Thursday, September 12, 2013

Something Worth Writing

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." So, here's my question: if you do something worth writing, are you morally obligated to write it or, at least, find somebody to write it? What if you don't care if you are forgotten or not but have done something worth writing? Lacking a paid contract or career as a professional, do we owe it to the world around us to write worth reading?

I'm not being flippant. Stay with me. This is a legitimate question.

Sometimes, I forget I even have a blog. Today, however, the burden on my obsessive-compulsive brain is peachy-relieved to have a personal public forum for vomiting up unsolicited opinions into the great void. Does anyone still read it? Yeah, a handful. Okay, a little more than that but this blog is certainly not the resource for expanding my screenwriting skills (or lack of) that it once was. But it is still here, even if it is not particularly relevant, and it still has a purpose, even if that purpose is nothing more than serving as my invisible friend.

So, what is on my feeble mind? We see a lot of books out there based on people’s lives. There’s something inherently narcissistic about the notion that the rest of us want to know your life story, wants to follow you on social media, wants to read your blog. Biographies run amok now that self-publishing is readily available and why anyone thinks it is necessary to tell the world what they had for breakfast is simply too out there for me to digest. But, are there people in the world who have an obligation to write memoirs, blog, tweet, or explain themselves to people they have never met?

I’m thinking presidents are kind of a given. As cogs in history, they are expected to write something. But who else? What about scientists, historians, humanitarians and other people who explore the complexities of health and life and history in order to understand the world we live in or make it a better place? Do they have a moral obligation to share their findings with the rest of us or is it okay for them to tuck their knowledge under a pillow even though it affects millions of people? What if your role in life has been devastating to a large portion of humanity? Do you owe an explanation?  And if you do, do you have the moral fortitude to give one? Someone who is mentally ill may not have the capacity to give an accounting and a criminal, unethical enough to commit a heinous crime in the first place, lacks credibility even if he does somehow find the depth of character to come clean in order to help people recover and go forward.

Films affect people and can affect change. And the written word? Well, it has educated us, shaped us, stretched our imaginations, given us wings and beat on our consciences since we first learned to put our thoughts on paper. So, are people ever ethically obligated to write a film or book or memoir?

A film called “The Woman Who Wasn’t There”, directed by Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. and released in 2012 recounts a woman who fabricated a World Trade Center story and become somewhat of a celebrity-survivor among other survivors, dignitaries, and family members of some of those who lost their lives that day. The book by the same title is written by Robin Gaby Fisher and Guglielmo and, as is always the case, the book is able to elaborate and explore areas only touched on in the film.

And, it haunts me.

Yesterday, I did not turn the television on. I mostly avoided my Facebook and I did not read internet news sites. I could not endure the infinite World Trade Center memorials, testimonials, “never forget” photos, and patriotic pledges. I do not apologize for my lack of desire to see people mourn, suffer, weep and relive the anxiety of 9/11/01 but neither do I condemn those who need to connect and vent in order to heal, who struggle to move forward in their lives, or who search for some kind hope rising up out of one of darkest days in American history. But, I am not one of them and it feels almost like a form of blasphemy or Munchausen syndrome by proxy for me to even fathom the suffering people endured on that day and have endured through the years.

Not so for Alicia Esteve Head, a native of Barcelona who moved to New York under the name Tania Head. She, apparently, wanted so much to be part of something bigger than herself, something meaningful, something historic, that, for YEARS, she rode an elaborate story of how she escaped a failing tower, witnessed unimaginable horror, lost the love of her life, and suffered a complex and excruciating physical recovery before she could even begin her long journey to emotional healing. She achieved hero status among the World Trade Center Survivors Network and eventually become president of that organization, led Ground Zero tours, shook hands with politicians, and met family members of Welles Remy Crowther, the man in the red bandanna, credited with saving many lives that day, including Tania’s.

But every word of Tania’s story was a lie. She was in Barcelona on 9/11/01.

And, she haunts me.

I read the book, “The Woman Who Wasn’t There” last year and have since watched the film several times on Netflix streaming video.  I was nowhere near New York on 9/11/01. I remember the bile in my throat as the second tower collapsed on live television and I wondered how many thousands of people were dying that very second as I stood in my safe, air-conditioned conference room. No dry eyes in that room. Just quiet sobbing and an unspeakable grief for people we did not know. Tania Head was even further from the nightmare but I have no doubt that she, like everyone I know, was profoundly and forever affected by the horror unfolding under the very eyes of the world.

And, she haunts me.

Something odd happened with Tania. She developed some kind of deep personal need to bond with people over the event and caught up in her poignant story, people drew strength, courage, and hope from Tania. From the survivors network and her new “family”, Tania found acceptance, admiration, respect, and love. She was needed and she belonged. Then, the bottom fell out of her fiction and she disappeared, leaving her friends in a vortex of betrayal and disbelief.

And, she haunts me.

It’s been years now since Tania’s story unraveled and even though the book and film reveal the details of her deception, we’ve yet to hear from Tania. She haunts me because I want to understand how her late night lie in an online forum spiraled into a raging maelstrom of deception. She haunts me because, in this age of instant information and social media where she could easily post an apologetic memoir, blog, or tweet, she is silent. She haunts me because I do not believe she is evil, cruel, or heartless and I do not know why. I want to understand. Maybe it is because I remember, as a teenager, being a broken human being and telling tall tales to make myself look important, popular, or acceptable. Maybe it is because I feel such pity for this woman and the people she hurt that my own inability to take an eraser to what she did is what really haunts me. I dunno. But, I am haunted.

The conundrum facing anyone who wants to set a record straight is that doing nothing looks bad but attempting to explain often looks worse, like an attempt to justify. If Alicia Esteve Head were to write a book or go on television to explain a tragic event, mental illness, emotional breakdown, or personality disorder, or to discuss therapy she’s undergoing to try and figure out in her own mind why she made the choices she did, she would be accused of profiting off her deception and would likely be crucified by the press.

If I were able to speak to Alicia Esteve Head, I think I would tell her to write that book anyway. Write a biography and make sure the proceeds go to a worthy charity and do not take a single dime from it. Write it under the supervision of a good editor with a view toward coming clean with the world. Help us understand who you are, where you came from and what troubled you so deeply that it drove you to perpetuate such a bizarre tale. Make no excuses. And, know that there will be fact checkers and people anxious to see you get your comeuppance so it has to be 100% verifiable, honest, and heartfelt.

People change. People are capable of forgiving people who change. How many celebrity gaffs have been forgiven, forgotten and even overlooked entirely because the person we see now is not the one who stumbled years ago? People with pasts are able to grow, mature, blossom, come out of hiding, and become a credit to society. I believe Alicia Esteve Head has a deep desire to be that person that changes the world and that may be what fueled her story. If she is recovering from some sort of personality disorder or mental illness or depression, she could use the mistakes of her past to help people. She has proven she has the capacity to lead.

Alicia Esteve Head is a human being who knows love and loss just like the rest of us. I Googled her and ran across an obituary for her brother who died unexpectedly in 2008. I do not know how he died but if she could not relate to loss before, she certainly can now.

I hope she comes out of hiding. I hope she writes something. Is she morally obligated to? I dunno. But, I hope she is doing good in the world. I hope her legacy is not the hurt left in her wake.

Because she haunts me.

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