"My mom's cat was dying," a woman in a white blouse dotted with holographic silver sequins explains. ("I live in a community of healers," she told me earlier, in the same breezy, dismissive manner one might use to say in Queens.) "Couldn't eat. Had lost half her fur. And he saved her life."
"It works on animals?" I ask.
"Oh!" she replies. "Pets are very easy to heal!"
She and I are both here to stare at Braco, a man who performs miracles by staring at people.
Among the miracles I hear attributed to Braco either in direct conversation, group-sharing sessions, or the Braco-themed videos that play before each staring session for the three hours I attend Saturday's all-day Braco gazing event:
- A woman's adopted daughter reached out to her birth mother "and it went beautifully."
- A woman's brother recovered from a bone marrow transplant (also "beautifully").
- A woman's friend's father's subdural hematoma disappeared.
- A woman's granddaughter found her way home after becoming lost.
- A woman who "[doesn't] really breathe that much or that well" breathed deeply.
- A DVD of Braco played on a loop on a DVD player that previously did not have the technological capability to play DVDs on a loop.
- A woman woke up in the middle of the night and "knew" she had to follow Braco to Hawai'i. She ended up loving Hawai'i.
- The symptoms of a woman's Lyme disease temporarily abated, or a woman was diagnosed with Lyme disease (unclear).
- A man replicated a sensation he had previously felt during a near-death experience.
- A woman's ovaries exploded(?), which was necessary for them to heal.
- A woman did not scream even though there was a yellow jacket crawling up and down her legs.
- A woman's1 perennially single friend became wealthy.
Braco is a 46-year-old man from Zagreb, Croatia, which is just about the last thing that can be said about him with any certainty. Members of the inner circle that constitutes his publicity team (or vice versa) claim he has not spoken publicly in over nine years. He has a wife and a teenaged son, born some time in 2000. His third consonant is pronounced with a /ts/ sound, making his stage name (birth name: Josip Grbavac) sound a little like "Pretzel." Every year, according to his website, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world pay to watch him stare at them without speaking, in the hope it will improve their lives.
Braco's website, Braco.net, states that Braco "makes no claims of being a healer and does not promise a cure to anyone" but is quick to add that people "commonly report warm feelings and physical sensations during a gazing experience with Braco." A disclaimer written in gold and black text warns that women more than three months pregnant are forbidden from attending all gazing events (and are banned, also, from watching live streams) "due to the intensity of the experience for some."
I arrive at the New Yorker Hotel at about half-past two on Saturday afternoon, thirty minutes before my group gazing session is scheduled to begin. A friendly, white-clad woman draws a small, sloppy check at the top of my ticket in black pen, and points me toward the back of a line about 200 people strong, snaking around the curves of the room. To get there, I must march past more white-clad women selling tables of Braco merchandise, which includes—in addition to dozens of Braco DVDs and books—many pieces of not-available-online all-sales-final jewelry in the motif of Braco's signature 13-point golden sun symbol. (These range in price from $345 for "Sun Pendant with chain" to $7200 for "One Carat Sun Pendant, 14 kt chain.")
Almost immediately upon reaching the end of the line, I am joined by still another white-clad woman. She and I simultaneously start to ask one another if we've ever done this before (no, we haven't), and she tells me not to worry that I did not wear white2 (I am wearing a green and blue dress).
My companion first heard about Braco from a friend of hers who "flies all over the world" to see him, and who has attended gazing sessions "dozens" of times. Grasping an iPhone case bedecked with deep purple and amethyst plastic jewels, she tells me she has had "a hard year." I ask if her friend's life has improved since attending Braco's sessions. She nods. "Oh, absolutely!" Hearing this makes me excited, so I tell her I'm excited. She tells me she's excited too.
A disclaimer warns that women more than three months pregnant are forbidden from attending all gazing events "due to the intensity of the experience for some."
She adds that she only has time to stay for the 3 p.m. session because she has to get home to watch her son. When I run into her again, in line for the 4 o'clock session, she says his father agreed to stay on a little longer, as long as she could make it across town by 5.
"I really felt the energy in that room," she will tell me later.
The event is being held in the New Yorker's "Grand Ballroom," which is surely one of the grandest ballrooms inside this mid-priced hotel, if not all of New York. A small sign outside the entrance reading "Mobile Wallet Wars USA 2014," commemorates the bloody mobile wallet wars of 2014, which concluded with a conference held at the same event space the day prior. By the time those of us at the tail end of the line make it inside for the 3 p.m. session, a man in the front of the room—sporting a shirt that is the most blindingly white one I will see all day—is already deep into his introduction of a solitary flautist, who stands nearby holding two flutes. The man in the glaring shirt mumbles warmly: "mumble mumble angel" and "mumble mumble help you prepare for opening yourself up to receiving this angelic gift." I take this to mean the flute song we are about to hear will evoke the spirit of angels. About 30 seconds into the performance, during which the musician plays both flutes simultaneously, I realize I am right, because the song is "Angel" by Sarah McLachlan.
Gazing sessions are approximately 30 minutes, but actual gaze time lasts only "5 to 7 minutes," a nebulous timeframe referred to consistently across all Braco material. The time before and after is filled with a short musical performance (see above), a basic introduction to the idea of Braco (the tone and specifics of which vary wildly from session to session, but which is always general enough to orient newcomers), the airing of a brief video clip about Braco (again, similar but different each time), an "honored" introduction to Braco himself ("Braco."), a reflective post-Gaze silence (described as "a minute," but only in the sense that "a minute" is not a very long amount of time), and a short post-Braco sharing period during which a few audience members volunteer to tell the room what they experienced over the course of the previous 6 to 8 minutes ("I was just noticing how smoothly he moved...He was just standing there and it was like Mona Lisa…"). Each of this weekend's sessions costs $8 to attend. Based on conversations I have at the event, it seems that many (if not most) people purchase all-day passes, which run $72 for 9 sessions. I purchase tickets to four.
Among the miracles I hear attributed to Braco: A DVD of Braco played on a loop on a DVD player that previously did not have the technological capability to play DVDs on a loop.
Once the crowd is comfortably ensconced in the arms of the angel, the white shirted man takes to the stage with a question: "How many people are here who know nothing about Braco?"
The answer to that question is probably zero—it seems unlikely that anyone would have wandered into the New Yorker hotel, followed the signs for "Braco Event" to the second floor, and paid $8 for a ticket by accident—so I figure he means something along the lines of "How many people are here for the first time?" and raise my hand. In the room of about two hundred, I count only three other raised hands.
Braco, the man informs us, gazes at crowds of people not for personal gain in $8 increments, but because he loves to help them. He weaves us a late-'80s fairytale of a man for whom everything was going right—"He had a masters degree. His own company. Sports cars."—and implies that Braco gave it all up (presumably not the masters degree) to help us find peace. He leads us on a breathing exercise: "Breathe in—hold for one—breathe out," and a soft hiss fills the room as stale, air-conditioned air is expunged from four hundred nostrils simultaneously. He cues up a film clip, and the ballroom goes pitch black except for the red glow of exit signs and a shaft of light spilling from a door open on the balcony above us.
A woman's voice rings out over the room: "Suddenly, my ovaries just started burning and I just started hearing this pop! pop! pop!...I underwent a great healing."
It's time for Braco to take the stage.
In person, Braco resembles the coach of an Olympic basketball team from a country that will not medal. He sports a clean—if rumpled—button down shirt (white), sneakers (white), and a watch and ring that wink in the light (gold). His hair and his jeans both look stonewashed.
In person, Braco resembles the coach of an Olympic basketball team from a country that will not medal.
He walks to the center of the platform and turns to face us. His posture is passive, or even hesitant—like he's ready to begin unloading groceries on the conveyor belt but doesn't want to crowd the tomatoes of the person in front of him. His hands dangle near his pockets. Two spotlights angled from opposing directions cast giant versions of his shadow behind him, flanking him on both sides. A quiet New Age track of the type played at the conclusion of an affordable massage pipes into the room. As Braco stands, his eyes travel back and forth over the crowd. His expression alternates between between half-smile and neutral stare.
The people on the floor are told to stand too. Everyone tries to be completely still, so we all rock, slightly, in different directions and at different speeds, as if we are each attempting to stay level on our own floating chunk of ice.
A note on Braco.net encourages attendees to "bring a photo of your child or a person needing help who cannot attend, as this method has been proven to be equally effective and the most balanced way for some to receive help who cannot attend." In my purse, I carry a stack of computer print-outs bearing images of troubled faces: Taylor Swift, Solange Knowles, recently ousted American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, sexy felon Jeremy Meeks, the U.S. men's soccer team, a map of Iraq, and Gawker writer Taylor Berman.
A man in his 70s standing just to my left, so close we bump shoulders, hesitates before carefully pulling a folded picture out of his pocket and holding it to his chest. Watching him do this dampens my mood for mischief. I wonder if the people in the photo know he's here, holding their picture in front of his heart so that magic can happen when a Croatian man looks at it. I wonder if any of them are in the hospital.
I put the photo of the less famous Taylor, my coworker, whose picture will not be immediately recognizable as a joke, at the front of the stack and hold it up to my chest3.
After a couple minutes, the quiet music fades out, and Braco spends a few moments staring at the crowd in total silence. (This, I suspect, is the source of the "5 to 7 minutes" variability. During the four sessions I attend, he errs on the side of 5.) Then he turns and walks off stage.
I crane my neck to follow his path as he goes, in what probably looks like an unseemly display of devotion. In fact, I am trying to discern his height relative to one of the ballroom's more modest chandeliers, so that I might go up and measure myself against it after the room has cleared out. I stare hard as Braco approaches the light fixture—poised to burn the image of the top of his head into my brain—when he suddenly appears a foot shorter. Then another foot and another foot, and maybe one more. The rows of densely packed devotees stretching out in front of me have obscured the fact that the stage consists of a series of platforms and stairs, which throws off my calculations. Though from my perspective in the back of the room, Braco's height could conceivably be assessed at anything from three to 11 feet, he gives off the heavenly vibe of someone about 5'8".
A note on Braco.net encourages attendees to "bring a photo of your child or a person needing help." In my purse, I carry a stack of computer print-outs bearing images of troubled faces: Taylor Swift, Solange Knowles...
Later, on my way out of the ballroom, I ask a smiling auburn-haired volunteer in a purple shirt if it's possible to meet him. A blurb on Braco.net states that those attending sessions for the first time often report experiencing an "inviting feeling of familiarity, even friendship and trust" upon seeing Braco. She shakes her head pleasantly and says, "Even the volunteers were asked to give him space. If you see him out on the town you could, maybe, go up and say 'Hi.' But other than that…" she trails off. A section of the Volunteer Guidelines titled "Braco Etiquette" asks volunteers to "honor Braco's space" and instructs them to "politely" guide away any attendee who attempts to stop him or take a photo.
At the end of each session, after pausing to take sips of the water provided by volunteers, the crowd files out of the ballroom, back into the outer halls of the second floor, to line up again for the next session. I follow this routine—the line, the music,the introduction, the video, the second introduction, Taylor Berman's photograph, the gaze—three more times, finishing with the final session of the day, at 6 p.m.
Each of the four sessions I go to is attended by roughly 180 people total. Assuming those numbers held all day, the total haul from nine (largely volunteer-staffed) sessions would come to about $12,960, proceeds from merchandise not included. (For a total of 45 to 63 minutes of staring, that works out to a rate of roughly $200 and $300 per minute.) Attendees are encouraged—gently; always gently—to attend, and to tell friends about the nine Sunday sessions as well.
It's unclear exactly how Braco works—if his specific brand of magic functions more like that of a wishing well (granting specific wishes made explicitly), a four-leaf-clover (generally improving luck), or God. Attendees are exhorted to "be focused on the present moment," and concentrate on Braco's face, but also told not to worry about looking at his eyes; instead we should "dive into his gaze." (Some people, I notice, dive into his gaze with their eyes closed.) A speaker at one session instructs the room to "set your intentions for one, or maximum two, people before 'the gaze,'" and then to "let it go" once "the gaze" begins. It is emphasized that if we do not "receive the frequency that's being transmitted," it is not because there is no frequency being transmitted, but because our minds are not open enough to receive it.
Over the course of the afternoon, I tweak my technique numerous times in an attempt to force my stupid mind to become more open to receiving Braco's "beautiful gift." I think of happy memories. I focus on counting my breaths. I try to recreate the giddy, nervous stomach lurch I associate with exciting surprises. Finally, one speaker tells us to just "wish for the greatest good" for ourselves and for our loved ones, which I like because it is an easy-to-remember phrase I can repeat over and over in my head for 5 to 7 minutes. At the final session, I don't hold up any pictures, opting instead to receive the full brunt of Braco's gaze myself. I imagine this is like lying out in the sun without wearing sunscreen. I feel cold and sleepy.
At the final session, I don't hold up any pictures, opting instead to receive the full brunt of Braco's gaze myself.
The musical accompaniment for the 6 p.m. session is provided by a violinist who is presented to the crowd multiple times as "Larry Shapiro from Indianapolis." Larry Shapiro from Indianapolis plays a beautiful rendition of the theme from Ken Burns' Civil War miniseries, although I do not believe the song is introduced as such. A burly man wearing a Canadian tuxedo and black cowboy boots takes the seat next to me, and removes his boots immediately upon sitting. A woman one row in front of us has also slipped out of her sandals, and crosses her ankles under her chair, baring the dirty soles of her feet to us. A few seats away from her, a Native American man with a pronounced California accent offers a boisterous greeting to an attendee he recognizes from a previous Braco event. Another woman prepares to receive "the gaze" with her palms facing the stage, like she's trapped in a mime's invisible box.
About halfway through the final gazing session, the pocketbook of the blonde woman to my left begins to emit a loud, shrill ring of the kind particular to a rotary phone. Few in the room give any sign they can hear the ring (although surely they can) except me, who frowns disapprovingly at her several times because I feel she is making the young people look bad (there are maybe two dozen of us). She roots around in her purse, the compact red exterior of which apparently belies a labyrinthine inner arrangement of false pockets and fabric traps, for about 15 seconds, until she manages to switch it off.
Because it is the last of the day, this session features not just "the gaze," but also "the voice"—a recording of Braco speaking Croatian that, our introductory speaker informs us, "carries the same gift" or "core substance" as "the gaze." A few minutes into "the voice," my row mate's cell phone rings again. She exits the ballroom and does not return. (No one is permitted to enter the room while a gazing session is in progress.) Her life is probably bad now.
Taylor Berman, for his part, came to work on Monday with his foot in an orthopedic boot.
1 Though the crowd is mixed in terms of race, sex, and age, white women 50 and above are the population most heavily represented. What seems like a disproportionate number of these women have curly hair, which suggests either that the phenomenon of Braco's gaze manifests itself most strongly as a magnet for flat hair follicles, or that the women who attend Braco's sessions are willing to alter their lives through positive energy, but not their natural hair texture. There is a wide variety of hair clips on display.
2 The Braco people apparently encourage folks to dress in white. I would swear this directive was not included on any of the event literature, but the number of people wearing white is more than would ever happen by chance, even at an Easter-themed Labor Day wedding. When I retroactively pore over Braco.net for dress code information later that night, I find the following information tucked away on a page titled "Volunteer Guidelines":
We strongly encourage everyone to wear white or light colored items of clothing. In general, people associate white with purity, spirit and healing, and are soothed and uplifted by lighter colors. Volunteers should NOT wear all black or all dark colors to an event. Prints are OK with modest black or dark background coloration, and khaki and tan pants are an acceptable alternative for men & women (who may not have many white/light color choices in the wardrobe).
3 I leave the U.S. men's soccer team somewhere in the middle. The next day their match against Portugal ends in a draw.