We never know how we appear.

On a recent morning show, Hugh Hefner touted his new book. Shots of the 78-year-old icon at the Playboy Mansion, surrounded by a gaggle of Playmates toasting the publication, conjured images of a spry rest-home resident being saluted by his curvy blond granddaughters. Which can't be what Hef had in mind.

A front-page photo last week showed former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, indicted in the Enron scandal, surrounded by stern-faced men and a woman with a tight-lipped smile. Unsure of her identity, I instinctively lowered my eyes to her hands.

One hand was clutched tightly by Lay. "Yep, his wife," I thought, before wondering: Why did I automatically seek a handhold to verify the fact?

Because when a man is in trouble -- enmeshed in a turn-up-your-nose scandal or under arrest for allegedly committing a sordid crime -- chances are he'll be pictured holding the hand of his stoic wife.

Think of it as Male Crisis Hand-Holding (MCH).

Of course, rampant hand-holding is evident during election campaigns -- Laura Bush's and Teresa Heinz Kerry's hands will have gone through cases of Ben-Gay by November. Women, too, engage in crisis clutching; yesterday's New York Times featured a front-page picture of convict Martha Stewart holding on to fashion designer Ralph Rucci at a social event.

Still, we're talking about a time-honored, predominantly male phenomenon. President Richard Nixon squeezed wife Pat's hand so constantly during Watergate that he seemed to be attempting to absorb her decency. When Connecticut Gov. John Rowland resigned last month after having accepted illegal gifts, his wife, Patty, couldn't have stood any closer.

Kobe Bryant couldn't stop gripping the hand of his wife, Vanessa, after he was charged with sexually assaulting a hotel clerk. Maybe he was ensuring that the $4 million "don't-hate-me" diamond ring he'd bought her hadn't slipped off.

The only famous defendants unlikely to employ MCH are those like Scott Peterson and O.J. Simpson -- men for whom the only women whose hand-holding could help are dead.

When a man finds himself up crap's creek, his wife's hand is the paddle he reaches for. If you're a guy drowning in difficulty, your girl becomes your buoy -- something that keeps you afloat until the sharks retreat.

There's nothing wrong with any human being whose reputation, career or freedom is threatened reaching out to those closest to him or her. Remember the famous shot of Bill Clinton leaving the White House after the truth about Monica Lewinsky was revealed? Clinton received daughterly MCH, with Chelsea forming the center of a human safety sandwich between her tense parents.

Often, MCH is a desperate, last-ditch act signifying . . . what?

That a man isn't facing his Waterloo alone? That somebody still trusts, wants, believes in him? That a wife will endure anything to maintain the status quo?

Confronted with such photos, our eyes inevitably dart to the wife's face. And we wonder.

If the guy in distress is a corporate honcho, we wonder if she knew that shady dealings funded her mansion and Chanel suits, or if she, too, was duped. If her husband is a pro athlete, politician or entertainer -- someone whose job makes him irresistible to beautiful, willing women -- we ask if she'd turned a blind eye to his philandering or somehow expected his faithfulness.

Staring at her frozen face, I always wonder how she regards the hand that's suddenly, relentlessly, oh-so-publicly seeking hers. Does she resent it?

Or could she be glad that something finally forced his hand to seek out hers?

There's one other person to whom a man in trouble is certain to reach out: his attorney. Gil Holmes, dean of the University of Baltimore's School of Law and a former family lawyer, believes that men employing MCH hope to send a public message:

"I'm a good person, a family man . . . so what I supposedly did can't be that bad. Could I have stolen millions and have my wife still support me?"

And we're expected to buy this? Holmes believes that sometimes, we do buy it -- especially if a husband's misdeed wasn't sexual. MCH during sex scandal elicits "a higher level of the 'Yeah, right' response," Holmes says. "In Kobe's case, we feel he has to buy her the ring in order to go home at night. But I don't think people are as dismissive [of the message] with other crimes."

Did Holmes ever see crisis hand-holding among private couples who had no cameras to face? He remembers just one divorce case in which a couple came close to hand-holding. The pair's connection was so palpable that the presiding judge asked "if they really wanted to divorce, based on the signals they were sending," Holmes recalls.

The judge instructed the couple to "go to dinner and work things out," Holmes says. "He said, 'I see something going on that suggests this is something you don't want to do.' "

The couple went to dinner, had a huge fight and divorced. Holmes saw the husband a year later -- he and his ex-wife were living together.

Some facts: Pictures can lie. Some bonds aren't easily read or explained. People can and do forgive anything. Holmes, too, looks at photos such as the Lays' and wonders whether things are as they appear. He wonders, "What's their conversation like in the car after the hand-holding?

"You never can know."