Last week, allegations emerged that Spokane NAACP president Rachel Dolezal—who says she is African-American and in the past claimed she was a victim of racism—is, in fact, white. Similar incidents have occurred over the years (Binjamin Wilkomirski pretended to be a holocaust survivor, for example), and after the initial shock of revelation, naturally many questions emerge, though the main one is always simply this: Why?
Lessor known is the story of Tania Head, a survivor of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, who became a beloved figure within the community of 9/11 survivors. Tania was working in the south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, and though badly burned, she made it out of the building alive; her fiancé, Dave, who was in the north tower, did not. Tania’s back-story and account of that horrific day were especially tragic, but her bright personality and positive outlook was inspiring to others, including her fellow survivors, even the media.
To behold (Tania) Head’s smile is to know the terrorists did not even close to winning. To see that smile is also to be challenged to be as decent and positive as this true survivor. (New York Daily News, September 7th, 2006)
On September 27th, 2007, the New York Times ran a front-page story about Tania: “In a 9/11 Survival Tale the Pieces Just Don’t Fit.” In the piece, it was revealed that no part of Tania’s story could be validated. Merrill Lynch, the company she claimed she was working for—the reason she was in the World Trade Center on 9/11—had no record of ever employing a Tania Head. Harvard, the school she claimed to have graduated from, didn’t have a record of her having attended. The family of Dave, who did die in the north tower, said they never heard of her. Friends and associates spoke of varying accounts that Tania had told over the years. The Times noted that she had nothing to gain financially from the deception.
So, why did she do it? Why would she pretend to be a involved in one of one of America’s greatest tragedies? How could she befriend and lie to actual victims of this horrific event?
Tania’s real name is Alicia Esteve Head. She was born and raised in Barcelona, and led a life of privilege (she even had her own horse). Though her family lived on a glorious estate and hobnobbed with politicians and royalty, Alicia struggled with her weight and often felt like an outsider. She began telling fantastical stories about herself and amongst her friends she became known as a storyteller. Alicia loved Americans and even had an American flag hanging in her bedroom. During September 2001, she was enrolled in business school in Barcelona, and there is no evidence she was out of the country on September 11th. Not long after that, she moved to New York City and became Tania Head, the face of the 9/11 survivors.
Tania with Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and Michael Bloomberg
Not long after the Times story was published, Head disappeared, having never explained why she did what she did. Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr., a 9/11 survivor who was part of Head’s circle of friends, wrote a book about the ordeal entitled, The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception. Guglielmo is also a filmmaker and was shooting a documentary about the 9/11 survivors when Head was exposed. He incorporated the footage—including archival interviews with Head—into a film. Guglielmo also shot new interviews with fellow survivors, many of whom were close with Tania/Alicia, resulting in a documentary that is completely captivating.
Guglielmo spots Head on a New York street shortly after the 10th anniversary of 9/11
There are attempts to answer the question as to why Head perpetuated this falsehood of pretending to be a victim, but this isn’t the point of The Woman Who Wasn’t There. Incredibly, considering Guglielmo’s own personal involvement and the emotional elements embedded in the story, he is able to present a straightforward, seemingly unbiased account. There’s a surprising lack of anger on screen—there’s even forgiveness—but as a viewer you’ll likely be perplexed, incensed, sickened and heartbroken by what Head put actual 9/11 victims through.
Is Tania/Alicia mentally ill? Is she a sociopath? Did she do it for fame? Did she want to be part of something bigger than herself? Regardless of the motives or mental states of people like Head, Wilkomirski, and Dolezal, as one 9/11 survivor explains in the film, it’s not easy to forgive. The Woman Who Wasn’t There is hard to forget.
The Woman Who Wasn’t There is currently streaming for free on Hulu.
Here’s the trailer: