Rosemary's Mother : WHAT FALLS AWAY: A Memoir. By Mia Farrow . Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 370 pp., $25

Celia McGee is the publishing industry columnist of the New York Observer

Star power usually stems not from strength but from weakness: the need to adore as well as the need to be adored. Mia Farrow got a double whammy. It hasn't just been the extraordinary series of husbands and boyfriends who projected their latent desires onto this perennial girl-woman but also a public that wanted to worship a blond waif in all its own ways. Then there's the flip side: the fears, insecurities and other emotional lacunas that caused Farrow to look for admiration and affirmation in many a wrong place. Her attempts to figure out these cross-purposes of her life have led her to produce a compelling book. Was revenge also a motive? Doubtless. A big advance? Just try raising one child in New York City (and now northwest Connecticut), let alone 14 (10 adopted).

But her memoir, "What Falls Away," is also a book engendered by pure scandal: the highly publicized breakup of her 12-year relationship with Woody Allen because of her discovery that her much-older (than her) director and gentleman caller had been having an affair with her much-younger (than either of them) 17-year-old adopted daughter.

In Farrow's life, apparently, no gruesome situation goes untopped: She further claims that Allen was guilty of sexually abusing her 7-year-old adopted daughter, and--almost more horrifically--she was guilty of having desperately ignored that the abuse was going on. Her confession provokes the reader to think thorny thoughts about the relationships between art and life, perversion and creativity, amorality and genius.

Farrow, born to the screwed-up royalty that is Hollywood, saw plenty of those relationships from the start. Apart from an evident feel for writing, what makes her book different from the standard celebrity autobiography is her ability to recognize such complicated, timeless conundrums, her compulsion to try to understand them and her efforts to figure out her own complicity--her own starring role--in them.

On the fame-and-fortune score alone, she's got the competition beat. In addition to being the daughter of Irish-born actress Maureen O'Sullivan and writer-director John M. Farrow, she had the Charles Boyers for Beverly Hills neighbors on one side and, on the other, producer Hal Roach's wife "endlessly at work around the grounds weeding and sweeping and weeping into her broom." She acted with Elizabeth Taylor, ashramed with the Beatles, was introduced to Allen at Elaine's by Michael Caine on her way to dinner with Mick Jagger. The woman who finally drove her mother out of her father's bed and into a separate bedroom was Ava Gardner, the very love goddess who ended up preceding her by only a few wives in Frank Sinatra's life.

Tour buses had every craven right to drive down her childhood streets--the only ones not famous were the pitiful celebrity seekers on the outside of America's glamour looking in. The family dog was Lassie's granddaughter, for Pete's sake. (Take that, you aspiring autobiographers of stardom!) There is a sole male icon missing from the personality-studded array of photographs included in a book that is one-third about him: Woody Allen.

The answer to why Farrow seemed condemned to a repeating pattern of unsatisfactory love matches with, as she says, father figures, appears to lie in one short passage among the many elegant, impassioned, shocking apercus that make up the book. By the time, at 17 and finished with her "Dickensian" convent boarding school in England, "I joined my mother for Christmas in New York," she writes, "relations between my parents had shattered completely. . . . I pretended not to notice that George Albott, my mother's director, seemed to be taking more than a professional interest in her. But when my father phoned in the early hours of a January night, I could not, could not, tell him where she was. And later still, when the phone rang and rang, I pulled the pillow tight around my ears.

"And when, in the hard light of day, we learned that my father had died that night of a heart attack with the phone in his hand, winds of nothingness blew across my soul."

Now she had essentially killed the father who had so often abandoned her and her six siblings for booze and philandering, and thereby seemed condemned to spend the rest of her life sacrificing herself at the altar of infelicitous father surrogates to expiate her crime. A devout Catholic, she had wanted to be a nun, then a missionary-style pediatrician; this seemed to present yet another opportunity for self-abnegation. Catholic guilt combined with Freudian longing: like, hello--no wonder she ended up with the disastrously inappropriate Allen. Her psychological modus operandi made for some interesting times.

Farrow, moreover, was born for hers. An ethereal, freckle-nosed polio patient in the 1950s, an anorexic-looking actress specializing in neurasthenic roles and left-wing political activism in the '60s, a famous actress and Andre Previn's peripatetic, high-society, war-orphan-adopting spouse in the '70s, Allen's muse by the '80s, she embodied a certain unfolding cultural and social history. It was Salvador Dali who identified her emblematic potential when he met her cowering in an elevator on the way to a party at the St. Regis hotel in New York in 1963. "I stood twisting my evening bag until the elevator emptied and the doors shut in front of me. . . . 'Very good, very good' . . . he chortled" the sensationalism-seeking surrealist, and they became lifelong friends.

It's clear she never really shed the Hollywood-dominated childhood in which she was raised to carefully cultivate and cling to the superficial, while beneath lay "dark, hidden things that grew, malignant. . . ." Her life was so sheltered; for instance, she never saw downtown L.A., except speeding through it in an ambulance on the way to the polio ward when she was 9. When Allen, according to this account a multi-phobic control freak prone to verbal cruelty and unpredictable outbursts, got to know her, she must have seemed a lovely study in malleable passivity.

But theirs wasn't so much a case of opposites attracting as of dangerously incompatible eccentrics staying together for the worst possible reasons. For most of the duration, Farrow continued to practice her willful naivete. Her childhood friend Michael Boyer killed himself playing Russian roulette. Farrow's erotic and emotional entanglements were her version of the game, and Allen the near-fatal bullet. If only she hadn't just starred in his movies but also, watched them more intently. Did she think so many May-September romantic plots were sheer coincidence? There are more nubile young private schoolers slinking through his current charmer, "Everybody Says I Love You," than you can shake a statutory-rape charge at. Art does imitate life.

An existence removed from reality and further reinforced by a convent education, early television stardom and child-bride-status in Klieg-light-blinded Frank Sinatraland indeed gives the impression that Farrow developed a habit of sleepwalking through life, even on her worldly globe-trots, fantastically misinterpreting to this day many things that happened. Although she remarks on her father's only half-joking protectiveness when Sinatra complimented him on her looks when she briefly met the singer at 11, she seems puzzled as to why her father didn't want her to play Lolita in the adaptation of Nabokov's proto-Woody Allenish novel. A prudish, squeamish attitude toward sexuality, too, pervades the book, as though her elders' instructions to a toddler Mia to make sure her undies never showed was an admonition absorbed a little too shamefacedly and well.

A similarly prim, somewhat old-fashioned quality tends to mark her writing style. It suddenly blows apart, though, at the point when she confronts her multiple betrayals by Allen and daughter Soon-Yi's accompanying rejection. The intensity of her rage, outrage, hurt and disgust, which engendered rumors of irrational and mendacious behavior, mental breakdown and institutionalization, is matched by the explosion of foul language and obscene accusations she describes herself hurling at Allen, more than a decade of doubt and self-delusion pouring like a torrent of toads from the mouth of a fairy tale's princess locked in a tower partly of her own making.

Her verbiage additionally resembles that of an aspiring martyr caught off guard, of piety's ambitions scorned. We are what we read, and among Farrow's favorites as a girl, on top of such formative literary choices as "Jane Eyre," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," were three volumes of "Six O'Clock Saints." (She greatly admires Mother Teresa and talks about meeting her, joined by actor Michael Douglas and his "lovely wife," Diandra, whose name she somehow seems incapable of remembering. What's wrong with this picture?)

That she studied saintliness and that it took, in a flawed, messy, late 20th century way, sheds much light on her perpetual desire to adopt. Beyond re-creating the sprawling family she grew up in, her 10 adoptions, each bringing with it challenges--learning disabilities, physical handicaps, emotional mutilation--greater than the one before, have evidently convinced her that, by welcoming hardship and embracing self-punishing tasks, she can make the world a better place. And she believes she has successfully taught this lesson individually to her children, biological and not. However extreme some of its manifestations, her gift for motherhood is indisputable. Her portrayal of slowly, exhaustingly, imaginatively coaxing the third-born of her four biological children out of autism is a heartbreaker. Of Soon-Yi she writes, "But in the end, whatever her feelings, or lack of them, I can only love her as my child, and there is nothing to be done about that. I no longer want to see her, but for the rest of my life I will miss her."

Which both raises and answers the question of her children reading this book, a concern also being expressed currently about another book, novelist Kathryn Harrison's forthcoming memoir about her incestuous relationship with her father. It seems less evident that Harrison, a writer of moderate reputation counting on her title to launch her into publicity's big time, has thought long and hard about the fallout for her two young children. Farrow, on the other hand, argues that she has tried to make her children's upbringing different, more open to both the joys and pain of the world, from hers. She has tried to be honest with them. Given the forces at work against her, it's pretty impressive that she's been almost as honest with herself.

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