Travoltas Turn to Scientology, Hometown in Trying Times

Scientology Has Seen Family Through Tragedies; Ocala Offers Support

ABC News/January 7, 2009

As John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, prepare to say goodbye to their 16-year-old son Jett Travolta, it's likely they'll draw on support from Scientology, the religion that has seen them through tragedies in the past, as well as residents in their current hometown of Ocala, Fla.

TMZ is reporting that a small family-and-close-friends-only memorial service will likely take place tomorrow at the star couple's Ocala home. It's likely to reflect the parents' Scientology faith.

Lisa Marie Presley, a follower of the religion, defended Scientology in a blog while expressing condolences over Jett's death. "I am writing this because I have noticed that for the most part, people and the media have been very sympathetic and respectful, but there are those certain ones that want to use this horrible tragedy as an opportunity to once again, blame and-or attack Scientology."

She called the belief that scientologists don't allow medical care "garbage" and said Travolta and his wife were on a "tireless, never ending quest to get and provide him (Jett) with the absolute best care anyone could ever ask for and need."

Travolta was introduced to Scientology by actress Joan Prather in 1975, according to Travolta biographer Douglas Thompson.

"I was 21 when I first heard about [Scientology]," Travolta told ABC News' "20/20" in 1998. "And someone introduced it to me and they were so certain and happy, and I wasn't used to people being certain and happy. I was used to people being insecure and unhappy. I took a course and my life has never been the same."

He leaned heavily on his faith when his Diana Hyland, his girlfriend and co-star in "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1976. She died the following year at age 41 and Travolta turned to Scientology to cope.

"He turned down the Richard Gere role in 'American Gigolo' and found himself more and more drawn to the Scientology movement," Thompson recently told The New York Daily News.

In 2001, Travolta told CNN's Larry King that he used Scientology to deal with the deaths of Hyland and later, his parents.

"Life is overwhelming. Life is not easy. Life is tough," he said. "And you need something that really works and helps you actually, not promises to help you, then fail. And that's why I've always loved Scientology, because it offers help, and it works."

Preston, who has been married to Travolta since 1991, adopted Scientology before meeting the actor. In 2006, Rolling Stone magazine reported that Preston was introduced to the faith in 1985 by acting coach Milton Katselas.

She met Travolta in 1987 while filming "The Experts," and, according to a 1998 interview with Redbook magazine, was pleased to learn he was also a follower. Her devotion to Scientology grew stronger as she and Travolta grew closer.

"It's very much a spiritual science," Preston told People magazine in 1997. "It creates ways to handle everything, whether it's in your love life or in your work."

Travoltas Lived 'Normal Life' in Ocala

Nestled in Florida's Marion County, north of Orlando, comparatively rural Ocala offers the Travoltas a respite from the hectic pace of Hollywood. Travolta built the family's home there and, according to a 2004 Los Angeles Times interview, keeps two planes parked on his property. Travolta is a licensed jet pilot.

The Travolta family has been living there since 2002, save brief stints in Los Angeles.

According to Ocala Mayor Randy Ewers, Travolta and Preston are active and loved members of the community.

"We called and reached out to the family," Ewers told "It's a very sad time for them. If they need anything from us we have offered that. We're just trying to help during this time and help them through this tragedy."

"They frequent the restaurants. John worked out in the local gym. They attended school here, go to the mall," he said. "Any fans that came up to them, they would spend time with them. But people let them live a normal life for the most part."

While it's suspected the Travoltas are planning a funeral service for later this week, Ewers said he was unaware of specific arrangements.

"I don't know of any public memorial planned," he said. "We're trying to respect their privacy as much as possible and help them through this process. They are our friends and neighbors and a fantastic family. It's very tragic."

Marion County residents have left flowers and signs outside the gated entrance to the Travolta family's Jumbolair Aviation Estates neighborhood. Neighbor Rich Koepsel told the local Ocala Star-Banner, "We consider them just normal neighbors. John and Kelly just want to be treated as another family."

He also described a close relationship between the parents and their children. "You could see the love in his parents' eyes," Koepsel told the paper. "You could look in [Jett's] eyes and feel the love there."

He described Jett as a fun-loving kid who enjoyed the outdoors, either riding around in a golf cart, pedaling his three-wheeled bicycled or going for a ride with his father in one of Travolta's antique cars or his ultra-light airplane.

In 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported that Jett and his younger sister Ella were home-schooled in Ocala to keep their education on par with the one they'd received at a Scientology-based school in Los Angeles, where they spent three months of the year.

The Times also said one of the reasons the Travoltas live in Ocala is to be close to the Flag Service Organization in Clearwater, Fla., the spiritual headquarters of Scientology.

Timeline of Travoltas' Tragedy

Monday night, Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, returned to Florida with the ashes of their son, who died after suffering a seizure Friday while the family vacationed in the Bahamas.

Earlier Monday, two forensic pathologists, including an American physician, performed an autopsy in the Bahamas, but the cause of death was not released.

Glen Campbell, an official with a Bahamian funeral home, told the AP that Jett Travolta's death certificate said he was killed by a "seizure." Campbell said the certificate came from the autopsy findings but revealed no information on the cause of death beyond the word "seizure."

He added that the body was in "great condition" and showed no sign of head trauma. Police officials had said previously the teen may have hit his head on a bathtub.

Travolta family friend Obie Wilchcombe, a member of the Bahamian Parliament, told "Good Morning America" of the heart-wrenching moment when John Travolta identified his son's body at the morgue.

"They escorted him into the room where his son was and glass separated them. And he was asked to identify his son," Wilchcombe told "Good Morning America." "His words were 'That's my son.'"

"After he said that," Wilchcombe continued, "he asked that he and his wife be left alone for a period of time, and they stayed in the room for a long period of time -- several hours in fact."

In a ruse to throw off paparazzi, a black hearse drove from the funeral home to the airport late Monday but Jett Travolta's body remained in the funeral home.

Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham sent condolences to the Travolta family and said the autopsy is a formality the country requires in cases of sudden death to rule out foul play.

On Sunday, John Travolta and Preston issued their first public statement since Jett Travolta's death.

"Jett was the most wonderful son that two parents could ever ask for and lit up the lives of everyone he encountered," said the statement posted on John Travolta's Web site. "We are heartbroken that our time with him was so brief. We will cherish the time we had with him for the rest of our lives."

Scientology Funeral, Family Auditing Likely

The Travoltas will likely have a church-inspired funeral for Jett, church observers say. The Church of Scientology released a statement to ABC News detailing its views on death and funerals.

"In Scientology we believe that you have lived before and that you will live again," the statement said. "The spirit, which is you, is immortal and you are not your body. You as an individual are an immortal spiritual being and simply put, you have lived before and will live again, lifetime after lifetime. In Scientology these past existences are simply referred to as past lives.

"The Scientology funeral service celebrates the life of the person who has departed his body," the church's statement continued. "Friends and family have the opportunity to say goodbye, to acknowledge and thank the person for what he or she has done in this lifetime, and to wish them well as they move on to their next lifetime. The service is a reaffirmation of the knowledge that we are immortal spiritual beings."

Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology and alternative religions at the University of Alberta and an expert on Scientology, elaborated on typical proceedings.

"Someone will give readings from [Scientology founder] L. Ron Hubbard, including possibly a eulogy. It will be difficult for Scientologists to talk about a young man's life. It's likely they'll talk more about his parents' love for him," he said. "Scientologists are flexible about whether the body or ashes must be present at the funeral. There can even just be a picture of the person. Certainly, non-Scientologists can come to the funeral."

"A Scientology funeral is likely to emphasize the movement of the thetan from attachment to this body to attachment to another body," Kent added. "The hope is that the thetan will come back in better times, with a better body, with a better spiritual nature."

Kent said he would expect Tom Cruise, Cruise's wife Katie Holmes and other members of Hollywood's elite Scientology contingent to attend. After the funeral, it's likely the organization will ask Travolta, his family and Jett's caretakers to undergo evaluations to banish any ill feelings about the tragedy.

Jett's Untimely Death

A house caretaker found the teenager unconscious in the bathroom Friday morning, police said.

"A nanny attempted to revive him. All attempts were made, but he couldn't be revived," Travolta's attorney Michael Ossi, who was also in the Bahamas, told Friday. "They tried as hard as they could to revive Jett."

An ambulance took him to a Freeport hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The family, including Jett's 8-year-old sister, Ella, had been celebrating the New Year in the Bahamas.

Ossi said the teenager "has had seizures in the past, but they were controlled. This one couldn't be."

Possible Role of Kawasaki Syndrome

Jett's health made national news in 2002 when his mother disclosed that at age 2 he had a poorly understood condition called Kawasaki syndrome, a collection of symptoms that stem from swollen arteries.

Kawasaki syndrome primarily affects children younger than 5, though it can occur in older children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about nine out of 100,000 children have Kawasaki syndrome. The incidence is higher among Japanese and Korean children, though the syndrome can occur within any ethnicity.

Kawasaki syndrome expert Dr. Robert Frenck, a professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, said the syndrome, however, is not usually associated with deadly seizures -- especially in children who have already recovered from Kawasaki's, which he said is a temporary condition.

"If there's a major complication, and if someone dies from it, it is a [coronary] aneurysm," he said. "It doesn't happen frequently, but that is what we really worry about. ... That can set the kids up for a heart attack."

The New York Post and other media outlets have in the past published unconfirmed reports that Travolta's son had autism, though the family has always maintained that he suffered from Kawasaki's. Autism is associated with seizures.

"There is a relationship between autism and seizures; as many as 40 percent of children and young adults with autism may experience seizure and adolescence is a particular time of vulnerability," said Dr. Bryan King, the director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Seattle Children's Hospital's Research Center for Health Services and Behavioral Research.

"There are hormonal changes that could increase the risk of seizure, and certainly there are ongoing brain changes that take place during adolescence, but no one knows why the risk increases in older children."

What little information is available on autopsy results further suggests that Jett Travolta may have been an epilepsy sufferer. If this is the case, he could have died from a massive seizure that led to a condition known as sudden unexplained death in epilepsy patients, or SUDEP.

Dr. Orrin Devinsky, director of the New York University Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, said SUDEP "is a relatively common problem among patients with uncontrolled tonic-clonic -- a.k.a. grand mal or convulsive -- seizures. In patients who have these frequently over a 10-year period, the incidence of SUDEP may be 8 percent or higher."

Dr. James Grisolia of the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego, agreed that SUDEP could be a possibility, given the information at hand.

"We'll only really know once the autopsy results are out, as well as the statement from Jett's doctor, Mark Smith," Grisolia said.

But he added, "While the majority of adults and children with epilepsy live with their seizures well-controlled and can live up to their full human potential, there are rare, tragic cases of sudden, unexplained death in epilepsy [SUDEP] ... even well-controlled seizures sometimes break through, especially with forgetting to take medication, with excessive alcohol or sleep loss, or a serious second illness, such as a very bad flu or pneumonia."

Travolta's Tragic Loss

Regardless of the cause, Travolta's attorney Ossi said that the family is now grieving. He added that the incident "is the worst pain any parent can experience, the loss of child."

Speaking for Travolta, Ossi said, "This is the worst day of his life."

In multiple interviews, Travolta and Preston have always attributed their son's illness to carpet-cleaning products they once used in the house.

"It was about seven years ago, and I was obsessive about cleaning -- his space being clean, so we constantly had the carpets cleaned," Travolta told Larry King in 2001. "And I think, between him, the fumes and walking around, maybe picking up pieces or something, he got what is rarely a thing to deal with, but it's Kawasaki syndrome."

"Jett's whole immune system shut down and he got really sick with high fevers -- 104 and 105. He developed a rash on his body and swollen lymph glands -- it was horrible," Preston told the U.K Mirror in 2004.

"Clearly, if anything about Jett's death could reflect badly on Scientology, the organization will go to great lengths to handle the problem," Kent said.

Scientology, the religion that Travolta has followed for about two decades, believes psychiatric drugs and counseling cause damage.

In a 1999 news conference about his movie "The General's Daughter," Travolta disputed assertions that TV and films encourage kids to commit violent crimes and instead linked their cause to drugs.

"My personal thinking is that some of these murders have to do with drugs -- psychiatric drugs, street drugs," he said. "They've found a lot of common denominators are things like Prozac that are altering people's states of mind."

Preston, Travolta's wife, also came to Cruise's defense in 2005, when he was criticized for his public attack on Brooke Shields for using psychotropic medication to ease her postpartum depression.

In a statement to ABC News, the Church of Scientology responded to critics who claim it does not promote medical treatment.

"Scientologists seek conventional medical treatment for medical conditions," the church said in a statement. "Scientologists use prescription drugs when physically ill and also rely on the advice and treatment of medical doctors. The Church does not involve itself in the diagnosis or classification of any medical condition."

ABC News' Dan Childs, Radha Chitale, Eileen Murphy, Lauren Cox and Kirk Fernandes contributed to this report.

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