Book Review: The Woman Who Wasn’t There by Robin Gaby Fisher & Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr.

tumblr_ma7o0tTihj1qznuh0o1_400I can’t remember where I first heard about Tania Head but something took me to Amazon where I purchased The Woman Who Wasn’t There by Robin Gaby Fisher & Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. I’ll tell you right off the bat that I’m very interested in famous liars and reading memoirs that are later revealed to be fictitious. Maybe it was the psychology minor that I attached to my history specialization during my undergrad but I’m so interested in what motivates people to tell lies on such a colossal and daring scale.

Needless to say, The Woman Who Wasn’t There tells the story of a liar, specifically Tania Head, a woman who claimed to be in the South Tower during the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001. It wasn’t even that Head pretended to be there, she carved out a name for herself as an “ubersurvivor” (as termed by the authors) with possibly one of the most dramatic and harrowing survivor tales to come out of that infamous day.

Head claimed that she was in the South Tower when the first plane struck the North Tower, immediately killing her fiance/husband, Dave. With her coworkers, she made her way down to the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor in hopes of catching an elevator to the ground when the second plane stuck her tower. Seeing her assistant’s decapitated body, Head said that as she made her way to an exit staircase, a dying man handed her his wedding band to give to his widow. She then said that a mysterious man wearing a red bandana, Welles Crowther, guided her down to safety before returning to help other survivors. Her tale was so tragic, dramatic and over-the-top that no one ever dreamed of questioning such an intense experience. 267247_1

As it turned out, Head wasn’t even in the country when the attacks occurred; she was a graduate student in her homeland of Spain and not only did she not have a husband who perished in the attacks, she didn’t even work at Merrill Lynch as she had claimed to. It also turned out that her name wasn’t even Tania, it was Alicia. The inconsistencies in her story that she told to friends and other survivors were mostly ignored due in part to all of her work as the president of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network and their belief that “this woman has gone through enough”.

The reason why Head was eventually exposed was because of a story that David Dunlop of the New York Times wanted to do on her for the sixth anniversary of the attacks. Head’s story had been featured in many other news publications and when the Times decided to do an inspiration story on a remarkable survivor, her name came up as a shining exemplar. However, as the story was increasingly researched and fact-checked, the inconsistencies again came through and gave the story a new angle as an exposé. Although she initially had the support of her friends and fellow survivors when she spoke of the Times reporter who was harassing her for a story, they became suspicious when they realized that the details she was being “harassed” about were simple facts that should not have been an issue for Head to verify (e.g. the year she graduated, how long she stayed in the hospital after the attacks, her husband’s last name, whether she still worked for Merrill Lynch, etc.)

It seems to me that Tania Head did a great deal of good things in terms of building the Survivors’ Network from the ground up and offering a support system to many people in need. She gained recognition and validation for the survivors when their place wasn’t as well-defined as those who were actually lost in the attacks and their grieving families. As I read the book, knowing that she was a fraud, I could excuse her lies for the greater good that she did. However, as the book went on, she became more and more selfish and manipulative, letting her need to be the centre of attention ruin friendships and alienate other survivors who disagreed with her or who suspected that she was an imposter.

493635_370I was not a fan of the style in which the book was written. It was written in the third person and as if the reader didn’t know that Head was a fraud (which the reader did know, merely from reading the back cover of the book) and came across as a little soap opera-ish. Yet the topic was very well-researched (probably thanks to author Guglielmo’s former friendship with Head) and I loved how forum posts and emails exchanged with Head were included verbatim.

The book successfully traces Head’s involvement with the Survivors’ Network from the outset and follows her interactions with dozens of different people, showing the cracks in her facade as they began to appear. However, the grand reveal that Head wasn’t actually in the South Tower doesn’t come until maybe, ten or twenty pages from the end of the book. I had hoped for a more in-depth explanation of why Head wove such an intricate tale and what some of her motivations might have been. I would have liked to see what more of the fallout of this reveal had on the Survivors’ Network and what some of the key individuals had to say about it. The impact of this huge lie from their charismatic and much-beloved leader must have been massive and I don’t think the authors did enough to give readers any insight into it.

The book is the by-product of a documentary of the same name that Guglielmo made. Head initially encouraged the documentary as a way of describing her roles within the Survivors’ Network. I’m curious to see the film how it different from the book. Below is a preview of the film.

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