Fabuladora, or Tapeworm?

If you had never heard of Tania Head before last week, and I hadn’t, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve happened across her name now. She’s the disgraced former head of a group of World Trade Center survivors; disgraced because it turns out that her story of peril, heroism and escape was just that: an elaborately spun yarn.

The New York Times broke the story last week and put it on the front page (“In a 9/11 Survival Tale, the Pieces Just Don’t Fit“). The Times looked into each unique aspect of the drama Head has been relating for the past few years — among other things, that she was on the 78th floor of the south tower when it was hit, that she was badly burned and helped to safety by a documented hero of the disaster, that she took a wedding ring from a mortally injured man in the tower and gave it to his wife — and found that not a single point of the story can be verified. Head repeatedly postponed interviews with the Times before hiring a lawyer to deal with the media; neither Head nor the lawyer have responded to the story beyond saying she did nothing illegal.

Meantime, a newspaper in Barcelona, La Vanguardia, hasd gotten into the act. The paper has published a couple stories saying that Alicia Esteve (a.k.a. Tania) Head is from Barcelona; that acquaintances felt she was given to telling tall tales (at one point, she is termed a fabuladora — fabulist, or liar, in English — which is just about the best word I’ve come across this week); and that among her suspected fantasies was an account of a 125 mph crash in a Ferrari that severed her arm, which was found and reattached (only to be charred during her World Trade Center Adventure). La Vanguardia followed up that report with one based on interviews with what it describes as Head’s former colleagues and fellow students in Barcelona. One witness says that eight days after 9/11 — a period in which she says she spent five days unconscious in a New York hospital — Head showed up in a Barcelona classroom for an MBA program she was taking. She never mentioned any adventures at the World Trade Center; and apparently the only thing she said about New York is that she’d like to go there and work someday.

(The second La Vanguardia article, “Alicia Esteve comenzó curso en Barcelona días después del 11-S,” is in Spanish; the highly entertaining Google translation is here. Entertaining? Well, machine translation is still an inexact science; although it’s impressive that you can get this kind of instantaneous conversion from one language to another merely by pressing a button on your Web browser. But it is a conversion, not a translation, and the results are often comical. For instance, whatever algorithm Google uses apparently can’t make heads or tails of the pronouns in the Head story; so the story is filled with hes, hims and its that refer to Head. And then there’s the case of the ambiguous word that is meant one way and rendered another.

Here’s one sentence that got my attention in the “English” version: “Nevertheless, its personality, very surrounding and demanding, according to those who knew it, turned it a tapeworm.” A tapeworm? Here’s the Spanish: “Sin embargo, su personalidad, muy envolvente y exigente, según quienes la conocieron, la convertía en una solitaria.” Well, solitaria does mean tapeworm. Sometimes. But in this context, the story was talking about Head’s reported habit of trying to ingratiate herself with others. But apparently her “surrounding and demanding personality” turned people off and thus she became a “solitaria” — which can also mean (I think) a solitary one. The next sentence, in machine English, gives some context that would back up that reading: “No matter how much one made an effort in being likeable, it had few friends.”)

Returning to the subject of the tapeworm talk: One needs to read some of Head’s account of her imaginary 9/11 experience to get a feeling for how involved and vivid the fantasy was. For a piece the New York Daily News ran for the fifth anniversary of the attacks, a reporter joined one of Head’s tours of Ground Zero. She didn’t hold anything back describing the scene:

“Burned, bleeding, nearly blinded by dust, she struggled toward the stairway. ‘Blood. Body parts. I crawled through all that,’ she recalled. ‘I realized everybody around me was dying.’ She then encountered the first figure in FDNY bunker gear. ‘I always like to say for me it was like seeing God,’ she recalled. ‘It was like, “Okay, we’re gong to make it.” ‘ … Head had managed to reach the street when the south tower came down and a firefighter pulled her under a rig. ‘That was it for me. I woke up in a hospital five days later.’ ”

I suppose it’s not too hard to figure out how someone could come up with details like that: lots has been written about what happened that day, and imagination is a powerful thing. But the next step — presenting yourself as someone who was there, who touched many of those who perished — is breathtaking, as is the effort to maintain such a complex, attention-getting fiction (here’s one example of an admirer watching Tania in action).

That’s the story here: trying to peel back how this person made the journey from ingratiating, irritating misfit to heroine in a sweeping, historic tragedy. Of course, putting it that way almost makes it sound inevitable; the misfit, if such a being actually exists, always wants to be the hero, right? But still, that conversion — the day-to-day details, not the psychological generalizing — is what’s really interesting to me.

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