Reader, I humiliated him

Boy meets girl. Boy leaves girl. Girl bares all in public via a newspaper column and/or heavily hyped book. For every harrowing tale of a broken relationship, there's a significant other squirming with embarrassment. How was it for them?

Along with thousands of other newspaper readers, I've read rather a lot about Kathryn Flett's ex-husband. More than I really want to and a great deal more than he wants me to, I'm sure. As a student he was a "rabid pro-lifer" (her words). When Kathryn tried to initiate sex after they married he: "didn't want to know. Couldn't, to be blunt, get it up." Then there's the really personal stuff. He had "a boxed set of Yes CDs and waxed purple about numerous dirge-like Seventies synth-rockers". Oh, and agreed with Kathryn that neither of them wanted to see each other using the lavatory. A minor relief to all of us, including Eric no doubt, as things turned out.

Apart from his toilet habits, then, most aspects of their brief marriage and break-up found its way into her Observer column. And then, of course, her book, The Heart-Shaped Bullet - a sort of Bridget Jones meets The Bell Jar in the Conran shop.

Nestled among the emotional debris are the sort of details that would mean nothing to a third party but would be unimaginably wounding/embarrassing and surreal in equal measures to The One Involved. Like the fact that "Eric" had a cuddly toy called Bunny, didn't appear to have a best friend, and that he called her "wifey".

With Flett's pre-publication publicity - and, goodness, there's enough of it - poor old "Eric" has nowhere left to hide. Certainly not behind that terminally uncool pseudonym (no chance of a dignified "Nick", "Steve" or "Rob").

Meanwhile, it wasn't just "Eric" that quaked in his shoes - and we can only suppose that he did - but her other ex-partners too. Another ex who prefers to remain anonymous - and who wouldn't in these circumstances? - is still mortified by the descriptions of their romance. He will only be drawn to say, diplomatically: "We are still good friends but I am unhappy about been written about."

Interestingly, once one party comes out in print, those who can follow suit. Dylan Jones, now editor of GQ, lived with Flett for six years and recently wrote about his initial anxieties in one Sunday paper.

"Every Sunday morning brought another frenzied scan to see if our lives had been invaded," he wrote. "It was like living, unwittingly, in a docusoap."

As it happens, he was pleasantly relieved when he finally read her book. "In truth, I've got more of a walk-on part than a starring role - and what there is of me is quite complimentary."

Few get off so lightly, however. And rather fewer get a chance to offer their side of the story in print. Last year, author and journalist Tim Lott wrote a "story" about the break-up of his marriage for Granta magazine. His wife Sarina was appalled. She told one journalist: "It was too personal, too raw. It hurt. I didn't want it out."

Before that, Hanif Kureishi ventured into similar territory when he wrote, quite brutally, about his failed marriage in his novel, Intimacy, upsetting more than one member of his own family in the process.

In defence of a piece he was proud of, Lott has said: "We are over-sensitive about not tearing away those veils... It's a question of whether you're prepared to pay the price in the hostility you provoke."

Lott and Kureishi both seem to share a view that the more painful the ride, as it were, the better the literary reward. And the more those written about appear to be upset, the closer they, as writers, must be to the truth. For other writers, though, that isn't enough of a prize to make the exercise worthwhile.

Author and writer Maureen Freely learnt her lesson several years ago when she wrote a rather salacious account in one newspaper (with changed names, of course) about being someone's mistress. As she recalls: "The wife got very upset and wrote a magnificent letter to the paper saying I was making money from sin. I was completely laying myself open to it. I did end up losing a lot of friends after the letter was published. Nowadays, I think there's got to be a really good reason for writing autobiographically."

Author Julie Myerson admits that she still regrets writing one article for a woman's magazine detailing the break-up of an old relationship. "I shouldn't have done it and I felt uncomfortable. It was all very painful and intimate and I don't think it was fair on him that it was dragged up."

Unavoidably, though, such empathy won't deliver a voyeuristic hit, the raison d'etre of the confessional piece, as any junkie of the genre will tell you. Which is why this mode of expression has to be utterly uncompromising to work well. Whether you agree with their principles or not, Lott's ruthlessness and Flett's emotional honesty make for compelling reads. You might also feel that they've adhered to another important principle: that if you are going to write about your own life, it ought to cause you as much - if not more - pain that some of those who read it.

Confronting personal pain may be fine and noble but another golden rule is knowing when to stop. Journalist India Knight also penned a column - now concluded - for the Observer about, yup, breaking up with her husband.

She says: "My take is that it's fine to do it in print but you need to know when to draw the line. There comes a point where perhaps you shouldn't cast yourself as an eternal victim."

Which is a trap the female confessionalists tend to fall into rather more than the men. Lott and Kureishi neither make a play for our sympathy nor present themselves in such a nakedly vulnerable light as, say, Flett does. How much grief a writer drags to the surface depends, of course, on their state of mind at the moment of confession.

Knight says: "My husband left me and I wrote about it but I wasn't completely distraught or broken up by it. I tried to be funny rather than poignant."

Perhaps that's why her ex-partner Jeremy Langmead, an editor on the Sunday Times, was relatively unfazed by his central role in her pieces.

"It could be strange," he says. "I remember feeling quite sick one Sunday when I picked up The Observer and saw just below the masthead: "Read about why India's husband left her." It felt so surreal, and I couldn't understand why anybody would be interested."

Still, he reflects, it was interesting to find out what she was thinking. And, he adds brightly, it cut down on telephone bills. "I never had to phone people up and tell them that we'd separated or how India was feeling. I'd point them to the paper and they could read it for themselves."

Not a course of action that would recommend itself to poor old "Eric", who is more likely to be burning newspapers than waving them under friends' and loved ones' noses. Still, at least he can console himself with the fact that such exposure can never happen again. As Maureen Freely says, from bitter experience: "Writing about these things is like selling the family silver. You can only ever do it once."

INDIA KNIGHT

Wrote `Observer' column about husband leaving her

Style: "My ex-husband tells me that he will sue if I describe his sartorial eccentricities during this period... So all I can tell you is that as an ex-St Martin's fashion student and nightclub habitue, his costume was on the outre side."

Ouch factor: **

Ex-hubby is understanding. "I felt, as a journalist, you have to get used to it... I thought it was quite therapeutic for her."

TIM LOTT

Penned an account of a marriage break-up for `Granta' magazine last year, referring to a couple called `Tee' and `Ess'

Style: "There is a moment when they almost have sex, but each knows it would be merely nostalgia. Yet both weaken nonetheless, but at different times, so it doesn't happen."

Ouch factor: ****

His wife Sarina was appalled. "It makes my blood boil," she told one journalist.

KATHRYN FLETT

Wrote `Observer' column, then book, about her brief marriage and its break-up

Style: "The night before last, I had to remove my engagement ring because the diamond is suddenly a bit loose. As of last night, Eric wants to move out. I guess the therapy starts here."

Ouch factor: **** Ex-lovers come off OK. No response, as yet, from hapless "Eric".

HANIF KUREISHI

`Intimacy' is a novel detailing a man's emotions the night before he leaves his partner

Style: "There are some fucks for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a freezing sea."

Ouch factor: *****

His former partner, Tracey Scoffield, said: "He says it's a novel but that's an absolute abdication of responsibility.'

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