Charlotte Fedders sat in the living room of her Gaithersburg home, across an open field from Travilah Elementary School, where her two youngest sons, Andrew and Peter, are students. Small gates kept out the family's three dogs and cat. Elsewhere, the house reflected the comfortable chaos generated by a working mother and five sons, 9 to 21.

In the family room, 17-year-old Mark watched an advance tape of "Shattered Dreams" (Sunday at 9 on CBS) starring Lindsay Wagner as his mother and Michael Nouri as his father, John, formerly enforcement chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Afterward, he emerged to talk a moment with his mother about the corsage he was buying for his prom date.

The boys, she said, have become rather blase' about seeing their mother on television, in person or impersonated, particularly since her appearance on several talk shows (twice on "The Oprah Winfrey Show"). They thought Lindsay Wagner looked a lot like their mother in the days when they lived in the big house in Potomac, but were amused that the actors who played the youngest boys wore glasses -- which they do not.

And unlike the boys in the television movie, they did not sing at their parents' Christmas party -- although they would have if their father had wanted them to, she said.

Charlotte Fedders had seen the tape the night before, after she returned from her job as a nurse at Collingswood, a nearby nursing home. She said she believes it tells her story effectively.

Charlotte and John Fedders' relationship came to national attention and underwent intense local scrutiny when their divorce proceedings resulted in a story in the Wall Street Journal and then a cover story in the April 1986 edition of Washingtonian magazine. Charlotte Fedders and Laura Elliott, author of the Washingtonian piece, joined to write "Shattered Dreams," published by Harper & Rowe (paperback, Dell).

At first, Charlotte Fedders agreed to talk with Elliott because she needed the money, a $10,000 payment from Washingtonian. Now, she also hopes to reach other people with her message:

"No one human being has the right to totally dominate another," said Charlotte Fedders, "even if it's just emotionally, and they certainly don't have the right in any instance at all to hit another person. There is no justification for it. If you worked for someone for 17 years and you only hit them seven times, you wouldn't have been there after the first time."

But this was an idea that Charlotte Fedders had to learn the hard way.

Charlotte Fedders, ne'e Charlotte O'Donnell, was the eldest of five daughters of a Baltimore-area physician and his wife. A nursing graduate from St. Joseph's College in Emmittsburg, Pa., she had met the very tall (6-feet-10) John Fedders, president of the Catholic University Student Bar Association, and was surprised to find him attracted to her. In 1966 they were married. The obedient daughter became a dutiful wife, putting her career on hold and bearing five sons.

He became a successful lawyer at the District firm of Arnold & Porter, earning about $160,000 a year. Then he accepted a political appointment as SEC enforcement director, a job that offered excellent contacts at a lower salary of $72,300.

But John Fedders, from a blue-collar family in Kentucky, was a man with a deep need to control, she learned. Today, Charlotte Fedders said he is in psychoanalysis for depression that had its roots in his childhood. But Charlotte had come to believe she was responsible for his silences and outbursts, and, as the movie illustrates, John Fedders reinforced her lack of self-esteem. Seven times, he was physically abusive, slapping her on the side of the head so that her eardrum broke, punching her in the abdomen when she was pregnant. In the television version of the trial, he admits that he hit her, saying, "Yes, I demeaned her ... She didn't demand respect."

Her father, a medical examiner, demanded she file for divorce the first time she was hit. But the two reconciled and, she now admits, "I stopped telling my parents, because it was too hard to win them back."

It was a pattern that continued for years: an increase in tension, an outburst, sometimes violent, and a reconciliation. It is called the battered wife syndrome.

"I can't believe I really was that person," said Fedders. "I can hardly believe I was as pathetic as I was."

The marriage could have been dissolved in an out-of-court settlement, but Fedders insisted that a judge hear the case. As it turns out, that was a tactical error. That day in February 1985, the courtroom was empty of all spectators except one -- a reporter from the Wall Street Journal.

On her divorce, she said, she decided not to resume her maiden name. "I had the kids," she explained, "and I thought my father might think I belonged to him again. And anyway, I really grew up as Charlotte Fedders. That's where I came into awareness as an adult. As far as I'm concerned, John can change his name."

She does not like to be known as "Mrs. Fedders," and tells patients at the Gaithersburg nursing home where she works to call her simply "Charlotte."

Charlotte Fedders is pleased with the television movie, for which star Lindsay Wagner served as executive producer.

"The story is very accurate," she said. "They made a lot of changes based on the changes I made on the script. To their credit, they listened to what I had to say ... They called my psychologist and talked for over an hour, and the scenes that are in there, I feel, are right. They have taken great interest in this subject and great pains to educate in addition to telling the story.

"Lindsay Wagner is much prettier than I am and Michael Nouri is much handsomer than John. But in general, I thought that my kids were better looking than the actors." She laughed, knowing that Mark, in the family room, could hear.

While some scenes are entirely accurate, others are representational, she said, and the characters who play her neighbors and sister are composites.

Among the alterations: In one scene, Charlotte is bathing the smaller boys upstairs when John arrives home. She doesn't hear his knock on the front door. Angry, he slams his attache case through the door window. In fact, she said, "he had his keys in his briefcase -- he just didn't want to get them out. Normally, he would sit outside and honk and I would open the door. But when he wasn't talking to me, he wouldn't honk. I don't know if the garage door was broken or the battery was out or what, but he didn't honk."

On the other hand, she said the courtroom scene is entirely accurate.

"They are using John's and my words in the court scene," she said. "Actually, John did much better on TV than in court ... In court, John got up there on the stand and cried when he was asked his name and where he went to school."

Judge James S. McAuliffe allowed John Fedders' request for a 60-day attempt at reconciliation, to which Charlotte Fedders reluctantly agreed. The period is telescoped into a scene in a restaurant that she said actually did not take place.

"Basically what they did was take this reconciliation and throw it into one scene. I was pleased with it. One minute he was begging her for a reconciliation and the next minute he was screaming at her and the next minute he was crying. And that's the way it was."

At the end of the scene, arguing in the restaurant parking lot, Charlotte throws something at John Fedders: It is her wedding ring.

And then there's the house in Potomac, which the Fedderses sold in June 1988 for $490,000.

"We didn't live quite so elegantly" as depicted in the film, she said. "They put us up a peg financially. The house was really nice but it wasn't as big as that one. Had we stayed together, and had he gone back to private practice, we probably would have left a big house in Potomac for another big house in Potomac, or in Avenel or some place, so potentially we would have lived in even a grander style."

She wishes the friends she had then, the ones who took her in and came to her defense, represented by the character Elaine in the movie, would have remained in her life. "My life is so different now. Most of my friends' children are all grown, and they work because they want to get away from home, or they go to Congressional Country Club. In one way I'm a little hurt that they don't call me, but on the other hand I'm so busy now. But yet we still care about each other. I've become hopelessly middleclass now and they've gone higher ..."

There was one other change, involving a scene in which John Fedders insists that his wife and children shovel snow from the sidewalk and driveway. The encounter escalates into what Charlotte Fedders described as "the breaking point with me."

"The reason Charlotte left," she explained, using one of her occasional third-person references to herself, "was really not that she felt she deserved a lot better, it was that she got fed up with the way the kids were being treated. One line that they had in the script and took out ... was when John yelled at my children twice within two months, 'Go suck on your mother's tits for the rest of your life.' He said that twice. That was totally accurate, except that they couldn't get it past the censors."

In the divorce proceedings, John Fedders described their battling: "She enjoyed going after me and, unfortunately, I enjoyed going after her." In court documents, he said she was "neurotic," "taunted" him and had a temper.

Today, Charlotte Fedders seems uncertain whether she has a temper. "When I was growing up, if I would deviate from the pattern of the day, that would be considered a temper. If I stood up for myself -- I was clumsy about it, I guess, I don't argue well -- that would be a temper.

"I feel with the temper I had, the learned behavior in the marriage -- because I did learn to fight back -- I have learned to control it ... I probably don't have a real temper relative to other people's tempers."

Eventually, Charlotte Fedders began seeing a therapist who, she said, taught her "not to be quite so reactive to him."

After her allegations became public in 1985, John Fedders resigned his job at the SEC and went back to private law practice here. Judge McAuliffe ordered the Fedderses to split the proceeds from the sale of their Potomac house. Charlotte Fedders received an extra $50,00O plus alimony and child support. But in June 1986, she filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, saying that although John Fedders had made his court-ordered payments on schedule, the money was not enough to live on. She paid her lawyer and therapist, bought her current house and "begged for two car loans." Otherwise, she said, she pays cash for everything because she has no credit cards.

At the time of the Chapter 7 proceedings, the boys mowed lawns and shoveled snow and she sold Amway products, she said in bankruptcy hearings. Later, she said, she sold Avon and Mary Kay cosmetics, worked at a friend's flower shop and delivered newspapers. Fedders, who lives in Falls Church, sends her about $2,000 a month, she said, part of it voluntary. She said her father pays Mark and Matthew's tuition at St. John's, a Catholic boys' school in the District. Luke, a St. John's graduate, finished two years at Montgomery College, holds a full-time job and hopes to become a paramedic.

"I was really glad to see the children portrayed in this {television movie}," she said. "John was so litigious that we left the children out of the book, but they had to be in the movie. We did one chapter just with Luke because he was over 18. He still doesn't want to see his father -- actually, the three older ones don't. Mark and Matthew were ordered to see him and made an attempt, but ... The two younger ones do see him. The child who's now 11, Andrew, saw one of the really bad episodes, but I sure don't remind him of it. It's fading, but it was violent enough to scare him. The baby, Peter, was only 2 when John left, but he has very little close relationship with John. He came in the other day thinking he had a birthday party and said, "I get to go to Jeff's house on Friday night and that means I don't have to go to Dad's!'"

"I think the strong point of the movie is that there is not a whole lot of physical violence," said Fedders. "Some people would say, 'You weren't hurt that bad.' I was never put in the hospital. But that's what allowed it to go on. And that's the reason so many other women are still in it ... I think we will touch people where it really happens. And I hope people who have what we call good marriages stop and think where we cross the line in taking too much control over the other -- our spouse, our children, stop and think about what is child abuse."

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says that as many as 4 million women are battered every year in this country, one every 15 seconds. Lindsay Wagner is national spokesperson for Shelter Aid, a national domestic volence hotline (800/333-SAFE).

This week, Charlotte Fedders is scheduled to testify on the Hill, explaining the effect such violence has on children.

"My theory is that if by some wild chance they never hear it, which is impossible, or never see it, which is a little easier, but still pretty much impossible, or never have it directed towards them -- most of the time if he's abusive toward the wife, he'll be abusive toward the children, which was my case -- even if they never see any of this, my theory is the woman is not in condition to parent as well as she should. So that is a subtle form of child abuse. And it affects them at school, it affects them in maturity."

Now she concentrates on helping her sons become "better men and good friends. I want them to grow up to be good men to my daughters-in-law. I'm already protecting daughters-in-law that I do not have. I have said to Luke many times, 'You are not going to treat your wife, my daughter-in-law, and my grandchildren like your father treated us.'

"I don't feel I'm a rampant feminist. I'm a human rights person. I believe that we really are all equal."