I didn't research Braco before I paid $8 to have him look at me. A friend had sent an email a few weeks before the event that read, "There's a guy who heals people by 'gazing' at them. He's doing an event later this month in Midtown." Then she provided a link to the event — a two-day series of hour-long "gazing sessions," held at the New Yorker Hotel — but before I even clicked on it I was in.
Braco (pronounced "BRAH-tzo," and not, as I originally assumed, like bra + taco) is a 46-year-old Croatian man who claims to be able to heal people by gazing at them. Or, actually, other people make that claim on his behalf — Braco himself does not speak. At least not in public. He used to, but he stopped in 2002.
Though he looks as if he might have sprouted up, as is, from a cabbage patch, Braco was born a normal human baby, who eventually earned a master's degree in economics and started his own business. Per his origin story, this life course left him "surrounded by luxuries," but spiritually unfulfilled.
At age 26, Braco met a healer and psychic named Ivica Prokić, who quickly became the young man's mentor. Braco's website mentions that Prokić died suddenly in 1995. It does not say how, though — he drowned. He and Braco were together, alone, on a beach in South Africa, when, apparently, a "rogue wave" crashed onto shore, and swept Prokić into the sea. (If you find this story a bit suspect, you wouldn't be the only one.)
After Prokić's death, Braco "accepted the responsibility of carrying on Ivica's loving mission," and took up healing. First, he did it through touch. Then his audiences began to grow, and individual contact became too demanding. Luckily, his "way of sharing his gift" evolved with it, and it was decided that looking at them worked just as well. Now, Braco gazes at groups of up to 1,000 people at a time.
At the time I bought my ticket — for a 3 p.m. session on a Sunday, the event's second day — there were approximately 200 tickets remaining. I saw that number and laughed, thinking there was a decent chance that Dan (this story's illustrator) and I would be among the only ones there. Who wants to pay to go see a gaze healer for an hour on a weekend afternoon? In Midtown, no less? Besides me, I mean?
Hundreds of people, it turns out. We get there a few minutes before 3 and rush to get in the line, which curls around a series of velvet ropes on the upper floor of the hotel's lobby. Parked alongside us are a number of booths at which volunteers sell merchandise: books, DVDs, and Golden Sun jewelry in the shape of Braco's signature symbol. We file into the room — the hotel's ornately tacky Grand Ballroom, complete with white columns, chandeliers with electric candles, and geometric print carpeting — where more volunteers usher us into neat rows of upholstered chairs.
On stage, a man in a billowy shirt is playing two flutes at once.
"Is that Braco?" I ask Dan. Was it possible for one man to have that many talents? The answer is no. After he finishes playing — a slow, breathy melody, like what you might hear while getting a massage from a mid-range salon — we learn that he is not Braco, but a musician named David Young.
After Young exits the stage, he is replaced by a man wearing brilliantly white pants and a coordinating turquoise-with-white-piping…blouse. He has a version of the same haircut as Young's, though his is bright white. I would describe it as an almost-mullet: shoulder-length, wavy, and free, but with something kind of weird going on right around the face. I notice that several of the men in attendance have the same hair, and wonder if it has something to do with having attained enlightenment.
The man onstage asks us how many of us are first-timers and I'm shocked to see that less than one-fifth of the audience raises our hands. This survey, along with the rest of the introduction, makes it clear that many of the people who come to be gazed at by Braco come for multiple sessions, and some for an entire day. Or two. (Full-day, nine-session passes were sold for $72.) They wait in line, sit and stand through each session, and immediately get back in line to do it again, like kids with a favorite ride at Disneyland.
The rest of the man's introduction is meandering, and I'm pretty sure it's also sexist, though in context it hardly feels like the most pressing concern. He says something about how men are natural problem solvers, and as a result tend to approach Braco skeptically. He warns the men in attendance (less than a third of the audience) not to problem solve, but to instead open up to their emotional intelligence. I keep expecting him to transition into something half-jokey about that being a skill the women in attendance might be better at, but instead he just doesn't mention us at all.
We are told that Braco's gaze will take us to a special island called The Now.
The Now is a cosmic consciousness that happens at a quantum level. "This is something scientists are looking into," he says.
He tells us we're now going to watch a short clip from the film Journey to Braco, which is described as a "panoramic feast for the eyes, the heart, and the spirit." This much, at least, is true. The projector screen displays a handful of testimonials interspersed with footage of Braco, sitting and walking. He is transfixing to watch for many reasons, not the least of which are his pants, which are uniformly very tight. The only note I write down during the video portion of our session is "tight pants???"
In the video we see Braco walking through the woods, walking on a bridge, standing at the top of a lighthouse, standing at the edge of a large rock, kneeling by a statue, and standing on a beach with a flickering cartoon star photoshopped above him. I don't have any idea what anyone on the video said, I was so absorbed watching Braco move silently through different sets of scenery. His gait is quick and rigidly upright. His shoulders slope downward, making the arms he holds tightly to his sides appear just slightly too long.
After the video clip ends, it's time for Braco to come out and gaze at us. We're told that he will do so for "five to seven minutes." I think: That's it?
Braco enters through a door off the ballroom's seating area and quickly takes the stage. He stands at its center, wearing tight, stonewashed jeans and a white shirt best described as "Renaissance-y." A soundtrack starts playing and he begins to stare, at 200 of us, standing there quietly looking back at him, and I think: Five minutes is a really long time.
Some of the people who testify to Braco's powers say they feel tingly when he looks at them. Others say they feel a profound sense of love or peace. Some cry. In his introduction and the preceding video, it's emphasized that Braco's gaze is uniquely intense. So intense, in fact, that the event page for today's sessions warned that women who were more than three months pregnant would not be allowed to attend.
Though I'm not pregnant, I do find it hard to look directly at him. Whenever I try, I start giggling, and have to avert my eyes to calm down. I am afraid of getting in trouble with the tan, stern, middle-aged woman volunteer standing near me and watching the crowd. But I can't help it. I mean, he really does just stand there. He gazes at us, puppy-dog-eyed, blinking only rarely. He swivels his body slowly from left to right and then back, like a pendulum. It's hard to tell whether his gaze is methodical or more spontaneous; it seems for a while like he's moving from the front of the crowd to the back, but then he reverts. I'm sitting in the back half of the audience and I feel pretty strongly that his gaze is biased toward the front. We never make direct eye contact, which feels like a somewhat personal slight.
After a few minutes the song stops. Braco's gaze lingers for about a minute more, and then he walks offstage and out of the room.
The blue-shirted man resumes the stage and asks if anyone in the audience would like to share their experience. A woman a few rows in front of me raises her hand, and when she's called on she introduces herself as Maureen. "I love when the music stops, and there are those few seconds of silence, and there's a sense of the eternal, beautiful emptiness," she says. The crowd murmurs in agreement.
Then an older woman I'll call Anna is called on. She stands up to take the microphone from a volunteer, and she immediately begins crying into it. In a thick, unplaceable accent, she repeats, "Braco saved my life. He saved my life. A couple times, he saved me." She tells a fairly long-winded story about having held Braco's book to her chest during what she thought was a heart attack, and asking him to save her. (Many of Braco's supporters believe his products serve as sort of gaze placeholders.)
Anna tells the crowd that when she went to the doctor, he told her that while she may have had blockages in her heart, they'd cleared up. At a certain point in the story everyone thinks she's done, but she continues. "Two weeks later I had chest pains again," she said, which, I thought, doesn't say a lot for Braco's lasting power. But it was just a false alarm.
One way to interpret this story is that Braco saved Anna's life. Another is that Anna's life was never really in danger in the first place. Either way, she is healthy right now, and hasn't had chest pains in a year, and that, of course, is wonderful.
Dan and I leave the ballroom feeling more or less the same — apart from having $8 less apiece — but we agree that it might just take a little time to kick in.