What happens when a rebellious English teacher from a dysfunctional background falls in love and runs away with a South Korean woman from a rich, controlling family? In today’s podcast, you’ll find out, as these were the true life events of author Mark Diehl who documented his experiences in the book Stealing Cinderella: How I Became an International Fugitive for Love. From daily harassment to ultimately running for their lives, this true life story is more cliffhanging than fiction. Click the player below to listen now!
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Guest information for ‘Fugitive for Love- Mark Diehl’ Podcast Episode
Mark D. Diehl grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, living with his unstable mother, who exhibited signs of borderline personality disorder. He had no father or siblings in the house, and it took him a long time to figure out that his childhood was abnormal. By age twelve, he had a seething contempt for authority, and his heroes were criminals. Despite failing classes in junior high and high school, he managed to attend and graduate from the University of Iowa.
It was clear to Mark that he wasn’t the type to work his way up through the ranks in a company, but without money or family support it was unlikely that he could start a successful business of his own. Thinking that South Korea’s growing economy might present some opportunities, he took a job teaching English there, and met Jennifer, a local Korean woman who would later become his wife. Their interracial relationship elicited harassment and abuse for a year before Jennifer’s influential family found out they were dating and chased them out of the country trying to recapture her, and this story is now the subject of Mark’s memoir, “Stealing Cinderella: How I Became an International Fugitive for Love.”
Returning with Jennifer to the United States, Mark attended law school at the University of Iowa College of Law and practiced as a litigator in Chicago for several years. Eventually he quit the law and returned to graduate school for creative writing at the University of Chicago, working on books he hoped would help preserve the American respect for independence and individual free will. His award-winning dystopian science-fiction trilogy Seventeen is set in an Asian-style social hierarchy after the world’s supply of natural resources has been exhausted. He and Jennifer currently live in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Find out more about their life and Mark’s other writing at www.MarkDDiehl.com.
Mark’s memoir about their escape from South Korea, “Stealing Cinderella: How I Became an International Fugitive for Love,” is available everywhere.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Fugitive for Love- Mark Diehl’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, listeners, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. Calling into the show today we have Mark Diehl, who is the author of the memoir Stealing Cinderella: How I Became an International Fugitive for Love about his time in South Korea where he met his wife. Mark, welcome to the show.
Mark D. Diehl: Hi, Gabe, thanks for having me today.
Gabe Howard: Well, I am really excited to talk to you about your memoir, about just all of the emotions and issues and trauma that went into the book. But before we get started, can you give our listeners a brief snippet of what the book’s about?
Mark D. Diehl: Oh, yeah. In 1993 I had just graduated from college and without any qualifications whatsoever, I found out I was able to get a job teaching English in South Korea. I taught college kids to prepare for TOEFL scores and things like that. And there was also a little kids academy, and teaching at the little kids academy was a woman who later became my wife. We dated for a year there and we were harassed every single day. Finally, her upper class, powerful family had her followed when they didn’t believe her story one day. Beat her up, locked her in a room and told her they were going to arrange a marriage to the first Korean they could find to save the family name. Her older sister had been arranged the year before to a guy who had six factories. So that was the kind of people we were dealing with. She had to escape at 4:00 in the morning and come to my house in the ghetto by the military base, which kicked off five days of hiding and violence. They got the police involved because a member of the family was married to the police chief. We barely escaped. We ran to Hong Kong where we got married and then immediately became stranded by U.S. immigration policy and almost died.
Gabe Howard: That is just an incredible story. Are you two still married?
Mark D. Diehl: Yes. We
Gabe Howard: Is everbody okay?
Mark D. Diehl: It. We actually just returned to Hong Kong. We hadn’t been back since and celebrated our 25th anniversary in nice hotels and eating in restaurants right above the streets where we very nearly starved 25 years ago. So that
Gabe Howard: Wow.
Mark D. Diehl: Was a nice little way to celebrate.
Gabe Howard: Obviously, I’m glad that everything turned out OK. But let’s dive into the book. In your memoir, you describe your childhood as being extremely difficult.
Mark D. Diehl: Yeah, my mother had all of the hallmarks of borderline personality disorder. She was rail thin from an eating disorder, would go days without eating. She had these sudden intense shifts in mood for no reason and you’d be talking and it’d be bright and sunny. And then she’d go into a rage or be sobbing even in a restaurant or something like that. From time to time, I would get hauled up and smacked around because I was being so terrible. There was just constant manipulation. I’d always be accused of having some evil motivation for whatever she was observing in me. And then that was triggered mostly by me being around other people. Like if I went to see other kids to go play on a Saturday or something. She would have a lot of intense, unstable relationships. Growing up, I had six father figures, that kind of thing, because I didn’t have a father at home. I didn’t know what was normal, what was not. I thought this was just the way everybody lived. This kind of constant instability.
Gabe Howard: Did this bond you and your wife while you were dating? You both had this sort of emotionally abusive, unstable background.
Mark D. Diehl: As I grew up and eventually realized, because it took me decades to really figure out that there was something abnormal with the way I was growing up, but by the time I did understand it, I had just a seething contempt of authority and Jennifer’s family was completely strictly authoritarian. So in that way, even though we had some similar things and violence was one and being marginalized and having our our experiences sort of negated or downplayed because there was something more important in my mother’s case, it was her fluctuating moods. So we did have some similar traits, but it did raise us very differently. And in my case, it made me sort of the typical rebellious badboy type, I guess.
Gabe Howard: You feel very strongly that having that kind of background gave you a sort of resiliency that allowed you to, I don’t want to say be your wife’s savior, but certainly put you in a position to help her given her traumatic situation.
Mark D. Diehl: Yeah. Well, Jennifer had been raised in this very stifling environment, and it was one where her needs and interests were subordinated to her siblings. Her older sister was the first daughter. And what was going to be the daughter with whom they established how the family would marry into other upper class influential families. And her younger brother was the son and was therefore the future of the family. So his marriage was the most important, and that was what all of this was supposed to build to. In Jennifer’s case, she was the second daughter and she was expected to pretty much just sacrifice. So, for example, her older sister went to one of the very best schools in the country out of town. Eventually ended up going to get a master’s degree in the United States with Jennifer. She was expected to stay at home, go to the local college in her town because they wanted to keep an eye on her and didn’t want to spend money on the education. You know, her sister had tutors and grew up wearing designer clothes to school. And Jennifer didn’t have that kind of stuff. So always growing up, she had these messages that her interests were not important. But what was really important was her sacrifice to help her siblings marry well.
Gabe Howard: How did your respective experiences growing up influence you when you two finally got together, when you dated for that year in South Korea?
Mark D. Diehl: It was interesting because I grew up kind of paranoid. It’s a pretty typical thing for me. There’s a scene in the book where I asked her to trade places so I can watch the door and watch people come in. So, you know, I had that kind of wild instability. And Jennifer grew up in this environment that was incredibly stifling, but it made her very calculating and very cool. So we fed into each other very well. In my case, I gave her the rebellious energy to sort of stand up against it and eventually get out. In her case, she was the one who grounded me, who kept me stable with the support that I really hadn’t had anywhere else in my life. And in each other, we found the strength that made us able to take on the entire society.
Gabe Howard: It sounds like your relationship was tested from day one.
Mark D. Diehl: Yes, we were harassed every day on the street and she wouldn’t tell me what they were saying because she didn’t want me to confront people and end up with some kind of altercation that would get me kicked out of the country. Just the whole society, Korea in 1993 was not big on interracial relationships. Harassed every day on the street. People would say crude things, we would get stared at sitting in coffee shops. We got refused service in restaurants. We got skipped by taxi drivers. Our employer called us in at one point and told us that there had been rumors that we were dating each other and we needed to knock it off because we were bringing shame on our company. So we had to tell them that we were going to break it off. My landlady was spying on me. And she would call our employer and tell if Jennifer ever visited me there. So everything about the society function to try and keep us apart.
Gabe Howard: This is kind of one of those questions that I’m almost embarrassed to ask, but why was it worth it to you? I mean, here you are. You’re a guest in a strange land. You’re a young guy. You you seem like you have a lot of confidence. I mean, there were other women. Why did you want Jennifer? It seems like a lot of trouble. And I think people are curious about that.
Mark D. Diehl: Yeah. And from Jennifer’s point of view, you know, there was a why there, too, because she could see that I wasn’t ever gonna be particularly tame. But what we found is that I made her feel energized and liberated and she made me feel stable and grounded. And right away we could see that in you, I’ve found somebody who will give me the support and someone to be my partner and take on the whole world. And as we were harassed all the time and as the assaults upon our dignity mounted and were carried out on such a grand scale, it was basically an opportunity for us each to prove, hey, you know what? I’m willing to do this. I’m willing to endure all of this with you, because what we have between us is already important enough for me to take that. So the more abuse we got, the more we saw in each other. The willingness to stick it out. And once you see that, it builds this incredible trust because you’ve got somebody who was willing to be stared out of a coffee shop with you or take on the employer or take harassment on the street just to be with you. I’ve never met anybody like that before.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back speaking with Mark Diehl, author of the memoir Stealing Cinderella: How I Became an International Fugitive for Love. By your own admission, you were you were wild. You needed to calm down. In the book, you talk about substance abuse issues and it sounds, at least from my perspective, reading it, that you had a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder from being raised by a borderline parent and all of that, along with everything else that you’ve just described does not sound like a good foundation for a relationship that’s going to last a week, let alone a successful marriage that’s lasted 25 years. Can you talk about that for a moment? Because I know that there are people who have come together under much better circumstances that couldn’t get out of year one. And here you are, 25 years plus.
Mark D. Diehl: Yeah. And I mean, I was clearly a mess. Excessively drinking all the time. I had a student whose wife ran a pharmacy and he brought me a bottle of valium at my request, and I was popping valium all the time. I figured out how to make a hallucinogenic drug out of banana peels. Figured out what to do to make that happen. So, yeah. There are all these examples that many women probably in any continent would say, wow, these are some serious red flags to building a stable relationship. But what happened was we became each other’s stability. And the parts of me that were like that, that were weaknesses became strengths because it was just that kind of recklessness that it took for us to fight our way out of the country. There are all kinds of examples of recklessness being a benefit to us because I knew what was important to me right away. For example, when my contract was up at the end of my year there, Jennifer couldn’t leave. She had we had no money between us. I couldn’t take her back with me. But I also couldn’t stay in the country because I didn’t have an employer to sponsor me for a visa. So I ended up sneaking onto the American military bases and finagling myself a military visa so I could stay in the country and then tutoring English lessons outside the bases in Korea to pay my rent and things. So I became an international criminal in two countries so that I could stay with Jennifer. And that that was the kind of recklessness that it took to make this relationship last. And Jennifer, on the other hand, was just the opposite. She was so stable that we had a pager that we used as the number for people to call. And she was the one who would call back and arrange for me to tutor kids or whatever and kept track of all the calendar and things like that. So her stability and my recklessness made a really good combination.
Gabe Howard: Mark, it is absolutely incredible so far. I want your opinion. Don’t think about what Jennifer would say. Don’t think about what the listeners want to hear. I just want to hear what you personally think. Do you think that you being damaged, and I use damaged in air quotes, you know, for lack of a better word. But do you think being damaged, it makes you harder to love?
Mark D. Diehl: Yes. Yeah, I totally think that’s true. I know that I can be loved because my favorite person in the world loves me, but there’s no doubt that I’m a difficult person to get along with, let alone love. I don’t trust easily. I have very little faith in other people’s abilities and even less in their intentions. I tend to walk away at the first sign that my suspicions about people are confirmed. And then in Jennifer, I met the strongest, most capable person I’d ever known. And right away we were struggling together for something that we were showing each other we thought was valuable. Our childhoods had filled us both with this righteous indignation. My background made me suspicious and always ready to fight. Jennifer’s made her cool and calculating, but we learned that together those those weaknesses in our own personalities, those tendencies that we had to either rage for no reason or ignore the circumstances under which we were living and just to get by. And together we found the ability to do that was the other person’s strength that we were missing.
Gabe Howard: Mark, same rules for the second question, your opinion, your opinion only, does this damage make it harder for you to love someone else?
Mark D. Diehl: Not once somebody is inside, once you get through all of the suspicion, once you get through all of the defense mechanisms, then I think I’m actually easier because I am willing to take a lot, you know, because it’s so rare to have that kind of interaction. But yeah, it definitely makes it harder for me to open up to let anybody else know me in that kind of intimate kind of relationship.
Gabe Howard: Mark, thank you so much for being so open and honest. And my final question is where are things with your families now, especially where are you with your mom? Where where are things?
Mark D. Diehl: About seven years ago, my mother had a lot of these really stalking kind of tendencies, and I think what was going on with that was that she would feel abandoned, she would feel like if I wasn’t giving her the right, not just amount of attention, but the right kind of attention, she would feel left out in the cold kind of thing. So a lot of the things that she did were really stalkery. Like at one point about seven years ago, she started harassing me because she decided we were spending too much money on my daughter’s ice skating lessons, just the trivial nonsense kind of issue. But she was calling me many times a day and went on for extended period of time. And I finally got to the point where I said, I can’t do this anymore. And the reason was on one of those days I was cleaning aquariums. And because my head was full of all these bizarre arguments that I was going to say this and I was going to defend myself by making her see that. All of this stuff in my head that I ended up flushing my daughter’s pet frog.
Gabe Howard: Wow.
Mark D. Diehl: And I realized, as horrific as it was to imagine this beloved pet slowly suffocating in a sewer pipe pitch-black. I realized it could have been worse. I could burn the house down. I could crash the car. And I just ceased contact. I just. Something just went ping and I couldn’t do it anymore. And I stopped all contact with her. And right away, there was this barrage of all of this kind of stalking stuff, at first it was more calls and when I wouldn’t answer them, there were letters. When I sent the letters back, there were packages and I’d send the packages back and then the packages would come back covered with magic marker explanations of how I was being cold. And she was a lonely grandmother and she needed to see her grandchild and all of this stuff for the mailman to read. And so at first I was hoping that I could make an assertion like go get some help. So you don’t stalk me into oblivion. And I would from time to time reply to these things with something along those lines. And it was always ignored. And that went on for about seven years until this past March when she died. And
Gabe Howard: Wow.
Mark D. Diehl: It was I don’t doubt what I did was necessary and right. Because it was it finally crossed the threshold where not having contact with her was in the best interest of my family and my own safety. Let alone, you know, in addition to my sanity. But that didn’t make it easy. It still wasn’t an easy choice to cut her out. And there were other consequences I had problems with. For example, my stepfather didn’t understand and he is a great guy, always had just tremendous respect for him. He’s my daughter’s only grandfather and he never accepted that there was something wrong with my mother. So he’d never accepted that I had a legitimate reason not to see her or by extension, him. And I told him I would see him outside of her without her. But he felt that he couldn’t do that. But that was a betrayal to her. So by protecting myself from this constant crazy turmoil, I ended up severing the tie with him, too, and not just for myself, but for my daughter. And like I say, I would do it again. I was right to do it. But there were costs associated with that that I didn’t anticipate.
Gabe Howard: I think what you’ve stumbled onto, of course, is the double edged sword, just because something is in your best interest doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have unintended consequences that hurt.
Mark D. Diehl: Right. Right. I know that there will be collateral damage that people you don’t mean to hurt, you know, even my mother, I didn’t mean to hurt her. And when she died, I remember thinking, well, someone who I know I have no doubt she loved me and wanted the best for me. And now she’s dead. And for her, because of her unique circumstances, the thing that terrified her the most was the feeling that she might be abandoned. And I abandoned her. And she spent the last seven years of her life feeling abandoned by her only son. And I did that. It was a hard thing to do and Jennifer was great. She said it was my family and we would do whatever I felt I had to do. And I’m glad for that. But it also put all the responsibility on me. I did it by myself. I unilaterally decided this was going to be the state of affairs.
Gabe Howard: Mark, I’m incredibly sorry for your loss. How are things now? How are we in 2020? How are we doing?
Mark D. Diehl: Well, coming up, this will be our first. And we are going back to Iowa City to my step father and let him know his only grandchild, my daughter. So we’re all going back for the very first together in almost a decade. So there’s still a lot of residual stress about it, but I’m really looking forward to being with him because he was always really mellow, cool guy who brought a little bit of stability to that crazy situation. And I’m looking forward. I’m hoping that we can kind of have some kind of a family relationship again with him. So I guess we’ll see.
Gabe Howard: Well, Mark, I wish you and your family all the best. Where can our listeners find your book and where can they find you and Jennifer?
Mark D. Diehl: Well, I have a Web site, it’s MarkDDiehl.com. It’s M A R K D D I E H L dot com. You can find the book. It is called Stealing Cinderella: How I Became an International Fugitive for Love. And you can find it pretty much anywhere. All the major online retailers and it’s kind of cool if you type in stealing Cinderella book in the Google search, you get a little cool box that shows up on the side. So it’ll show all the sales sites on the left and on the right, it’ll show a little box about the book and tell a little bit of the story and even have some sales links there. And I don’t know how they did that, but it’s kind of cool.
Gabe Howard: Mark, that is very cool and thank you for being here and for all of our listeners. Please remember that you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling anytime, anywhere, simply by visiting you. BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We will see everybody next week.
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This article originally appeared on Psych Central as Podcast: Stealing Cinderella (A True Story).