FROM TIME to time, I receive in the mail documentary materials from a woman in Cleveland who feels she is the subject of thought-control torture by an unknown scientific group.She has become an "involuntary receiver of transmissions," as she puts it. Fiendish broadcasts bombard her consciousness at odd hours, in the privacy of her own home.

In desperation, she took her complaint to the police station. The officer asked her a lot of informed questions about antennas on her house, which suggested to her that the Cleveland police already ahd some knowledge of this experiment. Finally, the officer told her that since she was bothered by airwave transmissions, she should take her complaint to the Federal Communications Commission.

Usually, she attaches photocopies of reallife newspaper clippings. CIA Sought A Drug to Produce Amnesia. New CIA Documents Show How to Kill Without Getting Caught. Soviets Said to Spy with Perilous Rays.

This woman does not claim to have a complete explanation worked out yet, but she has observed "a number of abnormal occurrences in the public sector in recent years" -- four successful assassinations and two near misses. She speculates that the thought-control experiments she believes are directed at her may have application in preparing trigger men for these political crimes. She asks for help, an investigation.

My only gesture of compassion for this woman is that I do not throw her documents away. I stuff them in the bottom drawer with my dead notebooks. There was a time when newspaper reporters could kiss off the paranoids, listen politely, then show them the door. Now I hang onto her precious suspicions. Just in case. Does this mean I am crazy?

No, not me or thee (though I don't like the way you shift your eyes), but the rest of America is definitely going crazy. Paranoia has become an important public value of our time, but nobody in Washington, the capital of politics, wants to talk about it. It's embarrassing, the ugly inferences ordinary citizens draw from the well-intended accidents called government.

A relative of mine insists that supersonic overflights are somehow responsible for the corn blight in Illinois. A municipal official once confided to me -- bravely on the record -- that the extraordinary snowfalls affecting his city were caused by the atomic bomb tests. I hear a click on my telephone and make jokes about it. But then I wonder. What is so funny about the idea of the government listening in? The funny part is not that the government might do it; we know it might. The part that makes us laugh is the possibility that our drivel might be worth listening to.

If you watched the brilliant television drama "Friendly Fire" last week, you glimpsed the feeling I am trying to describe. These good people from Iowa sent their son to war with innocent, unquestioning faith. When he died, in a stupid accident, they were confronted with an endless shock of unanswered questions. After that, everything the government said seemed to confirm their original emotional conclusion -- that a deeply concealed explanation was available if only they were brave enough to search it out. A search for guilt. As they proceeded, the Mullens felt as though they were on trial -- accused by someone they didn't even know. Why?

We are all on trial. Questions are asked. Numbers are recorded somewhere. We can see that for ourselves. Somebody is keeping track of us, for some unknown reason. If there isn't a reason, why are they keeping Cleveland or other testaments of the same genre, I recognize that these people are faithfully reenacting the 20th century claustrophobia imagined 50 years ago by Franz Kafka, a civilized dreed of our diminished individuality. I am certain none of these people ever read Kafka, yet they experience the same scenes.

Up a flight of stairs, into the bureau to file a complaint, to seek an explanation. The door opens and suddenly one is on trial. Guilty, guilty, guilty. The verdict is guilty, but we never learned the charge. Never mind the charge, here is the sentence. You are free to go.

What? Free? Go, get out, your case is over. The citizen is led through another door and is back on the street again: convicted and free. Kafka was pure, troubled genius. That is exactly how it feels to the tortured modern citisen, those poor souls who feel extremely what I think most of us sense mildly.

Am I babbling? Or does this make crazy sense? If you have to be deranged in order to understand what I'm talking about, then it doesn't help much to understand it, because you are already one of the crazies. On the other hand, if that last sentence makes you a bit dizzy, that is precisely how you are supposed to feel and, therefore, you are not yet around the bend.

Freeling dizzy is the normal response, I believe. It's okay to feel dizzy. In fact, anyone (Text Omitted) Watergate, is probably a closet fascist who would love to put the rest of us in camps.

Somebody killed Kennedy. We know that. I know because I saw it myself on television. Actually, what I saw was Cronkite weeping, but it's the same thing. Then they lied to us, about the war and a lot of other things. Everyone tells necessary lies, so it wasn't just the lying that scared us. It was the unknown purpose. Why did they lie?

Nixon's lie was the most shattering for many of us. Not his lie about being innocent. Everyone expects the guilty to lie about that. The worst lie, the one that really scared us, was when Nixon said he knew what he was doing, that he was running the country. We believed him.

Somewhere somebody must be running things. We assume so. How about the CIA? The CIA has assured us for years that it knew all the inner secrets of the human heart -- perhaps we should believe in the CIA.

The ordinary citizen of good faith, once shattered by deceit, begins his own search for alternative explanations, like my correspondent from Cleveland. Once faith is ruptured deeply, a new anti-faith replaces it. A scholarly friend calls this a condition of (Text Omitted) provides overwhelming confirmation of the original suspicion. Continue the search, mastor the mystery, harness the conspiracy.

Objective realities destroyed faith, but I do not think the crimes of government adequately explain the flowering of pre-paranoid distrust in American politics. This is not meant to let the crooks and liars off the hook. (In passing, let me ask: Whatever happened to those CIA officials who dreamed up sick experiments on human beings? Did any go to jail? Didn't Nazis hang for doing that?) Something else also happened in America, great changes that were a necessary precondition to the public suspicion.

The mechanism of paranoia, I am told, usually originates with a deep personal trauma, a tragic loss or a shattering of relationships. Emotional vertigo confuses reasonableness. Who is to blame? Me or them? If one feels powerless to explain things, one is invited to leap to the most powerful role of all -- a personal attempt to explain everything. A paranoid, psychiatrists tell me, is bombarded with his own feelings and confused thoughts, which he perceives as external facts. No amount of rational persuasion can penetrate that perception unless he can confront his own loss, unless he can ponder and measure his own guilt.

I offer that dime-store psychiatry as a plausible metaphor for the political(Text Omitted)

While our leaders were doing all their scary things, millions of us were simultaneously passing through our own personal varieties of trauma -- great rifts from social conventions of the past, confusing affluenct, escape from family, church, regional identity and the guilt that accompanies that new freedom. These changed conditions preduced their own tilt in personal gyroscopet, an emotional disappointment that interacts powerfully with the public scandals -- beyond the reach of rational explanations. Read Kafka's "Metamorphosis," in which the young man wakes up one morning and discovers he has turned into a cockroach.

The external rationality of modern life creates the illusion that we ought to be able to discover rational explanations for these feelings. So we search for facts and the search makes us feel powerful again, even as it fails to provide any real answers.

The paranoid search thus requires a forlorn kind of arrogance, a very modern malaise that refuses to face up to this oldfashioned truth: Life is accidental. It remains so, permanently and mysteriously, despite a modern veneer of order and reason.

That is hard to accept, in the face of lies and tragedy, but there is another truth worse than that. These vast high-tech organizations that are watching us -- government bureaus, corporations, media beacons -- are essentially indifferent. They wish to know our secrets but, unlike church and family, they do not care about our souls.

Personally, on most mornings when I wake up, I do not feel like a cockroach. A potato sometimes, yes, but never a cockroach. Why (Text Omitted)