RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Steve Lickteig's life as he knew it was a lie.
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STEVE LICKTEIG: Here's the thing about a place like Kansas. Things can hide in these wide open spaces - hopes, lies, secrets. The sky is like a huge lid trapping everything inside.
MARTIN: Lickteig thought he was the adopted son of a former WWII vet and his wife. Life was simple. They ran a farm in Kansas, went to Mass at the local Catholic Church and raised Steve and their eight biological children. Lickteig wondered who his real parents were. Then, when he turned 18, two of his best friends told him the truth. His adopted parents were actually his biological grandparents. The woman who he knew as his older sister was actually his mother.
Decades after the revelation, Lickteig turned the camera on his own family to try to understand how a secret like this could be kept for so long. Steve Lickteig is the senior producer for WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on NPR. His film is called "Open Secret" and it premieres in the U.S. tonight on Al Jazeera America. Steve Lickteig joins us from our studios at NPR West.
Steve, thanks for being with us.
LICKTEIG: Thanks, Rachel.
MARTIN: What do you remember about the conversations you had with those two friends who revealed the truth to you?
LICKTEIG: It was right before high school graduation, the night before. They walked into my bedroom and they shut the door. And Vance said, you know, we have something we want to tell you. And then he just blurted it out. He said, I know who your mom is. And the told me they had known for basically their entire lives, and that everybody I had grown up with had known for their entire lives.
MARTIN: I mean that must have been incredibly difficult to hear. Not just the revelation about who your real mom was - that it was the woman you knew to be your oldest sister - but that everyone in your world had known this.
LICKTEIG: I think that was actually the biggest blow to me, that 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.
MARTIN: What did you do with the information at the time? Were you immediately compelled to confront your family?
LICKTEIG: I didn't say anything to anybody after I found out after I found out. And I had a high school graduation the next night, went to it, actually spoke at the graduation. And then, about a month later, I was caught by my parents with my then-girlfriend in a sort of compromising situation.
LICKTEIG: And the next morning, my mom turned on one of those television preachers, and she turned the TV up really loud and the preacher was teaching abstinence. And I got up out of bed and I came out into the living room and said: Oh, did you play this same thing for Joanie - which she was my actual mother, my biological mother who I thought was my sister. And so I confronted her in that way, saying, you know, Did you teach Joanie abstinence, you know, as she got pregnant with me?
And she looked at me, my mother, and said: I have no idea what you're talking about. And I said, you know, well, I know everything. I know what the truth is. And she said - she kept denying and denying. And finally my dad slammed his hand down on his La-Z-Boy and said: Damn it, will you just tell him?
MARTIN: What happened to the relationship after that?
LICKTEIG: It was never spoken of again, not until 15 years later. We just didn't talk about it.
MARTIN: This is a scene where you are confronting the people who raised you, who are your grandparents biologically. You're confronting them about why they covered this secret up.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OPEN SECRET")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, I always assumed that you already knew because the kids - our kids would have told him. Well, that's strange. Can't believe they kept a secret like that for so long.
LICKTEIG: Well, and not only did they keep the secret, this is a small community. It was an open secret. Everybody knew about it but nobody talked about it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: About it, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Small town.
LICKTEIG: Well, and the only one that didn't know about it...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Was you
LICKTEIG: ...was me.
MARTIN: What is happening there under the laughter?
LICKTEIG: They're scared. They don't know what door has just been opened. It took me a long time to understand this. The laughter wasn't, you know, laughing at me. It was laughing out of not knowing what else to do.
MARTIN: What about your sister, Joanie, who is actually your biological mother? What were you looking for from her through this process?
LICKTEIG: 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.
MARTIN: She didn't want to give you up?
LICKTEIG: She says she did not want to give me up. My parents say that's not true. I think, as with most things, it falls somewhere in the middle. 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. And I really, at one point, in the making of the film, I really wanted Joanie and my mom and dad - me and my grandparents - to talk to each other.
MARTIN: About this.
LICKTEIG: About this.
LICKTEIG: And that was one of the goals was we all need to sit down and talk about this, because this is something that's really affected our family in a very deep way, and that we've never grappled with. And it was like a little poison.
MARTIN: And that conversation, it didn't happen?
LICKTEIG: With my parents and Joanie?
LICKTEIG: Never happened.
MARTIN: In 2009, you married one of the editors on our show, Barrie Hardymon. Your real mother, Joanie, was invited to your wedding but she did not attend. What is your relationship with her like now?
LICKTEIG: You know, I think she thought it was going to be a different film than what it was. And she saw it and just like she was characterized poorly. Everybody else who saw it who knows her - my whole family were, like, you captured the essence of everyone here. And we've e-mailed a few times but we haven't had any conversation in a long while. And it's not the outcome that I had expected.
MARTIN: Did you get what you were looking for from all this?
LICKTEIG: I learned a lot about my family. I learned a lot about my community. And I learned about all the burdens that my family carried and I also felt like I got to talk to my mother - so confusing.
LICKTEIG: My grandmother, the woman who raised me. I got to talk to her in a way that I had never been able to talk to anybody before about this whole thing in a way that I know I never would have done otherwise. So, yeah, in the end I can walk away from this and say this did what it was supposed to do.
MARTIN: Steve Lickteig, his new documentary "Open Secret" makes its U.S. debut tonight on Al Jazeera America.
Thanks so much for talking with us.
LICKTEIG: Thank you, Rachel.
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MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
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