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About the Movie
OPEN SECRET is a documentary that chronicles Steve Lickteig’s 20-year search for who his real birth parents were; why a whole town kept the truth from him; and how his family’s tumultuous history revolves around the hidden lives of two unconventional women. Steve grew up as the adoptee of Don and Mary Jane Lickteig, who ran a farm in Kansas and had eight other (natural) children. Lickteig always wondered who his real parents were and planned to search for them as an adult. When he was 18 years old, Steve received shocking news from his two best friends: he was not adopted from unknown parents but was actually the illegitimate son of his oldest sister, Joanie. Not only that, everyone in his life had always known the secret: his siblings, his schoolmates, townsfolk, even his girlfriends. Steve’s anger and confusion led to a long period of estrangement from his family. But his marriage led to a desire for reconciliation. He discovered that the secret to his story lay in the hidden lives of his adopted mother, Mary Jane; his biological mother, Joanie; and his long-lost father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. OPEN SECRET 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.
I want you to watch this film.
Not because it was made by a friend of mine. Honestly, almost in spite of that, because when I watch it, I feel a welter of emotions few others will - a rare yearning for the emptiness of the place I grew up, a joy at seeing once-familiar gestures and facial expressions from a friend I haven't spent time with in years, and a bone-deep knowledge of how fiercely people from the plains cling to their secrets and hurts, letting them grow into invisible, intractable monsters. I never met any of Steve's family, but god do I recognize them the moment they appear on screen. They're part and parcel of being a Kansan.
But you'll be moved by it, too. Because as familiar as it can be, it's also completely alien in how it plays out. Steve was adopted - he thought by strangers - and grew up relatively happy in a small town in Kansas. His best friends (bless them) told him when he turned 18 that he was the only person in town who didn't know the facts of his own origin story. His adoptive parents were really his grandparents, and his birth mother was actually his older sister, who conceived him in a fling with an older man in L.A.
That's not a spoiler. That's where the movie starts. The journey lies in chronicling the fallout when Steve starts asking questions - a cardinal sin in Midwestern family life. Watching this family being forced to confront hidden anger, regret, mental illness, and denial is riveting. So much forgiveness is required, and each participant in the drama faces that necessity in a different way. Watching them battle their glossed-over emotions in real time is tough, and revelatory.
A well-told, fascinating look at family and secret-keeping. The film is subtle but filled with emotion.
Pay Close Attention
Lots of subtext. Hand gestures, ticks, nervous laughs. Secrets are like poison.