[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on April 20.]
There are some things that are too horrific to face straight on. You have to shield your eyes, take a side glance, observe from an oblique angle. One of the feature-length documentaries screening at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival is Forever ‘B’ (now called Abducted in Plain Sight), and its story is almost beyond belief.
It is a story that, in some ways, resembles the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in 2002. Both Jan Broberg (the subject of Forever ‘B’) and Elizabeth Smart were raised in Mormon households and both were kidnapped by older men who believed they should marry these young girls. Both kidnappers were adept at religious or superstitious manipulation—though Elizabeth, unlike Jan, was never convinced of the rightness of her kidnapper. Elizabeth’s kidnapper was sentenced to two life terms while Jan’s kidnapper largely escaped serious consequences (in this life).
Elizabeth Smart’s story is strange and horrible enough, but Jan Broberg’s story is even stranger. In its spiraling, strangeness-upon-strangeness unbelievability, it reminds me of another NBFF alum, Who Took Johnny?, which, if you have a strong stomach, you can find on Netflix.
But if Who Took Johnny? requires intestinal fortitude (especially if you are a parent), Forever ‘B’ requires a digestion of steel. You feel like you’re lost in a parallel and sickening universe. “B”—Bob Berchtold, who committed suicide in 2005 (see his surreal obituary here)—manages to manipulate every member of the Broberg family in order to accomplish his depraved goals. As one of Jan’s sisters says, if he was able to manipulate adults the way that he did, how much easier was it for him to manipulate children?
I’m generally annoyed by re-enactments, but Forever ‘B’ manages to do it fairly well, using what looks like 1970s video recordings. The tension of the story is maintained throughout. The documentary does raise, for me, questions about Jan’s current relationship with her family. She obviously still has some relationship with her mother, with whom she traveled after the publishing of Mary Ann’s book, Stolen Innocence (not to be confused with another book by the same name, also involving Mormon child marriage!). Jan says at the beginning of the film that it was the love of their family that brought them through everything, and yet the film never shows them in the same place. It might be simply the logistics of making a documentary, but it struck me as strange.
Maybe it’s the small-town, early-’70s cultural climate in Idaho at the time, but one is astounded at the naivete of the Jan’s parents, Mary Ann and Bob. (To be fair, they themselves are hardly able, in retrospect, to believe their own actions.) The FBI agent in charge of the case and the District Attorney know that everything about the situation is wrong, but the parents are blind to Berchtold’s manipulation, continuing to believe him for months and years after the first kidnapping. Part of it is ignorance of what Jan went through, because she herself was turned completely against her parents by Berchtold. When she was returned from Mexico, out of fear she told them none of the details of the story concocted by Berchtold about the “alien mission” she had been given.
Perhaps we live in a time where our eyes have been opened to the sickness, danger, and depravity that exists within people in this world. Human trafficking on a large scale has been brought to our attention. We are much more aware of missing children via means such as the Amber Alert. Certainly, Lutherans and others who do not believe that people are, at bottom, basically good should be less willing to believe in the good intentions of any person. And we can thank God that there are few people who are as skilled as Bob Berchtold at manipulation over extended periods of time.
Such considerations, however, along with our natural incredulity that such a thing is possible, might actually make us more susceptible to what Jan and her family were made to undergo. How many stories have we heard recently—Rachel Denhollander’s perhaps being the most recently well-known—where trusted adults abuse the children in their care? How many times does not believing “it can happen” here or to me actually lead to precisely that thing happening?
And even if—God grant it—there are no more stories such as Jan’s, there is a wider warning within the story to parents and all who are entrusted with the care of children. Children are certainly very resilient. They can, as Jan seems to have done, work through horrible events, even if it takes a long time. But children are also vulnerable to the distortion of their fundamental identities and the destruction of their security, all the more if they are convinced that they are competent to make life-altering decisions (like a 13-year old convinced she is supposed to, and can, love and marry a 39-year old man).
This documentary should not only raise awareness (raised awareness, in itself, is not necessarily a good), but should force us to conclusions that cause us to act for what is beneficial in our families and communities. Films like this often highlight our own blind spots and allow us to stop our progress— regress—down dangerous roads. It may yet happen in the general cultural approval of children making the life-altering decision to transition from one sex to another.
Nothing about this film is easy to watch. I was, in turn, uneasy, angry, disappointed, skeptical, sad, vengeful, fearful (for my own children), and queasy. Perhaps the hardest thing to believe is that, for all she went through, Jan Broberg seems to have come out sane and well-adjusted on the other side. In the last few minutes, we hear the interviewer ask Jan if she has forgiven Berchtold. She says that “forgiveness is a tricky word,” but that not to forgive would be like building walls around herself.
This is not a film I’d want to see more than once, but it, like other shocking stories, can strip away any naive optimism about people or about the world in which we live. Not only that, but it can perhaps increase vigilance that would prevent anything like this happening ever again. May it do so.
Forever ‘B’ is screening at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 28, at 6 pm, and Jan Broberg, along with the director, Skye Borgman, will be present for Q&A. If you’re in Southern California, get tickets here. There will also be a second screening on Monday, April 30, at 3 pm. You can follow release and availability updates at the film’s Facebook page or web site.