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09.27.09

Travolta's Scientology Turning Point?

The actor’s public acknowledgement that his son, who died in January, was autistic has former Scientologists convinced that he will leave the church—which they say has little tolerance for chronic conditions.

When John Travolta took the witness stand last week and testified that his late son, Jett, was autistic, it came as a grim relief to some former Scientologists.

“Wasn’t that amazing?” said a fallen-away church member after Travolta appeared in an extortion case that followed the death of his 16-year-old son last January. “I thought, ‘Good for him.’ He denied it for years. It’s really important that he says it.”

At one time, Christman says she helped train Travolta in Scientology. Now she believes that if he weighs the facts, “he’ll reach the right decision...And he’s a guy who could really make a difference.”

Until now, Travolta and his wife, actress Kelly Preston, had said their son suffered from a syndrome caused by exposure to chemicals. The cause of death listed on Jett’s death certificate was seizure—a condition sometimes associated with autism. While Travolta and Preston clearly were devoted to their son and tried to do what was best for him, some ex-Scientologists—apostates, as the church would have it—believe Jett may have gone without appropriate treatment for years because of the church’s teachings. And they think that if Travolta comes to terms with his son’s diagnosis, the church eventually will lose one of its most high-profile members.

“My hope for him is that he starts looking” at what really happened, says Tory Christman, an outspoken Scientology critic who left after more than 30 years in the organization. At one time, Christman says she helped train Travolta in Scientology. Now she believes that if he weighs the facts, “he’ll reach the right decision... And he’s a guy who could really make a difference.”

Travolta’s spokesman declined to comment. Tommy Davis, a spokesman for Scientology, denounced Christman and other former Scientologists who are critical of the church as “liars,” adding, “It’s a horrific, horrific thing for these people to take the tragic death of a young boy and try to turn it on his parents’ religion.”

Davis has said repeatedly that Scientology accepts treatment of and medication for physical illnesses. But Christman, who is epileptic, says the institution has little tolerance for chronic conditions. In Scientology, she says, such illnesses are seen as the product of “covert hostility” and a failure to follow church procedures. Christman says she kept her epilepsy as much to herself as possible when she was still in the church because otherwise she would have been “considered degraded.”

Kim Masters: Is Scientology’s Wall Cracking?Christman says Scientology pushed her to stop her medication and use vitamins and supplements instead. The first time she cut back on her medications, she had a grand mal seizure in her bathroom and knocked out her front teeth. She says she resumed her medication but tried to stop again in the face of continued objections from the church—and again faced disastrous results. Though the church eventually backed down, she says she doesn’t think her victory was widespread or lasting. “I fought ’em all the way,” she says. But her actions only “fixed it for me and a bunch of other people who were there at that time,” she says.

Davis denies that chronic illness creates a stigma in Scientology and that Christman was ever pressured to stop her medication. As for her description of Scientology’s position on chronic illness, he says, “We could pick and choose isolated sentences, phrases from L. Ron Hubbard’s books and make them sound weird, and I’m not going to go there.” He does acknowledge that in Scientology, “We consider that you alone are responsible for the condition that you’re in.” But he also insists that the church requires members to seek treatment from doctors for “physical” illnesses.

Former Scientologists say autism would have created issues in Scientology not only because it’s chronic and not obviously “physical” but because it is often assessed by psychologists and treated with the types of mood-stabilizing drugs that Scientology opposes. Jett’s mother, Kelly Preston, has acted as a spokeswoman for the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a Scientology offshoot dedicated to waging war on psychiatry and the use of psychiatric drugs. (The group’s homepage is illustrated with a cell door labeled “ Psychiatry… An Industry of Death.” While the group’s Web site refers to autism as a “physical handicap,” Scientology has battled the use of medications for conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. (Davis does not acknowledge that these conditions exist.)

Travolta and his wife long said publicly that their son suffered from Kawasaki disease, a rare condition that causes arterial inflammation. “With my son I was obsessive about cleaning—his space being clean, so we constantly had the carpets cleaned,” Travolta told CNN in 2001. “And I think, between him, the fumes and walking around, maybe picking up pieces or something, he got...Kawasaki syndrome.”

A couple of years later, Preston recounted a similar story to Montel Williams, adding, “We don’t have any chemicals in the house. We’re 90 percent organic, though there’s some canned foods, a little bit of junk food here and there.” She credited a Scientology detoxification program with improving Jett’s condition.

But to many observers, Jett’s autism seemed obvious. And John Travolta’s brother, Joey, has worked with autistic children and produced a documentary about the syndrome. Joey Travolta has never indicated that his involvement with autism was linked to his nephew’s condition, but soon after Jett’s death, the London Mirror reported that Joey frequently argued with his brother about Jett’s diagnosis. (Joey Travolta did not respond to an inquiry from The Daily Beast.)

It does not appear that Jett received the early intervention recommended for autistic children. But perhaps he was, at some point, given medication. After his death, a Travolta family lawyer told the Web site TMZ.com that Jett had taken the anti-seizure and mood-stabilizing medication Depakote for several years and had found it effective in reducing the frequency of his seizures from about once in four days to once in three weeks. But the attorney said the medication was discontinued (in consultation with neurosurgeons) because it had stopped working.

I asked James McCracken, a professor of child psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, about protocols for treating seizures in autistic children. (McCracken spoke in general terms, not specifically about any individual.) He said patients don’t ordinarily build up a tolerance for Depakote, so the medication doesn’t usually lose effectiveness. If the medication did not work, a doctor would generally try another. “Typically a neurologist would cycle through two, three, four anticonvulsants and then start working with combinations of them” to control seizures, he said.

Former Scientologist Claire Headley was raised in Scientology and worked in its internal affairs office from the time she was 16 until she left the organization five years ago. (She is now suing for labor-law violations, alleging that she was paid $46 a week.) In her experience, she says, the church opposed the use of any medication considered to be a psychiatric drug. She says that as far as she knows, the only approved approaches to Jett’s issues were “assists and objective processing.” Objective processing, according to Headley, involves trying to put individuals “in touch with their environment—like, ‘Look at that wall. Thank you. Turn around. Thank you. Put your hands against mine.’ ”

Assists are meant “to get somebody in communication with their body,” she says. “Like a touch assist—‘Feel my finger. Feel my finger’—all over a person’s body.” That is similar to the process Travolta himself performed on director Randal Kleiser when they were working on the 1978 film Grease. After Kleiser cut his foot and developed a fever, “John came to my trailer to do a healing,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “He took his finger and pushed it into my arm and said, ‘Do you feel my finger? ’ and I said ‘Yes,’ and then he’d move it an inch and say, ‘Do you feel my finger? ’ He did this for about an hour. Here was the star of the movie helping me, so I didn’t criticize. The next day, though, my fever was gone.”

Clearly, Travolta is devastated that he could not save the son to whom he was, by all accounts, devoted. But Tory Christman says she believes that he has an opportunity to save others. “I feel really bad for him,” she says. “But I just don’t want him to be used by the church. It’s horrible he lost his son but—change something. He’s a guy who could really make a difference.”

But Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis calls Christman’s comments “disgusting,” adding, “This religion is utterly and completely about helping. It’s just insane to think that Scientology would be a factor in somebody not getting all the help they need.”

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.