Up: Martin Poulter > Scientology Criticism > UK Media Archive

Scientology's hidden tragedies

Woman magazine, (IPC Media) 6-12 October 2009, pages 22-23

[Scans are here (page 22) and here (page 23).]

Woman investigates the real-life casualities of the celebrity religion...

As the details surrounding the death of actor John Travolta's son Jett emerge in court, the sinister question of what part, if any, Scientology played in the tragedy has been thrown into the spotlight.

Jett died in January aged just 16 at the famiy home in the Bahamas after suffering a seizure. While giving evidence at the trial of a paramedic and lawyer accused of trying to extort £18 million from Travolta after Jett's death (they threatened to release a document relating to his son Jett's care), Travolta admitted for the first time that Jett was autistic and regularly suffered fits.

Immediately, critics accused the star of denying Jett's condition due to his beliefs (Scientologists deny the existence of mental health issues, believing they can be treated with spiritual healing.)

Travolta has been a Scientologist since 1975. He is one of many A-listers who have handed over millions to the organisation that claims to offer spiritual self-improvement. Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and Mimi Rogers are known supporters. Actress Juliette Lewis and singer Beck were born into it.

[Sidebar:] Shrouded in secrecy

For years, the Travolta family maintained that their son Jett suffered from a rare condition, Kawasaki Syndrome, and refused to answer critics who speculated that this was unlikely because Kawasaki Syndrome doesn't normally affect children over the age of eight.

The truth finally came out when John gave evidence at the trial of two people accused of attempting to blackmail him over son's death. For the first time, Travolta was forced to contradict the strict dictates of Scientology - which insists that mental health problems don't exist - and admit that, in fact, his family had been affected: 'Yes, my son was autistic and suffered from seizure disorder,' he testified. 'Every five to 10 days he would suffer from a seizure lasting 45 seconds to a minute and then sleep for about 12 hours.'

[Photo of Jett and John Travolta:] Scientologist Travolta faced claims that he denied his son Jett's condition due to his beliefs


Mysterious death

Yet many experts say it's a sect that splits families and exploits vulnerable members, emotionally and financially. It even costs some their lives.

Lisa McPherson became a Scientologist when she was 18. After moving to Florida to work in a Scientology-affiliated company, she was involved in a car crash in 1995. Immediately afterwards, Lisa - who'd experience mental health problems in the past - took her clothes off by the side of the road.

Physically unharmed, she was sent to hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. But a group of Scientologists told medics that Lisa didn't believe in psychiatry, so she was taken to a Scientology home for a course of what they described as 'rest and relaxation.'

In fact, they decided to put Lisa on what's called an Introspection Rundown - a series of steps to help her achieve a certain state of mental stability. She was kept in isolation and watched over 24 hours a day.

Six weeks later, Lisa died. The coroner's report stated that she was underweight, severely dehydrated, and had bruises and insect bites. The Church of Scientology was indicted on criminal charges, but the case was subsequently dropped.

Four years later, Lisa's family successfully sued Scientology and the individuals involved in her case for wrongful death. Lisa's mum, Fanny McPherson, said: 'I want the world to know what Scientology did to Lisa.'


Lisa isn't the only death associated with Scientology. After her marriage broke down, Gloria Lopez, 47, signed up. She left her children behind in Normandy, France, and moved to Paris to join every possible Scientology group in the city. Obsessed, she took her daughter to a children's Scientology course and sent her son to a Scientology revision session during the school holidays, until her ex-husband insisted she stop.

By 2006, Gloria had mounting debts. Her family claim that although she only earned [euros]2,000 a month, she had spent between [euros]2000,000 and [euros]250,000 on Scientology books and courses over the years. Wracked with gult and worry, Gloria killed herself by walking into the path of an oncoming train.

After her death, Gloria's children, Mathilde and Gwen, found her apartment filled with Scientology books and DVDs. More disturbing was the box of documents containing Gloria's admissions of how much she owed for courses and how she was struggling to reach enlightenment.

Her son Gwen, now 21, says: 'They stole my mother. I don't feel I know her apart from her role as a Scientologist.' Now, he and his family have filed a legal complaint against the Church of Scientology for what they believe is its role in Gloria's death.

Frank Roden is a group analytical psychotherapist with special interest in cults and destructive group phenomena, working with NHS Highland. Here, he explains why he thinks Scientology is so dangerous: 'It's particularly antagonistic towards the views of traditional psychiatry,' he says. 'The Church of Scientology's own philosophy contains so many methods of treatment which are scientifically untested and spurious. These so-called treatments are offered to members at an increasingly spiralling financial cost.'

Totally broken

Scientology has devastated lives in other ways. Astra Woodcraft was brought up in the UK in Scientology's strictest order, the Sea Organisation or Sea Org, until her mother moved the family to the US to be closer to the Los Angeles Scientology community.

Her father left when Astra was nine, unable to cope with her mother's devotion to the church. After marrying at 15 and having a baby, Astra left the organisation herself. Her mother is still a member and the two are no longer in contact.

Astra says: 'I lost the woman I loved as my mum when I was seven, but becoming a mother myself saved me. If I hadn't had a baby to think about, I wonder if I'd ever have found the courage to leave. The way I see it, Mum chose Scientology over her children. That's something I'll never understand.'

It seems that even for those who leave the organisation, the path is often dangerous. Alain Stoffen, 48, who was a member for more than 10 years, says: 'When you leave Scientology, you're totally broken. The feeling of shame and guilt is enormous. It's unbearable.'

[Photo of Katie Holmes:] 'Purification rundown': Scientology's strict regimes have been blamed for Katie's appearance

[Photo of protestor holding up placard "Katie don't be the next Lisa McPherson":] Campaigners protest about Lisa's death

[Photo of Tom Cruise speaking at podium with Scientology cross:] Tom Cruise is Scientology's most famous follower

Up: Martin Poulter > Scientology Criticism > UK Media Archive