true crime

Abducted in Plain Sight Is a Documentary That Must Be Seen to Be Believed

An old photo of Robert Berchtold and Jan Broberg featured in Abducted in Plain Sight. Photo: Courtesy of Top Knot Films

Think of the wildest story you’ve ever heard. Now square it, multiply it by 50, and maybe you’ll have a sense of how nutso Abducted in Plain Sight is.

The documentary about an Idaho preteen who was raped, abused, and kidnapped by a family friend right in front of her parents’ eyes, initially made the rounds on the film festival circuit in 2017 and was available to stream on various platforms last year. But it didn’t debut on Netflix until earlier this month. In the two weeks since it arrived on the world’s go-to bingeable content platform, it has started to generate buzz online, usually in the form of incredulous posts like this one on Twitter.

Indeed, it is impossible to watch Abducted in Plain Sight without being amazed and also wanting to punch a few things. It ticks off every box associated with contemporary, engrossing works of true crime: It features an innocent, sympathetic victim (as in most true crime shows and movies, she happens to be female); it demonstrates how easy it is for people to be totally duped; it sparks feelings of disbelief and outrage; and it contains enough mind-boggling twists to induce motion sickness. Or some kind of sickness. You will definitely feel nauseous while watching it, is what I’m saying.

As directed and produced by Skye Borgman, Abducted in Plain Sight unfolds in a tight 90 minutes, but if enough people watch it, I can easily imagine Netflix deciding to commission its own four-part docuseries based on the same case. There are enough lingering questions, as well as some cultural context that the documentary doesn’t explore, to justify digging more deeply into the bizarre story of how Jan Broberg was brainwashed into having sex with Robert Berchtold, a man nearly 30 years her senior, in order to save the world and her family members.

That “have sex to save the world” threat, as freaking weird and upsetting as it is, is maybe the fifth or sixth most outrageous thing in a documentary that involves adultery, pedophilia, aliens, the Mormon church, and parents so willfully blind to what’s going on with their own child that they make the unseen moms and dads in the Peanuts cartoons look like helicopter parents.

There is nothing particularly revolutionary about the manner in which Borgman films the documentary. It consists almost entirely of talking-head interviews with key figures — all five members of the Broberg family, the brother of Robert Berchtold, an FBI agent frustrated by the way the Brobergs handle their business — and a series of sepia-toned reenactments designed to add more of a dynamic visual element to the narrative. Borgman understands that she doesn’t need to do anything flashy. She just needs to allow her traumatized, guilt-ridden sources to explain the events that unfolded in their lives back in the 1970s, explanations that she structures in a nonchronological fashion so that our perspective on what really happened changes once the movie goes back in time a bit and adds more details.

I won’t reveal all those major details, simply because audiences unfamiliar with the story should get to experience at least some of its shock and awe firsthand. But within the first five minutes, the documentary raises hackles by playing an audio recording of Berchtold, who became like a second father to Jan after their respective families of five — both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Pocatello, Idaho — became close. In that recording, Berchtold describes kissing Jan and how he loves her more than “any other woman,” despite the fact that she is still a young girl. It’s obvious there’s something extremely wrong here. According to Jan’s mom, Mary Ann, they were somewhat aware of that right from the beginning.

“His fascination with Jan,” she says matter-of-factly, “was a little disturbing.” (Berchtold’s brother, Joe, is much more blunt: “My brother was a pervert.”)

The fascination with Jan was not disturbing enough to stop the relationship from continuing to develop, until one day in 1974, when Berchtold told Mary Ann he was taking Jan horseback riding and never brought her home. Instead he gave her what he told her were allergy pills, but were actually sedatives, put her in his motor home with her feet and hands tied down, and pumped the sound of voices through a speaker as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Those voices supposedly belonged to aliens who told Jan she needed to conceive a child with a chosen male partner before she turned 16, otherwise bad things would happen to her parents and two younger sisters as well as, potentially, to the entire world. Of course, the recording strongly implied that the male partner should be Berchtold, whom Jan called “B,” and who also backed up the alien story.

Groggy, naïve, and fully trusting of B, she stayed in the motor home as they traveled to Mexico, where her so-called second dad raped her repeatedly and, eventually, forced her to marry him when she was just 12 years old. (Child marriage was banned in Mexico in 2014. But, as this NPR article points out, many underage girls still get married there, even today.) Meanwhile, the Brobergs didn’t call the cops for a couple of days because — so help me, I am not making this up — they didn’t want to upset Berchtold’s wife. When the FBI eventually got involved, even though Jan had been missing for some time, an agent had to convince them that she had legitimately been kidnapped.

“I tell you, I don’t know how we could have been so gullible when there were so many red flags,” Bob Broberg, Jan’s father, says at one point. I don’t know either, Bob Broberg!

Trust me when I say that this is only the tiniest sliver of the tip of the iceberg in a story so outlandish, you wouldn’t believe it even as the plot of a telenovela. At first, the documentary leads us to believe that the Brobergs are clueless, trusting souls who never considered the darker motivations Berchtold might possess because their faith and small-town life shielded them from such thoughts. But Abducted in Plain Sight eventually reveals that other things were going on between the Brobergs and Berchtold that clouded matters for them and made them less likely to publicly implicate him or aggressively try to get their daughter back. (I won’t spoil what those things are, apart from saying: Whew, lordy.)

While this by no means excuses the way Jan’s parents handled things, it’s worth noting that in the early 1970s, a lot of Americans weren’t as inclined to fixate on the dangers kids might face, especially among adults that they knew and trusted. The year that Jan was kidnapped the first time — yeah, I said “the first time,” sorry, spoiler alert, like I said, this documentary is bananas — it was 1974, five years before Etan Patz, one of the first missing children to appear on the side of a milk carton, disappeared from his Soho neighborhood in New York City. Certainly there were instances of kidnappings and child abuse before the 1970s, some of them quite high profile. But the concept of stranger danger, and, for that matter, non-stranger danger, was just beginning to become a part of the public consciousness. The film doesn’t get into all that, but sharing a bit of context would have provided a useful backdrop for setting up the story.

While Jan’s parents clearly feel guilt about their negligence, it’s still hard not to be absolutely furious with them, because it still feels like they also remain in some measure of denial. Her sister, Karen, says her parents didn’t ask exactly what happened between Jan and Berchtold, and that her sister held in all of it — including her constant fear that her inability to execute the aliens’ mission would result in some kind of catastrophe.

“It’s too painful for them to realize they allowed that to happen to her,” Karen says of her parents.

The point of Abducted in Plain Sight is not to shame the Brobergs. Jan, who is now an actress and appears on-camera throughout the film, says her reason for participating in the documentary (and co-writing, with her mother, a book about her experience) is to help parents and kids be more attuned to predatory warning signs. But it’s tough not to think about Mary Ann and Bob Broberg’s response as a reflection of a tendency among certain Americans to close one’s eyes to things that are unpleasant.

Borgman also hints, gently, at the role religion may have played in all this. Part of the reason the Brobergs trusted Berchtold is because they met him through the Mormon Church, and part of the reason they are reticent about speaking out more forcefully against Berchtold is due to concern about their reputations within the church and the community. Jan also says she may have been more inclined to believe the whole alien/conception story because she was raised so fervently to believe in the importance of the birth of Jesus. But Borgman doesn’t engage explicitly with the ways in which religion guided their thought processes. I wish she had.

I also was left with a lot of questions about how Jan processed and overcame the trauma she endured. How, for example, is she not furious with her parents for being such pushovers? I’m furious with them, and I only hung out with them through a TV screen for an hour and a half.

Jan says toward the end of the documentary that part of the way she learned to forgive them was by helping them forgive themselves. Which is a touching sentiment, I guess. But it’s a pretty pat answer to a complicated situation, and one that requires an extraordinary capacity to move on without bitterness. Maybe Jan’s faith actually helped her in that regard. Borgman doesn’t spend enough time clarifying further.

The lingering curiosity about how someone could possibly get over such horrible abuse is just one of the things that makes me confident I’ll be thinking about Abducted in Plain Sight for a long time. The most disturbing parts of this documentary are the things that Robert Berchtold did to Jan Broberg for years, without her parents or the law stopping him. But the most chilling takeaway from this mind-blowing documentary might be this: You never know what anyone is capable of doing in private. Not your seemingly friendly neighbor, and not even your own parents.

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Abducted in Plain Sight Must Be Seen to Be Believed