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September 10, 2010

"I Was a Starter Wife": Inside America's Messiest Divorce

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justine musk

Writer Justine Musk, age 37, in her residence in Bel Air, California.

Photo Credit: Lauren Greenfield/_MG_8348

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We were breathing rarefied air. The first crowded apartment we'd shared in Mountain View seemed like ancient history from our 6,000-square-foot house in the Bel Air hills. Married for seven years, we had a domestic staff of five; during the day our home transformed into a workplace. We went to black-tie fundraisers and got the best tables at elite Hollywood nightclubs, with Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio partying next to us. When Google cofounder Larry Page got married on Richard Branson's private Caribbean island, we were there, hanging out in a villa with John Cusack and watching Bono pose with swarms of adoring women outside the reception tent. When we traveled, we drove onto the airfield up to Elon's private jet, where a private flight attendant handed us champagne. I spent an afternoon walking around San Jose with Daryl Hannah, where she caused a commotion at Starbucks when the barista asked her name and she said, blithely, "Daryl."

It was a dream lifestyle, privileged and surreal. But the whirlwind of glitter couldn't disguise a growing void at the core. Elon was obsessed with his work: When he was home, his mind was elsewhere. I longed for deep and heartfelt conversations, for intimacy and empathy. And while I sacrificed a normal family life for his career, Elon started to say that I "read too much," shrugging off my book deadlines. This felt like a dismissal, and a stark reversal from the days when he was so supportive. When we argued — over the house or the kids' sleeping schedule — my faults and flaws came under the microscope. I felt insignificant in his eyes, and I began thinking about what effect our dynamic would have on our five young sons.

In the spring of 2008, eight years after our wedding, a car accident served as my wake-up call. The moment of impact seemed suspended in time: The details of the other driver's face, looking at me in horror as she held a cell phone to her ear, were so clear it was like the distance between us didn't exist. There was a crunch of metal as her car plowed into mine, and when we skidded to a halt, my first thought wasn't, Thank God nobody's hurt. It was, My husband is going to kill me. And in my mind's eye, I could suddenly see myself: a woman who'd gotten very thin, and very blonde, stumbling out of a very expensive car with the front-left wheel smashed in.

I barely recognized myself. I had turned into a trophy wife — and I sucked at it. I wasn't detail-oriented enough to maintain a perfect house or be a perfect hostess. I could no longer hide my boredom when the men talked and the women smiled and listened. I wasn't interested in Botox or makeup or reducing the appearance of the scars from my C-sections. And no matter how many highlights I got, Elon pushed me to be blonder. "Go platinum," he kept saying, and I kept refusing.

Not long after the accident, I sat on our bed with my knees pulled up to my chest and tears in my eyes. I told Elon, in a soft voice that was nonetheless filled with conviction, that I needed our life to change. I didn't want to be a sideline player in the multimillion-dollar spectacle of my husband's life. I wanted equality. I wanted partnership. I wanted to love and be loved, the way we had before he made all his millions.

Elon agreed to enter counseling, but he was running two companies and carrying a planet of stress. One month and three sessions later, he gave me an ultimatum: Either we fix this marriage today or I will divorce you tomorrow, by which I understood he meant, Our status quo works for me, so it should work for you. He filed for divorce the next morning. I felt numb, but strangely relieved.

Eight years after I signed the postnup, I began to understand just what I'd done. I had effectively signed away all my rights as a married person, including any claim to community property except our house, which was to be vested in my name once we had a child. But my lawyer is presenting a legal theory that could render the postnup invalid. A postnup, unlike a prenup, requires a complete financial disclosure because of something called "marital fiduciary duty": the obligation of one spouse to be honest and straightforward in financial dealings with the other. Around the time we signed the agreement, Elon was involved in a significant merger between X.com and a company called Confinity. Together, the two became PayPal and raised the value of Elon's X.com stock by millions of dollars more than what he reported on the postnup. Whether this was deliberate or an oversight, according to my lawyer, it could render the contract fraudulent, and thus invalid — if it weren't for the protection of mediation confidentiality. That period ended not when we left the lawyer's office or when we got married, but only once we'd signed. The question that will determine the outcome of our divorce case, which has been winding its way through the California legal system for more than two years, is a legal one: Should mediation confidentiality trump marital fiduciary duty, or vice versa? Two years after our separation, we ended up in court. The judge ruled in Elon's favor, but stressed that the case was "a long cause matter" and immediately certified it for appeal. Resolution is at least a year away.

In the months after our separation, I dyed my hair dark and cut it. I also developed a friendship that gradually deepened into romance with a man I'd known casually for years. One night he took me to a reading of Eve Ensler's new play. "This is power-woman central," he said, as we watched Arianna Huffington hold court in the front row. As he pointed out other prominent women in the audience, I realized the kind of social world I'd been living in: The females who populated it were the young wives and girlfriends of wealthy men, or the personal assistants who catered to them. Women disappeared after some point in their 30s, and any female ambition other than looking beautiful, shopping, and overseeing the domestic realm became an inconvenience. Being in that audience, watching that staged reading, I felt myself reclaim the freedom to write my own life.

Although I am estranged from Elon — when it comes to the children, I deal with his assistant — I don't regret my marriage. I've worked through some anger, both at Elon for rendering me so disposable, and at myself for buying into a fairy tale when I should have known better. But I will always respect the brilliant and visionary person that he is. I also can't regret the divorce (our case was bifurcated, which means that even though the property issues aren't settled, our marriage is legally dead). Elon and I share custody of the children, who are thriving. I feel grounded now, and deeply grateful for my life.

And something unexpected happened: Throughout the divorce proceedings, his fiancée and I discovered we liked each other. People were puzzled that I didn't want to poke chopsticks in her eyeballs. "It's kind of like a French movie," observed a friend, and I sent Talulah an e-mail:

I would rather live out the French-movie version of things, in which the two women become friends and various philosophies are pondered, than the American version, in which one is "good" and one is "bad" and there's a huge catfight sequence and someone gets thrown off a balcony.

She responded, Let's do as the French do.

She is, by all accounts, a lovely, bright, and very young person, and better fitted to my ex-husband's lifestyle and personality than I ever was. Although she had dark hair when she and Elon first met, she is now blonder than I've ever been.

Justine Musk is the author of Bloodangel, Lord of Bones, and Uninvited. She lives in Los Angeles with her five sons and two dogs.

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