true crime

Abducted in Plain Sight’s Jan Broberg on Why She Forgave Her Parents

A young Jan Broberg with her abuser Robert Berchtold.
A young Jan Broberg with her abuser Robert Berchtold. Photo: Courtesy of Top Knot Films

Jan Broberg understands the story told in the documentary Abducted in Plain Sight is “wild and crazy,” but she’s enthusiastic about sharing it because she wants to shed light on how child predators groom their targets.

As filmmaker Skye Borgman’s documentary painstakingly recounts, Broberg was kidnapped twice and sexually abused for years by a close family friend in the 1970s. Her parents Mary Ann and Bob Broberg met Robert Berchtold at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their Idaho hometown in 1972, and he soon began spending time alone with their daughter, including sleeping in her bed. Berchtold, who died in 2005, brainwashed the girl, using bizarre audio recordings to convince her she was half-alien and destined to save the planet by giving birth to his child before she turned 16. Meanwhile, both of her parents had sexual relationships with him — which points to the lengths Berchtold went to manipulate and groom the entire family, Broberg says.

Abducted in Plain Sight has screened at various film festivals the past two years and streamed on various platforms, but it didn’t truly pick up traction until it began streaming on Netflix in January. “I’m really grateful that it’s getting good conversations started, which is why I did it in the first place,” Broberg says. “We gotta bring this out of the shadows. Scary strangers are not nearly as common as perpetrators as the people who we know, love, and trust, and so why aren’t we seeing it?”

An actress who has appeared on I’m Sorry and Everwood, Broberg now lives in Utah and serves as the executive director of the Center for the Arts at Kayenta. In March, the book version of Abducted in Plain Sight, which she co-wrote with her mother, will be released. It is a fuller and more detailed version of Stolen Innocence, a book they self-published about their ordeal many years ago.

During a 90-minute phone interview, Broberg spoke candidly with Vulture about her years-long abuse, what it took to heal her and her family, why she doesn’t blame her parents, and what it was like to face Berchtold in court as a grown woman.

Are you still involved with the LDS church?
Yeah, I am a conscientious member of my church. I’m very adamant about making sure that there’s no brainwashing. That we actually think for ourselves, that we ask questions, that we can say no. I don’t want everyone to lose faith in humanity. That’s not my goal. I want people to be aware of their own mind and to be curious to ask questions. So I’m a different member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than I was before all of this happened, for sure. I believe in God and I believe in people for the most part, which is kind of miraculous.

It really is.
My parents are such good people. We had an ideal childhood up until age 12, when whom we thought was our best friend kidnapped me and brainwashed me. We talked and communicated. My parents listened. There was no question that they loved us unconditionally and that they loved other people unconditionally. Which also made us susceptible, probably, to be manipulated, but those also were the things that saved me in the end. The same things that can make you susceptible or too trusting or too forgiving — or maybe not as street smart — are also the same things that allowed me to heal. If you don’t trust anybody and you don’t have faith in anything, that seems like an awful way to live. But I think you have to balance that with listening to your own heart and being curious enough to find facts and ask questions and not just rely on somebody telling you what to think or believe.

Do you have vivid memories of your childhood before Berchtold came into your lives?
Nothing he did wiped that out. My best memories were some church activities, like we did daddy-daughter dates where we’d make food and decorate the church room and serve our dads dinner for Father’s Day. The lady that my father bought his flower shop from had all these old dress skirts from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and mom would do dress-up parties for our birthdays with all our friends. My sisters and I, we’d read The Boxcar Children together inside one of the downstairs closets where we had this great big pantry. We could ride our bikes anywhere. And we had wonderful other friends before this family moved into our area. There was another family that lived across the street and the wife one day came over and said, “Let’s go audition for the summer musical” because she knew I loved to sing. I was just 6 years old. She ended up playing Maria in The Sound of Music and I played little Gretel in our summer university community play.

Your parents participated in the documentary, which must have been very scary for them. What motivated them?
My dad passed away in November, but he was ready for the world to know. He said if his experience can help just one other person avoid making the same mistake, it’s worth it. I mean, masturbation is not something to lose your mind over. He felt terrible about doing that. He had no idea what the bigger picture was — it was about him trying to blackmail him. B had a bigger, more sinister plan.

Grooming is a very interesting subject that I think many people do not understand. When you’re in it, when it’s happening to you, you don’t know it. It happens slowly all the time. I don’t feel like people really understand how it happens and they just blame my parents. The reality is that my parents were victims too, and this man was just a master manipulator.

When did you learn that Berchtold was also manipulating your parents and that they were involved with him?
The summer after I graduated from high school, I started my period. I was a late bloomer — I was five feet tall and 90 pounds when I graduated from high school. That was part of why I really thought I was an alien. My body hadn’t changed, and I thought it’s not going to change because I’m half-alien and half-human.

There were just so many things that that I wanted to know. What were you guys doing? What was happening here at home? We would have these long conversations and that’s when my mom explained what happened with her. With my dad, it took longer. I didn’t know really anything and neither did my mom, other than my dad had said he did something terrible that he would regret for the rest of his life, but he didn’t want to tell her what it was. He felt so ashamed and terrible about it, so he really did not tell any of the details about what happened that day in that car until years later.

In Stolen Innocence, my mom didn’t go into any details because my dad didn’t want to drum up any details. He was uncomfortable with it. She was more like, “What if some woman is out there dating a guy, and she thinks this guy’s in love with her, and because of that, she’s not noticing the tiny signs that might tip her off?” My mom repented and tried to make things right. She went back to school and became a social worker. She went before Congress and lobbied for the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They had never passed the funding for it in Idaho and Utah, and when she went and told our story, they passed the funding. So my mother had been very actively trying to make up for what she felt were her mistakes.

Let’s backtrack a bit. After the kidnappings, you still loved Berchtold and wanted to fulfill the promise to save the planet. When did you realize that you had actually been abused and brainwashed for years?
In 1978, I was going into my junior year of high school and I had just turned 16. I was supposed to have a baby by age 16 to save my family and the planet. I thought that was all real. I thought they were watching me. I was completely convinced. I wanted to have a baby. I wanted to marry him. It felt real. I barely said hello to my dad. I didn’t talk to any men because that was against the rules.

That was that part of the film where we talked about [when] I accepted ice cream from a boy. When I accepted the ice cream and I realized my dogs were all right, my Dad isn’t dead, my sister Karen isn’t blind, my sister Susan isn’t missing, I thought, “Maybe this alien thing isn’t real.” That was the first time I had that thought in four years. And then I started to test it. I started to do things that were against the rules to see if anything would happen. I accepted a group date to a homecoming dance and I came home from that dance and nothing bad had happened. I remember just sitting in my bedroom and not knowing what to do. I can’t even describe the feelings. They were just so all over the place. It was almost relief, of course, but at the same time, when you have a purpose and all of a sudden somebody takes that purpose away from you … I was literally the savior of a dying planet. Now what? Who am I? And what I have done to my dad?

It’s very typical of someone who’s been abused to blame themselves. You feel all this shame. I hardly talked at all about the sexual abuse in detail. It was my friend Caroline who probed and probed. She was relentless. She didn’t care that I was having a total nervous breakdown, crying in the carpet, just bawling. Just clawing my fingernails against the carpet. It was coming out like a purge.

As you were telling your friend, you were telling yourself for the first time.
You are absolutely right. And then some things came out more slowly and in more detail over time. It terrified my sisters, my parents, and then it was all about, “How do we help her heal?” Back then, people didn’t go to a counselor or therapist. I’m really grateful that I had parents who listened. My main source of healing was the fact that any time that I did want to say something, whether I was screaming at them or crying hysterically, they just acknowledged, accepted, listened. They didn’t try to defend themselves. They just acknowledged my feelings and listened.

I don’t think I would be the person I am today had I not had those 12 perfectly wonderful childhood years to go back to, basically. I had a foundation. I knew that I was loved. I knew that I could trust my parents. I knew that no matter what I said, my dad would just go, “Janny, I don’t know what happened and I don’t know how to fix it, but I love you. No matter what, till my dying breath, in every fiber of my being, you are my sweet, wonderful daughter and I love you with every, every fiber.” He used to say that every day: with every fiber. Even when I was so horrible to him. You don’t get to see in the documentary because all you see is big bullet points in 90 minutes. It took seven years for all of that to happen.

What do you remember about the conversation with your mother when she admitted she had a relationship with Berchtold?
She cried and said, “I’m so stupid. And I’m so sorry. And why didn’t I?” She believed what she’d done was completely wrong and she felt terrible about having an affair before she knew what happened with me. Having an affair was totally out of her belief system, so it was with all of that tenderness that my mom told me about that experience. And she has maintained this story to this day — she only had sex with him three times. In all of the documentation, it says that she met up with Berchtold eight times, but she says she only had sex three of those times.

My dad saw through him. He knew something was wrong. I don’t think he had any clue that it was sexual abuse, because those words were not in their vocabulary or in their thinking, but something started to click in his mind and that’s when he filed the divorce papers. That’s when my mom woke up and thought, “I don’t want to lose Bob. I don’t want to lose my girls.” It was right then that all the pieces fell into place, even though they still didn’t know because I wasn’t talking. They were a united front again. I think that triggered the second kidnapping.

You sound like you’re in a healthy place with your parents. But I’m wondering how you got there, specifically.
It was a variety of things. I had a couple of good counselors along the way. During my 20s, I had one person on campus that just gave me the advice of, “You have to let yourself feel whatever it is you feel. You have to go through the feelings.” I lost my childhood. I lost my early teenage years when I was supposed to have crushes on boys. I lost that and I couldn’t get it back. And I was so sad and upset. And then I was angry, like, Why didn’t you see it, Mom? Why did you do that, Dad? Why didn’t we know more? That advice was really good.

One of the other big pieces in that puzzle was going into a program, the Landmark Forum. I was 30. It’s like a big, dark, heavy coat that I’ve been wearing, and I took the coat off and I hung it over there on the chair. I can see it. I can learn from it. And I can help others from it. And it’s not on me. It’s not in me. It’s not running my life. It’s just that thing over there, and now I’m free to decide what my life is. I’m free to determine what’s next. And it really had a very powerful and positive effect on my life.

And then, being active in my church was also a really important piece of my healing. Teaching a Sunday school class on love and what Christ represented to us in terms of perfect love and perfect service and perfect sacrifice. I think that is what made me really want to help others. People would hear about my story and ask me to speak in front of groups. I always knew that sharing my story was important for whatever reason. Talking about it is important for anybody who is trying to deal with and overcome a terrible experience in their life. That makes you feel like you’re not alone.

You didn’t mention acting, but I imagine that acting or performing must have helped you as well during that time.
You’re absolutely right. I could get on stage and I could cry, and I could scream, and I could be somebody else. And that was my therapy. For people who have gone through any abuse or harm in their life, if they can find something that they really do believe in, and be passionate about it, and then lend their support or their voice to it, I think that’s a really important part of healing.

As you started healing, what understanding did you come to about your own parents? What was it about their upbringings, faith, or culture that allowed for them to so blindly trust in the way that they did?
My dad grew up in Pocatello and my mother grew up in an even smaller town, American Falls, Idaho. They grew up in small, protected towns. My mother said, “You just don’t know not to trust the world if nothing’s happened to you. You don’t have any data.” And because they were both active members in the church, they very much believed in forgiveness and seeing the best in people.

A master manipulator also targets people. They have a sixth sense. He knew, “These folks are trusting, and they are loving, and they are pure of heart. And that’s gonna be easier for me to manipulate. Plus, they have the child that I’m interested in.” The whole picture was perfect. I was a little pleaser, you know? I had been around adults a lot and I wanted to please them. Those are the reasons why a person would target my family, as opposed to somebody that had grown up in a big city. Our home was an open door. We had friends from every walk of life in our house. They just didn’t have that antenna up.

What was it like to face Berchtold in court so many years later?
That was pretty scary. I mean, I had gone on with my life and tried to do the best I could. We had self-published our little book and I shared my story. We got asked to go to conferences. But I remember when he showed up at that university in a van with a gun. I was giving the conference to about 800 women and their daughters, and the police come inside and get me at the very end of my speech. They’re telling me, “There’s somebody that was in the parking lot, and they were in a van, and there was a firearm.” They said the man had run into one of the Bikers Against Child Abuse members — those guys had accompanied me to the university because he had been calling the university saying that I am a liar.

And then, finding out he only lived an hour from where I had moved to, and he was remarried to a second-grade teacher. She had two daughters who had run away from home. We didn’t know any of this at the time, but now we know because the older daughter got in touch with my mom. She told her they ran away to their father’s house in Idaho because he was abusing [them]. And this was 28 years later.

After me, [Berchtold] was convicted for rape of a child and put in jail, and he served one year in jail. And that girl found our documentary and contacted us and said, “I’m the little girl who put him in jail.” I talked to her on the phone and she just cried. She said she never told anybody about the tapes because she thought nobody would believe her. He played those alien voices on her, too. She was in his apartment for 119 days. He was best friends with her mom, who was a psychiatric nurse at a leading hospital. And she said, “My mother couldn’t see through him.” This is where I have to ask people to put themselves in those shoes. Because this could only do some good, if you accept the fact that this could happen to you. Maybe it’s not going to be a story like this, but there is some child in your life right now that is being abused by someone you know. A child you know and love is being abused by someone you know and love. And you just don’t know it yet.

Do you remember what you felt or thought when you heard that he had killed himself?
That was a bad day. I went through the gamut of emotions. I cried because of the amount of relief because facing him in court was scary. I felt like I was 12 years old that day. I was shaking like a leaf. But as soon as he said that thing about whether I was going to make a movie, that made me so mad. At that moment, it was like the mommy tiger came in and wrapped up the little girl in her big furry arms, and was like, “Rawr!” I wasn’t afraid anymore. On the other side of that, when he died, I cried for all the other girls, all the other families who had been affected by what he had done to them. I was mad. I was upset. I was angry that he had taken what felt like the easy way out. He never had to serve his time. I had so many different feelings and emotions. It was a very emotional day for me.

At the very end of the documentary, you say it’s ironic that the person you never want to think about is someone you think about every day. Is that still true?
Not as much now as it was then. But there are just some things in your DNA, like to check the backseat of the car and see if somebody’s there. Even though that you know that everything is fine — you’re doing well, and you’re happy, and you have a good life — you just can’t help but feel he passes through your thoughts. You see another little girl, and you think, “What is she doing outside without a coat on?” There are so many ways to wonder if she’s being abused. You just can’t help it. I don’t dwell on it. I don’t go to a deep, sad, dark place.

Are you considering a sequel to the documentary?
It is possible. We have 60 hours of footage that didn’t make it into the film. It would be great to take all that footage — experts that the filmmakers interviewed about grooming and brainwashing and manipulation and how it happens — and put that together. It’s something that people just don’t really understand. They just look at my parents and think, “Aren’t they just stupid and crazy?” But it happens to so many people on some level. It’s not that there weren’t things to see. It’s that nobody wants to see it.

Whether it’s the dark corner in the family, the dark corner in the church, the dark corner in the community center, or in the Boy Scout troop, or in the school, the victim is hiding and silent in the dark corners. And so is the perpetrator. We don’t want to shine a light there. It’s too awful. I don’t want everybody to have no trust and no family relationships. I want people to have wonderful, loving relationships. I just want your antenna to be up enough to know enough, to be educated enough, and aware enough that when something feels off, you don’t just sit there. That you actually know what to do when you really are quite certain something is wrong.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jan Broberg on What Abducted in Plain Sight Left Out