Tania Head was in the south tower of the World Trade Center when a hijacked jet sliced through it, leaving her severely injured and barely able to escape before the tower came crashing down. In those same perilous moments, her fiancé died in the blaze of the north tower.

Or so her story went.

The subtitle of The Woman Who Wasn’t There is “The True Story of an Incredible Deception,” but “incredible” doesn’t begin to capture the depth of Head’s lies in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Head, whose seeming strength and resilience made her a cause célèbre and co-chair of the powerful World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, was not in the tower on that awful day. She was not even in the country.

How Head managed to hoodwink so many for so long is the focus of this fascinating book. She started her deception shortly after September 11, when she joined an online survivors’ forum. Her mind-boggling story of loss and hope comforted others suffering from guilt and post-traumatic stress. No one thought to question the veracity of her account, which included an encounter with a badly burned man in the 78th-floor sky lobby who begged her to return his wedding ring to his wife. Her story began to unravel only after a New York Times reporter profiling her for an anniversary story tried to verify her claims.

Head’s motives are perhaps unknowable, but the reader is left yearning for more answers than the authors are able to give. Certainly Head had her share of traumatic experiences: As a teen, she was in a serious car accident that nearly severed her arm. Her parents had an ugly divorce, and her father and brother were involved in a high-profile embezzlement scandal. But what causes someone to exploit such a tragic event? Head never applied for victim compensation, and her work with the Network was voluntary. In the end, all she gained was a small measure of fame and intimate friendships with survivors. Ultimately, The Woman Who Wasn’t There forces us to examine our need for connection and purpose by any means necessary.

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