyards of advertising. Banished from his Johns Hopkins professorship over a sex scandal with a student, her grandfather "Big John" Watson turned his science to making a fortune on Madison Avenue.

Paul Hartley, her father, was also an adman. He and Big John's daughter, Polly, both then married to other people, met at one of the Watsons' lavish parties. For a while Paul also prospered, installing his second family in the five-bedroom, historic-landmark colonial in pricey Weston that they came to call "the big house." That nickname developed after his drinking had cost him a series of jobs and landed them in "the little house ... a two-room -- not two bedroom -- two-room house on Cavalry Road," a thoroughfare that Mariette always pronounced "Calvary."

While Paul sat soused at home, Polly supported the family with a job at Bootsy Beach's Separates Shop in Westport, selling Shetlands to her erstwhile country club chums. This horrifying social descent became another reality that the Hartleys didn't talk about. It ended a decade and a half later when Paul blew his brains out in his final home, a Los Angeles bungalow where Mariette's earnings paid the rent.

It's no wonder that Polly drank too. Raised according to Big John's theory that affection weakens and spoils a child, she had few emotional resources to handle trouble. Suicide attempts punctuated the awful silences in the Hartley home. By 14, Mariette had tried that and drinking too. Even back in the "big house," she recalls, "I ... didn't feel safe."

"During the years I was growing up, I was trying very hard to be a regular person," indeed -- like so many children of alcoholics -- she became a person who was everything to everybody: honor student, cheerleader, rising child actress. The only one she didn't consider was herself; at 14 she was sleeping with a boyfriend, at 19 she entered her disastrous first marriage.

After decades of pain, she succeeded in building a successful career and a happy family with her second husband. The Mariette who tells the tale is a survivor -- wry, forthright and sincere. But just how the transformation happened, just how she raised herself from self-hatred, addiction and despair, never quite becomes clear. Her three years with a support group pass in one paragraph. A talk in which she shared her experiences with a meeting of suicide experts flashes past in a single line: "I got up, had my say, sat down, and eight hundred people stood up."

A hip, jokey tone and an episodic structure belie the book's serious purpose. Apparently intended to humanize a celebrity, the language sometimes descends to fan-mag cliche: "legs that didn't/wouldn't quit" twice within 12 pages. And a stream-of-consciousness approach to chronology rather obscures cause and consequence. But if a sense of humor is a sign of sanity, Hartley has come through her troubles in fine shape. She tells some very funny stories -- shooting a grade B jungle epic; a chaotic, bilingual dash to a birthing center that ended with her second husband briefly and mistakenly accused of rape.

Revealing the struggling, suffering, but ultimately triumphant human being behind the perfect TV face will help others battling demons like the Hartley family's. Even 84-year-old Polly, on the very last page, declares life worthwhile. Lots and lots of readers will feel the same way about her daughter's book.

The reviewer is the author of "The Myth of Two Minds: What Gender Means and Doesn't Mean."