Lifestyle & Human Interest

Man Discovers His Sister Is Actually His Mother and Best Friends Knew the Entire Time


There are a lot of circumstances that can lead to stressed family ties and estrangement. Secrets, cover-ups, lies — even truths that are kept hidden in order to protect some can end up really hurting others and damaging once-solid relationships.

The secret that caused a rift in the Lickteig family was years in the making, and it’s taken years to start ironing out again. In the meantime, that story has started coming out in the news and was the basis for a documentary called “Open Secret.”

When Steve Lickteig was a boy, he was told he was adopted. He accepted this as he worked his way through childhood and adolescence, hoping someday to find his real parents.

“Steve grew up as the adoptee of Don and Mary Jane Lickteig, who ran a farm in Kansas and had eight other (natural) children,” the page for “Open Secret” explains. “Lickteig always wondered who his real parents were and planned to search for them as an adult.”

The town the Lickteigs grew up in was small. They were a Catholic family, and everyone seemed to know everyone else.

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What Steve didn’t know as he grew up was that everyone in their tight-knit community knew something about him that he didn’t: They knew that his real mother was actually his older sister.

Unfortunately, that cover-up stewed for 18 years until the night before Steve’s graduation, when his friends — who’d known his true origins — spilled the beans and told him the truth that the whole tiny town already knew.

“I held it in for another month and a half, and then I confronted my parents — my grandparents — about it,” Steve told TODAY. “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, got drunk with my friends.”

Since news travels quickly through a small grapevine, Joanie quickly tracked down her son. Finally, she spoke frankly with him.

“We had a moment of, ‘Yes, this happened. I’m sorry,'” Steve recalled. “I was mostly silent. And then we didn’t talk about it again for another 15 years.”

It has taken a long time for Steve to come to terms with the truth, and to heal from the trauma of being lied to for so many years. Despite the deception, he and his mother do speak now — if not as much as she’d like, at least they are making progress.

“I would say that it’s not the best, but it’s not horrible, either,” Steve said of their current relationship. “In fact, we exchanged voicemail messages around [doing] this today. But we haven’t talked in a while directly.”

“She does send birthday cards to my children. 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 — but maybe a little too slowly for her.”

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“It’s just been hard for me,” he admitted. “I feel like we are ultimately going to be in a good place.”

Dani Shapiro had a similar journey when she found out the man she’d called “dad” all her life wasn’t her real father. She’s used her experience to write a book and start a podcast.

“Ultimately people do have a right to know, and I think also feel liberated by knowing the truth,” she said. “The secret-keepers are carrying a burden, but the question is not so much whether they should share that secret, but when.”

Timing is everything, and Lickteig has had years to reflect on and rationalize the situation. A similar scenario probably wouldn’t last today and the secret would’ve been out immediately, but Steve’s childhood was set in a very different time.

“Part of it was the time of this, which was the early ’70s, and also small town, a tight-knit community,” Steve explained. “The community members who knew, who didn’t say anything, were just trying to be good neighbors.”

The “Open Secret” About page states that the film “explores the cost of suppressing history across multiple generations. It follows the wrenching, funny, and liberating process of piecing together an authentic (and inevitably contradictory) family history.”

No doubt processing his story and the factors that influenced it was cathartic for Steve, who is now a husband, a father and an employee of NBC. But he’s also happy to use his own story of struggle to comfort others who have been or are going through something similar.

“I’m so happy to be able to help other people who have stories like this,” he said. “Your life doesn’t have to be destroyed over something like this.”

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Amanda holds an MA in Rhetoric and TESOL from Cal Poly Pomona. After teaching composition and logic for several years, she's strayed into writing full-time and especially enjoys animal-related topics.
As of January 2019, Amanda has written over 1,000 stories for The Western Journal but doesn't really know how. Graduating from California State Polytechnic University with a MA in Rhetoric/Composition and TESOL, she wrote her thesis about metacognitive development and the skill transfer between reading and writing in freshman students.
She has a slew of interests that keep her busy, including trying out new recipes, enjoying nature, discussing ridiculous topics, reading, drawing, people watching, developing curriculum, and writing bios. Sometimes she has red hair, sometimes she has brown hair, sometimes she's had teal hair.
With a book on productive communication strategies in the works, Amanda is also writing and illustrating some children's books with her husband, Edward.
Austin, Texas
Languages Spoken
English und ein bißchen Deutsch
Topics of Expertise
Faith, Animals, Cooking