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The dark side of girl power

You thought you were best mates, then one day she snubs you, you're alone, and everyone else ignores you. We never forget the pain of being bullied by someone we considered a loyal friend, believes bestselling novelist Allison Pearson. More than 30 years after the event, she was revisited by the devastation she felt as a bullied teenager when her daughter Evie was similarly tormented at school.

The 50-year-old writer is best-known for her comic novel about a working mother, I Don't Know How She Does It (2002). She is no stranger to controversy, and in May 2008 faced the wrath of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, when she wrote in a newspaper column that her daughter Princess Beatrice was overweight.

Yet, when her own teenage daughter faced the snide remarks of the school bully, Pearson's despair at being dumped by her best mate reared its head in pain and rage. She believes bullying is the dark side of girl power. Her new novel, I Think I Love You, is also the heartbreaking tale of a 13-year-old girl who is dumped by her best friend and finds herself out in the cold.

"In the early '70s, Paula and I were closer than sisters. We hung out in a group -- Jane, Lynne, Christine and Moira -- but Paula was special. We always sat together in class and on the bus home. Paula was Disney-princess pretty with tabby-cat eyes and wavy dark hair. I was proud of her, but mainly I was grateful that I, cursed with NHS specs and skinny as a pipe-cleaner, with shamingly little to put in my new training bra, could command such a glamorous and popular friend.

"Back then, you were either a Donny or a David girl. Paula loved Donny Osmond. I loved David Cassidy. But Paula and I listened to the Osmonds as Paula was a Donny girl. I couldn't imagine the luxury of a friend you could disagree with.

"Being Paula's friend made me feel safe. A feeling that is hard to come by when you're a painfully awkward teenage girl. Then, suddenly, one blameless summer afternoon, I wasn't safe anymore."

A typical trusting teen, she didn't anticipate the brush off. "As usual, we ate our lunchtime cheese salads together, then I lost her. Our next lesson was domestic science. That July day, I came into the cookery room and walked towards our bench, Paula's and mine. In an instant, I saw what had happened, saw instantly what my future would be. Paula was sitting there, all right, but the stool next to her -- my stool -- was occupied by Lindsey, recently arrived from Australia. Lindsey of the perfect Caramac tan and killer-shark dentistry. The two girls saw me and turned away, laughing.

"It felt as if the world had tilted and I was sure I would fall. Somehow, I must have found a place to sit, but I don't remember where or how. Separating out egg yolks from whites to make Queen of Puddings, my heart felt as broken as the shells I held in my hands."

The other girls moved away as if she was contagious. "Cast out from Paradise Paula, I felt orphaned. Not only had I been dropped by my best friend, I was excluded by the others in our group who were scared of her.

"In the adolescent female jungle, once you have lost the herd's protection, you are fair game for any passing predator. Ann-Marie, a brunette bully with a cruel mouth, slapped me across the face. Because she could."

Bullying is becoming more virulent, she feels. "Facebook offers a whole new virtual playground in which horrid little girls can play their vile exclusion games.

"When I was growing up, friendship felt like a matter of life and death. Now, it really can be. Tragically, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish girl, killed herself back in January after enduring months of torment, by text and online, from her American classmates.

"As grown women, we can console ourselves that at least we never have to go back into those shark-infested teenage waters. And then God gives us a daughter. Only this time we are on the other side of the slammed door, listening to the sobbing into the pillow.

"When my own sweet, trusting daughter became the victim of an unhappy child at school, my husband said: 'Don't get so worked up. It's just girls being girls.'"

But Pearson knows what teen girls are capable of. "I was damned if Evie was going to suffer in the same way. I sent an email to her headmistress. Why should some unkind kid be allowed to destroy my girl's happiness?

"The school's bullying procedure swung into action. Evie's tormentor -- let's call her Jezebel -- and her acolytes were made to list their cruelties on paper. My daughter was given the option of tearing them up and putting them in the bin. To let bygones be bygones.

"Did it work? Did it hell. School protocol is no match for the poisonous teenage girl. Jezebel just became a bit more careful not to do things to my daughter when she could be observed.

"One by one, members of Jezebel's group dropped her as they saw what kind of girl she really was. My daughter was lucky. She moved away to senior school where she has made some really good friends and is happy.

"But Jezebel and her kind leave their scars. Forever after, the bullied girl approaches friendship like a bomb-disposal expert, primed for devastation," Pearson says.

I Think I Love You, by Allison Pearson, is published by Chatto & Windus, and is priced €9.99


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