The letter came in response to a column about the revelations that John Fedders, the top enforcement official of the Securities and Exchange Commission, had beaten his wife, Charlotte. The letter was signed, but for reasons that will become obvious, the woman's name cannot be used here.

After reading the news stories about the Fedders family, this is what she wrote:

"I'm starting to admit to myself 'I am' a battered wife. It's ironic I have so much in common with Charlotte. If I ever get the courage to speak out I'm so worried it will destroy my three sons. But of course a bigger concern is will they become an abuser of their wives if I let this continue. I know I won't live like this forever. I have lived in fear for so long I can't remember what it's like to be myself.

"Above all else, I want what's best for my sons . . . . Please do not answer this letter. If you could offer some expert advice as to what makes a man like this . . . and what are the chances his sons will develop this sickness.

"Right now I'm confused, depressed, mad, resentful and very unloving toward my husband. I'm not jumping on to the bandwagon. This has been my entire married life."

Michele Hudson, executive director of My Sister's Place, a shelter for battered women and their children in Washington, has heard this story countless times: Each year more than 2,000 women call the shelter's hotline, and each year some 230 families are housed there for six to eight weeks at a time.

Hudson knows the reasons women stay in violent homes and she knows what it does to the children.

"You find the majority of batterers came from violent homes," she says, and women who stay with wife beaters frequently saw their mothers or aunts beaten when they were children. "People want to believe that the children aren't affected, that they are being quiet and don't know what's going on. But in reality they learn about relationships by seeing what their mother and father do. So it is very important when they see someone getting battered."

Because of this, she says, My Sister's Place and other shelters around the country have developed counseling programs aimed specifically at children.

"A lot of women stay in the home because they say in some cases they want their children to be raised by both parents," says Hudson. "I say it's better for a child to be raised in a loving environment, whether it's two parents or one. Many women stay because they want the children to have some influence from the father. But if the influence is negative versus positive, then why would you keep your child in that environment?"

Concerns over the economic welfare of children also prevent women from leaving, she says. "Many times there is some loving going on in the relationship and she may try to forgive and forget."

Other women still fear the stigma of divorce. "Many women stay because in most battering situations the man isolates the woman. He either finds something he doesn't like about her friends or family and she doesn't want to tell her family what's happening so more and more she's not communicating with other people. She doesn't have that reinforcement you need from other people to leave ."

Her advice to these women is to contact a local shelter and get themselves and their children into counseling.

"The batterers in many cases don't think they're doing something wrong, so they don't want the counseling. They think they have the right to be heads of their households and they have the right to this position in any way they can get it. The batterer says it's her problem. She's not cooking my dinner on time; she's asking too many questions. Teach her how to be a better wife, a better woman, then our relationship will be better."

Wife beating, says Hudson, "is still very hard for women to talk about and then when they finally do, the support isn't there. What are we doing in our communities to say this is wrong, this must stop? Do we want another generation of this?"

The support isn't there from judges, she says, who reprimand husbands who violate restraining orders instead of jailing them. It isn't there from communities that have too few shelters. "We have to stop saying that what goes on behind closed doors is not our business. If it's a crime that's happening behind closed doors, then it should be our business."

And until that attitude changes, frightened, trapped women -- mothers scared, perhaps, more for their children than for themselves -- will write letters to strangers because they know of no other place to turn. And the cycle of violence in families will go on.