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The Woman Who Wasn’t There

Posted by martinteller on April 2, 2014

Tania Head is a 9/11 survivor.  She worked in the Merrill Lynch office.  She was one of only a small handful of people to escape from floors above where the plane hit.  Her arm was nearly severed.  She was aided by the famous “man in the red bandanna”, Wesley Crowther.  Her fiancé Dave also worked at the WTC, and he was killed.  Except… it’s not true.  Tania Head wasn’t at the World Trade Center.  She didn’t work at Merrill Lynch.  She wasn’t even in the country.  Although “Dave” was a real victim of 9/11, she never knew him.  But for several years, she maintained her deception, being a very active and supportive member of a 9/11 survivor group, helping others through their grief and guilt, even being elected president of the organization.

I love movies about people’s lies falling to pieces, most of all when they’re true.  Shattered Glass especially comes to mind for indulging this particular brand of schadenfreude.  Unfortunately, this movie — a made-for-TV production — has one major failing: Head disappeared after her fraud was uncovered.  We don’t get to see her try to squirm out of her lies, or justify them.  And we never get to know why she did it in the first place.  We learn a little bit about her background… a Spanish woman with an MBA, a financial scandal in the family, a car accident that gave her a severe injury.  But the film doesn’t do much to get into her psychology, because it can’t.  I’m reminded of a similar documentary, The Imposter, which also did frustratingly little to explain the why behind the deception.

But at least in this case, they have a good excuse.  You can’t find out why if you can’t talk to the person who did it.  And there’s a lot more to the story than the reason behind it.  At first, when all her survivor friends are talking about the tremendous support Head provided, I was of the opinion that it didn’t matter if she lied because she was putting her lies to such good use.  Later, as the truth comes out, we see their sense of hurt and betrayal.  Some have their faith in humanity shaken… even their faith in God.  It does seem a particularly horrible thing to be a victim of such tragedy and then have someone co-opt it… and probably vexing to not know why, to not be able to confront that person later.  Disasters always bring out people who want to latch on to it in some way, some out of true empathy… and some to sponge off a little of that empathy and attention for themselves.  You know, like when a celebrity dies and his gardener’s cousin comes out and says how deeply this has affected him.  Tania Head took it to an extreme that required an impressive amount of deception.

And probably some pain too.  It’s easy and tempting to paint Head as a villain, toying with the feelings of “real” survivors.  But something in her is surely damaged for her to want to do such a thing, to share in their hurt.  Some of her associates from the survivor group have forgiven her, others find it impossible.  You may think Tania Head is despicable, and part of me does too.  Part of me longs to see her confronted with her lies.  But another part hopes she has found some better way to work out her issues, and help others with theirs, because she seemed to be pretty good at the latter.  Rating: Good (75)


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