When Formula One team owner Frank Williams suffered the accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, he was riding high. He’d tasted success as a constructor and led several different drivers to F1 World Championships. He’d avoided bankruptcy and was able to live comfortably for the first time in his life. With all that success, it was hard to forget he had a family of three children at home who were about to be irrevocably changed by this one accident. And that’s why A Different Kind of Life by Virginia Williams is a must-read for any F1 fan.
Virginia—known as Ginny—Williams was Frank’s wife, and this book was her attempt to put on paper what, exactly, had happened from her perspective because Frank had never asked her. In fact, very few people seemed to ask Ginny what it was like to suddenly find the man of her dreams was no longer the same man she had married, to run the team in his absence, to introduce her three young children to a drastically evolved way of life, and to attempt to manage it all without overtaxing herself. Ginny was supposed to tuck her emotions and struggles away in order to be strong for Frank. But, just as therapists also need therapy and doctors also need doctors, Ginny needed someone who would be strong for her. And she never quite got it, which is part of what prompted this book.
A Different Kind of Life is separated into three books. In the first, Ginny recounts her introduction to Frank Williams, which came while she was a soon-to-be-married woman, as well as her subsequent affair with him after she’d settled down and tried to make a go of it as a housewife. Her husband, Charles, was an aspiring racing driver, and it felt to her especially cruel to leave him for a man to whom Charles had introduced her. But after a few years of a loveless union, that’s exactly what happened.
Life with Frank was far different. Ginny talks a lot about how desperately in love with Frank she was, but he wasn’t exactly fond of commitment and had several other girlfriends on the side. It was likely easier that way for him, since he was a burgeoning team owner whose passion for racing came before everything else. Ginny, though, endeared herself to Frank by not just being an available bed but also the woman who cooked his meals, did his laundry, and helped him with his business. It wasn’t long until they moved in together as a way for them both to save the meager money they were making, though it wasn’t until Ginny was pregnant that the two considered an unconventional marriage. Ginny runs quickly through Williams’ success as an F1 constructor, likely in part because she was generally at home raising the family.
But it’s also largely because the second book is really why Ginny wanted to write her story. The introduction to A Different Kind of Life details Ginny’s learning of Frank’s accident, so the second book delves right into how she began to cope with life at the hospital. It is, subsequently, the most intriguing part of the book.
Here, Ginny talks a lot about Frank’s injuries and slow recovery alongside her own complex feelings about what was going on. She writes about her very stark ableism (her easy admission that she was disgusted by wheelchair users is shocking today but was likely not an issue in 1991, when the book was published) and how she struggled to reconcile those feelings with the fact that her husband would likely require a wheelchair and assistance for the rest of his life. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Ginny refused to believe Frank could die. When his condition stabilized, she refused to believe that he could truly be paralyzed from the neck down. And when she finally said it out loud for the first time, she didn’t quite seem to believe it.
Ginny talks about feeling torn. She wanted to stay by Frank’s side eternally, but she also wanted to go home. She was guilty about abandoning her children for weeks at a time, but she was also guilty about the prospect of leaving Frank alone in the hospital. She was essentially forced by her loved ones to take a 24 hour respite at a hotel with a friend, and she was so panicked about leaving that she very nearly didn’t. But after her first meal and full night’s sleep in weeks, Ginny was also desperate not to return to the hospital. Despite that, she felt so uncomfortable doing things like shopping that she came to see Frank’s hospital room as a safe space, in part because the nurses began to teach her how to care for her husband.
There are so many really fascinating angles to this book that I found myself loath to put it down. Ginny explores what it means to be a caretaker in all of its painful, heart-wrenching detail, even when it makes her sound like a terrible person—which is something we don’t really hear enough of. She sheds so much light on what it was like to be the woman behind the scenes in Formula One, as passionate about the sport as her husband but also the one left to manage the delicate balance of work and domesticity at the family home, including how to essentially take full responsibility of her husband’s recovery, care, and business.
It’s a part of motorsport that we don’t really see much of, especially in that particular era. How did Nina Rindt feel accepting her husband’s World Championship trophy after Jochen died? What was it like for Niki Lauda’s wife, Marlene, to watch him force himself back into motorsport after suffering life-threatening burns? What was going through Barbro Peterson’s mind when she lost her husband, Ronnie, remarried racer John Watson, and ultimately took her own life? We don’t really know, but I can imagine it was something akin to what Ginny Williams felt.
These women have often been the foundations on which successful racing careers are built, but we rarely hear from their perspective. The advent of social media has allowed for a more in-depth look at how life goes on after death and injury. Susie Wheldon, Dan Wheldon’s wife, is very open about what it’s like to continue life without her husband, especially as their two sons begin establishing a racing career. Karli Woods, Robert Wickens’ wife, uses her Instagram platform as a way to talk about not only Robert’s recovery from a T4 spinal injury sustained at Pocono but to talk about what it’s like to be a caretaker for someone who’s fast-paced life has suddenly been reduced to small steps of progress. But there are entire generations of women we never really heard from, which is what makes A Different Kind of Life such an important book.
The book’s title comes from something Frank told Ginny right after his accident. He noted that he’d spent 40 years living one kind of life and that he’d have to spend the next 40 living a different kind of life. And that is, in large part, what happens. The Williams family eventually does evolve. They discover a new kind of normal. They return to racing in full force. But nothing quite feels finished.
I think that comes from Claire Williams. Claire, the Williams’ second child and first daughter, still seems to struggle with the accident that changed her family’s life—in large part because she feels not enough people give due credit to her mother.
“A lot of people probably don’t know the instrumental role my mum played in Williams,” Claire told F1.com in 2020. “If it wasn’t for her money in the beginning, my dad would never have achieved his dream and this team wouldn’t have gone on to achieve what it did. She was always there behind the scenes.”
And in the Williams documentary—a must-watch if you haven’t seen it already—Claire seems to hold some animosity toward her father for never actually asking Ginny how she dealt with his accident, for never discussing the impact it had on the family, and for never reading Ginny’s book. Some of that does come across in A Different Kind of Life, which is what makes it such a fascinating read.
I had a professor of a memoir class who constantly stressed that a good autobiography needs to touch on the bad as much as the good. No person is perfect, and no person responds to an event with a single, clear emotion. When a loved one dies, we’re not just sad. Sometimes we’re angry, selfish, and a little happy. Sometimes we hurt people on purpose. Sometimes we make the wrong choice. Sometimes we feel things that make us ashamed of ourselves.
That’s where A Different Kind of Life shines. Ginny wrote the memoir to, hopefully, convey her pain to Frank. That includes the moments where she wonders if he wouldn’t be better off dead, the moments where she’s exhausted by the prospect of being a caretaker for her children as well as her husband, the times she dreams about what it would be like to just give it all up. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a necessary one.