Trigger warning: The following blog post addresses dynamics and incidents of child sexual abuse and failed community response. It contains specific information regarding an individual's trauma and survivor story. As such, it has the potential to cause significant distress, intrusive thoughts, or recurrent thoughts. Please proceed carefully. If triggers occur and you need support, please refer to the hotlines provided on our page of Resources for Survivors.
Abducted in Plain Sight is a documentary, available on Netflix, that chronicles the circumstances surrounding a young girl’s abduction and abuse by a trusted family friend. The actions — and seeming inaction — of the victim’s parents have been intensely criticized on social media, even giving rise to memes that dub them the “world’s worst parents.” This blog post is a response to that backlash and explores how such “jokes” hurt victims and embolden abusers.
"It will never happen to me."
"I would never let that happen to my kids.”
Statuses and comments like this were plastered across my news feed as all of my friends, family, and acquaintances on Facebook reacted to watching Abducted In Plain Sight. It seemed that everyone had a common theme. No one seemed to think it could happen to them or their family.
That family must be special. That family must be weird. Those parents must have been complete idiots to fall for that. While some of these statements hold some truth, they’re largely rooted in ignorance and bad taste. I have failed to find a joke no matter which angle I look at it from.
I think I can better explain the problem with the Abducted in Plain Sight memes by telling you a little about my story. Once, I too might have said, “It will never happen to me.” The problem is, believing that doesn’t make it true.
No matter how prepared you are, you will never be prepared for that moment when someone you trust decides to cross the line. In the past few years, I’ve heard a quote from Mike Tyson that I absolutely love: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” I don’t think I can find a quote that better represents the theme for the blog post I am writing today.
As I watched Abducted in Plain Sight, I was able to relate to the main character, Jan Broberg, more than I’d like to admit. I, too, was a victim of childhood sexual assault, and though I was never kidnapped as she was, our stories share striking similarities.
Like most victims of child abuse, we experienced multiple levels of grooming. “Grooming” refers to the actions a pedophile takes to prepare a child for the abuse itself. And this grooming comes in many forms. It can be something as simple as deliberate touching that seems insignificant at first but builds over time. It can include buying elaborate gifts for the child, showering them with praise and attention, and other seemingly innocent actions.
If I look back, I can remember the grooming process beginning as early as eight years old. My abuser would deliberately grab me up during a game of tag and hold me close to him, sometimes brushing his hands over my nipples. And even though it was somewhat brief, it was long enough that I felt uncomfortable and knew something was off. However, I was too young to fully understand, so I made excuses and quickly brushed off what was happening.
My abuser was able to space these instances out and use new variations, such as buying gifts and making me feel like part of his family — as if I were one of his children. He knew that I had come from a broken home and took full advantage of that, exploiting it at every turn.
He even attempted to groom members of my family in order to gain more access to me. He tried to get romantically involved with at least two of my family members in hopes of gaining a more permanent role in my life. Had he been able to establish those relationships prior to my disclosure of abuse, I think it would’ve solidified my fears and kept me from ever speaking up.
It Can Happen to You
I remember watching Law and Order, seeing awful things happen to children my age, and saying to myself that I would never let that happen. I told myself I would fight back. I would do this or that differently.
But those reassuring things you tell yourself don’t work when you’re actually in that moment. Everything stops. You can’t breathe, you can’t blink, you can’t move. You count to 10 so many times in your head, telling yourself that you’ll get up and run, but your feet don’t move.
It can — and it just may — happen to you. You might be able to fight, and you might be able to run away. But you might not. There’s a difference between a stranger trying to attack you and somebody you love breaking your trust. When that happens, everything you know and believe about the world can be broken in a single moment, and it will happen faster than you can comprehend.
My life changed in five seconds. That’s all it took. And he never even had to threaten me. I know it may be hard to believe that he could have so much control without ever having to utter a word, but he never had to issue any direct threats. I took it for granted that bad things would happen if I told anyone. I felt like it was my fault and that if I told my mom, I would be in trouble.
A Note to Parents
As parents, don’t let yourself believe the lie that you would never let a predator close to your child. You can’t identify pedophiles by sight, and strangers aren’t the biggest threat. According to statistics released by the Department of Justice, 93% of juvenile victims of sexual violence know the perpetrator.
If there’s one thing you should take away from Abducted in Plain Sight, it’s that your children are much more likely to be hurt by people you trust than by a complete stranger. After all, you wouldn’t let a complete stranger spend time alone with your kids. But friends, family members, babysitters, coaches, and other authority figures are different because they’re earned your trust.
Abducted in Plain Sight does a great job of showing what the grooming process looks like, but you have to be willing to put yourselves in the parents’ shoes — even when their choices seem incomprehensible to you. Their daughter’s abuser was someone they trusted. He was likable and charming. He made sure he seemed harmless until it was too late. He was a master manipulator, gaining their trust even while orchestrating situations he could use to blackmail them.
There’s no doubt that the victim’s parents made serious mistakes in this case, but rather than scoffing at them, we should learn from them. That means educating ourselves on grooming tactics and acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that no matter how careful we are, we are still vulnerable to those we know, love, and trust.
How Your Response Affects Victims
The misplaced guilt and shame that I felt after being abused is the reality for most victims. In fact, it’s why many victims don’t come forward.
Then victims go on social media and see the people they love and trust sharing memes and laughing about a situation that feels uncomfortably similar to what they have experienced or are currently going through. Why would anyone feel safe enough to come forward and disclose their abuse if it seems like everyone they know is laughing at the someone else’s abuse like it’s a joke?
I’m not laughing. No matter how incredible the story behind Abducted in Plain Sight may seem to you, the abuse was real. These are real people's lives, and your response will affect other victims for the rest of their lives. Yes, I am moving forward and doing great things, but there is nothing I will ever be able to do to make what I went through go away completely. I will still experience triggers. I will still have things happen that are out of my control.
I’m thankful that I have a great support group around me. Some survivors don’t have that. So think twice before you share a meme making fun of a victim or their parents — especially if you have no experience with abuse.
Whether you know it or not, abuse survivors are watching what you post on social media. Research shows that at least 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before they turn 18. That means, statistically speaking, that at least 10% of your friends and followers on social media are abuse survivors. How you respond to news stories and documentaries about abuse shows the survivors in your life how you will respond to their own disclosures. Similarly, your response gives predators a preview of how seriously you take abuse and whether you’re likely to believe and support victims in your community.
Every day, your actions — including what you post on social media — are either empowering victims or discouraging them from coming forward.
So be compassionate. Educate yourself. And if you aren’t sure about something, ask. I — or anyone else from SHIELD — would be happy to answer any questions you have about abuse dynamics, the grooming process, how to report suspected abuse, and how to support survivors.
You can find other Survivor Stories here.
If you are an abuse survivor in search of healing, we invite you to join our secure Survivor Tribe community. This social media-style support group allows you to connect with other survivors who understand what you’re going through. To learn more, visit the Survivor Tribe website, survivortribewv.com.
We also encourage any survivors in need of support to call the hotlines provided on our page of Resources for Survivors.