Imagine if one day you woke up to discover everything about your life was a lie. Sound scary? Let me take it one step further. Imagine if everyone around you knew your life was a lie but didn’t tell you. How would you feel? Sad? Deceived? Frustrated? Well, that’s exactly what happened to Steve Lickteig the night before his high school graduation.
As a child, Steve thought that he was the non-biological son of a former World War II veteran and his wife. Life was easy. The couple lived on a farm in Kansas, went to church every week, and raised Steve and their eight biological children. But when the truth finally revealed itself, Steve’s family secrets altered his relationship with them forever.
This is his story.
Back to the Beginning
Steve Lickteig’s story begins in the early 1970s. Growing up, he thought he was the youngest child of Don and Mary Jane Lickteig’s children. Steve, his parents, and his eight adoptive siblings lived in a small house on a farm in Emporia, Kansas. Some of his earliest memories are of playing outside with his eight older siblings and watching his dad work on the farm.
All in all, Steve had a normal, rural upbringing. His devout Catholic parents always seemed to be upfront with him. They told him from a very young age that he was adopted and was in no way biologically related to them. Although Steve grew up knowing this, he always felt like he was part of the family.
A Normal Childhood
But, as the years went on, Steve started to feel like something was off. As the adopted son of Catholic parents, Steve began to question why they took him into the family when they could have kids of their own. Why take in a ninth child? Looking back, Steve said that this question should have been a huge red flag.
But he was a kid and had no way of knowing that his family was hiding a secret. Despite the lingering questions in the back of Steve’s mind, the Lickteig family did a great job maintaining the façade for the greater part of his childhood. But lies always have a way of revealing themselves.
A Loving Family
While something may have been off, it would take another few years for Steve to learn the truth. But just because his family had something to hide does not mean that Steve was not loved. In fact, he was very much loved by his family, especially by his siblings. As he was the youngest of nine children, they all seemed to be very protective of him.
Despite the love he felt, Steve’s mind always seemed to daydream about his biological family. He would think about what they looked like and if he had any biological siblings of his own. Steve would often wonder what meeting them would be like and if he would ever be able to form close relationships with them.
Making a Plan
Throughout his childhood and teenage years, Steve remembers making a plan to finally locate and meet his biological parents. He didn’t know when or where he’d find them, but Steve wanted to take a road trip to meet them in person. However, when Steve discovered the truth about his biological family, all of that planning went down the drain.
Whenever Steve would tell his family and friends about his plans to find his biological parents, the energy in the room would change. Everyone’s eyes would dart around the room until someone quickly changed the subject. But Steve never gave his family and friends’ reactions that much thought. He just assumed that people were uncomfortable with the subject of adoption.
Time to Celebrate
At the time, Steve had no idea that his entire family was in on the secret about his biological mother. For years, his siblings swore to their parents that they would not tell Steve the truth. Whether they wanted it or not, that secret was about to come out.
By the time Steve turned 18, he knew his life was about to change, but he didn’t expect what came next. Like every one of his classmates, Steve was excited to graduate high school and start the next chapter of his life. So, the night before his big high school graduation ceremony, Steve called a couple of his friends and asked them if they wanted to celebrate.
A Tough Decision
Steve invited his best friends, Alan and Vance, to come over to his family’s farm to celebrate their big milestone. Alan and Vance had known the Lickteig family for years and were very close to Steve’s older siblings and parents. Right before Alan and Vance arrived, however, Steve sensed some tension between his friends.
This was a long time coming for Alan and Vance. For years Alan and Vance knew that the Lickteigs were hiding something from Steve, but they were also sworn to secrecy. As it was the night before their high school graduation, his friends decided it was finally time that Steve learn the truth about his biological mother. As his best friends, Alan and Vance, worried that Steve would never find out if they didn’t tell him.
We Have Something to Tell You
Strangely, Steve does not have a strong recollection of what went down that night, but what he does remember is that Alan and Vance walked into his bedroom and shut the door behind them. With that, Vance turned towards Steve and said, “We have something that we want to tell you.” Steve looked at them, confused.
It was the night before their high school graduation. This was supposed to be a time for celebration, not sharing deep, dark secrets. What were his friends talking about? Vance and Alan looked at each other. The room was silent until Vance finally blurted out, “I know who your mom is.” The moment Steve had been waiting his entire life had arrived.
The Truth Revealed
Steve was shocked. He had spent his entire life daydreaming about his biological mother. He often thought about what she looked like and why she gave him up for adoption. How did Steve’s friends know who she was when Steve himself didn’t know? But things just got worse. His biological mother, his friends explained, had been in front of his eyes the entire time.
The road trip Steve had been planning was not going to be necessary. “Why?” Steve asked. His friends went on to explain that his mother was actually in the bedroom down the hallway. His biological mother was his oldest sister, Joanie. Steve was shocked. He didn’t know what to think or say. He just stared blankly at his friends while the information sank in.
How Could They Do That?
Steve had spent his entire life, thinking that he was a random child adopted by strangers. From a young age, his parents made sure to tell him that he was adopted and not biologically related to them. At that moment, Steve’s entire world was flipped upside down. Everything he had known was a lie.
Steve later told The Today Show, “Don and Mary Jane were not strangers. They were really my grandparents, and Joanie, who I believed was my oldest sister, was my mother.” How could that be? How could his parents, or now grandparents, do this to him? The same sibling who heard him speak about taking a road trip to search for his biological parents was his biological mother.
It Just Gets Worse
But this new information wasn’t even the worst part. No, Alan and Vance said there was more to the truth. Steve sat on his bed in silence as his best friends went on to explain to him everything that 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.
And that included everyone: teachers, friends, siblings, and even his neighbors. Everyone knew the truth about who he was. Everyone that is, except for him. Knowing that everyone was in on the secret was what hurt Steve the most. What he thought was private and intimate information was out in the open for everyone to hear, and he had no control over it.
Everything’s Under Control
After his friends finished telling him the truth about his biological mother, Steve sat there in silence. His mind was racing, but all he could muster was an “Okay, thanks,” as his friends walked out the door. Steve was so stunned that he didn’t ask his friends any follow-up questions, and the three never really discussed the entire story in detail.
Instead, he was left alone with his thoughts. Steve kept his newfound knowledge of his family’s secret to himself. Even as his family took pictures with him the next day at his high school graduation ceremony, Steve didn’t say a word. He even spoke to his classmates at his graduation, as if nothing was wrong.
The Weight of the Truth
It took over 18 years for the truth to come to light, so Steve was in no rush to tell his family that he knew their secret. But this didn’t stop him from wondering about what he would say to them or how they would react.
Sometimes Steve thought that there was no point in even telling them. He knew that the truth was like Pandora’s box. He knew that once he told his family about what Alan and Vance had told him, nothing would ever be the same. Maybe, he thought, everything would go back to normal if he just kept the truth to himself. After a month and a half, however, Steve couldn’t take it anymore.
I Know the Truth
It was a Saturday night, and Steve was spending time with his then-girlfriend when his parents caught him in a compromising position. The next morning, Mary Jane turned on a television program that taught abstinence and turned the volume up so loud that it woke Steve up.
At this point, Steve was fed up. He rolled out of bed and went downstairs to confront Mary Jane (which he now knew was his grandmother). “Oh, did you play this same thing for Joanie?” Steve remembers asking his adoptive mother. She said nothing. So he asked her again. “Did you teach Joanie abstinence as she got pregnant with me?” He knew that his words were emotionally charged, but he didn’t care. He wanted answers.
Can’t Take It Anymore
“She looked at me, my mother [Mary Jane], and said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’” Steve remembers her saying. So Steve explained that he knew everything, but he was just looking for some clarification. Mary Jane, however, didn’t budge. She continued to deny that she knew what Steve was talking about.
After a few minutes of arguing, someone else intervened. Don, the man whom Steve grew up believing was his father, was sitting on a chair in the next room and overheard the conversation. At first, Don kept silent, but he became more and more upset as his wife continued to deny the truth about Steve’s biological mother. “Finally, my dad slammed his hand down on his La-Z-Boy and said ‘Damn it, will you just tell him?’”
The Truth Sounds Different
Finally, Mary Jane let her guard down and agreed to tell Steve everything. She confessed that she was, in fact, his biological grandmother and that Joanie had given birth to him. Although Steve already knew the truth, hearing it from Mary Jane’s mouth hit him like a ton of bricks.
He thought he was ready to listen to her admit the truth, but it was all too much for him to handle. Devastated and confused, Steve decided to leave his family behind and run away. “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.”
Time to Think
Although Steve ran away, he made sure not to be alone. Steve knew that he would need to talk everything out, so he brought a few friends along for the ride. Steve asked his friends to keep his whereabouts a secret, but since he lived in a small town, details of his location spread like wildfire.
Joanie, Steve’s birth mother, found out that Steve had finally learned the truth about her being his mother. She knew that she owed Steve an explanation. So Joanie tracked down her son in an attempt to explain her side of the story. After finding the motel’s phone number, she called Steve’s room and anxiously waited to hear what he had to say about the situation.
The Full Story
“We had a moment of, ‘Yes, this happened. I’m sorry,’” Steve told reporters. But right after Joanie apologized about the situation, she decided to open up and tell Steve the entire story. She went on to explain that growing up, she had a hard time living in a strict Catholic household. When she was old enough, Joanie ran away from her family’s farm in Kansas and went to Los Angeles.
While she was living in California, Joanie explained, she met Steve’s father and became pregnant out of wedlock. Young and scared, Joanie knew that she couldn’t raise a child. She didn’t know what else to do but go home and confess to her religious parents.
The Truth Will Set You Free
After Joanie’s confession, Don and Mary Jane decided to raise her baby as their own. Yes, they wanted Joanie to live a normal life, but they were also scared. They knew that their daughter’s unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock would potentially bring shame to the family.
Don and Mary Jane spent their entire life raising their kids in a strict Catholic household, and they didn’t want everyone in town to think they had somehow failed as parents. After Joanie gave birth to Steve, Don and Mary Jane took him in and made their other children promise not to tell a soul. When Joanie finished telling Steve her side of the story, she hoped that he would understand.
Somewhere in the Middle
For Joanie, this moment felt like a weight was finally being lifted off her chest, but it was a completely different feeling for Steve. Steve listened to his birth mother’s side of the story and remained mostly silent. It was hard to hear what she had to say because his parents told him something different.
She said that she did not want to give me up,” Steve said in an NPR interview. “My parents say that’s not true that she needed the help. I think, as most things, it falls somewhere in the middle.” Steve felt a sense of relief to hear Joanie explain her side of the story finally. However, the truth was still too much for Steve to bear.
Pretend Like It Didn’t Happen
That was the last time anyone spoke of Steve and Joanie’s situation, well for 15 years, that is. In an interview with NPR, Steve said that something inside him changed that day. All throughout high school, he was this really happy guy who was close to his large Catholic family. However, after finding out the truth about his family, he just shut down.
A relationship with his family became more of an obligation, and Steve distanced himself from everyone. Looking back at this time, Steve said that there were always clues regarding his biological mother’s identity. “In hindsight, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, of course!’” Steve said. “It just seemed very normal because the story was so locked in. So no, I didn’t really suspect anything.”
The entire situation left the Lickteig family in shambles. Steve had a hard time sitting in a room with his family because all he could think about was the lie. Since everyone refused to even bring up the subject of Steve’s adoption, Steve cut himself off from his family. It wasn’t until Steve started dating his future wife that he decided it was time to work on his relationship with his family.
His future wife encouraged him to reach out, no matter how hard it may be. The communication started off slowly, but soon, Steve began to rebuild his relationship with his birth mother. “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,” Steve told The Today Show.
Documenting Their Progress
Steve and Joanie are moving forward, but the process hasn’t been easy, with Steve admitting that he still harbors unresolved resentment towards them. When asked about their relationship today, Steve said, “it is not the best, but it is not horrible, either.” Steve went on to make a documentary called Open Secret about his journey of discovery.
In an NPR interview, Steve said that this experience allowed him to have difficult conversations with his family, conversations that he know would have never happened otherwise. Once the film came out, however, his birth mother wanted no involvement with its promotion. Regardless of their hardships, Steve said he is still optimistic about his family’s ability to become whole once more. “I feel like we are ultimately going to be in a good place.”
Although Steve’s story may seem rare, this type of situation happens a lot more frequently than you might think. Walter and Alan were childhood best friends, who spent most of their early years wondering about their birth parents. Then, when DNA technology came out, the two received news that altered the course of their lives forever.