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.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Bob Berchtold, who the Brobergs know alternately as “Berchtold” or “B,” early on seems to take a peculiar interest in the Broberg’s eldest daughter, Jan (who as a grown-up is a dead ringer for Marcia Brady/Maureen McCormick). He picks her up from piano lessons one Thursday with plans to take her horseback riding and promises to have her back before dinner. They don’t show up for dinner that night, and Berchtold’s wife somehow convinces the Brobergs not to get the police involved until Sunday, our first cue that something is drastically amiss. It turns out B has kidnapped Jan and taken her to Mexico, in order to get married (that 12 was legally old enough to get married in ’70s Mexico is just one of Abducted in Plain Sight‘s many horrifying revelations). As B’s brother explains, in one of Abducted In Plain Sight‘s many memorably candid soundbites, “my brother always was a sexual pervert.”
At this point, the movie hasn’t even really gotten going yet, believe it or not. That comes with the revelations of how B was even able to get close to Jan in the first place. It turns out, and excuse the spoilers here but I promise I’m not even revealing 80% of the crazy shit that happens in this movie, B was having a sexual relationship with both of Jan’s parents at the time in order to better manipulate them into giving him access to their daughter. Mary Ann Broberg describes her liaisons with B with undisguised wistfulness. Bob’s explanation of how B talked him into giving him a handjob in his car goes from shocking to hilarious to tragic in the space of about 15 seconds. “Berchtold was really knowledgeable in the sexual field,” Bob says, and the mind reels imagining the specifics that this vague statement conceals.
Meanwhile, B’s courtship of Mary Ann (the mother), by Mary Ann’s own account, apparently involved calling her to ask her to bring him a sandwich at work, and constantly telling her “you have a beautiful body.”
For men of my generation, for whom the ultimate example of how not to talk to women has long been “why don’t you go make me a sandwich” followed by “hey, nice boobs,” seeing that this strategy actually worked is either proof that B was an incredible con man or that the ’70s was just a vastly different time. (Probably both.) And it also shows the unbelievable lengths to which a pedophile will go. Seducing both parents first in order to blackmail/manipulate them? This man was the James Bond of sick fucks.
Eventually, it comes out that not only was B hooking up with both parents, but he had also been sleeping in Jan’s bed four nights a week for the past six months. How had he convinced her parents to allow this? Why, by explaining that it was part of his treatment for being a pedophile, obviously. Farbeit from them to deny a man (who possessed dirty secrets about them) the opportunity for self-improvement and redemption.
(I’m spoiling a lot, but I promise, the part I’ve revealed isn’t even the half of it.)
The story’s peculiarity to Mormonism is a big part of what makes it such a compelling anthropological study (and, in some way, the source of its universality). Without demonizing the religion, it seems fair to point out that this isn’t the first high-profile case involving Mormonism and child-kidnapping, and that Joseph Smith himself married a 14-year-old (not that he’s alone among religious figures in doing that sort of thing), and that the story about aliens B feeds to Jan has parallels to the Mormon mythology she’s been raised on. The aliens “Zeta” and “Zethra” that B invents for Jan sound not dissimilar to actual Mormon prophets — Zeezrom, Zenos, Zenock — and again, it’s not something unique to Mormonism. One of Charles Manson’s early skills, despite otherwise being a hopeless student, was his ability to memorize and recite Bible verses, which he was later able to mix with hippie, new age religious influences to create his own unique new age white power mythology with which to seduce flower children and runaways into joining his sex cult.
Manipulating people always seems to involve building on their particular brand of credulousness. Watching how B does it is captivating and surreal even as it’s sickening, the ultimate perversion of familiar facets of human behavior, and especially of Americana. Not to mention the blind spots of the ’70s justice system, which didn’t even seem to understand the now-basics that sexual abuse is almost always perpetrated by an acquaintance, or that “pedophilia” was even a recognized phenomenon.
If there’s one aspect the movie perhaps doesn’t explore enough, it’s the pasts of its characters. B spins a yarn about being sexually abused by an aunt when he was four, with a reductive explanation about how caring for his younger sister when he was a child imprinted on him that caring for young girls is what he was meant to do. I doubt that this was the whole story, and I also doubt that some of the other characters — Mary Ann, tragic hero Bob — didn’t have stories of their own left untold.
That said, it’s incredible that director Skye Borgman got her subjects to open up as much they did, so it’s hard to demand more. Ultimately it’s a story of survival, and you can’t help but be impressed with their ability to carry on, to use the same dogma that initially blinded them as their life raft when the shit hit the fan.
Abducted in Plain Sight is particularly Mormon and in that it’s particularly American — Mormonism being the most American of religions. It’s about how our dogged optimism in the face of obvious facts to the contrary can be our greatest weakness even as it keeps us together. A little cynicism can go a long way.