by Emily Reuben The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte’s editorial board. A missing child is a nightmare for any parent. Horror stories of strangers grabbing up children and disappearing with them never to be seen again are used as fuel to reinforce ideas of stranger danger for our children. While many stories become embellished or propagated as fear tactics, the amount of missing children in the United States is a very real issue. According to the FBI, 424,066 reports of missing children were entered into the National Crime Information Center in 2018. Now, this number only takes into account the actual number of reported incidents, not subtracting cases where children were returned to their families. However, the number of children who stay missing could still reach or even exceed that number, since so many disappearances go unreported. In a world of uncertainty, parents must be constantly vigilant and caution their children about the cruelties of the world. However, not everything is always black and white. Bad people don’t wear shirts saying “I’m a kidnapper!” or always look like a cartoon-villain. Monsters dwell within the average person and in many cases don’t show their true colors until it’s too late. That’s why we teach our children to be wary and avoid strangers...right? But what if the monster isn’t a stranger at all? What if the real danger is someone you trust? Sadly, cases of kidnapping and abuse conducted by someone known to the victim do exist. This is the nightmare that occurs in the Netflix documentary Abducted in Plain Sight. The film explores the true story of Jan Broberg who was kidnapped, raped, and manipulated by Robert “B” Berchtold, a trusted family friend, during her childhood. In 1974, Robert Berchtold convinced Jan’s mother to let Jan accompany him on a trip to a horse ranch. It was then that Berchtold drugged Jan, convinced her she was abducted by aliens, and moved her to a motor home in Mexico. Being only a child at the time, Jan was vulnerable to Berchtold’s lies. He told her that not only was she was half-human half-alien, it was also her mission to bear his child, or else a terrible fate would befall her family. This lie paired in conjunction with the trust she had for Berchtold previously, making Jan completely believe everything her captor told her. To her, Berchtold was like a second father. Why would he lie to her? Berchtold married the twelve-year-old girl in Mexico, where the age of consent is only 12 years of age. He told Jan that he loved her, ultimately making Jan believe that she wasn’t being raped or kidnapped at all and that nothing was wrong with Berchtold. He even made contact with Jan’s parents to ask for formal permission to marry their daughter since his marriage to Jan would be invalidated if he returned with her to Idaho without her parents' consent to marry. Eventually Berchtold was captured, and Jan was returned to her family, but after being groomed and manipulated, she was still unwilling to point the finger at Berchtold. She was convinced he loved her and was crucial to the “mission” of protecting her family. In many cases, this would be the end of the story—but here, the situation only becomes more complicated. The controversy of the documentary largely stems from the events following Jan’s return home and how her parents Bob and Mary Ann handled the ordeal. It is important to note that Jan and her family are victims, so any criticism of Bob and Mary Ann needs to be handled with care. It is easy to watch the documentary from the comfort of your home and thrust blame onto someone on screen, but what we are seeing is a highly condensed and simplified series of events. The grooming and manipulation of Jan and her entire family stemmed over a course of years, making Bob and Mary Ann unquestionably trust Berchtold and never once question his actions. However, this argument can really only be made when Jan was kidnapped by Berchtold for the first time. Before this kidnapping, it is reasonable to assume they had no reason to question the man. This excuse cannot apply after Berchtold was found and Jan was returned. After this, any reasonable person would know that Berchtold is dangerous and their children, especially Jan, should be kept away from the man. Thus, we get into the controversy of Abducted in Plain Sight. After Jan was returned, Berchtold was indicted on kidnapping charges, but was ultimately set free. This is because Bob and Mary Anne signed a form stating that Jan was not being held against her will. Why would they sign this? Because Berchtold threatened to unveil one of Bob’s dark secrets. Bob had once performed sexual acts on Berchtold when he asked Bob to “relieve” him. The fear of being labeled as homosexual outweighed his desire to pursue justice for his child. Mary Ann was also seduced by Berchtold. After Jan was returned and Berchtold was released, she entered a sexual relationship with Berchtold for eight months. During this time, Berchtold was not only allowed to see Jan, but he was allowed to sleep in her bed under the guise of “therapy." The story only gets worse from here. Berchtold is continually allowed to contact and further manipulate Jan into her adulthood, all while her parents refrain from taking meaningful action. Now, the documentary did omit a scene that many call “a game changer” regarding how Jan’s parents handled the situation. After the film blew up online and criticisms of Mary Ann and Bob were rampant, the film’s director Skye Borgman explained details around a situation involving Mary Ann and her brother confronting Berchtold with a gun. While this does show that the family was concerned about Jan, it still doesn’t negate the fact that the family did not press charges, allowed Jan’s abuser to repeatedly contact and further abuse Jan, and failed to fully involve the police for many years. Mary Ann and Bob exemplify some of the worst aspects of religious devotion. The Broberg family are members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and while there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with that, Mary Ann and Bob placed their religious beliefs and ideologies above the safety of their own child. The church places an emphasis on forgiveness, which is, in theory, a beautiful thing. However, Mary Ann and Bob took the notion so far that not only were Bob and Mary Ann able to forgive their child’s abuser, but basically excuse him of past wrongdoing while he was actively playing a role in the family dynamic. The issue of how the church perceives homosexual relationships also plays a role in Bob’s decision to not bringing charges against Berchtold. Currently, the Church of Latter Day Saints has a relatively progressive view of same-sex relationships, stating on their website that these relationships are not unholy. The instead condemns the breaking of chastity stating that “Sexual purity is an essential part of God’s plan for our happiness.” However, same-sex relationships were not perceived as openly as they are now. Spencer Kimball, the president of LDS from 1973 to 1985, wrote various pieces condemning homosexuality. One of his more notable examples is Hope for Transgressors written by Mark Peterson and himself. The piece describes homosexuality as a “transgression” and something that can be cured by activities like dating members of the opposite sex or praying. The church has also made controversial statements such as homosexuality resulting from a lack of attention and that electroshock therapy can be used to convert homosexual men into straight men. So while the church may be changing its views today, the attitude during the time of Jan’s abduction towards homosexuality was not kind. Again, religion as a whole isn’t bad, but neglecting the needs of your child is. Putting religious beliefs before the welfare of your child is bad. Not reporting abusers for fear of how your church will perceive you is bad. This documentary is hard to sit through. The parents are infuriating. The abuse Jan endured is terrible. The fact that Robert Berchtold had abused multiple women prior to Jan and received little more than a slap on the wrist is horrifying. But Jan’s story is more than her abuse. She is a successful actor, writer, and singer co-starring in Maniac with Elijah Wood and appearing in multiple series such as NBC’s Harmful Intent and HBO’s Slaughter of the Innocents. She has also done various stage shows such as My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. Jan and her mother wrote Stolen Innocence: The Jan Broberg Story, the basis of Abducted in Plain Sight detailing Jan’s experience. Jan has turned towards activism, speaking out against violence against women. For her activism, Jan received the Woman of Achievement Award from the St. George Chamber of Commerce in 2008. Jan’s experience, while extreme and bizarre, is indicative of a much larger problem. Violence against women and children, especially by people they know and trust, is a topic we as a society need to address head on. Abducted in Plain Sight is garnering attention for the crazy scenario and questionable actions of Jan’s parents, but really the documentary should be gaining attention for its discussion of religion, human selfishness, manipulation, and abuse that can occur from those we love and trust. More importantly, we should realize these cases are very real, and the victims aren't just faces on a screen. Jan’s experience should serve as a call to action to further protect children from abusers, and in some instances, from incompetent parents.
Sources: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Outpost For Hope, ABC,UNICEF, Cosmopolitan, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Hope for Transgressors, St. George News Images: IMDb, Cinema Crazed Featured Image: Isabella Torres (Illustration) and Emily Reuben (graphic)