Why We Lie And How To Recover After Getting Caught In A Life-Altering Deception

Tania Head was a Merrill Lynch employee in the World Trade Center office on September 11, 2001. After United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower at 9:03 AM, Tania and her colleagues raced to safety in the chaotic street below. She suffered multiple burns about her body but was thankful to be alive. Her attention rapidly turned to the whereabouts and safety of her fiancé, Dave. His office was located in the north tower.

Alicia Esteve Head watched the heartbreaking images of 9/11 on her TV in Barcelona along with the rest of the world. Born and raised in Spain, Alicia came from a wealthy family with business and personal ties to countless local politicians and royalty in her home country. A long time supporter of a country to which she’d never visited, Alicia mourned those lives lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

So how are these two women, separated geographically by thousands of miles, connected? At cursory glance, the last name assumes a family relationship, perhaps distant cousins or stepsisters through some type of marriage. The answer is one much deeper, and frankly, more sinister.

Alicia is Tania. Alicia is real. Tania is a work of fiction.

Alicia exists, and Tania never did, not until Head moved to the United States not long after the terrorist attacks. Alicia lied about her escape from the south tower, her body scars, her position at Merrill Lynch and even her pending nuptials to Dave. (In an even creepier twist, Dave actually did exist and perished when the second tower collapsed. His surviving relatives have no idea who Tania, or Alicia, is and said Dave likely had no idea she even existed. Because she really didn’t.)

Six years after Alicia’s recounted her story numerous times to countless media outlets and in speeches as one of the faces of survival on September 11th, a New York Times piece exposed all of Alicia’s dirty little secrets. She quickly disappeared into the cracks of the New York City streets, and hasn’t been seen much since being exposed, except for occasional sightings after a book and movie titled The Woman Who Wasn’t There, based on her life and lies was released in 2013.

Steve Rannazzisi, star of the long-running FX hit The League and the face of the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in several commercials, found himself in the same situation last week as Head – exposed for telling lies for years surrounding his employment at the World Trade Center and subsequent escape on that fateful morning. In interview after interview, Rannazzisi would go into graphic detail about his escape on that September day and spun the escape into a Hollywood tale all its own. After his near-death experience, Rannazzisi and his then-girlfriend, now wife, packed up and quickly moved to California to pursue his acting dreams.

The questions must be asked in both stories – why would a human being lie to such a large scale, around such a tragic event? The short answer, it seems on the surface, is that some of us just can’t help it.

“Obviously these people wanted to be tied to the event in some heroic way” explained Dr. Lisa Firestone, clinical psychologist and director at PsychAlive.org. “Mr.Rannazzisi’s case appears as if he wanted to appear as some type of hero, or survivor, as a way to boast self ego. Perhaps the event had some even deeper personal meaning to him, considering he lived in the city at the time.”

The How And Why Behind Our Lies

In 1996, Dr. Bella DePaulo published Lying In Everyday Life, a research paper in which the doctor found that the average person tells a lie in one out of every five daily conversations. The study established that people tend to tell more self-centered lies, typically to improve their appearance in the eyes of others. Almost all of the participants explained that they didn’t consider these lie to be “serious”, didn’t plan on telling the lie prior to the conversation and showed little remorse about their action and didn’t fear being called out on the inaccuracies.

Lying to control a response, lying by omission and exaggeration are the most common types of lies told in conversation. People tend to lie to elicit a certain reaction or emotion out of another individual, lie to get a person on their side or to avoid hurt feelings or just in an effort to make things seem bigger and more important than they really are.

In which categories of lies do the fables of Steve Rannazzisi and Alicia Esteves Head fall?

“It’s a little of everything,” Dr. Firestone concludes, “but really it’s a fabrication that turned into an exaggeration but all these lies quickly became a reality in the mind of people not being honest.  We all tell lies, even in normal everyday interactions where there’s really no reason to lie. It can be seen as a form of addiction but one that’s common in all humans.”

Rannazzisi’s first 9/11 lie came in 2009 while the show was already enjoying some success and the Long Island native was a comedy name on the rise in Hollywood. He didn’t need the story of survival to push his project or spread his name. Head, long known amongst friends as a “story teller”, felt like an outsider in her own world. The more stories she told, the more popular she become at school and at her parent’s dinner parties. Her 9/11 tale of bravery in the face of tragedy propelled her to national prominence and even to a position as the president of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network.

One glaring difference between the two, and perhaps a clue that Rannazzisi’s tale might have just been a dumb comment in a moment of interview anxiety, is that the actor took strides to downplay his the tale of survival while Head kept up the charade until the very end.

How To Recover From “The Big One”

With the final season of The League already on the air, Rannazzisi face will still be all over the television and in promotional material for many months (Though not in the Buffalo Wild Wings commercials – the company dumped him as an ambassador late last week). Unlike Head, who was able to disappear under the cloak of anonymity and possibly live off a slight inheritance, the actor needs to work and work involves his face and his name.

Hollywood loves a comeback story, and people have told lies to equal or worse than Rannazzisi’s faux September 11th tale of survival, but how does the average person bounce back after getting caught in a life-altering lie?

Experts suggest that once the lie is uncovered, don’t be tempted to tell more lies to cover it up. In Rannazzisi case, the actor released a statement to the press and expressed his deep sorrow in a series of tweets. “As a young man,” he said, “I made a mistake that I deeply regret and for which apologies may still not be enough.”

The next step, according to career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide Ray Cohen, is to provide context to the situation without offering up an excuse. In his book, Cohen also suggests “accepting the consequences, appearing remorseful, and bending over backwards to make up for the bad judgment.”

While paying penance in the public eye is one way for asking for ultimate forgiveness, Dr. Firestone feels there’s an even bigger hurdle to recovery for Rannazzisi and those who choose to spin a web of deceit.

“It’s a hard thing to recover from,” admits Firestone, “and not just recovery from publicly but internally. How does one undo all these lies and become a real person again? That’s much more of a challenge.”

Chris Illuminati is a senior editor with BroBible. Follow him on Twitter.