The amazing, true story of a woman who hoodwinked people into believing she was a 9/11 survivor.
"The Woman Who Wasn't There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception," (Touchstone, 288 pages, $26), by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo Jr., is the story of an almost unthinkable fraud.
Fisher and Guglielmo tell the true story of Tania Head, a woman who faked being a survivor of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For more than six years, her heart-wrenching survival tale eluded verification. During that time, she even ascended to lead the principal network of survivors.
In painstaking detail, the authors chronicle her intricate fabrications, her intimate involvement with and advocacy for actual survivors, and her ultimate unraveling.
A New York Times investigation discredited the woman's story in September 2007. Her real name is Alicia Esteve Head, and she is a native of Spain. She did not work in the World Trade Center. She was not married to a victim who perished in the attack (as she claimed). She was not even in the United States on 9/11.
But Fisher and Guglielmo described the immense respect that survivors had shared for Head in the ensuing years. "It was under her leadership that the survivors' group had gone from virtual obscurity to a formidable advocacy organization with power and respect."
Her closest friend from the network, a woman named Linda, consoled her. "Tania would shake and sweat and scream, 'Bodies are falling! Bodies are falling!'"
Since the Times story was published, Head has remained in seclusion and has made no public statement. "Please tell us the one thing we really need to know. Were you in the towers on 9/11/01? Please?" wrote Richard Williams, a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing who had befriended her.
"How could Tania have done this?" her friends, betrayed and angered, have asked. Readers will ask the same question, but Fisher and Guglielmo only can surmise.
All but a few pages profile the real Alicia Esteve Head. When she was growing up, friends apparently "chided her about being overweight." The authors also offer two events that may have scarred her life: a near-fatal automobile accident in which she was injured, and her father's imprisonment for embezzlement.
The authors suggest she was driven by a need for personal connection to tragedy. But she did so by wreaking havoc on those who had already suffered. "She had chosen the most vulnerable people and exploited them by making up a tale so terribly heartbreaking that they couldn't do anything but trust her and care for her. What she had done ... is hijack a defenseless people and shake their faith in the goodness of mankind."
The book is nearly 300 pages long, and on each page Fisher and Guglielmo prove masterful storytellers. "The Woman Who Wasn't There" is a riveting real-life mystery, a probe into the inner depths of humanity. This is a page-turner for every American.
Alexander Heffner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post and USA Today.