Last night, a friend was telling me about a Spanish woman (Alicia Esteve Head, also known as Tanya Head), who successfully manipulated the media and headed a 9/11 survivors group. Ms. Head, who was in Spain at the time of the attacks, managed to convince the public that she was in the twin towers during the strikes on 9/11 and that she had lost a fiance / husband “Dave” during the disaster. In addition, she claimed that celebrated firefighter Welles Crowther, who lost his life rescuing many victims, had also rescued her and saved her life. Of course, once her masquerade was unveiled by curious journalists from the New York Times in 2007, she lost her status as a survivor’s advocate and mini-celebrity, and faded into obscurity…until the 2012 release of a book and attendant film in which Tanya Head herself stars.
What interests me in her story and similar stories in which the media is manipulated by a person to evoke compassion in large numbers of people while apparently that same person is seeking meaning and purpose in life through dissimulation and false identity, are the themes of self-love and compassion. Why was Ms. Head drawn to the 9/11 disaster, and why wasn’t she able to find another way to leadership? She obviously possessed significant qualities in these areas, as she was able to give talks in colleges and survivor support groups, convincingly recounting her experiences as 9/11 survivor, lead tours of the WTC site for celebrity visitors such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as well as former New York Governor George Pataki. A 2012 documentary film (see image below) was made about her story in which she and other true life actors play themselves : The Woman Who Wasn’t There. I have not yet seen the film.
It is striking to me that this woman obviously possessed a high degree of intelligence and creativity, spunk, a taste for risk taking, some degree of heart (she wasn’t gaining financial compensation from the stunt) or perhaps a high level of narcissism with a tinge of sociopathic charm, and charisma. She wanted to do something which would cause others to admire her, look up to her for guidance, and also to help others acquire support where it was needed, as many survivors felt they had been neglected in the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11. In fact, for a time, she became a valued spokesperson for the 9/11 victim support group, The Survivor’s Network.
Why do so many people in contemporary times feel so alone, so unimportant, so disconnected from true heartfelt relationships that they feel the need to pretend to be something that they are not in order to feel validated, useful, connected, valued?
I feel that these questions are very important, and that individuals such as Ms. Head (and there are many other similar examples that have been revealed to the media, as portrayed in the documentary “Catfish”). Did Ms. Head lack in self-love and feel empty? Did she need the support of countless strangers in order to feel important? Does our society and celebrity culture promote malignant narcissism? Also, why are social media users so eager to grab hold of the apparent kindness and wonderfulness of total strangers, elevating certain individuals to iconic greatness while in every day interactions behaving in an apathetic manner to others. It seems to me that the social media users are as “guilty” as the “fakes” or narcissists who solicit the attention.
Basically, the ill that is exposed in our culture through this type of manifestation or phenomenon is that people everywhere crave love and appreciation and require a sense of purpose and connectedness in their lives. What often seems absent or lacking in our ambient culture to me is the awareness that we each do already have an innate purpose in being ourselves and, in reality, all people and all things are already inter-connected.
I feel that the lesson that these “catfishers” are sending us is to become more aware or our inter-connectedness outside of social media, and more compassionate of self and others. It seems like we are so quick to praise the heroic then to judge those who are not so heroic after all. We are all simply human, and that is not a bad thing. We all want the opportunity to be seen, to be loved, to be appreciated, to share our gifts in a meaningful way.
If anyone has seen the film or read the book, I’d appreciate any comments or input! Also, I’d be interested to hear about the effects of social media on interpersonal relations, and how each of us develops a meaningful life as an individual in society. Thanks!