Jett Travolta and the Culture of Judgment

On January 2nd in the Bahamas two people suffered every parent’s worst nightmare, the sudden and unanticipated loss of a child. John Travolta and Kelly Preston’s celebrity status shot the sad news instantly around the world, initially with cautious reports about a seizure, a possible fall, and the diagnosis of Kawasaki’s disease. Amidst the rubbernecking that will invariably accompany a public tragedy, there should be a certain amount of disgust at some untoward public commentary about the private health status of a minor.

The history of speculation about Jett Travolta dates back years. A cursory internet search will reveal scathing assumptions and hurtful comments written previously about Jett and his family. Did Jett in fact have autism? Are the hand movements seen during intrusive paparazzi videos evidence of “stimming”, the repetitive, self-comfort gestures of those at the more severe end of the autistic spectrum? Did Jett instead suffer from Kawasaki’s Disease, an uncommon yet typically treatable early childhood illness, as a result of exposure to toxic carpet cleaning chemicals? Did the globetrotting Travoltas stuff a mainstream medical diagnosis of autism, and the hope that can come with early intervention and consistent treatment, in favor of an offbeat Scientology approach? Inquiring minds want to know.

The teen’s untimely death is sure to summon even more foul remarks from well-intentioned autism advocates, those who are particularly offended by the Church of Scientology, and the merely smug (who are convinced that they have magical parenting skills). Mothers and fathers of children with a serious or controversial illness understand what it is like to juggle the stress of a long battle with the sting of unfair appraisals. Losing a child is suffering enough for any mortal. Adding even one pointed finger is particularly cruel.

The truth is that no one but the Travoltas has the full story about what went on in their lives, and the extent to which they provided appropriate medical management for the child’s health. It is reasonable to assume that with access to world-class doctors and treatment, Jett Travolta’s loving family gave him every chance for the best life possible. What we can know for sure that the number of people eager to judge others (and especially their parenting) is limitless.