Review: The Woman Who Wasn’t There by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo Guglielmo Jr.

It’s a terrible thing to say, but I’m a little numb to 9/11 stories.  It’s not that I don’t understand the event’s significance, or how horrific it must have been for anyone involved, but it has lost its potency as a story all these years later.  It is now a part of a much bigger political debate, of history itself, and the individual stories of families and survivors and heroes no longer hold my attention.  Fortunately Fisher and Guglielmo’s September 11 survivor story with a twist is unique enough to pique the interest of the most jaded reader.    And, once it hooks you, this ‘true crime’ tale encapsulates the desperate human need for belonging, the curious modern relationship with televised terror, and the perils of social networking along with sharing the grisly personal stories of some of those who made it out alive.

Like so many of us, I still remember ‘what I was doing when…’.  I was in the car with my husband, slurping a giant coffee and mentally planning an ethics tutorial I was due to give later that morning.  It was the 12th of September, of course, in Australia. The sun was shining and Triple J was on the stereo. Then, suddenly, I was wondering if the world was about to end.   On the other side of the planet, thousands of people I didn’t know were witnessing things that would leave them forever altered.  Whether it was the panic of escaping a collapsing building, the adrenalin of rescuing the injured, or the anxiety of waiting by the phone for news of loved ones, lives changed that day in ways I probably can’t begin to understand.

The Woman Who Wasn’t There is the story of Tania Head.  She was a Spanish immigrant, apparently well- educated at the best US universities and engaged to a high flyer, Dave.  On that fateful day, she was working at Merrill Lynch in the South Tower of the World Trade Centre when all hell broke loose.  The authors recount Tania’s story – as she told it – in graphic detail:  watching people choose suicide over being burned alive, the beheading of her assistant by flying debris, the angels in disguise who offered her their hands as she made her way out through the smoke, the screaming and the bodies.   Tania awoke several days after the event in hospital. Her beloved Dave was missing, later confirmed dead, and she was a mess of anxiety and sleeplessness.

Meanwhile, around the city, as the days and months rolled on and people tried to find some kind of ‘normal’, other survivors were increasingly riled.  According to the book, the families of those who perished and the first response workers became the government’s priority for financial and health-related assistance.  As the first anniversary arrived, an invitation-only event was held at Ground Zero and, again, the invitees were grieving families and emergency staff.   Those who had survived the attacks were more or less told to be grateful for their good fortune and get on with their lives.  They were free to visit the site – and join the queue with other tourists – or access their own forms of (expensive) counselling, but they felt they were lacking any memorial or a forum to acknowledge the strange mixture of guilt and isolation they experienced.  They found this much-needed outlet through the development of online survivors’ networks.

Tania Head had instigated one of these forums, and quickly became recognised as a most sympathetic participant. Her own incredible story along with her personal warmth encouraged other survivors to open up to her.  By 2004, the World Trade Centre Survivors’ Network was established with a strong online presence,  a physical meeting space for regular gatherings and Tania as its poster girl.  Tania’s charismatic personality and strong back story opened doors for the group:  she organised a visit to Ground Zero for the Network and helped connect survivors with families of the deceased so that people might learn about the last moments of their loved ones’ lives.   At long last, the survivors felt they were being heard, as national newspapers, breakfast television and key politicians took up the story.   As work progressed on building the Ground Zero memorials, survivors (including Tania) volunteered as tour guides to lend their personal perspectives to the sobering stories told to the city’s visitors.  And it’s at about that point that Tania’s cool composure began to crack.

As public interest increased, Tania was being pinned down to provide more specific details of her experience.  Those close to her noticed changes in her behaviour, but mental health is an unpredictable foe so many of her emotional outbursts and reticence to speak to reporters could be explained by trauma.  Journalists keen for a scoop began researching the background of this powerful advocate and found inexplicable gaps:  no Tania Head on record at Stanford University; the man known as Dave’s family had never heard of her; she had never worked for Merrill Lynch.  She hadn’t, in fact, even been in New York on the day of the attacks.

Tania’s story left the public stunned, and the people who knew her bitter and hurt.   As her carapace crumbled, she had also begun turning members of the Survivors’ Network against each other, leaving behind a muddle of uncertain souls dealing with yet another blow to their fragile sense of wellbeing.

Tania’s story may inspire one’s ire or one’s pity, but it also raises important questions about the way we deal with public trauma in our interconnected modern world.  Much like those who left flowers at Diana’s palace, or memorial messages for the Irwins, the fact that contemporary tragedies are delivered so immediately to our TVs can make people feel as though they are closely involved in events that take place at distant locales, to complete strangers.   While the media feeds on building our relationships with people and places we may never encounter in real life, a growing sense of entitlement develops, as though the public deserves to be included in the pain of tragedy: as though we are all, to some extent, ‘survivors’.   This then intersects with the anonymity available in online communities – where someone can research and create any persona they choose from behind their laptop  – and the basic human desire to belong and feel special.  With all this in mind, Tania is unlikely to have been the only person to fabricate a story in order to get closer to this remarkable event; she was just the unlucky one who gained public attention.

As a ‘true crime’ novel, this book did not answer all my questions. Until Tania writes her own book, there will always be people scratching their heads (her current whereabouts are unknown).  But this book does present the intriguing perspectives of those with personal ties to Tania in a straightforward, journalistic style, adding a fresh piece to the vast puzzle of the social impact of 9/11.

The Woman Who Wasn’t There is published in Australia by Allen and Unwin (and I thank them kindly for my copy).

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