In The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception, journalist Robin Gaby Fisher chronicles the bizarre, fascinating tale of Tania Head, who in 2003 became a fierce advocate for the forgotten survivors of 9/11, using her story of survival and loss to organize the people who made it out of the Twin Towers in time, start support groups for them, and win them the attention, understanding, and access to resources they deserve. Then, in 2007, after being profiled in the New York Times, her story was revealed to be a complete fabrication.
How did the case of Tania Head first come to your attention?
It first came to my attention, actually, when my agent called and said there was a filmmaker [Angelo J. Guglielmo, her co-author] who had this project, and he thought it was such a great story that it should also be a book. I met with Guglielmo and the minute he began outlining the story—he had been friends with Tania—I just thought it was the most amazing thing. I wasn’t that interested in writing a 9/11 book, but I realized that 9/11 was really just a setting for this story, which was more a character study and a mystery. And it only got better after that.
What was Tania Head’s motivation for impersonating a 9/11 survivor?
It was for attention. She is a narcisstic person who can never get enough attention. She never took any money—in fact, she was a contributor—but her appetite for attention was insatiable. It seems that, from what we found out interviewing people from her childhood in Barcelona, she always had quite an imagination. But later in her life this quest for attention became such that she told her friends that Barcelona was too small for her, that she was going to New York and make it big.
What kind of access did you have to Tania Head?
Angelo has hours and hours and hours of her telling her story. She had commissioned a documentary for the survivors’ network and he had met her before, so she asked him to do the film. Then it turned out she was a fake! So I got access to all of that footage, and to people from her childhood, some family members who spoke off the record. I did approach her several times about talking, but she would not. She actually called the police on Angelo and I, claiming that we were stalking her because we approached her in person twice for an interview.
How much good did she end up doing? Do you think there’s something about liars-as-advocates—Mike Daisey and his exaggerated claims of employee abuse in overseas Apple factories also comes to mind—that enables them to get better results than honest players?
That’s a good question. Tania did a lot for the survivors, she just plowed ahead and went for it where other people failed. It was her utter charm, but also her story, which was so fantastic that it immediately opened doors for her. She was the widow, she was the survivor, she was the strong woman, she was the pathetic figure who lost everything, she was a composite of all the 9/11 victims. No one had a story like hers.
This book, like your last two—After the Fire and The Boys of the Dark—centers on individuals dealing with devastating tragedy. Are you drawn to these stories?
They seem to find me, these stories, and I’m very interested in them because I love telling human interest stories, and people who have been through tragedy—there’s something so vulnerable and open about them. I feel as if I tend to have so much empathy that it’s often an impediment, but I think it allows me to tell people’s stories, to get in their heads. It’s also about spending so much time with the story and the people that you have to sort of live these stories, and I’m always willing to do that.
Angelo J. Gulielmo’s documentary The Woman Who Wasn’t There will premiere on the Investigation Discovery Channel. To see a trailer, visit YouTube.