Unpacking the Abducted in Plain Sight Documentary

They say that truth is stranger than fiction and the older I get — the more I believe it.

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I’m a huge true crime fan. So I was surprised that when my friend suggested I watch Abducted in Plain Sight, I hadn’t heard anything about the case of Jan Broberg and Robert Berchtold.

But like many other Netflix viewers, I was drawn to the documentary and then glued to the screen the entire time. Imagine the worst kind of train wreck there is — and the reality that you know it’s awful, but you can’t take your eyes away from it… that’s Abducted in Plain Sight.

Honestly, there are SO. MANY. THINGS. I could say about the case of Jan Broberg, but I’m going to stick with unpacking some of the key things this documentary accomplishes.

THE GROOMING

If you haven’t heard of the word “grooming” as it relates to sexual abuse, you may not recognize the signs that it’s happening. Grooming can best be described as:

A process by which a person prepares a child, significant others, and the environment for the abuse of this child. Specific goals include gaining access to the child, gaining the child’s compliance, and maintaining the child’s secrecy to avoid disclosure. This process serves to strengthen the offender’s abusive pattern, as it may be used as a means of justifying or denying their actions.1

If/when you watch the documentary, there is no question that Robert Berchtold mastered the act of “grooming.” In fact, he does such an incredible job that Jan truly believes that she is in love with Robert and wants to marry him. Grooming isn’t a short term action, and it’s not spontaneous. The grooming of a child (especially in this intense way) takes planning, preparation, dedication, patience, and persuasion. The only way to achieve the ultimate grooming routine is to do it over and over again for long periods of time.

So it’s not surprising that by the time Robert Berchtold decides to abduct Jan — he has her hook, line, and sinker. She is 100% fully invested in this man, believing he defines security, safety, and love.

The lengths he goes to keep up the grooming is beyond what I’ve ever seen in all my research. Between the story of the aliens, the mission and his being in the CIA — he seems more storyteller than pedophile, but sadly, he is a pedophile, and his charm and grooming skills are what allowed him to get away with it for so long.

THE DECEIT

One of the most disturbing things about this documentary is Jan Broberg’s parents. There are several moments in the documentary where they admit knowing something was “wrong” or that Robert didn’t seem “right”, but they do nothing about it.

Yes, it made me crazy. Yes, I found it a little much. But I also have firsthand knowledge of just how convincing pedophiles can be to the people around them. Robert Berchtold was a well-liked and respected member of the community, he did good deeds and was kind. He became best friends with the Broberg’s, and for many years, that was enough for him. But as he zeroed in on Jan, the more he began to expand on his “good guy” role for the family.

One thing we, as outsiders, have to remember: we weren’t there. We don’t know how it all truly transpired and until we’re in the shoes… we don’t have a complete picture.  

The other thing is that when the “good guy” persona fell away, he became another kind of convincing person — someone who would destroy everything in his path to get what he wanted.

Fear is almost as convincing as deceit, and that’s why I think Jan Broberg’s parents deserve a bit of credit. Not only for the intense deceit and fear they suffered at the hands of Robert Berchtold, but also in the community, their religion, their workplaces.

This is not to say that their neglect in terms of their daughter is excusable. It’s not — but I can understand the reasons behind it. I can understand how in-the-moment decisions could be made out of fear and denial.

I actually find Jan’s parents to be brave in this documentary. Not only do they own up to their mistakes — they are raw and vulnerable about everything. And of course, they know they’d be criticized and bashed. And yet — they put themselves through it anyway. So yes, I find them brave and I think having their perspective brings a lot to the table in terms of how deceitful Robert Berchtold was.

THE KNOWLEDGE

For me personally, one of the saddest parts of the documentary is when people admit to knowing Robert Berchtold’s proclivity for little girls — and did nothing about it. 

Joe Berchtold says in the documentary (about 14 minutes in) that he knew his brother was a “sexual pervert,” and that he had even attempted to be sexual with their younger sister at some point. 

What’s incredibly sad about this is that many sexual offenders start exhibiting signs as juveniles. But juvenile offenders who get help (rehabilitation, recovery, therapy, etc), have the lowest re-offense rate. Robert Berchtold, Jan Broberg and many of his other victims could have gone down a different path if he’d been given help at the first signs of his actions. Why didn’t his brother speak up? He doesn’t elaborate in the documentary, but I’m sure we all can guess as to why he never spoke up. 

But strangely, he’s not the only person who knew about Robert Berchtold’s attraction to young girls. Many in the community told the officers involved in Jan’s case that he had a penchant for young girls. So why in the world are they just telling the cops that after the abduction? Why hadn’t they spoken up earlier — to Jan’s parents or even to the local officers? 

It’s a classic case of denial and societal norms which are both still so prevalent today and allow the cycle to continue. Sexual abuse is still that “taboo” subject many people won’t talk about. Even when it has nothing to do with them. Even when they know someone who has done it, been a victim of it, or has escaped from it. It’s one of the most pervasive kinds of abuse in this country and even still, people prefer to deny and keep silent. This documentary only drives that point home. 

THE GOOD ENOUGH PARENTING CONCEPT AND RESILIENCY

In the mental health field, there is a concept called “Good Enough Parenting” that is linked to resiliency and recovery in children. The foundation of “Good Enough Parenting” is essentially that while the parent(s) aren’t perfect and make mistakes, they also show love, concern, and support. Essentially, the child of “good enough parents” feels loved, cared for, supported and secure. That’s not to say that neither parent nor child is perfect, but that they are “good enough.” What this means is that if you set two children next to each other to study — one with “good enough parenting” and one without “good enough parenting” — the child with the good enough parenting has a higher and more likely chance of being resilient and developing healthy coping mechanisms, healthy relationships, etc. 

In this documentary, we see Jan Broberg as an articulate, intelligent and beautiful woman. She is able to talk about her experiences with the clarity of an adult but can also acknowledge the true feelings she had as a child. She is acutely aware of her trauma and even says that “it took a lot of work to get where I am today.” But she also mentions the number one reason that she believes she became so resilient — her parents. At the end of the day, she believes that her parents’ mistakes were not done out of malice. She believes that her parents truly love and support her (and that is also evident in the documentary). They encouraged Jan to explore her trauma with mental health professionals.

I don’t believe that’s a coincidence at all. I’m a strong believer that it’s “good enough parenting” at work. 

OVERALL THOUGHTS

As I said earlier — I could go on and on about various themes and takeaways from Abducted in Plain Sight but the most important thing that I got from it (and I hope others do too) is that stories like Jan Broberg and Robert Berchtold aren’t unusual. Every day there are pedophiles grooming children. Every day there are little girls who are convinced that their abuser is actually their superhero. And every day, family members are duped into believing that their child’s abuser is someone he’s not. For me, this documentary is confirmation of everything I’ve learned about sexual predators and grooming and I hope that with the broad audience Netflix has, maybe it will spark some conversations about the very real truth: monsters do exist.

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REFERENCES

1 Craven, Samantha, Sarah Brown, and Elizabeth Gilchrist. 2006. “Sexual Grooming of Children: Review of Literature and Theoretical Considerations.” Journal of Sexual Aggression 12(3):287–299. doi:10.1080/13552600601069414