In Glamour, a popular fashion blogger admits to being a mail-order bride. Why does a feel-good story leave us feeling so uneasy?
Lera Loeb grows up poor in the Ukraine, in a family that values education and achievement. She studies hard and gets the opportunity to do an exchange in America, where she's impressed by the greater intellectual freedom, the opportunities for women, the diversity. At 19, she resolves to find a way back.
After talking to my parents, I found a possible solution: to advertise myself on an international marriage brokerage website. These agencies charge men, mostly from the United States and Western Europe, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to match them with a foreign bride, usually from poor or developing countries like Ukraine. In the States, it would be shocking for parents to accept that their 19-year-old daughter would do such a thing. But back home, finding a husband this way was just part of the culture, at least for those women who didn't come from a wealthy family, and I didn't know anyone who did. Many girls I grew up with were on the marriage hunt by the time they turned 18, and several had used brokers to meet Western men.
She adds that the potential hazards of being a "mail-order bride" are less publicized in the Ukraine, making her decision an easier one. Lera crafts her profile carefully, distinguishing herself by her modest, makeup-free pictures and her assertion that she wants "to meet someone who was open-minded and supportive of a career-driven woman." Most of the men are old and gross, with an emphasis on "subservient" wives, but Lera likes the look of Steve, "a music producer and art collector from New York City. Sporting dark sunglasses and hip clothing, this guy stood out. He seemed like someone out of a rock band." They begin a correspondence, despite the 23-years-senior Steve's admonition that ""I have a few years on you, girl…. You know that, right? What are the chances this could work long-term? I have been married before, and am looking for commitment."
The two correspond daily for two months before he comes to the Ukraine; they decide to marry and go through the expensive nightmare of paperwork and logistics, then a quick civil wedding in New York. While there's nothing overtly creepy about the relationship at this point, sentences like this, about Lera's discomfort with the process, make one uneasy: "Part of it was guilt about how much the process cost him, because we still barely knew each other at that point, even though our love was budding." (Budding? They're married!) But, once married, she describes their life together as idyllic: Lera gets jobs and finishes her degree and starts a prominent fashion blog. She and Steve open a gallery. And she never wishes for anything else.
Maybe there will always be people who question the validity of our bond. To them, I say, "It's real, it's there! Till death do us part." I believe that it's not so much how you get married but what you make of your marriage that matters. Like most couples, we have overcome difficult times and have had our fair share of battles (about closet space, most recently!). And, yes, it can be stressful being so far from my family and adapting to a new culture. But I know Steve will always be there for me, and I hope he can say the same about me. I didn't expect to find love when I signed up with that agency, but I did. I feel very, very lucky.
So, here's the thing. Who doesn't like a happy ending? I for one am awfully glad this story ended well and that these two people have made a good, loving life together. And when you read her rationale, it even makes sense: at any rate, you get her pragmatic motivations completely. It's his that are murkier. Having met Lera, it's easy to believe they might fall in love - she's lovely, intelligent, charming - but it's the getting there that's confusing. Here's what he explains in his sidebar:
The fall of 2001 was an especially lonely time for me. My father had recently passed away, and many close friends left New York City after 9/11. It was two years after my divorce from my first wife, and another relationship had ended with a Dear John letter written on a garbage bag. I'd had a few dates, but nothing interesting or exciting....Somewhere online I'd read about an agency that would post my profile at every matchmaking service in the former Soviet Union. The prospect of marrying a foreigner over the Internet wasn't something I'd ever considered. But I wanted to take a chance. What I didn't want was the stereotypical "submissive foreign woman."
Um, okay. This certainly explains why someone would go online to meet someone...it's the "much younger foreign wife" part that still raises, shall we say, questions. How is this the logical next step? And even his blithe assertion that "my career as a music executive (actually record producer/musician/studio owner) was spent making records for 17 - 25 year olds, so I've always related to younger people" doesn't make it un-creepy to marry a 19-year-old. To the contrary.
And that's the thing; there is always going to be an imbalance of power to such a relationship. This story is a happy one, and the article even goes out of its way to clarify that this is the exception to the rule, to mention the high rates of domestic abuse in such relationships, and the extreme risks of human trafficking. This is the absolute best-case scenario, but it's wise to remember that Lera's education and knowledge of English were probably major advantages in making a relatively informed choice. And Steve, in this case, is totally the Richard Gere of the story: he may be a wealthy, kind, silver fox, but he's still the guy surfing for a girl young enough to be his daughter, just as you can never really get over Pretty Woman's hero being a john. But that's the thing: amazingly, people do ignore that, and only see the rosy happily-ever-after. Plenty of people could do that here - and instead, this kind of story should leave you with a lot of questions.