Where were you on September 11, 2001? Almost all Americans who were old enough to remember that fateful day will have a story. At first glance, The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. appears to be a tale of individual courage and triumph. Tania Head had one of the most remarkable 9/11 stories of all. She was working for Merrill Lynch on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower, and witnessed the first plane hit the North Tower. Badly burned, she barely escaped alive. She also lost her fiancé, who worked in the North Tower.
Head’s story was so powerful that when she shared it on survivors’ network sites, she quickly became an inspiration and a leader. She successfully lobbied to bring more recognition and funding to survivors, and led tours at Ground Zero. Shockingly, in 2007 a reporter uncovered that all of the information she provided, including details about her job and her fiancé, was false. But that was just the beginning. Why would someone go to such lengths to deceive?
Head’s story is presented as fact for most of the book, with her deception revealed only towards the end. Guglielmo directed a documentary, also called The Woman Who Wasn’t There, chronicling Head’s status change from heroic survivor to fraudulent imposter. This is an amazing story of vast deception and extreme irony. Although Head technically did nothing illegal, her falsification of information and betrayal of trust of the survivors was egregious. Her deception in the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy left many feeling further victimized. But ironically, in spite of the lies, her story led to more recognition and services for actual 9/11 survivors.
Looking for a little history to go with your true crime? Two recent titles provide thrilling accounts of historical murders. One is set in Chicago and chronicles the rise and fall of Al Capone’s chief assassin, Jack McGurn. The other is about a serial killer in World War II Paris. Both are thoroughly researched, emphasizing the mayhem and extremism prevalent in these time periods. In Deadly Valentines: The Story of Capone's Henchman "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and Louise Rolfe, His Blonde Alibi, Jeffrey Gusfield opens with an account of the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 Chicago. Known assassin Jack McGurn and his girlfriend Louise Rolfe are the likely suspects. But how does a boy from an immigrant family and a middle-class Midwestern girl end up embodying the Roaring Twenties’ hallmarks of excess, liquor, and grisly murder? By tracing their lives from childhood, Gusfield draws a connection between humble beginnings and a gangster lifestyle rife with crime and corruption.
David King’s Death in the City of Light follows the rise of Marcel Petiot, who was regarded as a kindly doctor of the less fortunate until multiple human body parts were found in the basement of his Paris home in 1944. His subsequent trial quickly devolved into a media circus. The Nazi occupation and government corruption further complicated matters and added to the train wreck of judicial proceedings, leading to a frustrating and perplexing conclusion.Perhaps most fascinating about both books are the unanswered questions. Was Louise cold-blooded, or just someone unable to live a conventional life? How did Petiot actually kill his victims? Those who enjoy historical accounts full of drama, danger and mystery (like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) will find these books to be satisfying page-turners.
He really did deceive the entire world. In a moment’s time, thousands of organizations and individuals worldwide lost their financial savings when Bernie Madoff’s massive investment fraud was uncovered. The widespread public outrage was directed not only at him but also his family. Surely those closest to him knew everything and were reaping all the benefits, right? Two recent books tell otherwise.
The first, Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family, by Laurie Sandell, chronicles the lives of his wife Ruth and sons Mark and Andrew both before and after the 2008 revelation that brought the financial empire crashing down. Ruth, who was married to Madoff from the age of 18, had all property seized. Mark committed suicide two years to the day of his father’s arrest. Andrew struggled to rebuild his own reputation in the business community. The writing at times entertains frivolous details and inconsequential family spats but provides an honest look into a tightly controlled family whose trusted patriarch was their ultimate undoing.
While Truth and Consequences focuses more on family dynamics and less on the actual logistics of Madoff’s crime, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust by Diana B. Henriques gives a detailed recounting of the Ponzi scheme itself. Henriques, a financial writer for the New York Times and one of the few to interview Madoff in prison, follows a substantial “cast of characters” including family members, accountants, federal investigators and lawyers to examine how a respected businessman could carry out deception on such a grand scale. If her earlier narrative seems dry and overwhelming in places, the latter half of the book provides plenty of courtroom drama and emotional testimony to keep readers engaged. As both authors note, family members and outsiders alike had their lives upended by the “Wizard of Lies”, and the rebuilding for many has just begun.