In recent years, Netflix has released a series of outrageous documentaries that defy easy explanation (we’ve rounded up some of them here) . With so many wild documentaries to watch, some of the good ones inevitably fall through the cracks. With director Skye Borgman’s latest documentary, Girl in the Picture, now available on Netflix, we decided to revisit her most famous documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight.
Shocking, sickening, and utterly disturbing, Borgman’s film about a young girl who was kidnapped not once, but twice, by the same person is mind boggling no matter how many times you watch it. Despite how confounding Abducted in Plain Sight is, it brings up many questions about parenting, family dynamics, and 1970s culture.
Abducted in Plain Sight begins in the 1970s with Bob and Mary-Ann Broberg and their daughter, Jan. They are a tight-knit Mormon family from an idyllic Idaho town. Things start to go wrong, however, when they meet Robert “B” Berchtold, a fellow member of the church who immediately charms them. Despite some pretty obvious red flags, Mr. and Mrs. Broberg accept their new friend with open arms. They aren’t at all suspicious of the fact that he wants to spend all of his time with their young daughter. They don’t even bat an eye when he asks to sleep in Jan’s bed for his own “therapy.”
It’s remarkable how trusting the Brobergs are. As a documentary storyteller, Brogman doesn’t pass judgment on the couple, though it’s never completely clear why they were so accommodating. Were they that naive? Was this normal parenting in the 1970s? The most clear answer is that they assumed a member of their church couldn’t possibly have harmful intentions. But even after multiple interviews, it’s still difficult to tell why the Brobergs so readily accepted him.
While the Brogbergs’ parenting style is questionable from the start, it eventually becomes dumbfounding. B kidnaps their daughter, and the head police detective literally has to explain to them that what he did was wrong. The FBI eventually finds B and Jan in Mexico, where he took her to get married. While with “B,” Jan was brainwashed via a tape recorder into believing that she was supposed to save aliens by having a child with him. He also made her think she had to do this by the time she was 16 or her family would be killed. Eventually, the Brobergs were reunited with their daughter, yet they still remained close to B.
From this point forward, the film goes beyond stranger than fiction. Both Mary-Ann and Bob had affairs with B, while he continued to rape Jan with impunity. She truly believed that she was in love with him and needed to complete her baby-having mission. In an even more infuriating turn, B’s wife (yes, he was married this whole time) blackmailed the Brobergs into lessening the kidnapping charges. B ended up spending only 10 days in jail as opposed to the original five years.
Jan didn’t even get the chance to heal after this initial kidnapping because B kidnapped her again. He took her to Utah and enrolled her in an all-girls school. Again, the FBI was able to rescue her, and by this point Jan was coming to terms with the abuse she suffered. In an even more disturbing twist, B still wasn’t convicted after this second kidnapping, and wouldn’t face any real consequences until several years later.
The fact that the Brobergs were more concerned about what others would think of their affairs than the safety and wellbeing of their daughter is maddening, but on a purely psychological level, worth probing. Had the Brobergs been brainwashed by their own church into believing that they must keep up appearances no matter what? Were they that selfish that they were willing to pimp out their daughter to keep their affairs going? The documentary never fully explains the reasoning behind their actions, though they are clearly ashamed. Obviously what happened to Jan is horrifying and a result of gross negligence and abuse on her parents’ part, but it’s also a look into the psyche behind the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses.”
Abducted in Plain Sight will enrage you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it. Borgman isn’t afraid to probe into the messiness of this specific case, which admittedly does question how relaxed the ’70s were. However, many points are still relevant to today, from selfish parenting to an obsession with appearances to the terrible child abuse that still runs rampant. Documentaries like Abducted in Plain Sight are a reminder that even the most pastoral towns can hide horrors.