Conventional wisdom has it that the song "Luka," Suzanne Vega's current smash single, is the plaint of an abused child. That's how the kids and the disc jockeys describe it.

But stand the lyrics next to the life story of Judy McBride, No. 39024-066, and Vega could just as easily have been writing about battered wives.

From the song: "Yes I think that I'm okay / Walked into the door again / (If you ask, that's what I'll say) / It's not your business anyway . . ."

From Judy McBride: "When I went to work I told them I'd caught my hand in the door or I'd bumped into a table. Why did I lie to protect him? Why didn't I just tell them, 'I didn't bump into a table -- he punched me'? I think your pride gets in the way." ::

Judy McBride is in jail.

Her sentence by a Delaware jury in 1982 was life in prison with no opportunity for parole.

Judy McBride was convicted of conspiracy in the stabbing death of her husband, Bill McBride, a popular, publicly affable, civicly active golf pro at the Dover, Del., Air Force base.

Everybody knew Bill McBride. Practically every man in town had played golf with him. Even the jailer who drove Judy McBride back and forth from the jailhouse to the courthouse during her trial had played golf with Bill McBride.

And yet only a few people knew of the abuse, as she and others testified about it in court, until after the murder. Among them were people she worked with, who testified at her trial that they knew perfectly well she hadn't "bumped into the table."

According to Lee Ann Walling, now editorial page editor of the Delaware State News, who covered the 1982 trial as a reporter for that paper, "There was some really convincing testimony from former employers and co-workers who testified that she would come to work with wads of hair torn out of her head, with her eyes blackened."

Judy McBride was by no means alone in the kind of psychic net that draws these abused women, sometimes inexorably, toward an ultimate act of violence. They fall victim to a psychic numbness, under threats or fears from the abuser; they feel trapped, unable to find help or to escape. ::

The Federal Correctional Institution for Women at Alderson looks at first glance like a college campus tucked into the West Virginia mountains. Women, mostly young, chat and laugh in small groups, dressed in colorful summer dresses and assorted jewelry.

But despite the casual facade, there are constant reminders that this is indeed a prison: Visitors are searched; weapons and prescription drugs are confiscated; the visiting area is open and institutional, like a bus station waiting room, and it has an area

set aside where toys, rather the worse for wear, are piled up waiting to distract little children who come to visit their mothers.

Judy McBride meets an interviewer in an administrative building that is partly air conditioned. She is a small woman -- 5-foot-2, 102 pounds -- dressed in a patchwork-print shirt and slacks. Her hair is short but coifed and colored a champagne blonde shade. "My daughter doesn't like to see me gray," she says.

She tells her story mostly in a matter-of-fact voice, but sometimes it shakes a little and sometimes there are tears in her eyes, which are big, wide-set and blue.

She met and fell in love with Bill McBride in Dover in the early '70s, when she was separated but not yet divorced from her first husband. Bill began beating her almost immediately, she says, and she went home to Michigan in an attempt to break off the relationship. Typical of a man with this kind of pent-up violence and insecurities about deep relationships, specialists say, McBride's violent episodes were often followed by persuasive and charming protestations of remorse and love, tenderness and thoughtfulness.

During her stay in Michigan, she discovered she was pregnant, a fact that was communicated to Bill McBride by a mutual friend. Judy McBride recalls that he called her from Youngstown, Ohio, pleading with her to meet him there. She did. "We went to a motel," she says flatly. "He threw me on the bed and brought his knee up so violently that my waters broke. I ended up in intensive care. He went back to Delaware."

The baby, a boy, was born three months premature, hovering for weeks between life and death. While the baby was in the hospital, his father "was back in Delaware, not caring at all." Once the baby

was released, however, she said, "then he started to put pressure on me to go back to Delaware. He kept telling me he could take Paul away from me because of the people he knew. And besides, I was the one who was immoral. I was the one with loose habits; I could have an affair; I could have a baby when I wasn't married and you take that to court and he'll get the baby. So I married him."

By this time, Judy McBride was almost hopelessly trapped. She believed that he could strip her of her baby and she admits today that because of the baby's tenuous hold on life, her feelings toward him were especially fierce. "You don't know what it's like to watch a baby like that struggling for every breath for weeks and weeks."

The baby suffered permanent spastic cerebral palsy and other problems.

For the next four years, the lives of Judy McBride, her baby and her two children from her first marriage were measured by bouts of violence, first against McBride and then against the children.

They lived their lives according to his explicit orders. She was not permitted to leave the house, even to shop. During the occasional periods when he permitted her to work, he took all the money and put it in a checking account in his name only.

She cooked what he said and how he said. Once, she says, in a fit of mild defiance, she refused to make the Thanksgiving turkey according to his directions. "I made an oyster dressing instead of what he wanted. When he took that turkey out of the oven, he threw the whole thing right at me -- turkey, pan, everything. The kids were there. They saw it all."

He burnt her with cigarettes before making love. "It turned him on," she says. He burnt the children with cigarettes "accidentally." He pinched the children and kicked them and slapped them, she says. He would torment the baby by pinching and twisting his genitals until he screamed. "Then he called him a crybaby."

At one point, when he had beaten her so badly she was nearly helpless, she called her brothers in Michigan, who came and got her and her children. But after he threatened to take the children, and pleaded with her, she went back to Delaware. She loved him, she said. She was a masochist, her brothers said.

Judy McBride's brothers were not being unreasonable in their suggestion that she was a masochist. But they were wrong. Nor would it be unlikely for someone to cry in frustration, "Why didn't she just leave?" That, point out the experts, is easier said than done. Battered women are not masochists. They are victims. But the mistake continues to be a common one.

The complicated psychological workings of spouse abuse have been likened to the psychological tortures of the Stalinist gulag. Writes Buffalo

law professor and psychologist Charles Patrick Ewing in his book, "Battered Women Who Kill": "A common psychological result of the battered woman's experience is the development of 'learned helplessness,' a state that develops when, as a result of being repeatedly exposed to outcomes beyond one's control, one 'learns' that nothing one does will affect or alter any outcome." At that point, the individual is no longer able to try.

Dr. Lenore Walker, a Denver psychologist specialzing in abused women,

maintains that it is the learned helplessness, rather than masochism, that paralyzes the victim, rendering her incapable of leaving. Writes Ewing: "For most battered women, leaving is not a viable alternative. Not only do they face tremendous environmental and psychological obstacles to leaving, but their batterers threaten them, and in some cases their children, with physical destruction if they ever try to leave."

Judy McBride was, all unbeknownst to her, the prototype of the battered woman. The end of her story was all but written already.

Bill was the prototype of the batterer. "When he was charming," she recalls, "the way he was at the golf course every day, I called him Bill. The bad part of him I called Willy. He was two different people." Once, she says softly, he raped her with her hairbrush then threw her into the bathtub and left her there semi-conscious.

She called the police, over and over. "Sorry, ma'am, we can't get involved in a domestic case," they told her over and over. Finally, they gave her a number for a family therapy organization. The number was "not in service." Social workers at Catholic social service groups told her to try to work it out.

Then, at last, she says, her fears for her own and the children's safety outweighing her fears of his vengeance, she filed for a legal separation. At the hearing, he denied paternity of the baby, who was then 4 years old.

During the separation, the torment continued. He phoned day and night, followed her, threatened her and the children. She says she was helpless and "had it in my mind that if he knew how bad he was hurting us, he would stop. I just wanted him to stop."

It was in this state, she says, that she arranged for a girlfriend's boarder, a friend, to "hurt him." She invited her husband to the apartment, drugged his food, had sex with him and, when he fell asleep, let in the boarder and a friend of his he had gotten to help. In fact, William McBride's body was found in the bathtub with 28 stab wounds. There was no money involved, she says. One of the men turned state's evidence and received a short sentence. The other, the one she knew, is also serving a life sentence.

Her psychiatrist -- who began to care for her after the murder, when she was, as he put it, "a mess" mentally -- testified at the trial that she was the classically battered woman who saw no other safe way out of the marriage. " 'My God,' " McBride recalls him saying, and her voice quavers, as she quotes her therapist, "why did no one listen to her?"

"They hated her," journalist Lee Ann Walling recalls, speaking of the town itself as well as the jury. "They were very unforgiving. They somehow didn't buy the battered wife thing," as a defense. "I felt pretty rotten, and I got accused of being some sort of feminist maniac for pointing out {in newspaper articles} some of the things about battered women.

"But crowds would be waiting at the courthouse door to yell things like, 'I hope you hang.' "

"I thought at the time that if she'd been in an urban area, she surely would have gotten a lesser sentence, maybe even gotten off. In fact, she very nearly got the death penalty.

"He was real popular. This is a small community." ::

Judy McBride sees her parents occasionally and maintains a close relationship with her children. Her daughter, now 20, has just had a baby.

The son she had with Bill McBride, Paul, now 11 and still severely handicapped, was put up for adoption after her conviction. She does not know where he is.

As the phenomenon of wife battering is becoming better understood, cases like Judy McBride's are getting second looks from therapists as well as from members of the legal community. Ewing believes McBride may be one of "thousands" of cases identical to hers in virtually all aspects save the name.

In some of these cases, at least some aspects of the tragedy may eventually be softened. Judy McBride's case has been adopted for study by the Alderson Legal Project, a program at the Washington & Lee University law school in nearby Lexington, Va., in which law students do mostly small legal projects for Alderson inmates.

Second-year law student Elizabeth Murtagh, a former domestic relations counselor in a juvenile court who has been assigned to the McBride case, says: "We are definitely willing to help her, and I've told her that I'll be working on the case for the next two years. She knows I'll be sticking with her."

What the project can do, of course, is limited -- primarily investigative -- but Murtagh sees this case as typical of those of battered women all over the country. "I do think she has a chance," Murtagh says. A pardon is her only hope -- and she has already been rejected by the Delaware Board of Pardons once, mostly, Murtagh believes, on technical grounds. However, she can reapply. Says Murtagh, "I think the more that people become aware of the suffering that women undergo in domestic violence situations, the more they will be able to understand how things can get so out of hand."

Lyrics from "Luka"

1987 AGF Music Ltd./Waifersongs Ltd; reprinted by permission.