John Walker Lindh seemed to change before the public's eyes.

The televised image of the bleeding, half-starved, bearded religious fanatic captured in the Afghan desert became the shorn, slightly puffy profile glimpsed through the window of a law enforcement caravan.

There were family snapshots of a teenager in a New York Knicks T-shirt and a scruffy California boy with a wisp of facial hair and a shy smile, taken early in his search to self-discovery. There was the police mug shot, grim as always.

Even his name changed: Lindh, the pampered child of lefty Takoma Park and flaky Marin County, Calif., became Suleyman the Islamic convert and then Abdul Hamid, the holy warrior.

And, finally, there was the bespectacled young man in a jailhouse jumpsuit rendered in pencil and pastel by courtroom artists. The one who yesterday admitted to fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"Many people believe that they know who and what John is," his mother, Marilyn Walker, said yesterday after her son pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. "What they may not know is that John is honest, kind, humble. And a loving son."

His father, Frank Lindh, compared his son to Nelson Mandela. Both parents cast their child as a misguided idealist who never betrayed his love for his homeland.

"Never, in all the interrogations . . . did John ever say anything against the United States -- never once. Not one word. John loves America, and we love America," his father said. "God bless America."

Born in Takoma Park in February 1981, Lindh is the second of three children. His father, then a social worker, and his stay-at-home mother named him John partly in homage to Beatle John Lennon, who had been killed by a fan two months earlier.

His father worked as a clerk in the Justice Department during the day and attended Georgetown law school at night. Lindh attended Kensington Parkwood Elementary School, where he was put in the gifted and talented program.

When Lindh was 10, the family traded the white-marbled columns of Washington for the redwood groves of Marin County, a wealthy enclave outside San Francisco, where his father, who had become a lawyer, was transferred.

Home to graying hippies and Silicon Valley plutocrats, Marin is known for the hot tub, the veggie burger, feng shui and other New Age fads.

Lindh attended an elite high school for self-directed students; it did not have classes. He studied world cultures and wrote poetry. "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" had a particularly powerful effect on him and fed a growing interest in Islam.

At 16, Lindh dropped out of school, and he soon converted to Islam. He changed his name, put on a long white robe, dumped his rap CDs and began worshiping at the Islamic Center of Mill Valley.

His parents -- who separated soon after his conversion -- were supportive of his spiritual quest, even after he advised them of his desire to study in Yemen. He said he wanted to learn a dialect of Arabic necessary to read the Koran in the original language.

Lindh left on two extended stays overseas -- first to Yemen and then Pakistan. E-mails arrived home from him, criticizing the U.S. presence in the Middle East.

While studying at a religious school in Pakistan, his "heart became attached" to the Taliban, he later told CNN. He then trained with Islamic militants at a camp run by Harkat ul-Mujaheddin, a Pakistani group the U.S. government has called terrorists. At graduation, he joined a Taliban unit in northern Afghanistan.

As the United States pounded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lindh's group surrendered to the Northern Alliance, which then held him and others at Mazar-e Sharif. During an uprising at the prison, Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed. Spann was a CIA officer who had been interrogating prisoners, including Lindh.

Some dubbed Lindh the American Taliban. Former President George H.W. Bush called him a "poor, misguided Marin County hot-tubber." His parents said yesterday that their son had simply been lost.

"Someday, I hope that the government will come around even further and say that even 20 years is wrong for this boy," his father said. "He's a good boy."