‘I know how Brooke feels’: Mom’s painful discovery husband has HIV

Originally posted on NYPost.com

By Jane Ridley
November 18, 2015 | 6:00am

When Maggie Kneip heard that Charlie Sheen had finally spoken out Tuesday confirming that the A-list Hollywood star is HIV-positive, her heart went out to his ex-wife Brooke Mueller, 38, the mother of his two young sons.

Despite their vastly different lives, Kneip — a 60-year-old veteran of New York’s publishing industry — has a tragic connection with the actress. She, too, was blindsided when her husband contracted the virus that, even to this day, is widely stigmatized and misunderstood.

“Charlie Sheen is obviously the focal point, but little is said by the wives and girlfriends whose primary goal is always to protect their children,” says Kneip. “I only hope Brooke and the others affected by his diagnosis can feel brave enough to tell their stories, as women’s voices are seldom heard.”

In Kneip’s case, it took more than two decades before she was ready to share her personal experience about the devastating disease. Complications from AIDS claimed her husband, respected Wall Street Journal editor John Andrew, at the height of the epidemic in 1991, before the development of lifesaving drugs.

Like Mueller and her family, Kneip and her two now-grown kids are HIV-free. However, as she reveals in her memoir, “Now Everyone Will Know” (published this month in the run-up to World AIDS Day on Dec. 1), they suffered in a different way.

“It was this shameful, loaded family secret that we couldn’t reveal to anyone except a few trusted friends and relatives,” she says. “It wasn’t a choice back in the early 1990s — women like me were forced to keep quiet for the sake of our kids.”

It was July 10, 1990, nearly four years into their marriage and just weeks after the birth of their second child, Dan, when Kneip’s charmed existence was shattered. The couple was celebrating John’s 36th birthday with dinner at a favorite restaurant near their home in Hoboken, NJ.

“We need more ketchup,” he said, waving an empty ashtray at her as if it were a sauce bottle. He was feverish and disoriented. The frightening episode came after months of ill health, in which Andrew had been hospitalized for pleurisy, caught a debilitating case of chicken pox from their 2-year-old daughter, Caroline, and experienced severe digestive, skin and joint-swelling problems.

The following day, Andrew was admitted to Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital, where doctors told Kneip the shocking news that her husband had full-blown AIDS.

His body and brain were ravaged, and she was told he likely had two weeks to live.

In the whirlwind that followed — during which Kneip and her children were mercifully diagnosed as HIV-negative — she found herself alone with him in his hospital room.

“How did you get AIDS, John?” she asked. At first, he didn’t answer. When she asked again, he simply replied: “I slept with men in Los Angeles.” He had lived there while working as a reporter before moving to New York in the mid-’80s.

Her reaction was one of panic, anger and disbelief, as she wondered what other secrets he had. But, struggling for breath and covered in lesions, he seemed in no fit state to answer any further questions. As a result, that was their last conversation about it. “I did get the impression that it had resulted from anonymous sex, not with someone who he loved,” recalls Kneip. “That made it all the more scary.”

According to the doctors, Kneip had failed to contract the virus (and pass it on to her babies) because of the relative shortness of their marriage and because they always used condoms except for the times they were trying to conceive.

Despite his prognosis, Andrew ended up living for another eight months, during which he was nursed in the Manhattan apartment of his brother, Robert, at her behest.

“I had a new baby and a 2½-year-old,” says Kneip. “It was the only way I could cope, and we would visit John regularly.”

“It was this shameful, loaded family secret.”

 - Maggie Kneip on her husband’s AIDS diagnosis

She confided in immediate family and close friends, but had her trust in people crushed when one of them contacted Child Services, saying that Dan and Caroline should be removed to live with foster parents.

One of her only forms of emotional support was a talk-therapy group at a Greenwich Village church for HIV-negative women whose husbands had AIDS. “There were six of us in total,” recalls Kneip. “But as soon as our husbands passed way, we scattered to the four winds. We all wanted to disassociate ourselves from AIDS as soon as possible.”

Andrew died March 21, 1991. In deference to his wife and children, the New York Timesreported the cause in his obituary as lymphoma. Even at the funeral, Kneip remained in a state of denial.

She told her kids about their father’s real illness when they were each around 5, but they were forbidden to talk about it. Kneip had reason to be secretive: When her family lived in Hoboken, NJ, gossip had leaked out about Andrew’s condition, prompting parents at Caroline’s preschool to take a vote that she shouldn’t move up to kindergarten with her peers.

They moved to Manhattan but there was still trouble, especially after Caroline’s class was read a book by Arthur Ashe and she announced to her schoolmates, “My daddy died [because] of AIDS, too.”

The years went by, and Kneip, who had since moved in with a new partner, Dave, continued to struggle with the stigma. “I know that young people reading this now will think I was being overly paranoid, but the climate was still very much of fear,” she says. “I felt invisible and voiceless.”

Remarkably, it wasn’t until 2009, when Caroline graduated from college, that Kneip felt ready to reclaim the past and be more open about her husband’s illness.

“Caroline turned to me and, for the first time, said she was missing her father,” she says. “That was my cue that maybe my children should know more about their dad.”

She found herself retrieving his old belongings and newspaper clippings, and reconnecting with friends and colleagues who had known him best. One of his pals wrote a tender letter to Caroline and Dan, filling them in on their father’s unique and beloved personality. It helped the siblings finally discuss their feelings about their father’s death and what it meant to be the children of an AIDS victim they had barely known.

Meanwhile, Kneip began writing her memoir in earnest three years ago and, in 2013, she posted on Facebook that she and Dan were participating in an AIDS walk in Central Park in memory of Andrew. “At my age, I am interested in moving forward and forgiving and valuing my past,” she says.

As for Mueller, Kneip is grateful that changed times will hopefully allow the actress to be publicly honest about her own ordeal: “HIV is always going to be something people don’t want to talk about, but the new openness about sexuality is a blessing.

“The dialogue about AIDS and HIV needs to expand.”