Written by Ahlam Atallah and Cheyenne Smith
“Abducted in Plain Sight” is a small town, conservative family’s nightmare experience with someone they describe as being “good looking”, “charismatic” and a “nice guy” that they meet at church, invite into their home and befriend by the name of Robert Berchtold. What started off as a seemingly normal friendship between the Broberg family and the Berchtold family slowly turned into a kidnapping and brainwashing of eldest daughter Jan Broberg by “B” or Robert, yet what is presented as a seemingly innocent, naïve and gullible family being implicated in situations they never would be in if it had not been for this wolf in sheep’s clothing, becomes more complicated when one delves into the actions of her parents Bob and Mary Ann Broberg.
We are told about multiple instances in which Berchtold was behaving inappropriately with Jan but no one stepped in, even when he was showing increasing amounts of attention to her and being more than “friendly.” One would wonder why did her parents allow such access to her when other unnamed families in his past have cut off contact with him when they saw his behavior with their daughters as mentioned in the documentary? It seems as though parents of young daughters should and would keep an eye on their interactions with grown men because of situations like this but we are told a few times that people in the 70s did not really know what a “pedophile” was or a “child molester.” This idea that the Brobergs were simply too trusting and unaware of the dangers of grown men being around their young daughter is preferable to the idea that their own sexual relationships with Berchtold caused them to fear being outed to their conservative community and church. Yes, that is right. Both Bob and Mary Ann each had sexual encounters with Berchtold, effectively cheating on each other with the same man, and Bob being not only an adulterer, but for his church, sinning by being in a homosexual relationship.
The Brobergs seemed to have a good understanding of what sex and intimacy is outside of a marriage between man and woman fwhen it comes to their own behavior, so why do they claim ignorance when it comes to the behavior that Berchtold was displaying? Why do they wait for five days before notifying cops that their daughter and the man she is with have been missing with no contact? Mary Ann claims she did not want to upset Berchtold’s wife by calling the police but wouldn’t his wife also be worried about her husbands whereabouts? Would not she be the first person contacting the police to find the father of her children? The documentary seems to keep pointing us in the direction of culpability in her parents and yet would like us to believe they didn’t mean it, and didn’t want it to happen.
Berchtold throughout the documentary is proven sufficiently to be guilty of his actions and the documentary explains all the ways he “brainwashes” Jan and controls her. It also mentions how he was able to emotionally control her parents so she would have been “easy” after that, but Jan is a child and her actions are the result of being groomed and traumatized from a young age, her parents can claim no such excuse. They both willingly enter into relationships with him and whether not he seduced them does not change their responsibility for their choices, especially ones that include months of sexual interactions. Both adults knew how multi-faceted Berchtold’s persona could be simply by their own interactions with him and they both admit to having reservations about his behavior, but time and again they allow him access to their daughter including allowing him to sleep next to her in bed for his “therapy,” and allowing her to take overnight trips with his family, not to mention the “allergy medication” he was giving her which was actually just a way to drug her. Watching this combined with the parent’s repeated claims that they did not realize what was going on makes you very skeptical. How could two people be so oblivious? And even after he kidnaps her and comes back from Mexico, there was still access to her provided.
In the documentary, there is not an instance of the Broberg family being shown in interview together. Each member gave their own experience and they all seemed to differ. If we look through the lens of the bias given by the creators, we assume that they were all victims including the family, which is definitely true, but the victim who was failed tremendously was Jan. Her inclusion in the documentary was informational in terms of backing up the story, but we hear little of her anger towards the justice system, towards the small-town norms of social status, or towards the Berchtold family. I believe this was the case because the makers of the film wanted the Broberg family to seem entirely innocent, as if the situation happened to them and they had no hand in allowing the man to manipulate and use their daughter for his convoluted benefit.
Jan’s parents failed to protect her against a threat they effectively brought into their home. Yes, in the 70s sexual abuse was not discussed as openly as today but it was an issue nonetheless and adults who are not living under a rock could probably detect at least some warning signs of their daughter’s situation. Small town politics and drama often keep issues like these from being openly discussed and addressed but at the minimum Berchtold should have been cut off from their circle and never spoken to again in order to keep their child safe. The Brobergs may not have consciously chosen to sacrifice their daughter to live our their sexual fantasies but they did not put her safety first either. Ignorance is bliss but knowledge is enlightenment and the Brobergs enjoyed the bliss of their chosen ignorance long enough to forever scar their daughter and family.