May 15, 2019

From Actress to Advocate

By Marianne Hamilton

 

Hoping to save others, Jan Broberg shares the story of her kidnapping and abuse.

It’s 4:10 on a breezy Thursday afternoon, and Jan Broberg is just sitting down to breakfast. Settling in on the patio of the Center for the Arts at Kayenta, where she is executive director, Broberg attempts a few bites of guacamole, tortilla chips, and veggies purloined from the refreshments laid out for an opening-night reception. However, she’s quickly distracted by the task at hand: describing the surreal turn her life has taken since Netflix began airing a documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight, in January. Originally released in 2017 under the title Forever ‘B,’ the retooled film recounts the horrifying and at times, seemingly preposterous events surrounding Broberg’s childhood kidnapping (twice) and sexual abuse by a trusted family friend.

Broberg’s mostly unsuccessful nutritional efforts are an apt metaphor for her life at present. For the time being, such mundane concerns as eating and sleeping are taking a back seat to the higher purpose for which Broberg believes she’s being called.

As soon as Abducted began streaming, Broberg was flooded with interview requests from Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, and other major publications. Producers from Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight, The View, and numerous other shows also started calling. “The last time we counted, we had 11 pages of links to the various interviews I’ve done so far,” Broberg says ruefully.  

For a professional actress (Broberg’s 30-year career spans work in film, in television, and on stage), such exposure would seem heaven-sent. The irony that her most notable screen role required no acting is not lost on Broberg. “It’s just weird,” she says, idly picking up and then discarding a corn chip. “Everywhere I go now, people look at me and say, ‘Aren’t you…that girl in the movie?’ But it’s also really wonderful because we’re all united in this one thing: We have to save our kids.”

Growing up in Pocatello, Idaho, the eldest of three daughters in a religious family, Broberg describes her early childhood as “idyllic.” Jan was inseparable from sisters Karen and Susan; the girls constantly helped their mother Mary Ann with household chores. There were nightly dinners and singalongs at the piano with their father, Bob, who owned the local flower shop. “We were loved unconditionally,” Broberg confirms. “Dad was funny. Mom was our Rock of Gibraltar. When we kids talked, we were listened to. We were raised in an environment of pure love, without judgement. Our family loved everyone.”

The large, loud, loving family easily made room in their lives for a new family who joined their church congregation. Robert and Gail Berchtold had five children of their own, roughly the same ages as the Broberg girls. The two clans quickly became inseparable, sharing dinners several times each week, vacationing and going to movies together, enjoying outings on the Berchtold’s boat and all that ‘70s-era suburbia had to offer. That two-and-a-half-year period, Broberg now says, was one of careful “grooming” done by Robert Berchtold, whom everyone referred to as “B.”

“B was the Pied Piper; he was everybody’s best friend and so much fun. We did hundreds of activities with his family and him. This is what I’ve been telling people for the last 20 years: All too often, we don’t need to save our children from ‘scary strangers.’ In 97 percent of cases, according to the FBI, an abuser is someone a child knows and trusts, and you as a parent probably know, love, and trust that person as well,” Broberg says.

As Abducted describes in detail, Berchtold drugged and kidnapped Broberg not once but twice. However, the film also omits what Broberg believes are other critical facts: Her parents contacted law enforcement the first night she went missing, and they attempted to alert the FBI. Still, she quickly acknowledges that her parents fell under the spell of her predator—who, they were to discover years later, had molested or raped three girls before Broberg’s kidnapping and four more afterward. This, she emphasizes, has become her raison d’etre: to alert others to the possibility that predators walk among us, largely unsuspected, undetected, and unprosecuted.

“It’s not that I want everyone to be mistrustful or to look at every friend and family member suspiciously,” Broberg notes. “But I’ve had over 20,000 messages from people around the world so far, and they say, ‘It was my dentist. It was my dad. It was my school teacher, my priest, my babysitter.’  We need to teach our children and ourselves to be alert. Most of all, we must teach everyone to trust their gut, which is a powerful preservation instinct. If your gut is telling you that something’s wrong or that someone’s attention feels weird, you’re probably correct.”

Broberg also encourages anyone who has been victimized by a predator to come forward and ask for the help needed to heal. In her case, channeling her experiences into an acting career helped dilute some of her own trauma, but years of therapy—not to mention the unquestioning support of family and close friends—were key to her recovery.

Says Broberg, “If I hadn’t been able to get up on the stage and scream and cry and become another person, I probably wouldn’t have survived. Acting was my release, especially during the four years when I told no one about the sexual abuse. Even more importantly, when I finally told my family what had really happened with B, they listened, and they believed me. That’s the biggest part of anyone’s recovery: feeling like you’re heard and that someone believes your story.

“I want people to have hope,” Broberg concludes, once again reaching for a chip. “I want everyone to know that they can get help so their lives can be healed and productive and happy. It’s pretty radical to be saying all of this, but this is where the conversation has to go. This is the final frontier.”

Key Takeaways for Parents:

  1. If someone shows an unusual amount of interest in your child, take note. Such an attachment to another person’s child may be cause for concern.
  2. If your child’s behavior changes, especially with regard to a specific adult, keep a log with dates, times, and descriptions of what your child said or did; this may prove helpful to law enforcement later.
  3. If an adult’s behavior continues to be of concern, file a police report. In case of a future arrest—even if it’s not on behalf of your own child—the record will help confirm prior criminal activity.
  4. Keep the lines of communication open with your children. Have frank discussions about how to maintain their safety. Use appropriate language and encourage them to confide in you if they ever feel uncomfortable or threatened by anyone —even if that person says they will hurt them or you.
  5. Stop victim blaming. Expressing doubt about someone’s claim of intimidation or abuse will magnify their anxiety and unwillingness to come forward, further empowering their abuser. Support for those who report abuse is crucial.
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