Imagine everyone around you is in on a secret, except you. “I found out that everything I knew about myself was a lie.” Steve Lickteig was like many adopted children in hoping that one day he would learn the truth about his biological parents. But when the truth finally revealed itself, it exposed family secrets that would forever alter their life together.
Living In A Lie
Steve Lickteig’s life as he knew it began in the early 1970s, but the real story of his life would actually take years to truly unfold. In his earliest years, what he knew was that he was the youngest of all of Mary Jane and Don Lickteig’s children, and spent his life surrounded by his eight siblings.
Together, Steve, his parents, and all of his siblings lived in a tiny farm house in Emporia, Kansas. His earliest memories revolved around playing with his older brothers and sisters, or watching his father work on the farm. By all accounts, Steve was living a completely normal rural Midwest childhood. But that facade would soon come crashing down — until his life was nearly unrecognizable.
Knowing That Something Was Different
Steve’s devoutly Catholic parents seemed to be upfront with him from the very beginning. They had made no secret that Steve was adopted, and was not biologically their child. Regardless, Steve always felt like a part of the family. And yet, behind it all, he could still feel as if something was a bit off.
First, there was a question that lingered in his mind. “I didn’t know why my mom and dad wanted me when they had so many children of their own already,” he remembered wondering. Looking back, Steve said that he should have known all along that there was a secret lingering somewhere in the family. However, more than a few years would pass before he actually found out what it was.
Wondering About His Biological Parents
While something might have been off, that is not to say that Steve wasn’t surrounded by love, especially when it came to his siblings. As he was the youngest child, they all seemed to feel a little protective over him. Sometimes he wondered if he had any biological siblings, and if they would ever be able to form close relationships with each other.
In an interview later, a friend of his said that he remembers Steve making a plan to finally meet his biological parents. He did not know when it would happen, but someday he wanted to take a road trip to meet them face to face. But when he learned the truth about his birth parents, it turned out that all his planning and wishing had been for naught.
An Open Secret Around A Small Town
Steve “always wondered who his real parents were and planned to search for them as an adult,” according to a movie trailer about his life. But when he started asking friends and family about his plan to find his biological parents, people always seemed to get a little bit uncomfortable or awkward. Maybe adoption is just a sensitive topic, he would think to himself.
He did not know at the time that his entire family, including his parents and his siblings, were in on a secret involving his biological mother. For years, they had been sworn to secrecy. But that secret was about to come out, whether they wanted it to or not.
A Graduation Night To Remember
At the age of 18, Steve knew his life was about to take some major turns and changes, but that would only be the half of it. He had graduated high school, after all, and his big graduation ceremony was due to take place the very next day. First, however, he wanted to spend the night before this milestone by celebrating his accomplishments.
To mark the occasion, Steve invited both of his best friends at the time, Alan and Vance, over to his farm house. Alan and Vance had been close with him and his family for years. But right when they came over, he could sense some tension.
Uncovering Family Secrets
For Alan and Vance, this night had been a long time coming. Steve was about to graduate, and his two best friends felt like it was finally time for him to learn the truth. Otherwise, they worried, he might never actually find out on his own.
“I don’t have a strong recollection of it, actually,” Steve later said in an interview. “But what I do remember is it was right before high school graduation, the night before. [Alan and Vance] walked into my bedroom and they shut the door behind them.” With that, his friend Vance faced him and said those fateful words: “We have something that we want to tell you.”
The Truth Comes Out
Steve sat in his room confused. What were his friends talking about? Just as soon as Vance entered the room, he unveiled a family secret that Steve never saw coming. “Then [Vance] just blurted it out,” Steve said. “It just sort of came out of him. He said, ‘I know who your mom is.'”
If that revelation was unbelievable, the next one came as even more of a shock. His mother, his friends told him, had been in front of his eyes the whole time. The road trip to see his birth mother would not be necessary. Instead, she was sitting in the next room. His mother, they said, was his oldest sister, Joanie.
“I was not some random child, even though I fully believed I was adopted by strangers,” Steve later told The Today Show. “But Don and Mary Jane were not strangers. They were really my grandparents, and Joanie, who I believed was my oldest sister, was my mother.”
In that moment, Steve’s world came crashing down. The sibling he had spent every day with, the person who had heard him discussing his search for his biological parents, had been his mother all along. But somehow, even that new information was not as hurtful as what he was about to hear from his friends.
“Who Else Knows?”
Steve was silent as his friends continued to share with him everything they knew. “They told me that they had known for basically their entire lives, and that everybody I had grown up with had known for their entire lives,” Steve said. Teachers, friends, siblings, neighbors — everyone knew except for him.
“I think that was actually the biggest blow to me,” Steve said. “It wasn’t some intimate, private secret, but it was this knowledge of who I was that was out in the open, out in the world, and I had no control over it.” At the time, Steve understandably was left without words. “Okay, thanks,” he remembers saying as his friends left. How would he feel the next day at graduation?
Because Steve did not have much of a response to offer his friends, the three of them never really discussed the story and its details. Instead, he was left alone that night and into graduation the next day in his own head, thinking about what he had just learned.
Steve kept his family’s story a secret for a bit longer. He said nothing about it to his family, even as they all gathered around him for his graduation photos. He spoke at his graduation as if nothing was wrong, and then he went to the graduation parties. It was as if nothing had happened that night in May 1987. But soon, Steve couldn’t keep putting off his reaction any longer.
The truth about Steve’s birth mother had taken 18 years to come to light. And for Steve, he felt no rush in telling anyone in his family that he knew about it. If he said nothing, maybe life could continue on as normal.
“I held it in for another month and a half,” Steve later recalled in an interview with The Today Show. But one day, Steve felt like he could not keep the truth hidden for any longer. He decided that it was time to finally confront it, so he approached his adoptive parents, Mary Jane and Don, to finally get some answers.
Family Secrets No More
It was a moment that Steve knew would completely change his family forever. As soon as he confronted the people he had called his parents for his entire life, the family dynamics were certain to change immediately. He decided to just come out with it, and asked Mary Jane about what his friends had told him.
“And she looked at me, my mother [Mary Jane], and said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.'” Undeterred, however, Steve replied to her: “Well, I know everything. I know what the truth is.” However, she would not budge, and continued to deny having any understanding of what he was saying. But finally, someone intervened.
The Hard Truth
All this time, Steve’s father, Don, who he now knew to be his grandfather, was sitting on a chair near by, overhearing the conversation. He grew more and more upset as his wife issued her denials. Steve recalled the scene: “Finally, my dad slammed his hand down on his La-Z-Boy and said ‘Damn it, will you just tell him?'”
It was enough to convince her. Right then and there, Mary Jane confessed to the whole thing. She admitted that she was not his biological mother; she was his biological grandmother. And she admitted that Joanie had given birth to him. Steve thought he had been ready to hear the truth, but it was all too much. He decided to run away.
Escaping The Secrets And Lies
Steve was devastated and confused. “Then, being an 18-year-old and angry, I ran away,” he said. “I got into a car and drove to the nearest town, which was 20 miles away, rented a motel room.” At least he wasn’t alone, as Steve had brought along a few of his friends to talk things out.
Unlike the family secret of Steve’s birth mom, the secret of where Steve had run away to spread pretty quickly in his small town. Joanie, who had heard that Steve had learned the news, tracked down her son to try to explain the story. She found the motel’s phone number and called his room, anxious to hear what her son would say on the other line.
“Yes, This Happened.”
“We had a moment of, ‘Yes, this happened. I’m sorry,'” Steve remembers of the phone call between him and his mother. At a young age, Joanie had run away from her strict Catholic environment in Kansas and transplanted her life to Los Angeles. It was there that she had met Steve’s father and became pregnant out of wedlock.
The pregnancy forced Joanie to return back to her home and confess to her parents. In order to let Joanie continue to live a normal life, and partially to avoid the shame they worried that she had brought upon the family, they took in Steve as their own, and swore their other children to secrecy. Joanie was hoping Steve would understand, but she did not expect his reaction.
Coming To Terms With The Truth
Steve listened to Joanie’s story while remaining mostly silent. “She said that she did not want to give me up,” Steve said to NPR. “My parents say that’s not true, that she needed the help. I think, as most things, it falls somewhere in the middle.”
Steve continued: “I do believe what she told me is the story: If we’re going to go down this road, this is the story that we’re going to use and you’re going to stick to it. And that’s when all the family members were told.” Still, the truth was too much for Steve to bear. “We didn’t talk about it again for another 15 years,” he confessed.
Everything Was A Lie
In just a few short months, Steve had learned that “everything I knew about myself was a lie.” Looking back, he said that clues regarding the identity of his biological mother were always there. “In hindsight I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, of course!’…It just seemed very normal because the story was so locked in. So no, I didn’t really suspect anything,” he said.
After hearing the truth, his relationship with his family could never return to normal. It was far from it. Steve felt betrayed. But it was not just his family that changed that day. For Steve, nothing really was ever the same for 15 years.
The Day That Everything Changed
Steve’s life after the phone call with his biological mother changed dramatically. “It was never spoken of again after that day, you know, not until 15 years later,” Steve remarked in an interview with NPR. “We just didn’t talk about it. And it sounds melodramatic to me, but I changed that day.”
“I was a really happy-go-lucky guy in high school, and something kind of shut off in me and the relationship sort of just became nothing. It was just obligatory and it was that way with the whole family.” With so many family members in on the secret, the sense of betrayal deepened. “I felt they were all sort of in on it, so I just separated myself.” But then, once again, Steve turned over a new leaf.
A New Outlook
After about 15 years of basically cutting his family out of his life, Steve claimed that he had a change of heart when he began dating the woman who would become his new wife. She encouraged Steve to try to form new bonds with his family, however hard that might be.
The contact started slowly, but Steve began to rebuild his relationship with his birth mother, knowing that he might never think of her in that way. “She does send birthday cards to my children,” he said. “We’re building something over time, but it takes a long time to get to another place and we’ve just been trying to make that happen.” However, that process might be too slow for his mother’s liking.
Looking To The Future
The current relationship between Steve and his mother is moving forward, though the road to a new normal has not been a straightforward one. “It’s just been hard for me,” Steve said. The two do not talk much directly. Of the relationship, Steve said that “it is not the best, but it is not horrible, either.”
Steve went on to make a documentary about his incredible discovery called Open Secret, but his mother wanted no involvement in the film once it was released. Regardless of the road bumps and the strange path the story has taken, Steve said he is optimistic, stating: “I feel like we are ultimately going to be in a good place.”
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