When he heard those words leaving his friend’s lips his world collapsed. In a spilt second the bright future he was looking forward to turned to uncertainty. His family had been lying to him his entire life, and for what? To protect his father?
But now, those lies were about to come crashing down around them, and he could only question what he had done.
Steve Lickteig felt like he had his whole life ahead of him. In a day he’d be graduating, and, in a few weeks, he’d leave Kansas behind to become a Marine. He had limited time left to spend with his friends and family and he wanted to make the most of it.
But his friends were keeping a secret, and they waited until the last moment before deciding that they would finally tell him the truth. It was a secret so dark that the whole town had caught wind of it. They all knew, except for Steve.
Steve was one of nine children and even thought there was a big gap between him and his big sister, Joanie, he never paid much attention to it. His parents, Mary and Don Lickteig were very open, telling him that they wanted another son so he never thought to question them about it.
He thought that if there was anyone out there that could be trusted to tell him the truth, it would be the people who had been there for him his entire life. He never knew that they’d be willing to go so far to protect the people involved in their scheme.
Steve’s parents did all they could to ensure that he never found out what really happened and to some extent they succeeded. But Steve could feel something wasn’t quite right. His entire life he had an odd feeling that something wasn’t as it was meant to be. However, when he reached adolescence he just assumed that the feeling of unease had something to do with him being a teenager.
Yet, no matter how hard he tried to suppress it or how many times he tried to reason with himself, the feeling didn’t go away. Something just didn’t seem right.
What Steve didn’t know was something everyone in the close-knit community knew. His teachers, his neighbors, his friends, and even his high school girlfriend knew the truth about his real father. Wherever he went whispers and gossip followed. Yet the Lieckteig scandal managed to stay a secret for 18 years.
His family and friends tried their best to keep the truth hidden, but as with all secrets, the truth eventually comes out. The question was, was Steve ready to hear it?
It was the day before his high school graduation, spirits were high, and Steve was still blissfully unaware of the dark secret his family kept locked up. He was spending time with his two best friends, Vance and Alan, not knowing that they had decided it was time for the lies to come to an end.
The boys had been sworn to secrecy by their parents, but they knew it was time. Nobody else planned on telling Steve the ugly truth, so it was up to them to do it. They felt that it was time for him to discover what his father had done all those years ago.
Vance exchanged a look with Alan and tried to approach the subject carefully. He had thought long and hard about how the bombshell he was about to drop on Steve would affect him.
He knew Steve’s “parents” had no intention of ever telling him the truth and would be mortified when the family name was ruined. But Steve would be joining the Marines soon. It was their last chance. “Steve… We have something we want to tell you,” he said, quietly.
At first, Steve was confused by his friend’s words. He couldn’t comprehend what Vance was trying to tell him. Alan glanced at Vance, trying to stop him but Vance waved him off and said, “No… he needs to know!” But what exactly was it that he needed to know?
“Your sister, Joanie… well…” Vance continued. As his friend spilled all the details, Steve could feel the world as he knew it shattering into millions of pieces, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
“I was just silent, and they filled the silence with what they knew. They told me who my mother was, and they told me that they had known for basically their entire lives,” Steve later said.
“And that everybody I had grown up with had known for their entire lives, and they felt that this was the time that I needed to know.” But what happened? Who was Steve’s mother? More importantly, who was his father?
During his confession, Vance explained that Steve’s older sister, Joanie, was Steve’s biological mother. Steve was dumbfounded as he listened to his friend speak. If his sister was actually his mother, who were the two people he thought were his parents?
After the revelation, nothing seemed to fit anymore. Steve had no idea who he was or what any of that meant. He let Vance finish what he had to say and then turned to him with the one and only question he had.
“Who else knows?” Steve asked with wide eyes. Alan replied gently, “Everyone.” Steve couldn’t believe that the entire town had been keeping the truth from him. He felt betrayed, and then the feeling of betrayal became rage. His real father had abandoned him.
His very identity and everything he knew had disappeared in a puff of smoke, revealing the ugly secret behind it all. He did the only thing he could.
Steve held onto the secret for another six weeks before confronting his “parents.” They attended his graduation with huge smiles, and Steve played along. But it was all a farce.
“I didn’t say anything to anybody after I found out,” Steve remembers, “This was the middle of May 1987. I had a high school graduation the next night, went to it, actually spoke at the graduation, went to all the parties, did everything.” But it was only a matter of time before the ticking time bomb went off.
“I held it in for another month and a half, and then I confronted my parents — my grandparents — about it,” Steve explained.
“Then, being an 18-year-old and angry, I ran away. Got into a car and drove to the nearest town, which was 20 miles away, rented a motel room… with my friends.” Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.
Steve opened the door, and there stood Joanie – the woman he had thought of as his older sister for his entire life. She had tracked him down to confess. “We had a moment of, ‘Yes, this happened. I’m sorry.’ I was mostly silent,” he explained.
But now that the secret was finally out in the open, would Steve’s grandparents and biological mother tell him why they had lied for so long?
“Part of it was the time of this, which was the early ’70s, and also (it was a) small town, a tight-knit community,” Steve said.
“The community members who knew, who didn’t say anything, were just trying to be good neighbors.” It turns out that Joanie had fallen pregnant out of wedlock, and her parents decided to raise Steve as their own to protect the family name. But this situation isn’t as unusual as you may think.
Dani Shapiro, who interviewed Steve on her podcast “Family Secrets,” says that more and more people in this day and age are discovering their true lineage, especially with the growing popularity of home DNA kits.
She went as far as to say that it is an “epidemic.” But is it right for a family to keep such secrets about their members’ personal identities?
“Ultimately people do have a right to know, and I think also feel liberated by knowing the truth,” Dani said in an interview with TODAY.
“The secret-keepers are carrying a burden, but the question is not so much whether they should share that secret, but when.” After Steve found out his personal truth, was he ready to confront it?
Shortly after Steve found out that his sister was his biological mother, he joined the Marines. When he had served his time, he married and settled down.
He landed a successful career as a journalist at NBC News, but his relationship didn’t end well and the couple filed for divorce. Joanie, Don, and Mary Jane never spoke about his true lineage again… Until fifteen years later.
In 2013, Steve decided to make a documentary about his experiences, titled “Open Secret.” In the film, he interviews his grandparents, childhood friends, and siblings.
He hoped to try and shed more light on what was such a murky subject throughout his life. He needed to take a journey of self-discovery to try and find out the missing details.
In an interview with KRWG, Steve explains how that earth-shattering revelation changed him forever: “It was never spoken of again after that day, you know, not until fifteen years later,” he said. “We just didn’t talk about it. And it sounds melodramatic to me, but I changed that day.”
The family secret, now that it was finally out, had driven a wedge in Steve’s relationship with his family.
“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,” he explained.
“It was just obligatory and it was that way with the whole family. You know, I have a large [family] — six sisters, two brothers. I felt like they all were sort of in on it, so I just separated myself.” But would the Lickteig family reconcile?
Steve tried to imagine what his mother had gone through. She had given her child up and then had to live a lie.
“I was trying to understand what she must have gone through to have had a baby, and then see your own parents take the baby, and then tell you that the story is going to be that you have to tell this baby that you’re his sister — not his actual mother — and you have to live that for basically the rest of your life.” But had Joanie wanted to give him up?
“… She says she did not want to give me up. My parents say that’s not true, that she needed the help. I think, as with most things, it falls somewhere in the middle,” Steve said.
“And I do believe that she was told this 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.” But what would they think of the film?
Don and Mary Jane, Steve’s biological grandparents, seemed happy to finally talk about the truth, but Joanie wasn’t prepared to sit down and discuss the finer details. She has since married and has other children.
Steve couldn’t help but feel disappointed. She wanted nothing to do with his journey of self-discovery or his documentary.
“She just said to me, she said, ‘I saw your film. I understand why you did it,’” Steve said. “‘I don’t want anything more to do with it going forward so please don’t ask me to be involved in it.’”
“We’ve emailed a few times, but we haven’t had any conversation in a long while and it’s not the outcome that I had expected.” But there is a silver lining…
After filming, Steve felt as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. “I got to have these conversations,” he said.
“The film gave me and them permission to have a conversation that just would not have happened otherwise. So yeah, in the end I can walk away from this and say this did what it was supposed to do.”
Steve is happily married and plans to have children of his own someday. Now that he has made peace with what had happened, he had another burning question.
The question of how involved Joanie wants to be had to be asked. Steve wanted to know what his children will know her as – their grandmother or aunt. Joanie, visibly excited, replied with a smile: “Joanie. Just Joanie.”
Since Steve released the documentary, his story has become known around the world. Media outlets picked it up, wrote dozens of articles and interviews, and shared it across social media platforms like Facebook.
Users everywhere began to share similar stories in the comment section. What’s surprising is that Steve’s situation is not as uncommon as you might think.
“This situation happened to my uncle (actually my cousin), everyone knew except him. When he was 17 or 18 my other cousin (actually his brother) told him because he thought he already knew,” one woman wrote.
“He was very mad at everyone for a long time and it was definitely a mistake to keep that from him for so many years.” While some Facebook users shared their own stories, others also had some advice for parents.
“I was adopted as an infant but not told until I was 23. PLEASE tell them when they are young! There is no good reason to lie and hide a person’s true history from them,” one user implored.
“It’s a terrible act of selfishness and all it does is create much bigger problems. Honesty is always the best policy.”
“Having found out that I was adopted when I was 20, I went through so much anger and hurt and it took years to forgive because I felt so deceived,” another woman wrote.
“Although, I’m in my 30’s now and feel blessed to have such a great family, I don’t think it’s a good idea to wait to let your kids know that they’re adopted. Then again, I don’t know what the proper age would be. Thank you for this story.”
“Happens all the time…especially more “back in the day,” another women commented. “Nowadays, it is more accepted in society to have single parent households headed by a woman who chose LIFE.”
“I am not going to judge this woman or Steve either. You just never know what someone is going through, or what someone HAS been through. To each his/her own. Different strokes for different folks.”
A recent Gallup poll shows that society is much more accepting of women having children out-of-wedlock than it was in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s – and Americans become more accepting of women having children outside marriage every year.
In 2012, 54 out of 100 of the people surveyed said that having a baby when you’re unmarried is morally acceptible. In 2022, that number rose to 60 out of 100 (60%). But why?
The Gallup poll indicates that people are increasingly becoming more liberal in their views of what is morally acceptable and what is not.
The debate about the morality of having children out-of-wedlock is one of the biggest changes in moral attitudes during the last 15 years. Another big change in society is its tolerance toward same-sex marriage.
While people are generally more accepting of people having a child out-of-wedlock, this doesn’t mean that’s what’s best for the child.
On the contrary, a growing body of research suggests that children in two-parent households are more likely to have better academic and emotional outcomes than children raised in a single-parent home. But what about children like Steve, who were lied to for their entire lives?
“To me, this story shows how much the vaunted “traditional values” that some politicians and others call for us to return to were based on appearance and outright hypocrisy, not actual morality,” one Facebook user observed.
“I just cannot fathom the mindset that thinks it’s better to lie to a kid for 18 years than it is to admit that his mother had him out of wedlock.” However, a few other users disagreed and defended Steve’s mother.
“1969 was a very different time when dealing with teen pregnancy or being an unwed mother. People used to keep this and many other things secret. This family made, what they thought, was the best decision for him. He wouldn’t have understood if he had been told when he was a child,” one user argued.
“Joanie needed to be protected as well which is what her parents were trying to do. They were trying to protect their entire family from the shame that would have been felt in 1969. As far as “real mom”, no one can speak to what the term means to him except him so let it go people.” What do you think?