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Takeaways from Abducted in Plain Sight, the Documentary

Abducted in Plain Sight tells the chilling, twisted true story of how 12-year-old Jan Broberg was kidnapped not once, but twice by her decades-older neighbour and close family friend, Robert Berchtold (otherwise known as “B”). Though Jan is undoubtedly the primary victim of Berchtold’s predation, the documentary also highlights another significant aspect of this 1970s case: the grooming of the Broberg family.

Though the documentary itself was released in 2017, it only truly blew up on the internet once it became added to Netflix in 2019. One of the most interesting, albeit somewhat expected, responses from viewers has been the outpour of frustration and anger with Jan’s parents. And while the internet did what the internet does best – create memes – the confusion, disbelief, and resentment behind those memes have been absolutely genuine. Jan’s mother and father, Bob and Mary Ann Broberg, admit throughout the film that they have made countless mistakes which contributed to the tragedy that struck their family. Despite this, viewers were simply not satisfied, and as a result, many media reports reviewing the documentary have focused more on the faults of Jan’s parents than the actual perpetrator and criminal himself. That, in my opinion, is a problem.

This is not to say that Bob and Mary Ann’s naivety and ill judgment should be disregarded. Their blunders came at a cost that was felt more strongly by them than any one of us currently pointing our fingers, and it would be cruel to pretend otherwise. Not only that, but they serve as an extreme cautionary tale for all present and future parents: be careful of who you trust unconditionally and let into your family. Although common sense appeared to be lacking in the majority of Bob and Mary Ann’s decisions, it should be noted that 1) hindsight is 20/20, and 2) the ‘70s were a different time. The term “pedophilia” had not been truly recognized as a looming threat to children across the world and the school systems had probably not begun implementing educational measures. The term “stranger danger” only arose in the USA in the 1960s, and we all know how long social change can take.

Here is where my earlier mention of grooming comes in. “Grooming” in this context is defined as the process by which “someone builds an emotional connection with a child” and sometimes their family “to gain trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, or trafficking.” Jan Broberg has spoken up about the backlash toward her parents by explaining that the grooming her family was subject to was slow and steady, and occurred over two-and-a-half years. This is a very complex, disturbing tactic used by predators, and those who are fortunate enough to never have had the first-hand experience with it will probably never truly understand the depth of the deception it entails. The Brobergs, all of them, were seduced, manipulated, and coerced by Berchtold. In spite of my complicated emotions toward what I saw transpire in the documentary, if Jan has been able to forgive her parents and find solace in their love and support, then perhaps the most important battle has already been won.

Moving forward, it is clear to me that all of our energy would be better spent thinking of ways that child abduction and grooming can be prevented, identified and caught. So please, please do not file complaints about receiving Amber Alerts on your phone.

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