Did John Travolta's weird faith seal his son Jett's fate?
10th January 2009
As he struggles to come to terms with the sudden and terrible death of his only son, John Travolta is no doubt grateful for the all-enveloping support of his fellow Scientologists.
Losing a child is an unbearable prospect for any parent. Having to cope with such a loss while countless millions around the globe gawp at your suffering is beyond comprehension.
When you are a Scientologist, however, different rules apply. Or at least they are supposed to. As an 'Operating Thetan' on the fifth level of enlightenment, Travolta should not be concerned with such trifles as mortality.
After all, according to Scientology's founder, L Ron Hubbard, the human body is nothing more than a vessel for drifting alien spirit.
It may sound like balderdash to most (and this, it should be noted, is one of the more believable aspects of the bizarre faith) but for Travolta and hundreds of thousands of fellow Scientologists, it is the truth and an undoubted source of comfort.
The death of 16-year-old Jett Travolta, however, has shed a new and distinctly unflattering light on the beliefs which are so fundamental to his parents' lives.
Jett, who died of a seizure at the family's holiday home in the Bahamas last weekend, had suffered from ill health throughout his all too brief life.
His parents controversially blamed a rare condition called Kawasaki disease, but according to doctors the syndrome has never been linked with seizures before.
no apparent childcare or medical qualifications
A far more likely explanation, many believe, is that Jett suffered from autism. The teenager, who was virtually mute, displayed many of the classic symptoms of the condition, which causes nearly a third of sufferers to develop seizures in adolescence.
Scientology, however, does not recognise autism as a valid condition. Its exponents believe all psychiatric and neurological disorders are psychosomatic and sufferers are exhorted to shun medication, relying on a course of vitamins and minerals instead.
It is a hugely controversial belief which detractors claim has caused many deaths, as well as ruining the lives of thousands of mentally ill individuals who have been drawn into Scientology.
This has raised a number of questions about the circumstances of Jett's death and whether more could have been done to save his life.
A further number of discrepancies have been raised in the timeline of the boy's death. Investigating officers have stated that Jett's body had been left unattended for ten hours before he was found. A spokesman for the Travolta family vehemently denies this, claiming that the teenager was cared for round-the-clock by two nannies.
The man who found Jett close to death on the bathroom floor, Jeff Michael Kathrein, was one of these nannies. Despite his position of great responsibility - in his latter days Jett was suffering grand mal seizures twice a week - Kathrein has no apparent childcare or medical qualifications.
In fact, his day job is ostensibly as a photographer, running a small business with his wife.
So why was he given the responsibility of looking after Jett? He is a fellow Scientologist, sharing the Travoltas' outlandish belief that Thetans were imprisoned on Earth 75 million years ago by an evil alien dictator called Xenu.
It's the wild allegations which have long surrounded Scientology, coupled with repeated damning testimonies from former church members, which raise such disturbing questions about the very nature of Scientology.
And in the case of Jett Travolta, there are many who believe he would still be alive today but for his parents' slavish adherence to their religion's controversial beliefs about mental health and neurology.
In their defence, the Travoltas have stated that Jett was on medication designed to control or prevent seizures but was taken off it after a doctor advised them it had become ineffective.
And there is no dispute that the Travoltas are convinced their guru L Ron Hubbard (or LRH as they reverently know him) was correct in damning conventional mental health professionals as 'psychs' - deeply unethical individuals who willfully cause untold damage to their patients.
On Kelly Travolta's personal website there is a prominent photograph of her taking part in a hate rally against psychiatry. (Sample slogan: 'Psychiatrists create stigma and harm children.')
Yet despite their refusal to contemplate the prospect that Jett was autistic, many others were not so reticent.
Powerful: David Miscavige, leader of the Scientology religion and close friend of Tom Cruise - he was the best man at the actor's wedding to Katie Holmes
John Travolta's older brother, Joey, is understood to have urged the couple for years to recognise their son's condition. While refusing to go public on the subject, he has gone on to make a film about the disorder, titled Normal People Scare Me, and founded the group Actors For Autism.
Last year, the Travoltas' neighbours, Tim and Patricia Kenny, proud parents of a five-year-old autistic girl, threatened to call in the social services over what they described as 'abuse' of Jett.
'Scientology is keeping Travolta from acknowledging his son's autism,' said Mr Kenny. 'They see it as a weakness.'
Mr Kenny claimed the family left the overweight Jett to sit in front of computer games all day, eating junk food.
Despite the criticism, the Travoltas have never acknowledged any suggestion that Jett may have been autistic. Instead, they have focused on Kawasaki disease, which, they claim, was brought on by overexposure to cleaning products, particularly carpet cleaner.
They have often talked publicly about the Scientology-based detoxification regime they used to cleanse Jett's body.
Yet to the vast majority of medical professionals, the notion that such an approach could be used to treat seizures is nothing short of laughable.
One person who can provide first-hand insight into Scientology's treatment of neurological disorders is Tory Christman, a member of the religion for more than 30 years until she left in 2000.
She was an epileptic using prescribed drugs to control her seizures but a few months after becoming a Scientologist she was told by an untrained 'medical officer' to come off her medication and take vitamins instead.
I was losing my memory due to all of the seizures
The cause of her problems, she was told, was not physical but psychosomatic, caused by people antagonistic towards her Scientology beliefs (or 'suppressives', as they are known by the church).
'I began having grand mal seizures at home, out on the street by myself and in the Scientology organisations - this was a living hell for me,' she says. 'This went on for three months. I was losing my memory due to all of the seizures.
'Finally, one morning in the shower, I knocked my front teeth out during a grand mal seizure. All this time my mother was begging me to go back on my medication and, after so much trauma, I realised that I wasn't going to live if I kept on doing this.'
Christman had the wisdom to ignore that aspect of Scientology and eventually left the religion, going on to become one of its more prominent critics. 'I continue to speak out in the hope that anyone with any physical problems stays miles and miles away from Scientology,' she says. 'I cannot tell you how many people I know who have died from lack of correct medical help.'
Criticising Scientology in this manner is no small gesture. People identified as suppressives frequently find themselves hit with expensive legal action, picketing and death threats.
L Ron Hubbard introduced the Fair Game law, which stated that such people could legitimately be subject to 'retaliation'. 'They may be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist, may be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed,' he stated.
And while this law has since officially been rescinded, many witnesses insist the practice is very much in place - and is extended to family members and friends of people considered suppressive.
Undercover reporter Ian Halperin knows this only too well, as the only journalist to have successfully infiltrated Scientology.
He attended church meetings for more than a year and was even hooked up to the famous e-meter (effectively a rudimentary lie detector machine invented by LRH which measures minute changes in electrical resistance throughout the body).
Posing as an aspiring gay actor, he was informed that not only could Scientology help make him a star (with John Travolta and Tom Cruise cited as prominent success stories) but it could even 'cure' him of his homosexuality.
'When I went along for the test, I didn't have a care in the world but because I was posing as the nephew of a multi-millionaire who was interested in Scientology, I could see the dollar signs in their eyes,' he says.
'The test results apparently showed that I was "stressed, depressed, insecure, emotionally fragile and slightly unstable" - which was news to me. They said they could definitely help me with my homosexuality - even though I'm not gay - and that I needed auditing (Scientology-speak for religious therapy).'
When he finally revealed that he was a journalist, Halperin was granted an on-camera interview with a Scientology official, only to realise later that a shadowy figure was standing in the bushes filming him.
The subsequent premiere of his documentary on the religion had to be abandoned when it emerged at the last minute that the digital projector had been purposely infected with a number of computer viruses.
There followed a period of intense intimidation, relentless threatening phone calls and one very explicit death threat.
'Having spent the previous two years researching the subject, I was only too aware of their intimidation tactics - and a number of suspicious deaths - so I ended up in hiding for three months,' he says.
Another man who experienced the darker side of Scientology was Michael Pattinson, a prominent gay artist living in Los Angeles.
He actually sued the church, with John Travolta named as co-defendant, claiming that over the course of almost 25 years Scientology had promised to turn him straight and he had paid more than $500,000 in fees for 'auditing' to achieve this.
He says: 'After that, I took even more courses and spent even more money, just waiting for the day when I would also be cured of what they called my "ruin".'
In his 1998 lawsuit, Pattinson stated that Travolta 'knowingly participated' in Scientology's repressive regime. It went on: 'Defendant Travolta has known of Scientology's "gulags" and "concentration camps"... through both personal observation and information received from a certain former Scientologist, but has deliberately chosen to turn a blind eye to their existence.'
Pattinson eventually dropped the action after running out of money. By this point the church had ploughed over £1.5million into the fight against him and showed no signs of relenting.
These are extraordinary claims, and yet there is strong evidence to suggest that people are held in custody against their will by the church of Scientology - particularly those who suffer from mental illness.
The biggest of these causes celebres is Lisa McPherson, who suffered a very public breakdown but was taken out of hospital against doctors' wishes by Scientology handlers. Allowing psychiatric treatment - which she clearly desperately needed - was anathema to her fellow believers.
nothing more than vitamins and auditing
Seventeen days later she was dead, having been 'treated' for her psychosis with nothing more than vitamins and auditing. According to the coroner's report, Lisa was substantially underweight, severely dehydrated and covered in bruises and insect bites. There was evidence that cockroaches had been feeding on her body even before she died.
Criminal charges were brought against the church but once again they were eventually dropped after Scientology's astoundingly well-funded lawyers succeeded in discrediting the medical examiner.
This is not, however, an isolated case. Margarit Winkelmann, 51, walked fully clothed into the sea and drowned herself in January 1980 after she replaced her medically prescribed course of Lithium - a drug commonly used to control psychotic behaviour - with a course of vitamins and minerals recommended by the church.
Heribert Pfaff, 31, died of an apparent seizure at a prominent Scientology hotel after he was told to stop taking his epilepsy medication.
And Jeremy Perkins, a 28-year-old untreated paranoid schizophrenic raised as a Scientologist, murdered his own mother. The frenzied attack, in which he stabbed her 77 times, was carried out on LRH's birthday.
Scientology officials say these deaths are isolated incidents and in each case refuse to accept any blame.
Just as in the case of Jett Travolta, however, nobody will ever know if things might have turned out differently had conventional medicine - and wisdom - been allowed to help these poor benighted souls.
The least they deserved was a chance to recover, with genuine science used to help them rather than the unabashed quackery which Scientologists spout with such vehemence.
But with poster boys like John Travolta and Tom Cruise as the spearhead of its marketing campaign, Scientology is gathering hundreds of new members with every passing day.
Now Will Smith, the most successful black actor on the planet, is showing signs that he may be about to join them, having handed out vouchers to the crew on a recent film entitling them to free personality tests at their nearest Scientology centre.
He also donated a million dollars to a school which uses Scientology teaching methods.
And so the slick and inexorable expansion of this dangerous religious cult continues unabated, helped on its way by the endorsement of privileged celebrities who have long since parted company from the reality of everyday life.
Meanwhile, all around the world at this very moment, thousands more children whose families are Scientologists are at risk of suffering the same fate as Jett Travolta. But you won't hear the film stars talking about that.
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