Not as sweet as she looks

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They are all women. They have all been hurt by men. They all write about it. Ann Treneman asks if the trend for hurt-and-tell journalism offers valuable insights or whether it is just a case of women writing their revenge.

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but Fiona Duff likes hers as hot as can be. Last week she told the world, via the Daily Mail, what she thought of her cheating husband, his 25-year-old "Trollop" and the pain they had visited upon her.

It was a media tale: Fiona is in PR, her husband, Harry Thompson, is a TV producer, the other woman writes for a national newspaper. It had a soap opera plot and its introduction was pure Mills and Boon: "With searing candour, Fiona Duff has decided to reveal the story of his heartless infidelity". But instead of True Love this was True Revenge.

At first Fiona Duff denies this. "It made it much more powerful to write it down. I just thought, bugger it, why not?" she says. "I don't think it was revenge as much as catharsis journalism. I've done this for every woman who has been in this situation." But later, when asked again, she said: "OK, I'll admit it. It was revenge. She's a journalist. They both write a lot. They use the press. This gives them a taste of their own medicine. I knew this would hurt my husband more than if I cut up his suits."

Is this true? Harry Thompson isn't saying (although Fiona says that he thought the articles were well-written). The other woman has had lots of invitations to write her side of the story but has turned them down. "She just doesn't think it would be appropriate to be sharing this kind of thing," said a friend.

And that, you might think, is that. Except that it is not because Fiona's decision to reveal all is just the most extreme example of a trend that could be called hurt-and-tell journalism. Stevie Morgan vents her anger at the husband who left her for another woman in the Independent's weekly column Beloved and Bonk: Diary of a Divorce. Writer and novelist Maureen Freely is a more literary practitioner of the genre while Observer columnist Kathryn Flett has received thousands of letters in response to her writings about how she felt about her marriage ending, and is planning a book on the subject. They are all women. They have all been hurt by men. They all write about it.

Some would say there is nothing new in women taking revenge. Remember Lady Sarah Graham-Moon, who distributed her philandering husband's wine cellar on doorsteps near their country home? Or Penelope Mortimer, who told the world about her former husband's infidelities in her autobiography? But this is not the same thing. Lady Sarah Graham-Moon took action; John Mortimer is famous.

This is almost dear diary stuff. It is certainly the kind of thing you hear when women get together for a chat. It is heavy on feel-good and feel-bad factors. Some of it is so raw it makes you wince. "I suppose it is to do with the Diana-fication of everything," says Kathryn Flett. "People do seem to respond astonishingly to honesty. I don't think of my pieces as revenge journalism at all. I was writing a column when my husband left me and so I just shifted the emphasis. I have no regrets. The columns do stand up. Looking back, the first ones are pretty raw. But I was genuinely writing about me and not about him."

Maureen Freely does have regrets, but only a few. "I've done lots and lots of this kind of thing. Twice I've written under a pseudonym. One was a messy love situation. When I handed it in, I was told that the editor liked it because it was pure vitriol! It wasn't someone trying to be a good sport. Now that was cathartic. It really was. I put down how I felt at the time. It was evidence. But when I looked back and read it, the only thing I saw was how much energy I had put into being a victim."

Then she wrote under her own name about having an affair. "That caused a big stink," she says. "After that I made a strict rule. I do not allow myself to say anything about anyone but myself." She thinks there is a place for such journalism because it explores the mystery about why we act the way we do. "We have such a crude understanding of what people are really like. Anything that can make the gap narrower is worthwhile," she says. "But the question is, do other people in your life want to be a part of it? Is it worth it? Those are the questions I ask myself. Despite my reputation for being a blabbermouth, I have had a soap-opera kind of a life and most of it hasn't been written about."

She believes that Fiona Duff might have done better to wait until her passions had cooled. (Maureen's revenge tip is to make your enemy into a minor character in a novel that he or she will never recognise: "Now that gives me a big buzz.") Others give the same advice. "I think it's such a sad thing to do," says the novelist Jilly Cooper. "What you should do is write it and put it in the out tray for six months. It diminishes them somehow." But Fiona, for her part, doesn't believe in out-trays and is sure that she will have no regrets about her attack, which included calling the other woman "a pasty, greasy-haired spotty lump". "I thought: am I the only woman in the world who feels like this? It was not difficult to write. A friend suggested I do it. The only thing I regret is that they called me a top PR because I don't do very much now that I have two children."

So what about Stevie Morgan and her Beloved and Bonk column? When I call she's just got off the phone with her lawyer and is fuming. Stevie - which is not her real name - is in the process of divorcing her husband (Beloved) because he left her for another woman (Bonk) and says she has got to the stage where she does not want to talk about it. "But writing makes it positive, somehow. It's as simple as something good coming out of something bad. It's cathartic, but it's not revenge. I've only done two columns that were vitriolic against him. If I was doing revenge journalism, my God, I could destroy him! Real revenge is doing something physical and unpleasant. If I wanted revenge, I would hit him. I did go through a stage of having violent fantasies against her too."

She has no idea if her husband knows that she is writing about this. "The column is not aimed at him. It shows a sense of loss, of grief, of not wanting this to happen at all. I love writing and you do start to feel a kind of responsibility to express these things because they do seem to be universal."

But what about any new men in her life? Isn't writing a column like this enough to put anyone off? "Oh, I wouldn't write about anyone without consulting him. Unless, of course, he leaves me, the bastard, and then that is just tough." Now that has the ring of a hurt-and-tell truth about it.