Abducted in Plain Sight — Film Review
Abducted in Plain Sight
Directed by Skye Borgman
This film is both ridiculous on the one hand, but very instructive on the other. It illuminates the malaise and hideousness of American sexual culture and illustrates how various powerful elements in American culture come together to transform the personal lives of ordinary Americans into scenes of carnage.
The film recounts the story of a 38 year old man’s sexual obsession with a twelve year old girl and his involvement with her family. They were from Mormon background. My interest is not in recounting the details of the relationship or attempting to give an analysis of the motivations and behaviors. This could be done, and it might have some interest, but my focus on this matter is mainly cultural. There are thousands of similar stories and relationships going on every day in America. Sexual interest in young children is a widespread phenomenon. Every day there are scandals and arrests reported in the news media. If it were not so severely persecuted in this society, it would probably be nearly universal.
I am not interested in why an adult man (or woman) would find a preadolescent child sexually interesting. I don’t see that as problematic. People have always found children sexually interesting and have sought to include them in their sex lives or introduce them to sexual experiences, in the same way that we introduce children to everything else we are interested in and enjoy. We naturally wish to share with our children activities that we enjoy and find satisfying, such as shooting guns, playing football, boxing, driving cars, drinking, and smoking. There is nothing wrong with any of that, is there? This taboo that modern western societies place on sex and children is a very strange aberration in the history of human culture. For me, it is the cultural prohibition, its severity, and the prosecutorial stance of society toward these relationships that is problematic, and not the desires themselves. The “child molester,” the “pedophile,” the “pervert,” the “predator,” are all bogeymen that have been created in order to simplify perception and justify blind hatred. They do not describe real people and real relationships. I am more interested in the pathology of a society that needs a fantastic monster it can hate without restraint. A social need to vent the most extreme viciousness on isolated, troubled, mostly defenseless individuals on account of their love interests is much more intriguing to me than the desires of a lonely, troubled individual trying to resolve an inner need within himself.
The film did not focus on Robert Berchtold’s background or personal psychology. No attempt was made to explain or understand him. He was portrayed somewhat sympathetically up until the last stages of the film when they gave in to the cultural need to demonize him. But at one point a prison psychiatrist’s understanding of Berchtold’s behavior was summarized and I think that psychiatrist’s grasp of Berchtold’s motivation was accurate. From a psychiatric point of view there is nothing inherently wrong with Berchtold’s desires. He is just trying to solve a fundamental problem within himself, to remedy a deep seated psychological deficiency in his upbringing. It is not something to be criminalized.
The film did not delve into the homosexual relationship between Berchtold and Bob Broberg. It was portrayed as a single incident, but I am skeptical of this reconstruction. There was enough of a sexual relationship going on between both parents and Berchtold that they gave the green light to Berchtold’s sexual affair with their twelve year old daughter. Berchtold’s intrusion into the sexual life of this family probably propped up a marriage that was deteriorating. Twelve year old Jan was the price for that infusion of support and excitement, and she became enthralled with her role and her relationship with Berchtold.
However, there was conflict. It came from the ideology of the Mormon church to which they all belonged, which imposed a negative judgment on this whole arrangement. Interestingly, the Mormon church does not seem to disapprove of the relationship between the twelve year old Jan and the 38 year old Berchtold. But it does not condone the extramarital sex and homosexuality that played an important part in the whole matrix. Additionally, parents are often disapproving of the sexual and romantic choices of their offspring going all the way back to Romeo and Juliet, who were about 13 or 14 years old at the time of their affair. Sexual relations between adult males and young children lacking the approval of the parents will always be problematic and probably persecuted. In former times that approval was often quite readily forthcoming. In this case, Berchtold correctly perceived an opportunity with this family and exploited it. The family is trying to pose as naive, innocent, stupid, brainwashed victims of a cunning predator, but let’s be real. This happened in plain sight with all of their participation — sexual participation. They were not naive victims. They were getting something out of it: first and foremost the sexual thrills as well as a revitalization of a faltering marriage.
There were things wrong with Robert Berchtold, mentally and behaviorally. He was not an exemplary person. The sexual relationship with the adolescent Jan did improve his life and improved him. However, he got worse with the intrusion of the legal and criminal apparatus into the matter. The psychotic elements intensified as well as threats of violence. If the police, the FBI, and the prosecutorial forces had left them alone, this whole matter would not have taken the tragic turn that it did. It would have run its course; it would certainly have left its mark on all of their lives, but they all would have been able to continue to live relatively benign lives each to themselves. Psychiatric counselors may have been some help, if they were sympathetic. But it is the institutional intrusion and criminalization of these emotional affairs that raised the stakes and intensified the adversarial feelings and rage. Who are the villains in this film? Pete Welsh, the FBI agent who thinks he’s the good guy, the prosecutors, and the entire condemnatory cultural mindset that injected itself in a persecutorial way against this couple and their families. I exclude the parents from this category, although they created difficulties for the couple after encouraging them and enabling them at the outset. Parents are entitled to be parents and families always have conflicting perceptions, interests, and understandings of a situation. This is something inherent to every family and is not nefarious in and of itself. The real turpitude in this drama is the philosophical condemnation from legal and institutional authorities and their readiness to intervene in a forceful, destructive manner. The persons within those institutions carrying out this enforcement are the true bad actors.
The film amounts to an exercise in myth making. It is an awkwardly constructed piece of propaganda. This family is now –thirty years later — casting itself as the innocent victims of a malevolent predator instead of the conflicted, but enthusiastic participants that they were. This marriage was troubled, as was Berchtold. There was a fit that Berchtold perceived and aggressively pursued. Now, thirty years later, they wish to repudiate it and say it was all wrong. I don’t buy it, and I don’t accept the socially acceptable reconstruction of themselves that they are now trying to pass off.
One telling moment in the film was toward the end at the trial of Berchtold where Jan confronts him and tells him how he harmed her. Berchtold apologized for the hurt he had caused and asked her if she could forgive him. She refused and retorted that he should make his recompense by going to jail. The apology and the refusal to accept it were both disingenuous. Berchtold knew he had nothing to apologize for and so did Jan. The apology was tongue in cheek, mocking Jan for demanding it, all the while remembering the hundreds of times they enjoyed sex together with Jan’s enthusiastic responsiveness. This is also why Jan cannot accept the apology. She knows she is being mocked and her hypocrisy and mendacity is being plainly thrown back in her face.
The best evidence of this hypocrisy is visible through the metamorphosis in the character of Jan. As a young girl Jan’s eyes are bright and shining, her smile is broad and enthusiastic. She is full of enthusiasm and love for her lover. She is defiant of her parents. She is willful. She stands by her love with strength and determination. As a teenager she rebelled against her mother. She insisted on keeping her lover against the strong opposition of her family. When she was coerced onto an airplane and forcibly brought back to her family from southern California, she refused to speak to her mother. She went into a stupor, sulking in her room for days and weeks. (Forcibly dragging a kid back to her parents is not called kidnapping, but when she willingly leaves with her lover and hides of her own volition from her parents, it is.) She shut herself down emotionally. She was enraged that she was ripped away from her passion and her ultimate concern. She wasn’t the same girl that her parents had known before. Of course not. Passionate love transforms a person, and Jan had grown emotionally and sexually from the naive girl that her parents raised. Jan’s behavior after being forcibly brought back home illustrates the inadequacy of the emotional environment in her birth home and the lack of understanding her parents had for her and her true inner feelings.
Contrast this obstreperous, sexually awakened young girl with the mature Jan of 30 years later at the time of the filming. Gone is the flashing light in her eyes, gone is the untrammeled smile, gone is the passion and the sexual appeal. She has become effete and apologetic, attempting to pose as a martyr and a victim, turning on her old lover, accusing him of “predation” and “abuse.” She has become despicable. The young Jan was far more appealing, far more attractive, far more alive, than Jan as a mature woman. She has been poisoned, first and foremost by her mother, who composed the book that they wrote and promoted, and secondarily by the legal system that condemned her relationship and applied its power and reach to destroy it. In her contemporary pose, Jan has fully surrendered to her mother. Gone is that wonderful rebellious girl standing her ground and fighting for the truth of her own heart. Jan as a mature woman is taking the only course left open to her, namely, that of the abused victim. This restores her acceptability in society, and it gives her the possibility of cashing in on her personal tragedy. The result is that the book and this film lose their credibility in their later stages. When they begin to apply judgment and perspective is when the hypocrisy and pretense take precedence. Now she accepts her mother’s version of events, she supports her mother’s book, Berchtold was forced to suicide. Ding Dong, the Wicked Witch has won a total victory.
Jan had been fortunate to have a lover that she could love and feel passionate about early in her life. It enabled her to develop emotionally and sexually at a much earlier age than most of her peers . It is known that most sexual encounters and relationships between children and adults occur between people who know each other well: family members, neighbors, teachers, clergy, counselors. The malevolent stranger who is used as a bogeyman in propaganda promoted by schools and churches is relatively rare. Such cases, when they occur, are highly publicized, but they do not characterize the sexual experiences of the vast majority of children. The abuse industry has taken over the personal lives of American people. It prevents them from developing naturally in their emotional and sexual selves. All personal relationships between children and adults, children and other children, and even among adults who work in the same environment are cast in terms of “abuse,” “exploitation,” and “predation.” Every personal interest one might take in another person has a pall of suspicion cast over it. We’ve incentivized victimization to an unprecedented extent. This film is a good illustration of that tendency and the great lie that it represents characterizing these relationships as “abusive” and “exploitative.” The passionate love letters exchanged between Jan and Berchtold are clear evidence of this, that contradict all claims of “abuse,” “kidnapping,” and “exploitation.” One of the good points of the film is that it presents this first hand evidence that belies the judgment it is ultimately trying to impose on the whole matter.
So while this film is ultimately disappointing in that it finally adopts the usual negative stance toward the relationship it is depicting, it presents enough of the truth and the testimony of the girl herself through her hand written letters and her frank testimony as an adult about the affair that one can see through its propagandistic tenor. The key is in noting the contrast between the character of Jan as a mature adult woman in her 50s and the passionate, defiant young girl who carried on the affair as a youngster. Her later pose as a victim is not convincing, and the haunted shell of a woman that she has become is a sad legacy of the destruction wreaked upon her life by her mother, especially, and the legal system that thwarted, persecuted and ultimately destroyed the loving intimacy she had with Robert Berchtold.