Watching my husband’s eyes open ever wider, his brow a startled arch as he read the manuscript telling the story of my life, I felt a rising panic.
James and I had been together for 18 years — our relationship was loving and strong and we had a cherished daughter, Darcy, now ten. And yet, all the time we’d been together I’d kept a huge secret from him.
Only now was he learning the truth of my past: that two years before we met, when I was 27, I married a cult leader and lived on a desert ranch in New Mexico with him and his 13 other wives.
Finally, James put down the pages and looked over at me. ‘Well, I wasn’t expecting that,’ he said, his voice calm. Shaking, I said: ‘I’m so sorry it’s taken me until now to tell you. I didn’t know where to start. I hope you can forgive me.’
Kelly Alder (pictured) married a cult leader and lived on his New Mexico ranch when she was just 27. She was his 14th wife
You’d never guess that mine is such an unconventional — even shocking — past. These days, at 49, I am an entirely normal wife and mother. My husband is 44 and has a financial services business.
Even I find it unbelievable that the life of someone who grew up in an ordinary, loving family in Esher, Surrey, could have taken such an extraordinary turn. Even more unbelievable, perhaps, is that for nearly two decades I buried that part of my life entirely — until the day when I knew I had to tell my husband everything.
My first wedding day, in September 1999, took place in a village outside Tularosa, New Mexico. Walking barefoot across the baked desert earth towards a crudely fashioned canopy of tree branches I felt sick.
These weren’t feelings of nervous excitement but came from a place of horror at what I was about to do.
My groom was a short, grossly overweight Native American called John Twobirds, who was more than twice my age. The aisle was made up of two rows of his 13 other wives.
I’d only arrived here from London 12 hours earlier. Yet, later that night, I’d consummate my marriage with a man I found physically repulsive.
In her new book (pictured) Kelly reveals how she came to marry John Twobirds
I’d romanticised my wedding day from when I was little. In my imagination, my groom was tall, dark and handsome — my father proudly walking me down the aisle of an idyllic rural chapel with me wearing a beautiful white gown. Instead, I was surrounded by strangers, asking myself: ‘Kelly, how the hell did you end up here?’
In fact my road to that bizarre scene started on the devastating day in 1991 when, soon after I turned 20, my happy family life began to unravel.
I was at art college when Dad suddenly moved out, setting up home with a woman called Shirley, just five years my senior who, it transpired, he’d been having an affair with for a year. The idea he was capable of such duplicity destroyed the respect I’d felt for him. But that wasn’t the half of it.
Mum moved on, finding happiness with a male friend who moved in with us. So did my younger sister, Tracey, going off to university in Glasgow.
But I struggled. Feeling lost and alone, I began to make bad choices. I partied too hard, dating all the wrong sorts: men either too old, too controlling or too embroiled in a party scene that revolved around alcohol and drugs.
Meanwhile, Dad became dreadfully unwell, getting thinner, paler and weaker. I was devastated to learn he had bowel cancer. Mum seemed unwell, too. I put her weight loss and tiredness down to the stress of the break-up.
By the time Dad was admitted to hospital for end of life care, soon after my 21st birthday, he was skeletal and so weak he could barely speak. But there was more horror to come. Mum was bedridden, too, supposedly with shingles. I sat on her bed, telling her Dad was close to death. She grabbed my hand and whispered ‘it’s not cancer’, before revealing Dad was dying of AIDS.
I looked at Mum, lying there weak and painfully thin like Dad. ‘No,’ I wailed, realising she had AIDS, too. This was in the early days of the disease — the lifesaving treatments we have now didn’t exist. Both my parents were going to die.
Kelly first met John Twobirds (pictured) after losing both of her parents and was won over by his flattery
Sorrow turned to anger as Mum told me about Dad’s countless affairs, with men and women. Seven years earlier, he’d tested HIV positive; having infected Mum. She’d lived a lie to give me and my sister a secure childhood.
I didn’t see Dad again; I was too angry. He died a week later. Even at his funeral I felt disconnected from the stranger he’d become.
In 1994, I moved to London, sharing a flat with a girlfriend in Wimbledon, working as a secretary in an advertising agency. Mum passed away, aged just 46, the following year.
With her gone an overwhelming urge to escape, to feel different, enveloped me.
I remember confiding in a friend, Quinn, who I’d met through a colleague and felt a strong connection with. ‘I feel adrift,’ I told her.
She told me about a man she knew called John Twobirds who she wanted me to meet. The leader of a group called Terra Mater — Mother Earth — he was touring the UK giving talks on philosophy, nature and spirituality.
‘Our planet’s in trouble,’ she said. ‘He wants to help save it.’ She thought getting involved might give me the sense of purpose I craved.
Intrigued, I went with her to one of his talks. He weighed at least 20st. In his late 50s, he had teeth missing and grey hair plaited down his back.
What he lacked in looks was countered by his stage presence and deep, charismatic voice. Curiously, around him stood several beautiful, long-haired young women, all wearing long flowing hippy dresses.
He talked movingly about his love for the planet. Afterwards, Quinn said she’d try to get us an audience. When I asked her about the women she said they were his wives.
Before I could ask more, she’d pulled me over to John. He took my hand and gazed into my eyes. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kelly,’ he said. I felt strangely flattered.
Intrigued, I went with Quinn to the group’s weekend workshop in a Sussex field.
Kelly says that she persuaded herself there was sense in John’s story that he needed multiple wives for their healing powers tokeep him alive, as he had cancer
I found myself in the kitchen next to a blonde wife about my age who said she’d met John having become estranged from her family, hinting at bad experiences with men. ‘I feel at peace now,’ she said. Her words tapped into my own longing.
The weekend passed in a blur of strange ceremonies in a large tent that was turned into a sauna with water poured on to hot stones held in fire pits.
I talked to other wives; they all seemed calm and serene — I longed for similar peace.
There were 50 attendees, but John picked me out for special attention, saying the ancestors he had summoned had awarded me a spirit name. Such was my vulnerable state I fell for it, honoured to be told I would now be known as Red Bear.
A few days later, Quinn said John wanted to see me again, at a house the group was renting; that she suspected he wanted me to become a wife.
Again, I felt flattered and curious. When she told me that she was also one of John’s wives, I didn’t let my shock wake me up to the way I was being groomed.
Eventually having enough of living with John and his multiple wives, Kelly decided to leave and return home, and although looking disappointed, John did nothing to stop her going
Instead, I persuaded myself there was sense in the story she then told about how John had cancer and needed the healing energy of all these wives to keep him alive.
Many, she explained, had had successful careers before becoming disillusioned with their material lives, finding happiness as one of John’s followers.
John took me out into the garden to talk. ‘Come to New Mexico and meet the other wives and all my beautiful children,’ he told me. ‘You’ll like it there.’
I spent a couple of months mulling over his offer. I had no parents and my sister lived hundreds of miles away; life in London felt lonely and empty.
Suddenly, the only obligations I felt were, inconceivably, towards John. I was working as a temp, so it was easy to take time off work.
I booked a flight to El Paso, with the safety net of a return ticket of needed a month later.
Kelly said she hated every part of living in the cult, aside from the daily meditations
John picked me up from the airport, talking excitedly about the wedding that, dizzy with jetlag, I couldn’t believe involved me.
I’d be expected to consummate the marriage — from which John would get healing energy — but wouldn’t have to sleep with him again unless I wanted to.
The next morning, I worried that my blonde bob was too trendy compared to the other wives’ long hippy style. I felt like an imposter.
Then, wearing a simple floral dress, we married in a ceremony that saw my body smudged with smoking sage. The wives chanted, John recited prayers and there was singing.
For all my doubts, I told myself all this was OK: I wasn’t just marrying him, but the whole Terra Mater family. That’s why I’d flown halfway across the world, to find a new family, a new life.
When the time came to have sex I was just grateful that it was over incredibly quickly. It never happened again.
Sex was never discussed among the wives, but there were five children, so it must have gone on. There were no other men living with us at the isolated ranch.
Though I had nothing financial to offer, I think the cult was financed by money the women — who came from the U.S. and Europe — brought with them.
I never formed close bonds, so don’t know how long they’d been there or if anyone else had left.
At first, I felt silly joining the other wives in daily meditations and chanting rituals, but I got used to it, enjoying spending time alone sitting on the earth in quiet contemplation. But I hated everything else. Used to living alone and doing what I pleased, I missed my own space. The days began with a discussion of our dreams at 6.30am, led by John while we sat outside huddled in blankets sipping our coffee. I chose not to speak.
At mealtimes, John sat at the top of a long table as head of the family. I began to see a bullying side to him, ordering his wives around like servants while they cooked and cleaned.
My discomfort increased when I was told I’d have to learn how to fire a weapon. It was becoming apparent that this ‘family’ wasn’t just about loving the Earth, there was a survivalist element.
I began to ask: is this what Mum, who stayed with a man who betrayed her to give me the best life she could, would have wanted? The answer was no.
So, five weeks later, I used my return ticket to fly home. No one tried to stop me. John and the other wives seemed sad when I said I’d be leaving, but nothing more dramatic than that.
Back in London, city life overwhelmed my senses. I went back to temping before training to become a Pilates teacher.
But I started to feel anger at how I’d been manipulated by this cult. I knew I needed help to unravel the dark feelings created by losing my parents in such a traumatic way, which had made me vulnerable in the first place.
Therapy showed that holding on to my anger at my father lay at the heart of my issues. Dad couldn’t help who he was. It was time to let that bitterness go.
I confided in my therapist about my time with the cult, but no one else. I buried it all, life finally beginning to feel normal again.
I didn’t seek out information online about what had happened to the cult and only discovered that John had died when Quinn got in touch ten years ago.
James and I met on a blind date in 2001. We had the romantic white wedding I’d always dreamed of five years later; my sister walked me down the aisle. Unlike the first, I was surrounded by people I loved. He’s made me nothing but happy ever since.
James knew I’d been involved with a cult but, until that day two years ago, he hadn’t known I’d married its leader or any of the details. I’d originally written my story for my daughter to read when she was older, but then I realised it gave me a way of sharing the truth with James, too.
As I assured him my desert marriage wasn’t legally binding and that John Twobirds was long dead now, he seemed intrigued more than anything.
‘There’s nothing to forgive,’ he insisted. ‘I’m just glad you finally felt you could tell me.’ His grace only made me love him more.
For me, him knowing the truth was a burden lifted. The fact there are no secrets between us only strengthened our marriage.
Meanwhile, I’ve said Darcy can read the book when she is 13. My mother died before I was able to ask her about her life. I don’t want Darcy to go through the same experience.
Having grown up in a family where so many truths were hidden, I know how destructive secrets can be. It’s a cycle I’m determined not to repeat.
The Fourteenth Wife, by Kelly Alder, is available from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback.
Interview: RACHEL HALLIWELL