Atlanta woman writes about her escape from Scientology

Michelle LeClair (right) with partner Tena Clark. In a new memoir, LeClair writes about her escape from Scientology after she was outed as a gay woman.

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Michelle LeClair (right) with partner Tena Clark. In a new memoir, LeClair writes about her escape from Scientology after she was outed as a gay woman.

Michelle LeClair was just a teenager when she was first introduced to the Church of Scientology. She had moved from Norman, Oklahoma to Los Angeles where she felt adrift and alone, the perfect conditions, she said, for being recruited into what she now identifies as a cult with diminished power.

“Nobody cares what the Church of Scientology has to say anymore. They are like the little man behind the curtain who doesn’t have the strength and power he thought he had. Everyone is aware this is a cult that is built on lies,” LeClair said.

After more than two decades as a high-donor member of the church, LeClair, 45, said the organization sought to destroy her and her livelihood when she came out as a gay woman. The realization that she would not be accepted as her authentic self led to her defection in 2010. LeClair, who has lived in Atlanta since 2015 with her music-producer partner, Tena Clark and LeClair’s children from a previous marriage, details her journey in a new memoir, “Perfectly Clear,” (Berkley, $27).

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The Church of Scientology has strongly rejected the assertions in LeClair’s book in a statement to the AJC.

“Michelle LeClair’s story is pure fiction from a scam artist. The civil and criminal cases stemming from Ms. LeClair’s financial misdeeds 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. The criminal and civil charges against Ms. LeClair were initiated by her elderly victims, not by the Church. Any suggestion that the Church was involved is false. Instead of accepting responsibility for her actions, Ms. LeClair is peddling fiction.

It is shocking that an individual who narrowly escaped jail time for masterminding a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme would be deemed a credible source. Not shocking, however, is her new scheme to monetize her delusions at the expense of her former religion. Sadly, Ms. LeClair has turned the bitterness growing out of her financial malfeasance into an excuse to spread hate and bigotry for cash.”

LeClair said she wanted to share her story to expose the Church of Scientology and its treatment of gay people. She believes the church subjected her to gay conversion therapy as a teenager.

“I tried to come out at 19 and that wasn’t happening. I had no status in the church. I was confused myself,” said LeClair referring to the moment when she began “auditing” sessions with the Church of Scientology, a process the church says will help members achieve spiritual clarity and enlightenment.

Looking back,LeClair realizes she was a prime target for recruiting. After the move to Los Angeles, her mother had begun working long hours as a consultant for a management training firm that was run by Scientologists. The stepfather that had provided some stability in her life left when her mother fell deeper and deeper into the church. LeClair spent a lot of time alone. She began working at the same company where her mother worked and found the kind of success and acceptance she had never felt before.

Since its founding in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology has been controversial. The medical and scientific communities have long disputed Hubbard’s claims about mental health, science and religion. The organization has been involved in a number of lawsuits including some from former members claiming to have been mistreated by the church. Since Hubbard’s death in 1986, the organization has been run by his protege, David Miscavige.

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Michelle speaking at an undated Scientology event. As a major donor, she was often called on to represent the church at events.

Michelle speaking at an undated Scientology event. As a major donor, she was often called on to represent the church at events.

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Michelle speaking at an undated Scientology event. As a major donor, she was often called on to represent the church at events.

While the public face of Scientology are major donors and celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Leah Remini, who has since become an anti-Scientology activist, the organization preys on young, vulnerable and isolated individuals to work at the church, LeClair said. She fit the profile, but her confessions about her sexuality got her in trouble.

"When I tried to come out and the church told me it was wrong, it solidified my fear of who I was and I went back inside of my box and pushed down that side of me and allowed that to die," she said. She had been ordered to read the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in Dianetics and Science of Survival.

“L. Ron Hubbard states clearly homosexuals are sexual deviants. They’re the lowest of the low,” LeClair said. “They can claim they do not have any stance on gay relationships but the Church of Scientology says we have to take what L. Ron Hubbard has written and said as pure truth.”

LeClair survived her rocky beginnings with the church and went on to marry, have children and build a successful career as founder of one of the the largest woman owned life-insurance companies in the country. But she felt stifled in a relationship that she described as abusive.

She has heard through family members that her ex-husband is furious about how he is depicted in the book. “I think he is very smart at this point to not do a lot of threatening,” LeClair said. “There is no way in the world he can come out fighting and not be proven wrong.”

They share four children -- Sage, 17; Savannah, 12; and twins, Jadon and London, 11, who spend time with their father during holidays and summer vacation. LeClair said she was most worried about how the book would impact her children.

Sage has traveled with her to promote the book. “Over the years he has seen my truth and he is proud of me for coming out of it. He just recently said he wanted to read the book,” she said. But she didn’t want her view of his father to taint his relationship with his dad.

“I have tried to teach them that love must guide them to truth and family must always be first, that they came into the world in a rocky way but they came as a gift from god to give me strength,” said LeClair.

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Michelle (center) enjoys a meal with her wife, Tena Clark (left) and Michelle's mother (right).

Michelle (center) enjoys a meal with her wife, Tena Clark  (left) and Michelle's  mother (right).

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Michelle (center) enjoys a meal with her wife, Tena Clark (left) and Michelle's mother (right).

LeClair has also found strength in her partner, Clark with whom she began a relationship in 2010. At the time, LeClair was at the top of her game.

“I was one of the largest donors in the Church of Scientology,  my business partner was Kirstie Alley. I had one of the largest woman-owned insurance agencies in the nation. I didn’t think I could get in trouble for anything with the church,” she said.

She believed love would conquer all.

“When love truly touched me, it rocked every single element of my life and my being and I knew it was something I could not or would not walk away from,” she said. She tried to counter the church’s opposition by stating that she was in love with a being, not a body and therefore it should be accepted. When the church asked about procreation, she offered that gay women can procreate and if they did not, why should they be judged differently than church members who chose not to marry or have children?

“I thought everything was going to be okay,” LeClair said. And for two months everything seemed fine. But she quickly realized how naive she had been.

Though the church disputes her story, LeClair believes after her relationship with Clark was made known, the church launched an investigation into her business and financial affairs which was laid out as a narrative for the State of California.

The Deputy Commissioner of Policy from the California Department of Business Oversight has said any notion that the case had anything to do with Scientology is patently false.

The California Department of Corporations sued LeClair and her business partner Dror Soref in 2012, accusing them of running a $21 million entertainment-industry Ponzi scheme from 2007 to 2010 that bilked senior citizens and others out of their savings. LeClair took a plea agreement in return for testifying against Soref whom she had met while they were both involved with the church.

In 2014, Soref reached a civil settlement with the state without admitting any wrongdoing. That same year, the Department of Insurance revoked LeClair’s insurance license. Rather than enter into a costly court battle, she gave up her license to practice for five years. In 2017, criminal charges against LeClair were dropped.

Since moving to metro Atlanta, LeClair and Clark have worked to rebuild. LeClair was concerned when in 2016, the Church of Scientology opened a location in Sandy Springs. “I felt very sad for Atlanta that this cult has made its way into such an amazing town,” she said. “I don’t feel it is my right to tell anybody what their religion should be but you have a very dangerous cult that just landed in your backyard and that is very concerning to me.”

Clark has also supported the family financially while LeClair has pondered her next career move. An entrepreneur at heart, she has been building a non-toxic luxury beauty brand that will launch next year. And now that she is able to regain her insurance license, she is also considering a return to the industry.

LeClair has dedicated proceeds from her book to a trust for her insurance clients. She said she hopes her story will help anyone who has struggled to be their authentic self, to walk out of an abusive relationship, to escape Scientology or to rebuild after failure. “I want people to know we have a choice,” she said.

As for Scientology, that is a chapter that is finally in her past. “I look at Scientology as something that enveloped my life for many years, that stole my ability to explore my sexuality, that forced me to live a life of sorrow and pain and I refuse to let it define me today,” LeClair said. “I have a new definition of success and that is how hard do I love? How many kisses do I give my partner and my children every day? What am I doing in the world to give back for the second chance that I have?”

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