Should media mogul James Packer and his fiancee, model Erica Baxter, ever face the strains that occasionally crop up in marriage, their key marital aid may be a device with steel cylinders held in each hand, attached by wires to a screen with dials and meters.
While he hasn’t talked about it much, the man who is inheriting a $7 billion fortune has confirmed he’s practised the religion that grew out of the following of American science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s.
A couple of months ago, Packer told The Australian Financial Review he sometimes spends an hour or so on the religion every couple of days.
“I could well spend that amount of time on it and I think it has been very good for me,” Packer told the AFR. “It has been helpful. I have some friends in Scientology that have been very supportive. But I think it’s just helped me have a better outlook on life.”
Baxter has been seen at the Scientologists’ large and well-appointed headquarters in the Sydney suburb of Glebe. News leaked out late last month that the pair are engaged, and if they decide to wed in the Church of Scientology, it will be a huge coup for the church, which claims between 150,000 and 250,000 adherents in Australia. They would be the first big-ticket celebrities in Australia to do so since singer Kate Ceberano, and they would join the ranks of US actor Tom Cruise, who married Katie Holmes in a lavish Scientologist wedding ceremony.
It will be interesting to see the extent to which Packer uses Scientology as his moral compass as he takes control of the vast media and casino empire left him by his father, Kerry. Among other tenets, Scientologists believe in past lives, which can be revealed by “auditing”, using the E-meter. They also believe in reincarnation, although, unlike Hindus, they don’t have to worry about coming back as a lower form of life. In Scientology, the thetan, or spirit, only returns in a human body.
According to Virginia Stewart, the church’s public affairs director in Australia, that belief has a significant – and favourable – effect on how one approaches life and decisions.
Because Scientologists know they’re coming back, she says, they want to leave the world a better place for their return, and that has a big influence on how they approach issues such as the environment.
“It means you can’t say you’re going to live and burn this life because you’re not coming back,” Stewart says. “We believe we will be back in the future, so it makes you more responsible.”
Critics of Scientology suggest the religion is kooky and designed to lure the unsuspecting into parting with their money. Not so, according to Stewart, who says a lot of the criticisms are based on malicious exaggerations and misinterpretations. It’s not true that the church believes in aliens, she says: the teachings are silent on this question.
It is true that every Scientologist church in the world has an office reserved for Hubbard, even though he’s been dead for two decades. Stewart says Hubbard used to travel the world and hold talks, so an office was made available for him in every city where the Scientologists had a church.
“It’s not true that we believe he is one day going to come back to life as L. Ron Hubbard, but the office is just a mark of respect for him: Scientologists believe things should remain constant,” Stewart says.
Also maliciously untrue, says Stewart, is that Hubbard once said “if you want to become a millionaire, invent a religion”. Followers of Hubbard’s writings, not Hubbard, created the church, she says, and Hubbard was independently wealthy long before.
And it is also not true that if a married couple are both Scientologists and one of them leaves the church, the remaining one is shunned by the church.
However, it is true that the spouse remaining in the church is discouraged from participating in church activities while the couple is at loggerheads, because, Stewart says, it would be fruitless to go through auditing while so much tension exists in the individual concerned. The couple is asked to resolve any antagonism between them over church membership.
If Packer, 39, and Baxter, 29, do get married by a Scientologist minister, they will have to choose from one of five ceremonies based on the poetic readings of Hubbard. In the traditional ceremony chosen by Cruise and Holmes, which was lampooned by critics, the minister would say to Packer: “Now, James, girls need clothes, and food and tender happiness and frills. A pan, a comb, perhaps a cat. All caprice, if you will, but still they need them. Do you then provide? Do you?”
However, lest critics think the ceremony is chauvinistic and Baxter would be destined to accept a life as a dutiful housewife, the minister also says: “For times are changed and woman’s place is not a hearth or home but striding out to victory beside her husband’s side.”
Packer took an interest in the Church of Scientology after the break-up of his marriage to Jodhi Meares. He would no doubt wish to ensure he does not go the same way with Baxter, and Scientologists make a specialty of marriage counselling with the E-meter.
In Scientology, part of the general path to truth and understanding is to be “audited” by a minister using the E-meter, which is used as an aid, Scientologist literature says, in “having one’s attention directed to some long-buried source of emotional charge”.
The subject takes an electrode in each hand and a small electric current is passed through them. “When you’re having a thought, there’s a different energy in the carrier wave, a change in electrical current,” says Alex Kutuzov, a Scientologist who operates E-meters.
Such thoughts produce increased resistance to the electrical charge, and they can be measured on the meter by the auditor, she says. Applied to marriage counselling, according to Scientology, the E-meter can be used to great effect in helping a counsellor get to the root of dispute between a couple.
At the Scientologist headquarters in Glebe, The Australian was shown a short film made by the Scientologists’ production house in the US. It features actors such as Jennifer Hannon, Jack Armstrong and Michael Roberts, and the plot involves a couple in the grips of marital problems. Greg (Armstrong), who appears to be a high-flying advertising executive, is angry that his wife, Lauren (Hannon), has bought him a hugely expensive watch, a reflection, he says, of her perennial propensity to spend beyond their means.
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted at What judges have to say about Scientology
Lauren says she’s tired of being hard done by and asks for a divorce, and Greg agrees. But, at the urging of a colleague, Greg goes to the Church of Scientology, meets a minister (Roberts) and, after various interventions, he and Lauren agree to the E-meter procedure.
The minister, over several days, repeatedly asks Greg and Lauren two questions, his eyes glued to the E-meter: “Greg, what have you done to Lauren?” and “Greg, what have you withheld from Lauren?” Bit by bit, they blurt out the truth to each other. Greg, it turns out, is a serial, but not particularly successful, gambler. Lauren, driven by loneliness, had an affair with an old school friend.
As the minister maintains a sphinx-like impassivity, the couple have a cathartic relief from guilt, realise they still love each other, and live happily ever after.
According to the Scientologists, the E-meter helps the minister identify important thoughts to help guide the audit. Some observers might take the view that the E-Meter gives the impression to subjects that the minister has a lie detector, so it’s best to tell the truth.
A prominent Sydney relationship counsellor, Elizabeth Shaw, is not convinced. “I don’t see them walking out of there feeling good,” Shaw says of Greg and Lauren.
“As a partner, you would feel tormented, outraged and confused if those admissions were presented to you, and the presence of the minister would leave you uncertain about what you were allowed to be angry about,” she says.
But some couples say the overall Scientology marriage counselling process, which includes watching the film, doing the E-meter sessions, and two marriage courses – How to Improve Your Marriage and Success through Communications – has worked wonders for them.
Melbourne couple Anna Gee, 39, and Wayne Curnuck, 36, both of whom have been Scientologists for some years, say they turned to the marriage counselling a few weeks ago after their relationship became strained.
“We started arguing over silly things,” Curnuck, an industrial instrumentation technician, tells The Australian. “We tried to sit down and talk about it, but it didn’t work.”
At the same time, however, Curnuck says, “We actually love each other a lot. The thought of not being with each other was not a pleasant thought.” The E-meter sessions were, he says, “pretty intense”. “You’re hearing about what you don’t want to hear, and what you’re afraid to hear.”
The result, however, was great. “The person has had a relief from telling their partner. It’s beautiful,” says Gee, a stylist.
The E-meter, she says, was essential, enabling the minister to tell when all the bad things had been said by watching the needle on the meter. “The sessions run to an end result, until the needle floats,” she says.
It’s now all roses for Curnuck and Gee: they are so happy and in love following the Scientologist intervention that they have decided to get married and are discussing which Scientologist ceremony to choose.
Gee, who says she does not regard the Catholicism in which she was raised as being in conflict with Scientology, says that Scientology provides a way of applying religion to real-life situations. “It’s very, very practical.”
So too, Scientologists say, is a simple key tenet when it comes to marriage: a couple should never go to sleep without resolving an issue between them.
It will be something Packer and Baxter will no doubt take to heart as they gaze out over the Pacific from their luxury fortress apartment overlooking Sydney’s Bondi Beach each night.
INSIDE THE MIND OF L. RON HUBBARD
Scientology is based on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, an American born in 1911, who studied engineering, but explored Eastern religions.
After war service in the US Navy, Hubbard turned to a profitable career writing science fiction, but then expanded into books on the mind. In 1950, he published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Hubbard propounded a technique of “auditing” in which a person unlocks unconscious memories called “engrams”, then banishes them, making the subject clear of the reactive mind.
Hubbard then developed a spiritual element to his theories, dividing the human being into three parts: the body, the mind (analytical and reactive) and the thetan, or spirit, which could be reborn in new bodies.
In the US, in the 1950s, according to the Scientology version of history, Hubbard’s followers started establishing churches based on his teachings. Hubbard died in 1986, but the religion continues. In 2005, in the online magazine Slate, Michael Crowley wrote: “In 1963, federal agents, suspicious that Hubbard’s therapy might pose a health risk, raided the church’s Washington, DC, branch. The (Internal Revenue Service) concluded Hubbard was skimming millions of dollars from church funds and revoked Scientology’s tax-exempt status.”
Scientology Church spokeswoman Virginia Stewart denies the skimming allegation, saying that after a legal battle the allegations were dismissed and tax-exempt status was restored in 1993. She confirms that in 1983, 11 church leaders, including Hubbard’s wife, were convicted and sentenced to prison for conspiracy. However, Stewart says Hubbard had no knowledge of the conspiracy, noting that while he was named as a co-conspirator, he was never indicted.