Tonya Harding is a poor little poor girl, as distinguished from Nancy Kerrigan, who was only poor. The melodrama about the two blue-collar figure skating rivals is about true poverty.

Tonya Harding has no money; neither did Nancy Kerrigan, whose father is a welder. But Tonya has a mean mother, a punk ex-husband and a bad case of the greeds. Kerrigan has a wealth of family love, not just doting parents, but a slew of relatives who swamp her in affection and approval.

Tonya does not look like an ice princess. She looks more like some small, cornered animal. Her hair is inexpertly bleached, her costumes have the fireside touch. She says gross things. When her beautiful nemesis, Nancy Kerrigan, with her high cheekbones and her swanlike bearing, was bludgeoned in the knee, Tonya did not make the ritual murmurs of good sportsmanship: "I'm going to whip her butt." No crocodile tears for the person who could stand between her and $10 million if she won the gold at Lillehammer, Norway.

She rocked figure skating fans who have been used to gentility with the double axels -- tough Tonya does triples. Why should she be nice? She was born knowing what happens to nice guys. Her mother, who married seven husbands, stood rinkside with a hairbrush to beat Tonya if her skating fell short. "60 Minutes" provided a chilling tape of mother and daughter post-gig telephone chat. Tonya's mom told her that her act "sucked."

Lately, under the white heat of publicity, Tonya's mother has tried to clean up her act a little. She said on television with a great air of self-pity that she did not want her little girl to "have the same life I had."

That's the goal that guides ambitious parents, some of whom manage to steer their children without dismembering them psychically. Tonya's father, who was her mother's fifth husband, seems to have been good to her in his way. He taught her to shoot and play pool, gave her her first gun. Her half-brother, she says, made a sexual advance to her. Tonya's husband, Jeff Gillooly, was a roughneck. The police were called many times. She divorced him, but was living with him at the time when, according to Tonya's enormous bodyguard Shawn Eckardt, he hatched the plot to "take out" Nancy Kerrigan.

Tonya told Diane Sawyer on "PrimeTime Live" she had done nothing wrong. Diane was being unctuously auntlike to Tonya in contrast to the knitted brow that she offered to the neckless Eckardt during his revelations. He said that Tonya was not pleased when the kneecapping of Nancy Kerrigan was deferred. Tonya, aiming for winsomeness, told Diane that other people worked nine to five every day and got a paycheck every week. She is now, quite frankly, waiting for the big payoff.

The miracle is that Tonya, given the abuse and instability heaped on her, can skate at all. Her style is all power and muscle. How did she keep that discipline, practice all those hours, achieve that delicate control and split-second timing that is the essence of ice skating? Through the chaos of her family life, the anger exploding all around her and within her -- the malevolent mother, the bad marriage -- she made national champion.

She knows Nancy Kerrigan, whose mother is legally blind and whose father worked three jobs to pay for her training, is nevertheless privileged. She knows that Nancy Kerrigan could convince people that she is skating at the Olympics for glory and her country, not just for the gold that Tonya so frankly covets. This is Snow White for the '90s, a sad tale for our times.

Prophets like Daniel Patrick Moynihan have warned us for decades about the consequences of the disintegration of the family. This is the ultimate story of how values go by the board, how kindness and sense cannot survive a brutal upbringing. Tonya Harding is a child of violence, just as if she grew up in an inner city and spent her time dodging drive-by shootings and random sniping. She has been dodging bullets, one way or another, all her life.

She wanted more than anything in the world to win at the Olympics. It appears now she will have to make a detour through the legal system, like so many others who can't tell right from wrong because it seems irrelevant in their lives. We have millions of children just like Tonya Harding, angry, deprived and surrounded by evil companions, who think the only way out of their trouble is through more violence.