The truth comes out

On the night before Steve Lickteig’s high school graduation, his two best friends Vance and Alan decided to tell Steve the truth. “Until that moment, I fully believed I was adopted by strangers,” Steve said. But his parents hadn’t really been strangers at all — they were his grandparents.

Man's sister is really his mother
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

Joanie — who Steve had always believed to be his older sister — was really his mother. At first, Steve didn’t believe it. “In my mind, I wanted to prove (Alan and Vance) wrong.” 

Steve’s reaction to the news

He didn’t confront his family at first, effectively keeping the secret they had all kept from him for so long. But it didn’t take long for the lie to weigh on him as well, and he started to recognize things in his childhood that didn’t make sense.

sad steve
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Steve had too many questions that he felt he needed answers to, so shortly after his graduation and just before leaving home to join the military, he confronted the people he’d always called “mom and dad.” He’d get his answers, but it would be decades before he’d get the closure he desired.

Living a lie

Steve Lickteig had grown up believing that he was adopted. He found it odd that his parents — who already had many biological children of their own — would want to adopt another child, but he never gave it too much thought.

Protect him from the truth
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

When he turned 18 he had to face not only the truth, but also the fact that everyone else had known it all along, yet had never told him. But how could this happen, and why would his family try to keep such a secret?

His siblings all kept up the deception

“'(Mom)’ sat us down and told us that they were taking in this foster child,” Steve’s brother Dennis explained. “Then from me up, they told us who it was, and that we were sworn to secrecy. We could not tell anyone, even the other brothers and sisters.”

brother kept the secret
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It was difficult for them to keep such a secret from their sibling, but they never gave in, even though they badly wanted Steve to know the truth. Years later, their mother would admit she was surprised that they had never let the secret slip out in front of Steve. 

The lie they told Steve

Their mother told young Steve a story that sounds quite like the beginning of a fairy tale. According to her, they had found a little boy in the nursery with no parents. 

Joanie with baby Steve
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

They immediately fell in love and decided to take him home. While Steve had many questions he thought he’d never have answers too, he grew up feeling loved and wanted.

Steve more or less believed this story, until one day it all unraveled.

Small town, big secret

Steve would later learn that it wasn’t just his family and close friends who knew the truth — it was the whole town. Practically everyone knew except for him, though no one could bring themselves to tell him until his graduation.

keeping the lie
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

Even Steve’s high school girlfriend had been in on the secret. But what was the reason, and what could be gained from such an elaborate deception?

A controlling mother

Joanie — Steve’s real mother — grew up living in fear of her mother, Mary Jane. Strict, perhaps to the point of cruelty, Mary Jane was the true head of the household, and everyone did what Mary Jane commanded.

Mary Jane, Man finds out sister is his mother
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Mary Jane made the decision to keep Steve’s real mother a secret from him. The rest of the family felt they had no choice but to go along with the deception. For decades after the incident came to light, things remained tense between certain members of the Lickteig household.

Deep-seeded anger

Joanie was a free-spirited and strong-willed girl. In some ways, her and her mother were alike. Mary Jane had lived and worked in Washington D.C. for many years before meeting her future husband — war veteran Don Lickteig. After they married, the couple moved to Don’s home state of Kansas.

marriage, unhappy in Kansas
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

A city girl at heart, Mary Jane did not adapt well to life on the farm. Don and Mary Jane fought intensely. Eventually, Mary Jane had a mental breakdown and was temporarily hospitalized.

Looking back is hard

Decades later, it was difficult for Mary Jane to look back on her life during this time. Rather than face the truth, it was easier to block out the difficult memories and events.

cut up the picture
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

Steve’s siblings were eventually able to forgive her and recognize the internal struggles she had been dealing with.

But in the late 1960s, Mary Jane’s outbursts were causing great strain on the family. The relationship between Joanie and Mary Jane was especially rough.

A strained relationship

Mary Jane recovered from the breakdown that sent her to the mental institution. However, the relationship between her and her oldest daughter remained tense.

man finds out his sister is really his mother
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

So at 20 years old, when Joanie got an opportunity to leave, she seized it. Her decision would lead her away from her family and from Kansas all together, to work at a girl’s home in Los Angeles, California.

Romance with an older man

Mesmerized by the bright lights and atmosphere of Los Angeles, Joanie found herself swept up in a whirlwind romance with a man named Henry who was nearly twice her age. 

Henry, Steve's real father
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

Henry dressed well and had a foreign accent, which was appealing to a young naive girl from rural Kansas.

Weeks after returning from Los Angeles to start college, Joanie was forced to face the truth — she was pregnant.

A different time

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, pregnancy unplanned and out of wedlock, was still taboo — especially in the Midwest. When Joanie gave birth to Steve, her family made the decision to cover it up, to hide her from the shame and embarrassment.

sister is really his mother
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

However, the trick didn’t fool most of the people in town. But out of respect and the fear of upsetting things, no one ever told Steve the truth.

The incident also further strained the relationship between Joanie and her mother, since Joanie felt she was manipulated by Mary Jane.

Steve’s birth coalesced the Lickteigs

Steve’s family members recall that Steve coming into their lives had a calming effect on their mother and, for the most part, they were happier than ever before. Mary Jane was no longer plagued by the outbursts that had sent her to the mental institution.

Lickteig family
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

Steve was more or less a happy child all the way through his adolescence. As he neared graduation, he decided to join the military, following in his father’s footsteps.

But he was about to hear the news that would shake him to the core.

Breaking the silence

Telling Steve the truth was not something that Alan and Vance took lightly. They were worried about Steve’s reaction, and how it might affect him, his relationship with his family, and even their friendship.

Steve's friend Alan
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

After some debate, the pair agreed that they owed it to their best friend to tell him the truth.

“Ok, they’re not coming clean,” Vance thought. “So I’ll do it. I think a person has a right to know where they come from.”

Steve was reluctant to accept it

Steve’s first reaction was denial. He didn’t want to accept that he had been living such a colossal lie. It wasn’t long, however, that he became convinced.

Young Joanie and Steve
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

Even then, he tried to pretend like everything was fine. “There’s pictures of me with mom and dad at graduation with my arms around them … wouldn’t I have been (angry)?” Steve asked himself years later. He thought it would be easier to pretend like the incident hadn’t happened. Gradually, the pressure built up inside him and he felt he was owed some answers. He summoned his courage and prepared to face his “parents.”

The confrontation

When Steve finally faced Mary Jane and Don, Mary Jane’s initial reaction was to deny everything. She pretended she had no idea what he was talking about. The conversation went in circles until finally Don had enough.

argument, Steve learns the truth
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“Will you just tell him?” Don exclaimed. Now there was no turning back. Mary Jane finally broke down and told him the truth. But she wouldn’t apologize for deceiving him his whole life.

The eventual fallout

Steve couldn’t help but feel bitter toward his whole family — particularly his mother. Once a self-described “happy-go-lucky child,” Steve became depressed. “I remember some days when you didn’t even want to get out of bed,” Steve’s friend recalled to him.

family divided
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Steve remained unhappy throughout most of his 20s. He drank excessively during and after his service in the military. He married but then divorced his wife shortly afterward. Mostly, he just wanted to put Kansas behind him. This led him to a new life and career as a journalist in Washington D.C.

Things got better, but something was missing

Though Steve was able to overcome that rough period by settling into life in D.C. and falling in love with the woman he’d later marry, he still had unresolved issues with his family he had to deal with.

Steve Lickteig
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Like it or not, something was calling him back to Kansas. Steve needed closure.

Trying to make sense of it all

Steve returned to the town he grew up in, determined to get an apology, or at least a clear explanation of what had happened.

He once again spoke to his best friends, Alan and Vance. His friends said that they understood why Steve’s adoptive parents had done what they had done.

Steve's friend Alan
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

While they felt Don and Mary Jane had let the lie go on way too long, they knew that deep down they were good people with their family’s best interest at heart.

It was difficult for Steve to explain why this was still bothering him after so many years. But he was still angry and he needed closure in order to properly forgive.

Steve and Joanie had much to discuss

It was still difficult for Steve to wrap his head around the relationship he had with Joanie. It would be hard to see her as anything other than a sister. When they met up, he learned some details about her relationship with his real father Henry.

Joanie, hard conversation, difficult
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Joanie really didn’t know too much about the father of her child, other than he was from somewhere in Europe, and that he had served in the war. Steve had done some research on his own, and presented Joanie with some remarkable details.

Learning about his biological father

Steve hired a private investigator to track down his biological father’s living family members. The investigator was able to find the address of Henry’s daughter Brenda. Steve wrote to Brenda and the two agreed to meet and discuss Henry.

Henry, Steve's real dad
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

Brenda revealed that Henry had been a teenager when World War II broke out. Because of his Jewish heritage, he was captured by the Nazis and spent time in a concentration camp before he was freed by Allied troops. He then lived in the American-occupied zone of Germany before moving to the United States.

Never given a chance to grow up

Despite the hardships Henry had endured, Brenda did not have a high opinion of her father.

“He was a philanderer, from the moment he stepped off the boat (into the United States),” Brenda told Steve. “It’s a shame that your birth had to be a shameful thing for (Joanie). She was a victim as far as I can see.”

Henry, Steve's real father
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

It was eye-opening for Steve, who was torn between revering his father because of his incredible story and having to reconcile that with the way he had treated Joanie and the wife and family Henry had left behind.

The more he pulled back the layers, the less everything seemed so black and white.

Mary Jane’s explanation

There was one person especially from whom Steve needed an explanation — the woman he’d grown up calling “mom,” who had orchestrated the lie. 

Apologizing was difficult for Mary Jane, perhaps because by doing so she would have to admit that she had hurt her grandson.

coming clean, explanation
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

But after many conversations, they came to an understanding. Steve recognized that while his grandparents had made a terrible mistake, they had raised him the best way they knew how. To him, they would always be his mom and dad.

Mary Jane passes away

Steve was able to make his peace with Mary Jane before her health fully deteriorated. When he gained perspective on what truly mattered, all the petty grievances seemed trivial. Any residual resentment he had toward her was replaced by love and respect for her.

passed away, sadness, funeral
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

Steve stayed with Mary Jane until the doctors finally took her off of the machines that were keeping her alive. The whole family coalesced to support one another in this difficult time. Except there was one family member who was conspicuously absent …

Anger and bitterness

At first, Steve was furious that Joanie had neglected to show up when the family was facing the loss of their matriarch.

“You do not want to be treated that way when you’re on your deathbed,” he explained. “You will want to have people around you who love you.”

Joanie upset
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

It caused a serious rift between Steve and Joanie — made worse when weeks later she bailed on attending his wedding. When his anger cooled off, it turned to disappointment. It was time for another talk with the woman he’d always considered to be his older sister.

Forgiveness and understanding

When Steve and Joanie finally got together, Steve was determined to say what was on his mind and to get an explanation and apology from Joanie. He wanted to know why she was holding onto this vitriol and bitterness for all these years. The way she answered surprised him.

Steve forgiving, emotional
Steve Lickteig via Open Secret

She confessed that while she hadn’t been to the hospital with the whole family (the prospect made her too nervous), she had been visiting on her own and calling the nurses to speak to Mary Jane every night and telling her she loved her. Joanie and her mother had hardly ever seen eye-to-eye, but Joanie recognized how much Mary Jane cared about her.

“Sometimes I like to think that since mom couldn’t give me a happy childhood, she gave it to you, because you were a part of me,” she told Steve.

Steve’s plans for the future

Steve confided in Joanie that he and his wife had been considering having kids of their own. But he wasn’t sure how he would explain his relation to Joanie to his kids.

happy couple, happily married, plans for the future
Steve Lickteig via Facebook

“Just keep me as Joanie. No aunts or anything like that attached to it, just as Joanie,” she suggested.

The road ahead will undoubtedly still have its obstacles, but the Lickteigs seem to have finally put the past behind them.