Steve Lickteig (front, center) always thought he was a stranger adopted into the Lickteig family; at age 18, he found out his adopted parents were actually his grandparents. His mother was his supposed sister, Joanie (middle row, center).
Steve Lickteig grew up thinking he was the adopted son of Don and Mary Jane Lickteig: farmers in Kansas who already had eight biological children. When Lickteig was 18 years old, his two best friends delivered some stunning news: he was actually the illegitimate son of his oldest sister, and everyone in his life had always known the secret. Lickteig now lives in Washington, D.C., and has made Open Secret, a documentary about his story. He speaks with Metro Connection’s Rebecca Sheir about the film, which gets to the heart of many a person's greatest fear: discovering everything you thought you knew about yourself was a lie. Following are highlights of their conversation.
Lickteig on the moment he found out who his real mother was: “My friend Vance, who’s in the film, said, ‘I know who your mother is: your sister, Joanie.’ And then my other friend Allen who was there was like, ‘yeah, I mean I’ve known since I was in like seventh grade. Vance had known since he was you know, like 8 years old.’ And Allen 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. 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 and they don’t know that I know.”
Lickteig on the ‘open secret’ and how everyone in the community knew: “I was born in 1969… 1987 is when I graduated high school. And this is Kansas, and not backwards by any stretch. But it was unthinkable to meddle 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’d kept it very well-hidden.”
Lickteig on Joanie’s (his biological mother) fear of Mary Jane (Joanie’s mother): “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 truly diagnosed mental issues. She had severe depression. I’d venture to say there were 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 was 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.’”
Lickteig on his relationship with Joanie: “At this very moment as we talk, it’s kind of nonexistent. 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, because Joanie is both good and bad in that film. And she says some really awful things about my mother in that film.”
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