In the plush comfort of a leading American asset management company, Candace Heather appeared the epitome of a well-paid London executive.
Efficient and hard-working, she commanded a £75,000 salary with bonuses of up to £20,000 – not a fortune by the extraordinary standards of the finance industry, but still a tidy sum.
Privately, her colleagues pondered her dowdy appearance. But mostly they dismissed her eccentricities as the foibles of an intensely private ‘cat-lady’ who chose to live alone. They could hardly have been more wrong.
In the plush comfort of a leading American asset management company, Candace Heather appeared the epitome of a well-paid London executive
For when Candace left the office, she retreated not to a meticulously kept house in the suburbs, or a city centre apartment, but to a squalid, freezing flat. And it is there, she says, that she spent two decades under the Svengali-like influence of a psychotherapist who had isolated her from her family and friends and obsessively controlled her life.
Not only did she hand over huge sums of money, she followed his every instruction – even the most bizarre edicts, including a demand that she make hundreds of phone calls overnight, swearing her allegiance to his cause. It is an extraordinary story which raises yet more questions about the immense power of the unregulated psychotherapy industry.
Many will find it hard to comprehend how an evidently intelligent and successful woman could find herself, as she puts it, mentally enslaved by someone who on the surface was little more than a specialist in eating disorders. But as this newspaper has shown, and as experts in cults and mind-control techniques confirm, charismatic individuals can wield disturbing powers over vulnerable individuals.
‘It was as though he robbed me of my sanity, of my senses,’ Candace says. ‘I came to believe that his instruction and teachings were all that kept me alive. I still think he saved my life, but he also became my master and captor.’
Candace, now 51, says she remained effectively imprisoned for 23 years, something confirmed by her family. During that time she left her first husband, became estranged from her parents and led a life of misery and isolation.
Today, things could hardly be more different. Perched on a stool as the sunshine floods the airy kitchen of the Folkestone home she shares with new husband Simon and five-year-old twin daughters, Poppy and Daisy, she is a woman transformed.
It has been seven years since Candace, fearful and scared out of her wits, finally escaped the dingy flat where she suffered so much.
SIMILARITIES: The Mail on Sunday has previously told the troubling story of Victoria Cayzer, above
Now, with a well-paid job as head of marketing and communications at the same London firm, she has finally made peace with herself. Trim, in stylish jeans and sweater, she is poised and articulate, nothing like the young woman she describes as having endured this ordeal.
Candace says her eating problems began aged 13, as a schoolgirl living with her parents in Kent. She developed anorexia and, at 5ft 6ins, her weight dropped to a worrying 6st. By the time she was 17 she was bulimic. Doctors warned she risked irreversible heart and stomach damage, but she feels they offered little help.
In desperation, Candace answered an advertisement in Ms London, a popular free magazine of the time, offering ‘psycho-therapy for compulsive food addicts’.
She replied and met up with a man called Joseph Gomez, who claimed to be successfully treating almost 50 patients across the country. Initially Candace was not impressed. He was a short, shabbily-dressed, chubby man with little charisma. But his apparent expertise eventually dispelled her worries.
He drew up an eating plan which involved meticulously measuring out meals of proteins, vegetables and fruit. But he also made it clear she must be purged of her ‘appearance addiction,’ her obsession with her weight. This, he insisted, was the root of her problems with food. Candace attended appointments three times a week over the first year, and in that time he encouraged her to gain 42lbs. This, he said, was her ‘surrender weight’.
‘What I didn’t realise was that I was surrendering to him,’ she says. ‘I was living in this pretend world that he ruled. I was so desperate not to return to the terrible binge eating that would see me vomiting for hours, or purging myself with laxatives so that I spent hours on bathroom floors – in pubs, trains, anywhere – writhing in pain as I threw up.
‘And for me this man’s food plan stopped the addictive binge eating.’
Her relationship with the therapist and his regime became as intense as her obsession with food had been. She agreed to move into a rented flat in London that Gomez claimed was owned by one of his patients, left a note telling her husband Neil she was leaving and drove to London.
‘This was the real start of my captivity,’ she continues. ‘The night I arrived, crying and shaking, I was horrified. It was flea-ridden, shabby and sordid. There was no heating and no hot water but by then I felt worthless, that this was what I deserved. I had my cats but that was my only source of affection.’ Candace’s failing self-esteem was gradually eroded still further. She was banned from looking in mirrors and from wearing make-up; Gomez insisting it was her ‘vanity’ and ‘ego’ that had led her to cling to illness. She was also forced to dress in shapeless clothes from charity shops, and even to eat garlic to ensure her breath stank.
AND here her story takes another strange, but this time optimistic, turn. Candace started taking professional jobs in the City and the West End, eventually specialising in communications in the financial industry, before getting employment with the American firm where she now works.
Not that it was easy. Candace learned to maintain a good, but distant, relationship with colleagues. In part, she was working because Gomez was demanding she pay him money – up to two thirds of her income – mostly in cash but also traceable through bank records.
The level of control became ever more extreme. Although there was no physical relationship with the therapist, looking back she says he seemed determined to suppress her sexuality. Angered by a confession that she desired a normal relationship with a man, Gomez devised a series of instructions that, whatever other purpose they served, would hamper any attempts at forming new relationships.
Candace Heather ( Beesley) under the influence of the therapist at a writers' retreat in 2007
He insisted, for example, that she call specified telephone answering machines hundreds of times a night. Sometimes she had to recite religious texts, or swear that she had not smiled during the day, or conversed with colleagues.
She did this, she says, for an astonishing 16 years. Her bills often came to £500 a month. She even compiled spreadsheets to cope with the task. ‘It was exhausting, I could barely keep my eyes open. I had bought a little heater and several times I fell asleep and burned myself on it.
‘I was literally dragging myself around. But such was the extent of my brainwashing that I never thought to lie. I told him every time I broke a rule, even if meant he came round and shouted at me for hours on end, calling me arrogant and despicable. It always ended the same. With him shouting that I would die if I didn’t have him. And I truly believed that.’
Why would anyone devise such an outlandish regime? Today she can only speculate. Repetition is a key method of brainwashing, as is sleep deprivation. Her therapist, she says, ensured she was occupied all night – the time when she might otherwise be conducting the sort of relationship she desired. At any rate, Candace’s colleagues were none the wiser. They knew she suffered from diabetes and, when they regularly found her slumped asleep at her desk, assumed it was her illness. Her frantic parents hired a private detective to find out more about Gomez, but to no avail. And since she was a grown woman, there was no legal complaint she could make.
Finally, in February 2010, Candace says she began trying to find another therapist, hoping she might have the strength to leave. An American, Kay Sheppard, responded. Slowly, during a series of emails, Kay convinced Candace that she needed support to get away from Gomez because she had been controlled for so long. It was the lifeline Candace needed. She emailed her parents, admitting for the first time that she was questioning her ‘treatment’.
‘I’m scared out of my wits,’ she told them. Her parents immediately drove to London.
‘It was a terrifying wait. Every moment I expected the therapist at the door. I was cowering and terrified. But the moment I saw my parents I felt a wave of security wash over me. Candace moved back in with her parents and over several months began to reclaim her life.
Hoping to battle her anorexia she met up with a man called Joseph Gomez, who claimed to be successfully treating almost 50 patients across the country
Candace’s story is a disturbing reminder of the power unregulated therapists can wield. This newspaper has highlighted the case of Lord and Lady Caledon, who say their daughter, Victoria Cayzer, has fallen under the manipulative influence of a ‘healer’ determined to separate her from her parents (although the healer and Victoria deny this).
There will be many who are sceptical of Candace’s story. But she is confident enough to have published a book about her experiences – A Hunger For Life: A Memoir is available on Amazon. And extensive enquiries by The Mail on Sunday support her claims. Little is known of Gomez; certainly there is virtually no record of him as a therapist. Candace believes he is of Indian origin but made his home here many years ago. When tracked down to his London address, neither he nor a woman identifying herself as his wife would respond.
Today, there is almost nothing physical to connect Candace to her ordeal, apart from the boxes of ‘evidence’ she kept, including the phone bills and the heartbreaking letters she was forced to send her mother.
The letters, each one identical, are poignant and unbearably sad: ‘Dear Mum. Alive and well. Candace.’
lIf you or any members of your family have had a similar experience, please call 0203 615 3010 or email email@example.com