Kelly Alder was at the lowest, loneliest point in her life when she joined a polygamous cult aged 27.
She had enjoyed a story-book childhood in Surrey, her father with his own successful wholesale grocery business and her mother stayed at home with Kelly and her sister. Her parents seemed happy together, and they’d all spend weekends on her father’s boat on the River Thames.
However, in Kelly’s late teens, the family unit collapsed. Just before her 21st birthday, her father left home and moved in with his new girlfriend who was just five years older than Kelly. Soon, her mother moved her new boyfriend into the house and Kelly’s college work began to suffer – and she felt furious with her parents.
One afternoon her mother sat Kelly down and told her her dad was very unwell with bowel cancer and was deteriorating fast. At the same time, Kelly’s mother herself started to look very unwell, but Kelly put it down to the strain of the marriage break-up.
Just before her father died, Kelly’s mother told her that he didn’t have bowel cancer, he had Aids. “He’d been having affairs with men and women throughout the marriage”, says Kelly, who is now 49 and lives with her husband and daughter in Zurich. It soon transpired that Kelly’s mother had another tragic secret. She had contracted HIV from her husband – now it was Aids.
“I felt like a bomb had gone off,” says Kelly. “She had known for about a year and had been protecting us, but if I’d known I would have been able to comfort her, to confront my father. It was all too late.” He died soon after, and then two-and-a-half years later, so did Kelly’s mother. Kelly had looked after her until the end. Both parents had been in their 40s.
Kelly, only in her early 20s, was left orphaned and grief-stricken. “I was so lost,” she says. A couple of years later, when a relationship ended, the reality of what she’d been through hit her. “I fell into a deep, deep hole of loneliness. That’s when I began to look for a way out of this life I was living,” she says, “some kind of escape.”
Kelly, who was living in north London by this point and training (unhappily) in massage therapy, was introduced by a friend to a self-proclaimed Native American teacher and spiritual leader named John Twobirds while he was doing a lecture tour of the UK. He said his mission for his organisation, Terra Mater (Earth Mother). was to raise awareness for “The Way” – his people’s philosophy of living in harmony with nature and mother earth.
He took a shine to Kelly and invited her on some weekend retreats in Sussex. “He gave me special attention,” says Kelly, “then there was a ceremony during which he gave me the spirit name Red Bear. Now I see he was roping me in, enticing me to be part of his group.”
Twobirds, a Choctaw-Ojibway Native American who served in the Vietnam war, had 13 wives – and many children – and Kelly would, if she desired, be his 14th. First she would go and stay with him in his compound in New Mexico.
“I felt I’d lost everything. I was so depressed I genuinely thought this was just how my life was panning out, and since I had nothing else in my life, I should just go.”
She didn’t tell her friends or her sister, who was studying at Glasgow University, and she took a plane to New Mexico, buying a return ticket for five weeks later, just in case.
Twobirds picked her up from the airport, they drove for hours through the desert to a big seven-bedroom house. “I thought, ‘my God, what have I done’, she says, “but it also felt enticing.”
Twobirds had his own bedroom in the house and Kelly shared a room with another one of the women. “There were camper vans in the grounds where the women slept with their babies,” she recalls.
Kelly married Twobirds in a non-legal ceremony under a canopy – that night, Kelly slept with him for the first and last time. He soon showed his abusive side. “In England he had been commanding, guru-like,” she says, “but here I saw a bullying, shouting version. He was mentally abusive to the women, who I became close to, but he had a clever way of making it seem like it was their duty to be there. I also felt I’d been chosen. I was very confused.John Twobirds, a self-proclaimed teacher and spiritual leader (Photo: YouTube)
“There were some quite scary ceremonies he wanted us to take part in, involving exorcisms.”
When, five weeks later, the return date of her plane ticket was approaching, she decided to use it. He tried to convince her to stay, and she considered it: “I thought, what am I going back to?”
However, it was the thought of her mother which gave her the resolve to leave. “I dreamt of my mum and thinking how much she would hate to see me here, and how she would have told me to get the hell out.”
Kelly didn’t tell anyone for years about the time she spent as a 14th wife, she was too ashamed. But therapy and writing a memoir about her experience helped her feel differently. “Now I just feel so sorry for the confused little me back then,” she says. “I just wish I could give that younger version of myself a hug. I was so alone”.
John Twobirds has since died. How did she feel when she heard that? “Nothing,” she says, “because now I know what sort of man he was and that I was lucky to leave when I did. “Now I feel a sense of peace about this strange life I’ve had.”
Kelly Alder’s memoir The Fourteenth Wife; A Search for Belonging is available in paperback format and digital format on Amazon now
For advice and information for victims of cults, their families and friends, visit cultinformation.org