Don Brash talks break-ups, suicide thoughts

Last updated 05:00 10/04/2014

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Among the various controversies to dog Don Brash's political career was the revelation of an affair which led to the end of his second marriage. In this extract from his newly published autobiography, Brash opens up about both of his failed marriages and the temptation of adultery.

DON BRASH: WHAT DRIVES ME

And what about my personal life? It certainly hasn't been without incident.

I was married to Erica for about 20 years and then that marriage ended in incredible pain and sorrow. I married Je Lan a few years later, and that marriage too lasted about 20 years and ended in incredible pain and sorrow.

The workaholism to which Erica drew my attention as one of the key contributors to the end of our marriage, and which has been a major theme of my life since I was a teenager keen to impress my parents and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has meant that I have devoted far too little time to building a close relationship with my three children. Surely one of the saddest songs ever written is Harry Chapin's The Cat's in the Cradle. I don't have any hobbies - no fishing, no bowls, no hunting, not even golf. And I don't have a huge circle of friends.

But for me that has not been a total disaster, albeit the end of both my marriages was hugely painful, in both cases to the point of contemplating suicide to end the pain.

I had many very happy years married to Erica - living first in Canberra, then in Washington, and finally in Auckland. She not only bore me two wonderful children, as I've mentioned, but helped them both grow into eminently well adjusted and mature adults. She could have been excused for turning both of them against me, but never did, and her attitude helped me to retain a good relationship with them through the ending of our marriage.

And if my marriage to Erica had not ended, I could never have married Je Lan and together we would never have had a son. Je Lan and I spent most of our lives together in Wellington, when I was governor of the Reserve Bank. She too had to put up with a highly pressured lifestyle and very frequent absences: I did five or six overseas trips a year during my governorship, and umpteen trips around New Zealand selling the story of what monetary policy can and cannot do. After I entered Parliament against her express opposition, she supported me loyally. Je Lan is the most highly organised person I have ever met, so that, for me, living with her was extremely comfortable.

Erica and Je Lan both made it possible for me to retain a close relationship with my children after I married Je Lan. Early on in our marriage, Je Lan would absent herself from our home whenever Ruth or Alan came to visit, to avoid their feeling disloyal to their mother by being courteous to Je Lan. Later, in a way typical of many Asians, she regarded it as our responsibility to support Ruth and Alan and their respective families even though she had no blood relationship with them. And after Je Lan and I separated, she made it possible for me to retain a relationship with Thomas, our son.

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No, no hobbies, but from the early 1980s I have had enormous satisfaction working on the kiwifruit orchard which Erica and I established in Pukekohe. In the early years I was helped on the orchard not only by Erica, Ruth and Alan, but also by my two parents, who would travel from their home in Forrest Hill to Pukekohe to work on the orchard three days a week. I think for my father it brought back memories of working on his brother's apple orchard in Mariri, near Nelson, as a teenager. My mother had never worked on an orchard before, but she enjoyed it so much that after she died I scattered her ashes there, and named it Eljean's Orchard in her memory. There was little ability to work on the orchard when I was based in Wellington at the Reserve Bank except during Christmas/New Year holidays, and no time at all after I entered Parliament.

But since leaving Parliament in 2007 I have spent a lot of time at the orchard and, depending on the work to be done there, now spend between one and four days a week on it. I have neither the skills nor the time to run the orchard by myself - I have leased it to orchard management companies since I moved to Wellington in 1988 - but it now provides me with both exercise and enormous satisfaction, if minimal income!

While I do not have scores of close friends - I'm not sure that many people do have scores of close friends actually - the small number of friends I do have are wonderfully supportive. A very small number go back to school and university days in Christchurch, others to Canberra and Washington, Broadbank, East Coast Bays, and of course later. Some I have got to know only in the last year or so. Even though I now live alone, I certainly don't feel lonely, in large measure because at this stage of my life I have a cordial relationship with my whole whanau - Erica and her husband Karel, Je Lan, my three children, my four grandchildren and my sister. Perhaps loneliness will come later.

But I am conscious that while I have survived the sometimes turbulent years of my private life, Erica, Je Lan, Ruth, Alan and Thomas all paid a high price. My sister Lyn also paid a price - in the education sector, as she has been for most of her career, being the sister of Don Brash wasn't an advantage.

Even my mother - brought up to believe that marriage should be until death except in the most extreme circumstances involving severe physical abuse - paid a high price. When I first told her that I planned to marry Je Lan, she swore she never wanted to meet Je Lan, and didn't want Je Lan even to attend her funeral. It was a mark of Je Lan's incredible patience, and the result of a bit of help from my father, that before my mother died less than 18 months later she told me that, while she never expected to say it, she felt I was a very lucky guy to have married Je Lan, to have had not one but two remarkable wives. And I agree with her: separating from Je Lan was the worst mistake of my life.

When I reflect on why I behaved in the way that I did, I don't have any simple answers. My workaholism was part of the problem, and perhaps that was initially a result of the pressures which drive everybody who feels under some kind of external pressure. It is surely no accident that many of the successes of the Industrial Revolution in both the United Kingdom and the United States were the result of efforts by persecuted minorities, like the Huguenots and the Quakers. And of course, one of the most successful groups in recent times has been the Ashkenazi Jews, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that part of the reason for their success was the external pressure, amounting to severe persecution in parts of the world, to which they were subject.

Of course, I was never subjected to anything remotely like that kind of pressure. But I was acutely conscious growing up that my father was a Christian pacifist, and that he was as a result subject to very considerable social pressures, amounting to ostracism during the Second World War. When I was 15, I determined to follow in his footsteps, and though I abandoned the Christian pacifist position many years ago, I suspect that the need to defend myself from those early peer pressures had a lasting effect on my personality.

At Christchurch Boys' High School in the 1950s, the only boys who did not do military cadets were the sons of fathers who forbade it (usually they were Quakers) or those who were physically unable to do so. I was physically quite able to do cadets, and my father had not forbidden my participation - indeed, I had been an active participant in my first three years of high school. At the time, the heads of all three of the New Zealand armed services were old boys of the school, so declining to do cadets put one well beyond the pale.

I was also brought up in a Presbyterian manse, and attended church at least once every Sunday until I was in my fifties. The Parable of the Talents, with its emphasis on fully using the talents one is given, was never far from my mind.

"Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required." It was the Biblical parallel to the Bell X-15 story. So working from dawn to dusk (and beyond) was absolutely required.

But what of my occasional breaking of my wedding vows? That certainly wasn't part of my Christian upbringing. On the contrary, Jesus is quoted as not only deploring adultery but also saying that "whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart". If that is taken at face value, there is an awful lot of adultery going on. And perhaps that is why devout Muslims require women to be covered from head to toe. It seems to me that the great majority of human males are programmed to find women sexually attractive, and that programming goes way back in evolutionary time.

I am not of course arguing that this justifies my behaviour. In a modern civilised society we all need to learn to behave in ways which involve restraining the biological urges with which we were born. I am simply arguing that there is an extremely powerful biological urge which most men have to learn to control.

The result of that drive is that many men take huge risks for the chance to have a sexual relationship. Among American presidents the names of John Kennedy and Bill Clinton immediately spring to mind, while in earlier years Franklin D Roosevelt, Wendell Wilkie and Warren Harding would have come to mind. Prominent Christian leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Paul Tillich and of course several televangelists, are also known to have had extra-marital affairs.

We're now seeing a depressingly long list of prominent entertainers accused of sexual offences going back decades. Among Hollywood celebrities, it is assumed that both men and women will have lots of sexual partners, and indeed it often seems that that is a prerequisite for being regarded as a celebrity.

I have not had a large number of sexual partners, and none at all before my first marriage. But I have no choice than to admit that the number exceeds the number of women I was married to. And if lusting after a woman really is equivalent to adultery, I'll be in serious trouble if there is a Judgement Day.

TIMELINE: Don Brash

Governor of Reserve Bank of NZ 1988-2002

Elected to Parliament for the National Party in 2002

National Party leader October 2003-November 2006

Resigned from Parliament February 2007

ACT Party leader April-November 2011

 

- Extract from Incredible Luck by Don Brash on-sale from bookstores today. RRP $40. Copyright Don Brash and Troika Books.

- Fairfax Media

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