Trigger Warning: Sexual assault, grooming, kidnapping.
The Monday morning after I was sexually assaulted at a family gathering I—being unsure of the correct protocol in these situations and still not even clear if what happened to me was anything to get worked up about—I went to my high school guidance counselor for, well, guidance.
She quickly told me statistics like the oft-repeated data that about one in four girls and one in 13 boys in the United States experience child sexual abuse.
Then she asked me how my college essay was coming and sent me back to AP English.
Back in class and armed with these newfound figures, I looked around at the other girls in the room and wondered who else was part of this not-so-select group. Who “looked” like she might be a survivor? Did I “look” like one? Was I one?
Even now, five years after the #MeToo movement took force, no one wants to talk about sexual assault and harassment the way we should. And yet, people are still surprised that it happens so often and easily. The idea that something like that couldn’t—or wouldn’t—happen to our kids on our watch because we “know” what a perpetrator looks like is both ostriching and naivety incarnate.
The Peacock limited series A Friend of the Family, the latest based-on-a-true-crime scripted series from showrunner and executive producer Nick Antosca (Hulu’s The Act and Candy), opens with the story’s subject: the real Jan Broberg. The now-adult Broberg uses familiar language like “we lived in a different world back then” and “I want to tell my family’s story today because so many think that something like this could never happen to them” to, if not justify then explain, why her parents seemingly did not see the warning signs that their friend and neighbor, Bob Berchtold, was a serial attacker and manipulator. Unfortunately, this man would not only sexually abuse a young Jan and other girls, but twice kidnapped her over a period of time in the 1970s.
But what’s fascinating about A Friend of the Family, and also what makes it different than a lot of other scripted takes on true crime, is that the series doesn’t so much try to answer the why of how this happened (psychologists have devoted their entire careers to exploring why someone would prey on a child). Instead, it looks at the how of it. How did this man so easily win over this family and ingratiate himself into their lives?
Much of the success of this limited series can be attributed to its willingness to cast against type. Perpetrator Berchtold is portrayed with chilling smoothness by Jake Lacy, an actor who up until he received an Emmy nomination for playing an entitled trust-funder in HBO’s The White Lotus, was Hollywood’s defacto Perpetual Nice Guy(™).
If it were another actor, Berchtold’s tight-lipped smugness and hugs that last a little too long would make it too easy for us— the wise and educated audience watching from our high horses in the year 2022— to point fingers at the out-of-their-element Broberg parents (portrayed here by Colin Hanks, with the aid of thick glasses and a bald cap that make him almost unrecognizable, and Anna Paquin and her forlorn stares). But, from the perspective of a family who always saw the best in people anyway and were greeted by this congenial, non-threatening, all-American persona who was attractive but (sorry, Jake) not so attractive so that it’s distracting or threatening? This Idaho town was a place where people left their doors unlocked and everyone knew the ages of each other’s kids. So they didn’t think twice about incorporating Berchtold and his family into Christmas dinners, letting him drive their kids to school, and leaving their eldest at his furniture shop while they ran errands.
In the first few of the six episodes made available to the press (the miniseries has nine episodes in total), Antosca and his cast and crew offer a road map for just how easy it was for Berchtold to isolate various members of this family and earn their trusts before preying on their weaknesses through manipulative tactics, blackmail, and good, old-fashioned grooming and seduction. The brilliance of his scheming is that it allowed him to kidnap Jan when she was most vulnerable. It first happens when she’s 12; just as she was entering the age of teen and tween-aged girl defiance but also susceptible to whatever a trusted adult might tell her. It happens again when she’s 14; after her family is in ruins and with no protective structure in place, but also as she’s burgeoning on adulthood and believes herself to be worldlier than she is.
This isn’t to suggest that all of the Brobergs were unwitting victims at the time. Those who have studied the case through Netflix’s documentary film about it, Abducted in Plain Sight, or by going down a Wikipedia or Reddit rabbit hole can offer thesis papers on whether Broberg patriarch Bob—an active member of the Mormon Church—was closeted and perhaps that’s why a sexual encounter he had with Berchtold haunted him for the rest of his life. In Hanks’ portrayal of Bob in A Friend of the Family’s, it really doesn’t matter whether he was queer. His looks of nausea and disgust make it clear that he very much did not want to be in that situation, and knew he was being abused.
Also helpful is the miniseries’ attempts to explain the cultural landscape at the time. We associate the early ‘70s with burned draft cards and improperly taped doors at DNC headquarters. But here we’re taught that, even though it had been coined 70+ years prior, the word pedophila was a concept so hard to grasp that even the officials handling the first kidnapping case had trouble comprehending it.
The series’ message doesn’t seem to be about questioning culpability or even to admonish the Broberg parents. And it tries hard to not play into the sensationalism of this case. It’s a cautionary tale for what can happen when we don’t talk about traumatic events.
The first four episodes of A Friend of the Family premiere Thursday, October 6th on Peacock.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and daughter.
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