The Woman Who Wasn’t There

The Woman Who Wasn’t There is a documentary about Tania Head, a decidedly peculiar woman who for several years successfully posed as a 9/11 Twin Towers survivor, when in fact she had not even been in the country at the time of the terrorist attacks.

That’s not a spoiler, by the way, or at least not much of one. Though the film doesn’t explicitly reveal that she’s an impostor until a decent ways into it, just about every description I’ve read about the film mentions it, and even the official trailer makes it pretty obvious.

In some ways the film does indeed have the feel of a mystery, but because it’s hard not to know going in that she’s a phony there’s little or no suspense about that. You already know the payoff, at least in broad terms. Yet it’s a highly compelling film, and does keep you on the edge of your seat like a suspense movie. What you’re craving to find out are the details of what she did, and especially an understanding of why she did it.

In the end, no such explanation is provided, because in a case like this it would have to be highly speculative. (Unless she made a full confession and fully explained her motives or something, but there’s nothing like that.) But as much relevant information as possible is packed into the hour or so film, and viewers are put in a position to provide their own speculation.

A couple years after the attacks, Head developed an online support group for 9/11 survivors, and soon merged it into a much larger, preexisting such group. She quickly rose to a position of leadership in the larger group. The overwhelming majority of the people in the group thought she was terrific, the way she put so much time and effort into the cause, was so supportive and compassionate toward the other suffering members, etc. She developed close friendships offline with some of the other members. She led tours of the Twin Towers site, met with people like Rudy Giuliani, Mike Bloomberg, and George Pataki. She engaged in successful public relations to generate greater recognition and support for the victims.

One fellow who had been one of the leaders of the group, and had been squeezed out by her in a stunningly cut throat, vicious kind of insider politics way, had reason to wonder about her, but few if any others saw that side of her. What they saw was someone who contributed greatly to the cause in a myriad of ways and couldn’t have been more caring and supportive.

Which was all the more impressive and amazing, in their eyes, because if anything she had suffered more than any of them. As she told it, she had been working in the Twin Towers that day in her job with Merrill Lynch, and had had to make a harrowing escape from a top floor above the point of impact (very, very few people from that high up survived). Her arm was badly burned. Meanwhile her beloved husband Dave, who was elsewhere in the Towers, had been killed in the attack. Ever since then she had been in terrible pain fighting through anxiety and depression. Perhaps getting so deeply involved in the cause of survivor support was her way of dealing with the pain, but evidently not fully successfully as the people who got closest to her offline saw her frequently break down and struggle to cope. She needed the very kind of support that she was so good at giving, and out of friendship and gratitude they tried to provide it to her.

There were suspicious things about her and her story all along, but it wasn’t until years into her activities that anyone really dug around and discovered it was all a pack of lies. No one had bothered to activate their “baloney detector.” What was the point? It’s not like she was being paid for what she was doing or was otherwise profiting in some way. She was clearly suffering, yet she was doing a lot of good for people. This isn’t someone trying to sell you a used car; it would be like if someone were consistently very generous every Sunday in how much she put in the collection plate, and you’re worried that she might just be pretending to be a Catholic in order to be able to donate so much money.

But, yeah, in retrospect none of it added up.

She went back and forth on whether “Dave” was her husband, fiancé, or boyfriend, finally settling on a story about how they had a wondrous vacation together in Hawaii just before 9/11 where they participated in a very meaningful ceremony that to them constituted a wedding, but legally didn’t count and so they were planning their official wedding when tragedy struck.

Dave, by the way, was a real person. His name, photo, and short bio were easily accessible in online directories of 9/11 victims. He was a conventionally very handsome young fellow, clearly someone that women would regard as a great catch.

Unfortunately there was no indication he had ever been married, been engaged, been to Hawaii, etc.

Meanwhile, the colleges that Head claimed to have degrees from had no record of her, nor did Merrill Lynch have any record of her ever having been an employee of theirs. Merrill Lynch didn’t even have offices in the Twin Towers at the time of the attack.

Not to mention when you see footage of her from back then, she looks exactly like a stereotypical liar. She’s not smooth and convincing at all. She looks like she’s making it all up as she goes along and is very nervous about doing so.

Really it wasn’t at all hard to figure out she was a phony once anyone started looking into it. But like I say, for a long time no one really had any reason to do even a superficial investigation into her. There was no reason to think someone presenting herself as she did would be lying about it.

Turns out she’s from Spain and was still living and going to school in Barcelona until a year or two after 9/11. She was from a fairly wealthy family, but had not had all that successful a social life, or at least dating life. She had a reputation amongst her peers as a fabulist, especially when it came to tall tales regarding fantasy boyfriends who allegedly treated her like a queen and provided her with great adventures.

As soon as the press revealed that she was an impostor she quickly faded away. Some of the people from the group who had grown close to her and developed such a high opinion of her and her compassion say that what she did was horrible and unforgivable and that they now hate her and can never forgive her. Others are just puzzled more than anything. As one 9/11 widow puts it, given that what they went through and are going through is about as awful as anyone could imagine, why would somebody want to put themselves in their shoes and experience that?

Well, the easy answer is that of course her ruse did not result in her experiencing what the genuine victims experienced, at least not all of it. She didn’t lose one or more loved ones in the attack. She didn’t go through an incredibly scary and physically painful experience wherein she almost died. (Evidently the arm injuries were from an auto accident that happened years earlier.)

She experienced only the aftermath. She got all the pity, all the praise for her courage, all the moral support. She got to be part of a community of people who wanted to bond with each other and do good for each other. She got to be a small scale celebrity, hobnobbing with the mayor, etc. She—less selfishly—got to have an opportunity to use her organizational and people skills to benefit others.

Maybe the single thing that should most have immediately raised suspicion is this perfect romance novel relationship of hers with Dave. As she depicted it, he—and we’re talking here about a guy who from the little information available about him probably had sky high dating market value and could have had just about any woman—couldn’t have been more worshipful toward her, more the perfect boyfriend. He was constantly proclaiming his love for her, constantly devoting time and effort into elaborate and perfect romantic gestures to make her happy, etc.

Basically, Dave was what a dreamy 16 year old girl imagines as the ideal Prince Charming boyfriend when she lies in bed and lets her imagination run wild.

The problem is, if Dave had sky high dating market value, Tania Head had the opposite.

I mean, let’s be totally frank here. She’s homely. She’s heavy, and not at all in a voluptuous way that guys who are into bigger women would appreciate as appealingly full-figured, but in a dumpy, misshapen way. She’s physically and socially awkward. Looking at her facial expressions, the way she speaks, etc., I would guess she’s maybe mildly retarded.

Furthermore, one can infer that she’s from a culture and more importantly from a class, where women feel entitled to be successful, to be respected as somehow elite or important, to be eagerly courted by members of the opposite sex and end up with a great guy. And just looking at her and listening to her, you have to think she’s never had that kind of life and has no realistic hope of having it. Yeah, from what is said in the film it appears she has had some sort of higher education (albeit not from the prestigious schools she claimed) and some kind of white collar or non-manual labor type jobs, but that’s the kind of thing that it’s almost impossible not to get if you’re rich. How many rich kids, after all, no matter stupid, how immature, how lazy, whatever, don’t end up with a college degree? How many end up having to work in coal mines, or at a meatpacking plant?

But beyond that floor, clearly she isn’t remotely the kind of winner in life that someone of her class takes as her birthright. So, being the fantasy-prone person she was, she simply created a better life out of whole cloth.

Also, by the way, it is noted in the film that her father and I think one or more other members of her family, eventually got in trouble with the law for some kind of fraudulent behavior, some kind of con artist stuff. So, whether as a matter of genes or environment or both, you could say that being a phony runs in her family.

She didn’t generate any great animosity in me, as she did in some of these folks. Maybe I’d feel differently if I had been taken in by her in that group, thought we had become friends, etc., but I doubt it. I see little if any malice in her; I see her as more pathetic and mentally ill.

There’s an intriguing, very brief, clip of her near the end of the film, some years after her ruse has been exposed. She is in the same part of town as the Twin Towers, not in any way disguised or anything, just openly walking down the street in public. When she sees the camera she reacts negatively—covering up, hustling away, I don’t remember exactly.

Little is said about the clip in the film itself (except that this spotting of her occurred after someone had made an anonymous post in the 9/11 group alleging that she had committed suicide), but I found a little more information about it online. Apparently it had been a serendipitous thing; the filmmakers had been shooting footage of the area that day, and they happened to recognize her and get a quick shot of her. She was with her mother, evidently visiting from Spain. It’s not known if she was living in New York at the time or also just there on a visit. (She had been traced to Boston at one point, where she had worked in some office and then been let go when they found out her story.) I gather that little if anything is known about what became of her after that day that she was by chance caught on film for a few seconds.

The Woman Who Wasn’t There is an engaging documentary from start to finish. A very strange tale about a very strange person.

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