MS. REBECCA SHEIR
First, though, we've all received startling news. But when Public Radio producer Steve Lickteig was 18, he received some news that was downright shocking.
MR. STEVE LICKTEIG
Like, I remember I get this news, you know, this very specific news that everything that you were told in your life is now not true. So...
This is a scene from "Open Secret," a new documentary film Steve spent seven years making.
You know, why does this matter? I mean, maybe it's stupid. Maybe I don't need to be worrying about it, you know.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1
It's the mystery you have to figure out. It was a lie. And it was your life.
The news in question, the actual open secret, has to do with Steve's birth parents. He grew up not knowing who they were. To him, mom and dad were Mary Jane and Don Lickteig, an older couple who'd adopted him as a child and added him to their brood of eight biological children.
What's your name?
My name's Steve.
What were your parents' names, Steve?
Lickteig L-I-C-K-T-E-I-G. Don Lickteig and Mary Jane. And they were married here in June of 1946.
Here is St. Francis Xavier Church in southeast D.C. It was Mary Jane's lifelong church until she and Don moved to Kansas, much against her will. That's where Steve grew up. Steve lives in D.C. now and in the administrative office of St. Francis Xavier, a woman named Marian offers to find Don and Mary Jane's marriage records.
I can't believe you found that so fast.
It was in the back of (unintelligible) .
Wow, that's nuts.
We take the documents into the chapel and on a dark wooden pew, Steve pages through the marriage agreement, Don and Mary Jane's baptism certificates, something called a prenuptial investigation.
I think it was much stricter than, you know, Catholics getting married. I think there was a lot of making sure that everything was -- I was about to say everything was kosher, so to speak, but that's not the right thing to say.
But the thing is not everything was kosher, so to speak, when it came to Steve's upbringing because Don and Mary Jane were actually Steve's grandparents. His birth mother was Joanie, one of Don and Mary Jane's biological kids. Joanie was 21 when she got pregnant after a fling with a much older man in Los Angeles.
You open your documentary with a voiceover voice by you and you say, my name is Steve.
My name is Steve. And on my family's farm in Kansas, I found out everything I knew about myself was a lie.
When did you actually learn of this lie? Can you take us back to that moment and paint a picture of how it all happened?
My friend, Vance, who's in the film, said, I know who your mother is, your sister, Joanie. And then, my other friend, Alan, who was there, was like, yeah, I mean, I've known since I was in 7th grade. And Vance had known since he was, you know, like eight years old. And Alan says, I just was very still and quiet and, like, introspective about it. That's one of those moments where people say, oh, when you're told something shocking, you sort of shut down or -- that's what happened.
Because there's also a photo of me the next day at graduation with my arms around my mom and dad and I'm, like, laughing and they're smiling. I mean, they don't know that I know.
When did you tell Mary Jane and Don that you knew?
A couple of months later, I was dating my high school girlfriend and they basically caught the two of us having sex. This was at home. We thought they were gone for a lot longer than they were. And it was a Saturday night and I remember the next morning, I was asleep in my room, which is right next to our living room. And my mom turned on the TV really loud and it was a preacher preaching abstinence. And I walked out and I turned the TV down and I said, very funny. I get it. Did you play this for Joanie when she got pregnant?
And my dad looked up from his easy chair, you know, and my mom was in the kitchen. And she turned and looked at me. I said, you know, because I know everything. I know Joanie is my mom. Did you not give her this lecture? And my mom said, I have no idea what you're talking about. She just kept saying it over and over again, I don't know what you're talking about. And then, my dad slammed his arm down on the chair and said, god damn it, you just tell him? And then, she still denied it for just a brief moment. It's like, what? Tell him what?
And then, basically, she said, yeah, okay, it's true. You know, then I played the typical teenage card and, like, stormed out of the house. And I tell you, we never talked about it again.
So that's where the open secret comes in. Everyone knew except for -- your own family knew, people in your community knew. A teacher's interviewed in the film, some of your classmates, but the information never leaked. And then, is it Mr. Reddecker (sp?) , is that how you say it?
Mr. Reddecker, the teacher, he says something in the film that kind of explained it, but still -- he talked about the rituals and laws of the farm community. And he says, you just didn't violate them.
Yeah, you just didn't violate them. And back then, this was -- you know, I was born in 1969. 1987 is when I graduated high school and this is Kansas. They're not backwards by any stretch, but it was unthinkable to mettle in another family's business. And, you know, my parents, my mom mostly, my dad, I think, knew everybody knew, but my mom really didn't think that people knew. I think she thought she kept it very well hidden.
Before we move on, I have a million other questions, but you keep calling them my mom and my dad. Even after finding out the truth, you still call them mom, dad and Joanie is still Joanie.
Yeah. Don and Mary Jane raised me from an infant. And now I have a son. I have an 11-month-old son. It's really hard work and I was the ninth kid that they raised. I would have to say, despite whatever they kept from me, they have earned mom and dad as a title.
And what will your child call Joanie, for example?
Don't know yet, and I will leave this up to him. And I know I have a lot of influence over it, but I don't think I want my son calling her grandma. It may be biologically accurate or legally accurate or something along those lines, but it's not emotionally accurate.
Speaking of Joanie, the scenes with you and her are riveting. There's one where she's baking and you're asking her questions. And she's kind of losing herself in the recipe, as if maybe she doesn't want to answer.
Then you went back to Emporia and started school.
You didn't know you were pregnant.
Oh god, no. But, you know, I knew something wasn't right. I really did know -- just a second -- when mixed, add baking powder and two tablespoons of flour.
Really, really interesting scenes. And at one point, you ask her, what were you most afraid of?
What were you most afraid of?
And she answers...
Can you talk some more about that fear? What was it about Mary Jane that you think made Joanie so frightened?
Well, the stories I remember -- and I have some recollection of this even as a child myself, but it wasn't as severe, is that she was volatile. My mom had a truly diagnosed mental issues. She had severe depression. I venture to say there was probably issues of being bipolar. And I think when Joanie found out that she was pregnant, this wasn't going to be a mom that's going to say, Joanie, just come home and we'll take care of everything. You don't worry about it.
So I understand that she tried to hide it for a while and tried to figure out what she was going to do. And all of her plans were basically foiled by my mother who stepped in and said, this is what we're going to do.
What's your relationship like now with Joanie?
At this very moment, as we talk, it's kind of nonexistent. Well, she didn't like the film. She didn't feel that she was portrayed in the right light. And of course, I completely and utterly disagree. And everybody who has seen it from the family and people who know her are like, you captured her perfectly. But nobody wants to see that about themselves. 'Cause Joanie's good and bad in that film and she says some really awful things about my mother in that film.
She calls her a con artist, at one point.
Calls her a con artist, wishes that she would just die and get it over with. But I think when she saw the film and heard herself saying that, she was like, oh, my god, what kind of person am I? Why would I say that about my own mother? Basically what I've told myself, I'm just going to give her time to get over it. The reason I did the film was not obviously for fame or glory or money 'cause none of those things exist. It was a chance to let my family -- each person in the family tell the story without anybody trying to refute them.
I respectfully set up a camera and formally said, tell me the story of being forced to keep a secret about something that you didn't want to keep a secret about. And I learned that -- it was a long learning experience, but I learned that there's a lot of power -- and this is going to sound totally cliché. There's a lot of power in telling the truth. And I've learned empathy and sympathy both, I think. But I totally understand my parents now. And I totally understand Joanie.
And I don't know what I would've done in the same situation. I know what I would like to have done, but I don't know what I would've done. And I know how hard it was. So there's a reason why you really need to look deeply into why things are and why people behave the way they do and come out on the other side with a deeper understanding of not only them, but of yourself. And that's what happened here.
Steve Lickteig is the director of "Open Secret." You can catch a screening of the documentary this Saturday at 5:00 at the Hill Center at the old Naval hospital in southeast D.C. The film will be followed by a Q and A conducted by Bob Edwards. For more information and to see a trailer, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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