The 9/11 faker: suffering as celebrity

Tania Head, who achieved fame posing as a survivor of 9/11, grasped the source of modern celebrity: victimhood.

Patrick West
Columnist

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It seems a universal human urge, or certainly a Western one at the turn of the millennium, to turn a crisis into a drama, or at least to fashion a narrative out of horrific events.

On television this can be witnessed in documentaries about the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001. The film by the two French film directors Jules Naudet and Gédéon Naudet (who had just happened to be making a documentary about the Fire Department of New York on that fateful day) and released the following year, simply entitled 9/11, set the template for everything that was subsequently to come regarding cinematic and televisual documentaries about that disaster: Arab terrorists; planes flying into buildings; those buildings collapsing; the heroics of New York’s firefighters; the ‘Blitz spirit’ of residents of New York; the sacrifice of the passengers on the fourth plane; people jumping off buildings; survivors looking for loved ones; interviews with teary survivors; strangers subsequently becoming lifelong companions.

A common narrative is that as horrific as this attack was, some good came out of it, insofar as in our misanthropic and cynical times it demonstrated the essential benevolent side to humanity, and showed that out of tragedy can come redemption and, perversely, something positive. Another common theme is that 9/11 proved that New Yorkers are not a cold, indifferent people, but a communalistic and caring lot.

We saw this theme revisited on Wednesday night with Channel 4’s The 9/11 Hotel, the tale of the guests who stood at the hotel right next to the World Trade Center, and on Sky 3’s Thursday night offering, United by 9/11. They were both poignant and moving documentaries, but this is because they adhered to the formulaic narrative above. They were brilliant programmes, but hardly original, and somewhat pandered to the pornographic, snuff-movie appeal of footage of 9/11 – that is, watching people throw themselves to their deaths.

Channel 4’s The 9/11 Faker, last night, seemed, however, to break the mould (1). It was, contrarily, a story of human cynicism and deceit. It told the story of one woman, called Tania Head, who became the most famous survivor of 9/11. And it was not surprising that her tale captured the imagination of the American public. Her account was, as one talking head recounted, the ‘perfect story’, the ideal narrative.

Head had told the media that she was on the 73rd storey of the South Tower, above the impact zone, thus making her only one of 19 people to make it out from above where the aircraft had slammed into the building. But her fiancé, in the North Tower, never made it out alive. She later became a leading member of the Survivors’ Network, helping to secure state funding and recruit therapists for the group, not to mention successfully campaigning for survivors of 9/11 to be permitted to visit the site of Ground Zero after they had so shamefully been forbidden to do so.

The problem was that Tania Head was not a survivor of 9/11. Her fiance had not been in the North Tower, nor she in New York City. Tania Head was not her real name; she was actually Spanish and on 9/11 (or certainly around that time) she had been at a business school in Barcelona. She was not badly burnt in 9/11 and had not spent consequent weeks in a New York hospital.

Only after other members in the Survivors’ Network began to notice inconsistencies in her account, and a journalist in the New York Times (a newspaper that had run comprehensive accounts of every victim of 9/11) noticed that an interview she did with the New York Post didn’t add up, was she finally exposed last year as an imposter, a fraud, or what one survivor called ‘a raving lunatic [who] did it for the notoriety and attention’.

In her favour, Tania did do much to help the survivors of 9/11, which some of them recognised; but they principally objected to the deceitful manner in which she did so. And many alluded to what I think was the real source of her fraud. Being rather tubby, plain and bespectacled, said one survivor, she probably suffered from ‘low self-esteem’, and her imposture was probably a method of receiving attention and affection from strangers.

This was her motive, but what could explain why she became the most celebrated ‘survivor’ of 9/11? It was not only because there is a universal need to create myths and narratives out of disasters, which often involve a redemptive denouement – whether it be The Flood, the Tower of Babel, Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents, the evacuation of Dunkirk (a defeat now perceived as a heroic feat), the attack on Pearl Harbor (see the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora!) the bombing of Dresden (see Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five), the nuclear attack on Hiroshima (for which the 1954 Japanese film Godzilla was an allegory) – but because today we live in a society in which the status of victimhood goes hand-in-hand with celebrity status.

I know this was not an original point to make, but I’m glad The 9/11 Faker made it anyway. In detailing her awful ‘experience’, escape and painful recovery – all fictitious – she rose to the top of the ‘hierarchy of suffering’ and became ‘surrounded almost by fans’. In a 2005 email, she recalled how ecstatic she had become to be fêted by so many politicians and camera crews on account of her ‘experience’.

In conclusion, The 9/11 Faker reminded us how today’s culture of victimhood, celebrity, narciccism and miserablism are all curiously intertwined.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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(1) See The 9/11 Faker on Channel 4’s website here.

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