The tragic death of John Travolta's teenage son Jett could spell the end of Scientology, sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard's loopy, medicine-hating cult from the 1950s.
Jett's parents, Travolta and Kelly Preston, are both "clear" — an exalted, expensively attained status in Scientology. Critics of Scientology have long known that the pseudo-religion, based on Hubbard's Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, discourages adherents from seeking medical help for problems they deem "psychosomatic." That old line about it being all in your head forms the basis of Scientology's weird belief system; most problems, even if they manifest themselves physically, are spiritual in nature, stemming from the patient's "reactive mind." Even aspirin is deemed a mood-altering drug to be avoided — too bad if you take it to prevent blood clots.
Hence the controversy over Jett Travolta's apparent death from a head injury, likely incurred after he suffered a seizure in the Bahamas condo where the Travolta family and their two nannies were staying. John Travolta and Kelly Preston have long claimed Jett developed Kawasaki disease after exposure at a young age to carpet-cleaning chemicals, which resulted in seizures, a claim medical experts find unlikely. At the time of his death, he was under the care of Jeff Kathrein, a wedding photographer whose main qualification for the nanny post seemed to be a course he completed in Scientology and a kiss he shared with Travolta.
Whatever the cause of his seizures, a Travolta family lawyer now says Jett had been taking Depakote, an anti-seizure medication, but had to stop it because of liver damage. Liver damage from Depakote is rare; more recently, the FDA has been concerned about its link to suicidal thoughts — exactly the kind of condition Scientologists they believe they can treat through the religious coursework they call "auditing."
Travolta's actor buddyTom Cruise has made the church's stance infamous through his wildly unpopular tour of the talk shows in which he tried to advance Scientology's anti-pyschiatry views. His badgering of NBC's Matt Lauer on the Today show pales in comparison to his crazy-laughing-guy turn in a private Scientology video. He's since declared that he's not going to share his Scientologist beliefs with the public, a decision which seems to have boosted box-office returns for Valkryie, his latest film.
Good for Cruise, bad for Scientology, which desperately needs Cruise's star power to spread the church's message. As well as his money, rumor has it — the church, once a financial powerhouse, is said to be strapped for cash.
Travolta and Preston surely loved Jett, and are as grieved by his death as any parent would be. But the accusation will linger that they privileged their adherence to Scientology over their devotion to their son. The death of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old Florida Scientologist who died after church members removed her from a hospital where she was due to receive psychological care, received little attention outside of local newspapers. Jett Travolta's death, on the other hand, is winning international attention, and raising the question of Scientology's anti-medicine stance. Could the quest of Hubbard's cult to spread the faith by courting Hollywood celebrities have backfired once and for all?