Eight years ago, Michelle LeClair was wealthy, successful and a self-described “poster girl for Scientology” who donated millions to the controversial church. But she says her seemingly perfect life was thrown into turmoil after she came out as gay to the church.
In her new memoir, Perfectly Clear, the former Scientologist and mother of four claims that the church humiliated and persecuted her over her sexuality, ultimately leading her to defect. The church denies her claims, calling them “delusional and paranoid.”
LeClair, 45, tells PEOPLE in a new interview for this week’s issue that when she first tried to come out to the church, an official (known within the church as an auditor) gave her writings by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that denounced homosexuality.
“L. Ron Hubbard considered homosexuals and other ‘perverts’ as ‘evil, untrustworthy, a criminal,’ “ LeClair writes in an exclusive excerpt featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “My hands trembled.”
The second time she tried to open up about her sexuality, she was punished, LeClair tells PEOPLE. “I had to go around to all the members inside the church, confess to them what I was thinking, what I was doing. People would look at me in the face and say, ‘You are disgusting.’ ”
“I think I was so confused within myself,” LeClair explains. “I was being taught how to push down those feelings.”
Fearing punishment, LeClair writes in her book that she lied and said she’d never acted on her attraction to women.
LeClair, who says she faced pressure from the church to marry, eventually wed struggling actor Sean Seward, with whom she had four children: Sage, 17, Savannah, 11, and twins Jadon and London, 9. But their marriage soon soured and later, when she confessed her past attraction to a high school girlfriend with whom she’d had a dalliance, Seward reported it to the church.
“I was ordered to walk the halls of the Scientology Celebrity Centre [in Hollywood] asking random members to read and sign my confession,” LeClair recalls. “I needed 25 signatures to be allowed to rejoin the church. I was so mortified that, after 10 or 15 requests, I ran to the bathroom and sobbed.”
For more on Michelle LeClair’s escape from Scientology, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Meanwhile, LeClair’s career was taking off as she founded one of the nation’s most successful woman-owned life insurance firms. LeClair says she donated an estimated $5 million to the church, and after she threatened to withhold further donations, officials finally agreed to let her divorce Seward.
She nevertheless remained committed to Scientology — until she struck up a friendship with L.A. music producer Tena Clark, which eventually blossomed into a romantic relationship.
“My friendship with her began to break down some of my beliefs,” LeClair writes. “The idea that the church would deny me a friendship with such a sterling person simply because she wasn’t heterosexual or a Scientologist seemed ludicrous to me.”
She continues, “I talked myself into believing that, because I was a top donor, my relationship with a woman would be tolerated, or at least ignored. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. My Scientology mentor outed me to the church Ethics Department.”
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Soon after, with Clark’s help, LeClair left the church — but that was hardly the end of her ordeal.
“From the moment I decided to publicly leave, my life unspooled as if I were in a suspense novel,” LeClair writes. “Strange cars idled at the curb by my home at all hours of the day. Men wearing dark glasses followed me to the grocery store, my kids’ school. My computer and my phone [were] hacked.”
In her book, LeClair also alleges that the church instigated the state of California to charge her with running a Ponzi scheme, which ultimately led her to shut down her life insurance business and return $1.3 million to more than 40 alleged victims.
“I had heard how vindictive the church could be, [that] they used the courts to bleed people dry with litigation,” she writes. “Still, I hadn’t been prepared for the force of their retaliation.”
Asked to comment, the Church of Scientology rebutted much of LeClair’s account, stating, in part:
“Ms. LeClair has not been involved with the Church of Scientology in a decade. The civil and criminal cases stemming from her financial misdeeds, which resulted in a permanent injunction and restitution order signed by a Superior Court Judge … and a plea agreement with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, were of her own making.”
It added, “Contrary to the myths spread by Ms. LeClair and her publishers as they try to sell her book, the Church has no position on sexual orientation. The Church is on record as being opposed to discrimination of any sort.”
LeClair’s legal battle stretched on for six emotionally draining years and left her millions of dollars in debt. But on March 30, 2017, the criminal charges were dropped. “Truth prevailed,” LeClair says. “I was innocent.”
LeClair is now living in rural Georgia with her children from her first marriage and her partner, Clark, 64, who stood by her through her years-long battle with Scientology.
“I’d never heard of a religion like this that seemed so focused on hate and revenge,” Clark tells PEOPLE. “I stood beside her. It wasn’t always easy, but that’s what you do when you love someone.”
LeClair credits Clark with helping her break free from the church and turn her life around.
“If I had not met Tena, I’d still be in the church,” LeClair says. “She saved my life, my children’s life. She woke me up.”
From PERFECTLY CLEAR by Michelle LeClair, on sale from Berkley, September 11th. Copyright © 2018 by Chidubem LLC.