On Aug. 12, 2004 Dina McGreevey stood silently by her husband's side as former New Jersey governor James McGreevey announced at a press conference that he was "a gay American," and would resign from office after a sex scandal involving a former aide who threatened to blackmail him. She remained silent last year, when McGreevey published a best-selling memoir about his experiences and hit the talk-show circuit with his new partner, Australian businessman Mark O'Donnell. Now, it's her turn. The McGreeveys, who are divorcing, have sparred in court over financial and custody arrangements for their daughter Jacqueline, now 5. And the former First Lady of New Jersey has published her own version of life with Jim McGreevey, "Silent Partner: A Memoir of My Marriage." Dina Matos McGreevey, who lives in New Jersey and works for a health-care foundation, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Karen Breslau about her marriage, same-sex couples and political spin. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: When Jim McGreevey gave his "gay American" speech and you stood next to him with that pained smile on your face, the thing everyone wanted to know was "what is going through her mind?" What was?
Dina Matos McGreevey: Well, you know, it wasn't a smile. It was my attempt to keep it together and not fall apart in front of the cameras. I was literally in shock and in a fog. I had had less than three days to process what was happening—he kept giving me the news in installments. I hadn't absorbed what had happened. I was really at war with myself, feeling pain and anger and also trying to figure out how to respond or how not to respond. I am frankly surprised I was able to stand there and not fall apart.
You write that prior to that speech, which you saw only two hours before you appeared at the press conference, he told you to conduct yourself like Jackie Kennedy?
[Laughs] Even as his world was crumbling and the walls were caving in, he was scripting the entire day. That speech, the line "I am a gay American," it was very well crafted. He knew that was the soundbite everyone would pick up on. He was telling me to smile when he said certain words. That was what his whole life had been about; everything was scripted.
Your divorce has yet to be finalized. In recent court filings, Jim McGreevey states that you were aware that he was gay before your marriage. Is this true?
[Laughs] Obviously, it's not true. He did not say that in his book. He is now contradicting himself. Never in any interview did he say I knew. In fact, he said I didn't know. He acknowledged he told me only days before the announcement. He gave me the whole story in three installments; he started on Monday, with the news that he was being threatened with blackmail, and the next time we had a conversation was Wednesday evening, when he said he might be gay, that he was confused. Then, came the speech. I guess he resolved his confusion in the time span of 24 hours.
At the time the story broke, it was said that the fact that Jim McGreevey was gay was the worst kept secret in New Jersey. How could you not have known?
I think there are a couple of answers. It's always a cliché, but the wife is always the last to know. No one is going to come up to the wife and say, "Your husband is gay." Second, when you are married to someone powerful, whether it's a politician or a CEO or a celebrity, there are always rumors and innuendo, If you chase those, you are not going to do anything else. Don't forget, while all this was going on, I was working full time, I had a baby. I had my responsibilities as First Lady; I had a mansion to renovate. I spent very little time in his surroundings; I was constantly on the go. It's interesting of course in hindsight, that a fax of all the news clips would come into my office every morning. Most of the time, his personal assistant would come in the morning and grab the clips off the fax machine—maybe they would grab them when they knew something was in the papers.
Looking back, would you say you were in some sort of denial?
No, I wouldn't. It wasn't the perfect marriage—I had issues, most of them were the issue of his secrets, especially the relationship, the secrecy surrounding the relationship with his ex-wife. I thought maybe they had rekindled something. But never did I suspect he was gay.
And, of course, the other thing everyone wants to know is what kind of sex life you had with your former husband.
It was normal. There were no red flags. Over the past few weeks, I've received so many letters and e-mails from people, who say, "I had the exact same experience." That is not always the tip-off that something is wrong.
You write that one of the places you went for help was to the Straight Spouse Network, an online support group for women—and men—who learn that their spouses are gay or lesbian. What did you get from this group?
The day after the press conference was the first time I had ever heard the term "straight spouse." I thought 'what does that mean?" I saw a TV interview on "Good Morning America" with the founder of the group, [sociologist] Amity Buxton, and another woman. It helped me realize the magnitude of the problem. I've seen numerous statistics; one says there are 2 million straight people married to someone who is gay.
I was recently at a cocktail party, there were 25-30 people in the room, and there were three of us [who had been in that situation]. I think the numbers are actually larger. I hear from people all the time who live with this secrecy.
Did it help you, getting counseling from this group?
I met with Amity Buxton a couple of weeks after the press conference. To talk to her and know she survived this made me realize there's a chance I'll survive this too.
It's more common than you might imagine. Maybe relief isn't the right word, but it gave me a sense of peace, [that] there's nothing wrong with me by not recognizing what was going on in my marriage.
The other person you went to for advice was Hillary Clinton. Was that an awkward conversation, one betrayed First Lady asking another how to handle her public humiliation?
She was very gracious. She was the only person who came to mind [who had] to deal with all the personal pain and having the media constantly looking for information, hounding you. My assistant called her office and she called back only a short time later. . She was very, very gracious. She said, "First of all you have to think of yourself and your daughter." That was the best advice I got. Knowing she survived, I can survive also.
Did she offer any other words of wisdom?
Her advice was, get your own counsel, don't rely on his advisers. She said, "No one else is going to take care of you. You've got to take care of yourself. She said you and your daughter are the most important." She offered to make herself available to me at any time.
Have you stayed in touch with her?
We've had a little contact by mail. But I haven't even had a chance to send her the book yet.
Your daughter is now 5. What advice do you have for other parents who find themselves in a similar situation? How do you explain to a young child what has happened to your family?
I haven't quite figured out that yet. She understands that we are separated. And like any child of separated or divorced parents, she certainly hopes that her parents will come together again. We explain we both love her very much, but we can't do that. The only other thing I can do is to make sure that she has a healthy relationship with her father. He is the only father she is every going to have. It's important that she have a healthy relationship with both parents. In terms of the rest, I'll give her information when it's age-appropriate with help from the right people.
You write that when the story broke, Jim McGreevey instructed you to say if a reporter asked you, that you were "sensitive" to the issue of gay marriage. For the record, do you have a position on same-sex marriage?
As a practicing Catholic, I believe marriage, the actual term "marriage," is between a man and a woman. I think it's important that partnerships between same-sex couples are protected. Working in health care, I've seen firsthand what some of the issue are. Four or five months before Jim came out, one of my co-workers who is gay; came to me and knew that Jim had passed a domestic-partnership law; and needed some information because his partner was facing a serious illness. I hope all gays will have those [legal] rights so that gay people can live authentic lives like everyone else. It should be the norm, not the exception. Then what happened to me wouldn't be happening to other people.
Jim McGreevey has been accepted into an Episcopalian seminary to begin studying for the priesthood. Do you see him as someone qualified to provide spiritual counseling?
I think it's hypocritical. I have a lot of respect for the Episcopalian Church, we were married in the Episcopalian Church [because of McGreevey's first divorce.] Regardless of the religion though, one has a moral compass to lead. I don't think he has it. Frankly, I question why he's doing it and the timing of it.
Your former husband also has a new partner. Do you know him?
I've never met him.
At the time his book came out, they made the rounds of the various talk shows. What was it like to see them?
The person on TV was not the person I fell in love with and married. It was like watching a complete stranger.
What have you learned in all of this?
When I set out to write the book, I thought I was writing it for my own catharsis and so that my daughter would know 15 or 20 years from now why I did what I did and what happened. But it's become evident that I've done this for a number of people. I'd like to encourage people in similar circumstances, they can get past this. It's not an easy road, but what seems insurmountable is not. To other woman in the same circumstances, I want to say, "Don't be ashamed, you've done nothing to be ashamed of." I've had people say, "The day my husband came out of the closet was the day I went into the closet." I married my husband, because I fell in love with him and wanted to build a life together. I have nothing to be ashamed of. We shouldn't be going into the closet, because they came out.