Friday, May 18, 2012

Not There

I first heard of Tania Head through the promos for the film The Woman Who Wasn’t There on the Investigation Discovery channel. After watching the program I found the book of the same name at the library and read it, trying to make sense of Tania’s story. Lord knows, I’m not the only one. She has left a number of bewildered victims who once were her friends in her wake, who have far more need to make sense of the tangled tale than I have.

Filmmaker Angelo Guglielmo’s story begins at the beginning as Tania herself tells it, with her relationship with a man named Dave and their romantic if possibly not entirely legal wedding on the beach in Hawaii. It follows Tania on the day of September 11, 2001, going to her high-powered financial job in the south tower of the Twin Towers as her husband/fiance goes to his job in the north tower. Tania turns down an offer to meet Dave downstairs for coffee, and thus they are each in their offices when the first plane hits. Tania begins to leave the building but is still in the south tower when the second plane hits. Her story from there is gruesome: her body on fire, her arm almost torn off, she is saved by a stranger in a red bandana who escorts her to the stairs and later by a fire fighter who protects her from debris and finds her an ambulance.

In 2004 Tania gets up the nerve to join an online support group for survivors of the Twin Towers and to tell her story. Something I did not realize until I read the book was that the office workers who escaped the towers on 9/11 were forgotten victims. The families of people who died and the first responders got a lot of attention, but the people who had managed to flee the buildings alive were not invited to memorial events, given special escorted tours of ground zero or asked for their input in the plans for the new building the way the families of those who died were. At least, they weren’t until Tania came along. Using connections made as the wife of Dave, who had died in the north tower, she was able to arrange for a private tour for her survivor’s group. She made friends with survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing and solicited their advice in dealing with survivors. She helped organize a drive to save the Survivors’ Staircase. She befriended and helped a number of survivors and gave them hope.

She was never actually there.

Tania’s story was a fiction from beginning to end. On September 11, 2001, as best as anyone can tell, Tania, whose real name is Alicia Esteve Head, was in her native Barcelona attending a business college. She never knew Dave (who was a real person), she never worked for the agency she claimed to work for, she never attended Stanford or Harvard as she had also claimed. When an investigative reporter for the New York Times began to press Alicia for her story, she disappeared.

I say her story was a fiction from beginning to end, but oddly enough, the most gruesome and hard to believe detail was true. According to friends, Alicia Head was in a car accident some time before 9/11 and her arm was severed and she was burned. Her arm was reattached successfully, but the resulting scars made her story plausible to friends who heard her tell her story of surviving the September 11 attacks. 

Friends in Spain offered Guglielmo more information. Alicia was prone to making up stories, especially about romances, from her childhood. Alicia had always been fascinated with the U.S.A. and kept a large flag in her room. She was also shocked and embarrassed when her father and brother were arrested for financial improprieties and sent to prison. Her mother divorced her father and she and Alicia came to the U.S.

So I can make a certain amount of sense out of Tania’s actions, or think I can. She suffers a traumatic, life threatening accident and then her family, who might otherwise have supported her, breaks up and she is embarrassed to face her friends. She finds a support group for people who, like her, have survived a traumatic event and are still having trouble making sense of it and moving on. If she just fudges the details of her accident a little bit (okay, a whole hell of a lot), she can belong, too. She can get the support she needs, and even more importantly, she can offer support to others.

I would almost feel sorry for her if she hadn’t left so much pain and destruction in her wake. The friends who thought they knew her feel bereaved, as if the Tania they knew had died, and betrayed. Reading their accounts of finding out that Tania was a fraud is saddening. These are people who did not need additional pain. It’s not as though Tania/Alicia was completely lost in her fantasy world, either. When a Times reporter tried to do an interview with her she knew her story wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. It was her frantic attempts to avoid him that finally tipped off her friends, one of whom was film maker Angelo Guglielmo, to the glaring discrepancies in her story.

I “meet” so many people online, and many of them, like Tania Head, have stories of trauma to tell. It occasionally occurs to me that I don’t know if these stories are true, any more than they know if my stories are true, but even if I found someone’s tale of woe questionable, I wouldn’t start grilling them. For one thing, truth is stranger than fiction; for another, someone who has finally summoned the courage to reach out for support does not need to hear, “Yeah, right”. In most circumstances I would rather risk being duped than being cruel, at least if it’s only emotional support being asked for. I think most people feel the same way, and that’s what allows people like Tania/Alicia to get away with emotional fraud.

But I wonder, if months after her accident, when the immediate pain and trauma had been dealt with, what if someone had said to Alicia, “Alicia, you have been through a horrible time and probably were scared you wouldn’t even live. Do you need a friend to talk to about it?” If that had happened, would Tania ever have hijacked a support group and hurt so many friends?

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