“The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception” by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Gugliemo, Jr.
BY LISA ZEIDNER April 20, 2012
Tania Head’s 9/11 story was beyond harrowing. She was in the World Trade Center when the plane dove into the building. Dazed and sickened, she walked down 78 floors with her skin on fire and her right arm dangling. She survived, but her husband died at Ground Zero that day, and the horrific sights she saw on her crawl to safety plunged her into a haunted depression. Only through her involvement as a founding member of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network did she conquer her grief and trauma.
Watch the fascinating documentary video: Tania Head: The 9/11 faker
There was a little problem, though. Tania’s name isn’t really Tania; it’s Alicia. Her husband didn’t die in the towers, because she wasn’t married. Someone named Dave died, and she said he was her husband, but in fact she had never met him. She didn’t hold a high-powered job at Merrill Lynch, as she claimed. She wasn’t at the World Trade Center on 9/11. In fact, she wasn’t even in the country. She was in Barcelona.
This epic lie is the subject of “The Woman Who Wasn’t There.” One of the co-authors, Angelo J. Guglielmo Jr., was involved in the WTC Survivors’ Network and considered Head a close friend. He is also the director of a documentary by the same title, which debuted April 17 on the Investigation Discovery network.
It’s easy to understand why survivors were taken in by Head’s story. The level of detail is breathtaking. Over and over, to rapt audiences, Head mourned the young man wearing a red bandana who stretched out his hand to help her to safety, only to disappear into the smoke to die a hero. She never told anyone her husband’s last name (to protect his parents’ privacy, she insisted), and sometimes she seemed to slip up and call him her fiance, but again and again, she’d recount the poignant story of their wedding in Hawaii. When she visited Dave’s name at the memorial, she liked to bring a toy yellow taxi, as a memento of their charmed first meeting, to place near the reflecting pool. Who would make all that up?
The depth of the deception is even more puzzling given how very public a face of the survivors’ movement Tania Head became. It was Head, as one of the first docents at Ground Zero, who walked Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other luminaries around the site. “She was the ubersurvivor,” Fisher and Guglielmo write. As the survivor with “the saddest of them all,” she gained celebrity status. An enterprising New York Times reporter, David W. Dunlap, eventually demanded answers about inconsistencies in her story and exposed her. Rather than expressing remorse, Head became angry and defiant, claiming that her fellow survivors had betrayed her by believing the reporter.
So why did she do it?
That is obviously the most enticing question. Unfortunately, the authors don’t provide an answer. Although Guglielmo and Head were intimate for years, and it was she who encouraged him to begin a documentary about the survivors, she would not open up to him about the truth once the deception was uncovered. He was able to track down a childhood friend from Barcelona who told him about some of Head’s traumas: She had a bad car accident at 18 in which her arm was indeed severed (if we believe the account), and her father did prison time for embezzlement. “It is around that time, after those life-changing events, and especially after her family unit fractured following her parents’ contentious divorce, that Alicia started living in make-believe worlds.”
Although the authors aren’t Head’s psychiatrists, a little more background on the psychology of pathological lying, also known as pseudologia fantastica, would have been useful. Are the spinners of complex imaginary worlds always so hard to spot? The book contains no information on other spectacular hoaxes (Robin Hemley’s “Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday” comes to mind), nor reference to any books, such as Lauren Slater’s “Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir,” that attempt to penetrate the mind-set of the compulsive liar. Such context could help flesh out a tale about a character whose motivation remains shadowy.
We know that Head’s a liar from the flap copy, but the book doesn’t reveal the deception until very late. Structurally, that gives the authors a problem: a lot of pages to fill and not a lot of suspense. For this reason, the documentary might prove a more intriguing form for the material than the written account. It will be fascinating to be able to watch Head lie in real time — and see if we’re as taken in by her performance as almost everyone else appeared to be.
Lisa Zeidner is the author of four novels and a book of nonfiction. Her new novel, “Love Bomb,” is forthcoming.
THE WOMAN WHO WASN’T THERE
The True Story of an Incredible Deception
By Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo Jr.
Tania Head even fooled the parents of the real 9/11 Hero: Welles Crowther, the Red Bandanna Man who saved 18 lives in World Trade Towers.
So why did she do it?
Münchausen syndrome is a psychiatric factitious disorder wherein those affected feign disease, illness, or psychological trauma to draw attention, sympathy, or reassurance to themselves.
In Münchausen syndrome, the affected person exaggerates or creates symptoms of illnesses in themselves to gain investigation, treatment, attention, sympathy, and comfort from medical personnel. In some extreme cases, people suffering from Münchausen’s syndrome are highly knowledgeable about the practice of medicine and are able to produce symptoms that result in lengthy and costly medical analysis, prolonged hospital stay and unnecessary operations.
The syndrome name derives from Baron Münchhausen (Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen, 1720–1797), a German nobleman working in the Russian army, who purportedly told many fantastic and impossible stories about himself, which Rudolf Raspe later published as The Surprising Adventures of Baron Münchhausen.
In 1951, Richard Asher was the first to describe a pattern of self-harm, wherein individuals fabricated histories, signs, and symptoms of illness. Remembering Baron Münchhausen, Asher named this condition Münchausen’s Syndrome in his article in The Lancet in February 1951, quoted in his obituary in the British Medical Journal:
“Here is described a common syndrome which most doctors have seen, but about which little has been written. Like the famous Baron von Munchausen, the persons affected have always travelled widely; and their stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful. Accordingly the syndrome is respectfully dedicated to the Baron, and named after him.”
—British Medical Journal, R.A.J. Asher, M.D., F.R.C.P.
Originally, this term was used for all factitious disorders. Now, however, there is considered to be a wide range of factitious disorders, and the diagnosis of “Münchausen syndrome” is reserved for the most severe form, where the simulation of disease is the central activity of the affected person’s life.