In the high-powered, influential world he spent much of his adult life, Sir Arthur Williams was charming and generous.
Another Sir – Robert Muldoon – was among those the married entrepreneur brought home to his family of five children. The then Finance Minister watched across the dinner table as Sir Arthur, smiling and laughing, told stories.
Also at the table was Sir Arthur’s middle child, Brent Williams.
The scene, repeated whenever the property developer philanthropist brought colleagues, church leaders, businessmen – and future Prime Ministers – to the family home in Karori was confusing and intriguing for those close to him.
“I would just sit in awe. I would just sit there thinking: ‘Who is this other man?’ He was so different, he was animated, he was fun,” Williams tells the Herald on Sunday.
When his father, who died at 73 in 2001, came home without guests, things were very different.
“We were physically prepared, we were verbally prepared, before he arrived. We sort of ran around like headless chickens, trying to make sure everything was perfect.”
A light left on was enough to spark his father’s rage. He would scream and shout about the waste of electricity. If all the lights were off, he’d find something else. Williams learned to hide in corners and hide under the bed from a young age.
Sir Arthur went into the construction business after emigrating from the United Kingdom in the late 1940s. He was later responsible for building dozens of commercial buildings in Wellington, used Valium to get through the day and tranquilisers to get through the night, Williams says.
He took all the stress in his life out on his family. “From as early as I can remember it wasn’t a case of ‘Yay, Dad’s home.’ You’d go into a state of anxiety. What was going to happen?
“There was every form of abuse, in different ways, in different forms, in different levels, but every form of violence was carried out.”
It took decades for Williams to understand the awful toll his childhood took.
Despite a successful career and becoming the proud dad of four children, he broke down in his late 40s.
Now he has written an innovative graphic novel-style memoir to help others chart their way back from depression. He hopes it will help others struggling to find their way back to health, and also lay his own ghosts to rest.
Arthur imposed his will on everything his family did – from the partners they chose, to the subjects they took at school. He even took ownership of their dreams.
“My father wanted me to be a lawyer. He told me, since the age of 5: ‘Brent’s going to be a lawyer.’ And I believed that.”
Williams went to law school, but another man with a large presence and a powerful voice lit the spark that would become his life’s work – helping the vulnerable.
“This wonderful big man came and gave a guest lecture one day and told me what he was doing with his practice in Mangere and it totally inspired me.
“That man was David Lange.”
The community law movement was gaining traction overseas and Williams realised he wanted to work not in a traditional legal way, but by offering people legal resources.
His father didn’t approve but, with law student friends, Williams set up a community law centre in Wellington in 1981.
They helped street kids, tenants’ groups and victims of domestic abuse and child abuse.
Later, he took his skills to the Legal Resources Trust and the Family Court.
But although he walked among the vulnerable, he did not count himself among their ranks.
“My work was totally my life experience. There was a lot of anger there that I was able to vent in a very constructive way by being an advocate for people who were vulnerable.
“But in a way it totally hid the fact that I was actually vulnerable and I’d experienced this. It was really weird to think that I was making videos that were very much based on my personal story, but I was totally unaware of it.”
His work revealed to him the truth he had been fighting to hide.
Williams was stressed and exhausted and being hard on the photographers trying to capture an image he was obsessed with – a child hiding under a bed as his parents screamed and shouted at each other.
“I had no awareness that it was me. Then I was getting the publication reviewed and … the woman, she just stopped and looked at me and said, ‘Now, Brent, what has brought you to this?’
“I just started crying, and that was the start of my journey.”
The first decade of the 21st century was coming to a close and Williams was about to crash. He’d been fighting it for a while – refusing to accept he was depressed. Eventually, he had to give up work.
His journey back to health would be long.
Almost a decade on, Williams holds firm to routines that keep him well.
But in those dark early days, putting his thoughts in writing was a first step, which eventually turned into his book.
“As time went on and I got a bit stronger, when I was partly acknowledging that I had this illness called depression and anxiety, I started doing some research and I started writing more, my writing had shifted from being more personal to trying to understand the illness.
Because of Williams’ job producing material to help people, it felt natural to get into writing a book.
“I didn’t start off writing a book. I was literally just writing to help myself.”
The result – Out of the Woods, out on September 19 – is as honest as it is simply told.
Williams tells his story entirely through 700 watercolour illustrations by Turkish artist Korkut Oztekin – from his realisation something was wrong to finding his way back to health, and the setbacks along the way.
Williams says he always knew his book had to be in pictures.
“When I was depressed I couldn’t take on board information or advice from people. I certainly couldn’t read good advice – and I think there’s a lot of good advice out there.”
Each illustration chronicles his battle to accept his illness and how he became well – neither one a neatly linear experience.
Some events are condensed – a panic attack over a baked beans purchase came from several events, one of which did involve buying beans.
“It’s faithful to the feelings I had. The brain is struggling so much that a simple decision becomes overwhelming and then something else can spark it – a noise, a bump, an unfriendly interaction.”
Other experiences are more palpably dark.
In one scene Williams, in his mid-teens, is the victim of sexual abuse – which he didn’t report to police, and didn’t plan to.
“I felt the guilt of it for so many years and here I am writing about it and still protecting him to some extent … I feel comfortable with how I’ve dealt with it.
“I don’t want to stir his reaction and I don’t really want to hurt anybody that doesn’t need to be hurt. It’s what happened and I’ve forgiven him.”
The book helped him forgive both the man, and his own father, Williams says.
Intially, Sir Arthur did not feature in the book. A question from his therapist changed Williams’ mind.
“She just quietly posed the question: ‘Why isn’t he in there and why won’t you talk about that event that had such a big impact on your life?’
“I went home and picked up my pen and it all came out. Draft two was a very different story.”
It was the right decision, he says.
“Without my father it wouldn’t have been a personal book. It would’ve been a story of a person pretending to be well and trying to tell other people what they should do. A pretty, clean, self-help book.
“From then on I knew it had to be very faithful to my journey, my inner emotional journey, my history, my experiences and it had to really be honest about what got me well.”
The unusual style is winning plaudits from mental health experts at home as well as at Stanford University in the US and Oxford University in the UK.
Dr Ben Beaglehole, from Otago University’s Department of Psychological Medicine, wrote the book could provide an “invaluable lifeline to those experiencing depression”.
For Williams, though, the backing of those closest to him is the most powerful validation.
“My mum, she said: ‘Write what you need to say – it needs to be said.’
“My younger sister just said, ‘Let the crows fly.’ When my mum read it, it was very emotional. She just gave me a big hug and said, ‘I love you. Thank you for writing.”
Williams still dreams about his dad, and it’s frightening, he says.
But he also thinks his dad would be proud of him for doing something that gave him back his life.
It was something Sir Arthur never achieved. Late in life, he struggled to get off prescription drugs and, in a single, unexpected conversation with his son, he expressed regret.
“He said, ‘I’ve filled my life with a whole lot of useless things.’ Even though he’d achieved so much building, he realised his life was not what he really wanted. In a way, I can say he would be proud of me doing something that got me well.”
Like all of us, Williams is still a work in progress.
He is well, but he has to work at it. Routine is his best friend.
“I go to the pool most mornings. I eat well, I sleep well. I’m careful about who I’m around and I go to therapy and if I do all that I’m really well and I can really see so much joy in life.”
His dad might still come to him in the night, but the rest of his life feels like when you wake from a bad dream, pull back the curtains and let sunlight flood the room.
“It’s really wonderful. Sometimes I’m sort of bursting in what I see in life – the colours, the people, smiles, little children.
“It’s just fantastic and it’s so different to a life that I was hiding from.”
Out Of The Woods website.
get it from Amazon.com
WHERE TO GET HELP
The following free helplines operate 24/7:
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234
* If you need immediate help contact the police on 111.
FAMILY VIOLENCE – WHERE TO GET HELP
If you’re in danger now:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don’t stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it’s not your fault. Violence is never okay
Where to go for help or more information:
• Women’s Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 – 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day – 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It’s Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584 • Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men’s violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nz