What if the world’s greatest con man wasn’t after money? What if he already had money, and instead all his considerable talent for manipulation was devoted entirely to seducing a 12-year-old girl? That’s roughly the plot of the new Netflix documentary your friends have probably been telling you to watch, Abducted In Plain Sight, which starts as the lurid but straightforward tale of a 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped by her neighbor in 1970s Idaho. It zooms out to explain the how, and in the process spreads the culpability around, getting more outlandish every second.
Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote in his eulogy for Richard Nixon, “Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.”
In the same way, Abducted In Plain Sight is about a con-man who seems to thrive in every built-in blind spot of Mormonism, 1970s America, and circumscribed suburban existence in general — preying on their preternatural optimism, their hospitality, their magical thinking, their intensely familial nature, their core of abiding loneliness, and the general sexual ignorance of the time — all so he could sleep with a child. It’s fascinating, and gross.
The Brobergs are a happy family with three young daughters living in Pocatillo, Idaho when, some time in the early ’70s, the Berchtolds move to the neighborhood. The Berchtolds and the Broburgs seem to have everything in common — the same church, about the same number of kids, all about the same age, dads both named Bob. Which doesn’t actually seem that much of a coincidence in a community that prizes the traditional family as much as theirs does, and with such a narrow conception of what that looks like.
“We were both in business, and we both had families, so we would talk about that a lot,” Bob Broburg says, as if finding another dad to talk “family” and “business” with was like meeting a separated-at-birth identical twin.
The film doesn’t reveal it until about 20 minutes in, but you get the sense that the families are Mormon right away, especially the way they describe carpooling to school together every morning, and their morning ritual of shouting “It’s gonna be a great day!” Shades of Napoleon Dynamite — which was directed by a Mormon husband and wife and was also set in Idaho — and the Mormon neighbor episode of South Park where the family rolls up in their minivan with their faces freshly painted from the fair, all laughing their heads off.
The paradox of Mormonism is that this story feels like it couldn’t possibly have happened in any other community, but also that only Mormons could’ve possibly coped with it this well, a Shakespearian tale where the characters’ strengths are also their weaknesses and vice versa. The story is told largely through interviews with the Brobergs, and while it’s their shocking naivete that allowed it to happen, it’s their unique eloquence and ability to accurately articulate their own feelings about it the entire way through that allows us to know about it. They’re somehow both blinkered and actualized.