In the 1980s, life was good for Maggie Kneip. Her handsome husband was a rising star at the Wall Street Journal. They were raising a 3-year-old daughter and newborn son in hip Hoboken. She had great friends, and a loving family.
Suddenly, within 9 months, her husband was dead of AIDS.
Then her real ordeal began.
Over the next 3 decades Maggie’s story became a symbol of perseverance, growth and triumph. It’s also a story with plenty of Westport connections.
Last month, she shared it with the world.
Now Everyone Will Know: The Perfect Husband, His Shattering Secret, My Rediscovered Life was published on December 1 — World AIDS Day. Exploring themes of sexuality, love, humanity, the damaging nature of family secrets and the power of truth, it’s an important book for all Westporters — even without the local ties.
Maggie writes with unflinching honesty and great grace about her life before and after her husband, John Andrew — Brown University graduate, dynamic personality, great lover — was diagnosed with what in those days was a devastating, stigmatizing death sentence.
She describes her growing realization of the hidden life he led as a closeted gay man, and her reaction when she learns of his diagnosis — just weeks after the birth of their 2nd child: “I had to see him. I had to kill him.”
But Maggie set aside her anger, and tried passionately to keep her husband alive. Caring for 2 youngsters and a husband dying a gruesome death seems a herculean task. It was made even harder by her fears that she and her children were also infected — and the revulsive reactions of a few “friends.”
John died in March of 1991, age 36. Maggie felt angry, betrayed, traumatized, heartbroken and desolate.
John’s brother Robert — who lived in Westport — mourned him one way. Maggie was different. She needed to protect her children. They learned never to tell anyone how their father died.
Hoping for a new start, Maggie got a job in publishing. She moved to the Upper East Side. A few years later at work she met a great woman, who lived in Westport.
She decided to leave her small New York apartment for a “perfect turn-of-the-century, walk-to-town, fixer-upper, below-budget saltbox” in Westport.
Her friend introduced her to a circle of “unfettered, insouciant and creative women.” Maggie helped form a book club, with women she grew close to.
But she avoided all mention of John. She walled herself off from her kids’ friends’ parents, avoiding conversations and even friendships.
Her husband still haunted her dreams. As her son got older, he looked more and more like his father. But as Maggie’s children went through Staples — successful and active — they did not want to talk about him.
Maggie lost her publishing job. She became an empty nester. It was not until her kids — separately, at their college graduations — surprised her by saying they’d been thinking about their dad, that she decided it was time to tell her story.
So she wrote. And set herself free.
In a writing class at the 92nd Street Y, Maggie met a published author who’d grown up in Westport. Melissa Kirsch was moved by Maggie, and encouraged her to turn her short pieces into a memoir.
Maggie was also inspired by Sarah Herz. The former Westport teacher — a national expert in children’s literature, who died last year — became one of her mentors.
Finding a publisher was not easy. “AIDS is over,” she heard. And, “We don’t know how to market this.” As well as: “This woman is angry.”
She’s not. Her writing is insightful, honest and strong. But with no publisher willing to take a chance, Maggie self-published.
The result is a remarkable book. Yet as powerful as it is for readers, Maggie’s memoir has also meant a great deal to her.
Today, Maggie senses a subtle shift in her approach to people. “I’m engaging more. And I’m less judgmental of others,” she says.
She’s become more involved at Temple Israel. She joined a women’s group, something inconceivable a few years ago.
“I think I’m more easy to talk to now,” Maggie says. “I’m happier.”
Maggie praises her beloved book group for being part of the Westport that helped her grow. As members talked about their lives — including the ups and downs in their own marriages — she realized that keeping a secret kept her from connecting with others.
Her book — with an afterword from former Westporter and noted psychologist Dale Atkins — has been well received. “People appreciate my honesty,” Maggie says. “They say it reminds them of that AIDS era, and the people they’ve lost.” She’s been surprised by how many readers are spouses in mixed-orientation marriages.
Now Everyone Will Know acknowledges the power of secrets, and provides a portrait in courage for moving beyond fear and shame.
Maggie’s husband John lived a hidden life. Now she’s come out of her own closet — as the wife of a gay spouse, and the widow of an AIDS victim.
She — along with her children, John’s friends from Brown, and Wall Street Journal colleagues — participate each year in the New York AIDS Walk. They raise funds for this still-awful disease.
And, finally, they talk about John.
(For more information, or to buy Now Everyone Will Know, click on www.maggiekneip.com. Hat tip: Lori Andrews)