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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.
A well-told, fascinating look at family and secret-keeping. The film is subtle but filled with emotion.
So MUCH missing
I can't say I did not like watching this film, I can also say it was very frustrating because so much seemed to be left out of it. I think the filmmaker truly had a desire to tell a story and make some sense of things but the film suffered an almost parallel issue to the issue that his family seemed to inherently have namely that of not asking meaningful questions and not going too far (if at all) beneath the surface. It is almost like the filmmaker scrapes the surface but never goes to the heart or even close to it of the issues. This is interesting until the viewer realizes that this very short documentary will never gain the depth or momentum to come to any very significant level of discovery and you will be left with virtually no more understanding that you can gain in watching a preview. To cite and example, the filmmaker was told by his mother that his birthmother (his mother's daughter) was going to put him up for adoption so that is why his mother raised him and claimed she had in fact adopted him. For someone who is seeking to understand why his parents would have taken him from his birthmother to raise as their own and why his family would spin a tale of adoption and lie to him about it, this could be a very important 'clue'. Yet not at any time did the filmmaker ask his birthmother if she indeed was going to put him up for adoption. So many avenues are similar to this. We have a found stepsister who shares nothing more than a few ancedopts about their birthfather. Nothing is mentioned about how she really felt about discovering a unknown half brother. Yet the closing scenes are at her home with the filmmaker enjoying a meal. Even her the conversation is about food and has maybe two lines of dialogue from the before unknown stepsister. I will say this, for me the film had one jewel of understanding. It was simply but golden. (If this is a spoiler then do not read until you see the film.) … At the neat conclusion of the film, the filmmaker meets for a (brief) encounter with his birthmother. In her frustration she says something to the effect that his adoptive mother (his birthmothers mother) had given him a good life because she could not (mentally) give her a good childhood. It may not sound like much but I think it at least answered why his adoptive mother may have been so proud and protective and nurturing of him. She saw in him part of his birthmother and having been unable to love her she was able to love him even more not only for himself but also for what she missed for his birthmother. Could have been so much more I felt, but I am happy for the filmmaker if he is at peace or closer to it.
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.