I first heard of this story from a commercial on some channel like Investigation Discovery, History, or the like. On some night after my bedtime, the channel would be airing a special called The Woman Who Wasn’t There. I had wanted to watch the show, but couldn’t stay awake late enough. So when I saw the book by the same name at my local library, I grabbed it right up.
The story itself is pretty amazing, even more so because it is true. It’s one of those things that shows that truth is stranger than fiction. The Woman Who Wasn’t There follows the story of Tania Head, a “survivor” of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The book follows the story of Tania’s life as if it were true as she told it. The story begins in August of 2001 with a description of Tania’s wedding to a man referred to throughout the book only as Dave. The wedding is on a beach in Hawaii, perfect, picturesque, and a poignant counterpoint to the events that would tear Tania’s new life apart the following month.
The next chapter details Tania’s experience in the north tower on that fateful day. At the time, she was an executive at Merrill Lynch, in a meeting with her staff. Her husband, Dave, was working in the south tower. The account of Tania’s survival of the crash of the second plane into the north tower, and her escape onto the street just in the nick of time is quite harrowing. It’s no less powerful for being false, as there were many other people who truly did experience something similar that day.
The book skips ahead to 2003, to when Tania first emerged on the scene of the survivor networks, by posting her story on a survivor’s forum. Supposedly it took her so long to reach out because she spent weeks in the hospital after the attacks then took several months to pull herself back together enough to reemerge into society. From 2003-2007, Tania Head establishes herself as the spokeswoman for survivors of the September 11 attacks. The survivors had not previously been treated as integral to the September 11 culture that emerged after the attacks; rather, all of the attention had been on the families and loved ones of the people who lost their lives. Through Tania’s work, and the work of others who helped her establish the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, the survivors were granted their rightful place in the memories of the attacks, as well as obtaining funding for medical care and other resources to help in the recovery from the physical and psychological scars of surviving such an experience.
The way this book chose to tell the story was very interesting, and I’m not sure I would have done it the same way. Then again, I can’t think of another way to do it. The authors tell the story in chronological order, that is, telling Tania’s story as if it were true as she told it. The authors reveal the truth only as they discovered it themselves, four years after Tania first emerged onto the scene of the World Trade Center survivors’ culture. I found myself wanting to skip ahead to find out what the real story was almost from the get-go. It’s not often that you come across a book where the twist in the story is actually given away in the title. It made for a very different reading experience.
As I would expect most people to be, I was outraged when I got to the part about what Tania’s real story was, especially after having read how she would often treat the actual survivors of the attacks. She is an extremely selfish and narcissistic woman, taking advantage of a group of terribly vulnerable people who did nothing wrong except trust her and seek to protect her. What was amazing to me was how after the truth came out, Tania showed no remorse for her actions in misleading an entire country, and there appear to be no repercussions for her. It seems like she is now just leading her life as it would have gone had the September 11 attacks not happened. Granted, nothing she did was illegal, but it seems like there should be some crime she can be punished for, given all the hurt she caused.
My only complaint about this book is that the story was told very quickly and somewhat superficially. Maybe that is because that’s what Tania’s story was: superficial. I read the book in the course of just a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. I think what I would have liked to have seen more of was details of the New York Times investigation that eventually outed Tania as a fraud. I don’t know, but some part of me closed the book with a feeling of dissatisfaction, but I can’t quite articulate what would have made the telling of the story satisfying. And maybe that is the point of the whole sordid tale.