Steve Rannazzisi didn’t sound like someone putting on a show.
“I was sort of the party starter of Merrill Lynch,” he said in an interview in 2009. “Until our building got hit with a plane.”
“Oh, Christ,” his interviewer, the podcast host Marc Maron, interjected.
“Yeah. And then the party ended right there.”
Without tears or theatrics, Rannazzisi went on to explain that he was working on the 54th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He felt the impact of a plane ramming into the first tower and ran outside to see what was happening. When the building began to crumble, “I just started f—ing booking it,” he told Maron. He stopped just in time to turn around and see the second tower collapse.
When he and his fiancée — who was supposed to be working in the towers but was still on the subway when the planes hit — got home, they decided to leave the city for Los Angeles, a decision Rannazzisi often credited with jump-starting his career.
“How much did it f— you up mentally?” Maron wanted to know.
“I still have dreams of like, you know those falling dreams,” Rannazzisi said.
But Rannazzisi’s account was no more real than those dreams. This week, the New York Times uncovered that the 37-year-old comedian, a star on the FXX show “The League,” was working several miles from the site of the attacks that morning. Confronted with this story, he issued an apologetic series of tweets Wednesday.
“As a young man, I made a mistake that I deeply regret and for which apologies may still not be enough,” he wrote. “After I moved with my wife to Los Angeles from New York City in 2001 shortly after 9/11, I told people that I was in one of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. It wasn’t true. I was in Manhattan but working in a building in midtown and I was not at the Trade Center on that day.”
“I don’t know why I said this,” he continued. “This was inexcusable. I am truly, truly sorry.”
Though actual victims of trauma often struggle to talk about their experiences, there is no lack of pretend survivors eager to tell their tales. False memoirists have written for years about drug addiction, child abuse and Holocaust survival. In one famous case, an American woman claimed to be a survivor of both the Holocaust and abuse by a Satanic cult.
Rannazzisi isn’t even the most famous person to have publicly pretended to have survived 9/11.
In fact, to Angelo J. Gugliemo Jr., Rannazzisi’s account sounded a lot like one he had heard from his friend Tania Head, the former president of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network. Like Rannazzisi, Head spoke of working for Merrill Lynch on the morning of 9/11. Like Rannazzisi, she said she had a fiancé who worked in the towers (though he was killed in the attacks).
Like Rannazzisi, Head wasn’t telling the truth.
Though some lies have obvious tangible benefits for the teller, the impulse that drove Head, Rannazzisi and others to make up their stories is more complicated. Neither Head nor Rannazzisi wrote books or sought compensation from a survivor’s fund. Neither gained any kind of obvious advantage for framing themselves as a victim.
Head, who still hasn’t admitted to fabricating her story despite evidence that she was taking classes in Spain on that day, won’t say why she made it up. According to his tweets, Rannazzisi doesn’t know.
The simplest explanation may be that such liars feel ignored and crave attention. Sometimes there’s an intangible social reward, particularly in recent years, to having been a victim. Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be African American, seemed to thrive on stories of encountering discrimination. She also got a job as the director of the NAACP in Spokane. Pretending to have experienced trauma is a way to reap whatever real or perceived benefits victimhood provides without actually having to suffer the real event.
Psychologist Christopher Chabris, who studies false memory, said that Rannazzisi’s story isn’t a case of someone mistakenly remembering something that didn’t really happen. It’s about inserting one’s self into a narrative that’s already getting a lot of sympathy.
“I’m not sure it takes a psychologist to come up with motivations for that,” he said. “Saying you survived 9/11 … is a more attention-getting story. You can get into a loop where if you get rewarded for that sort of thing you keep on doing it.”
But Gugliemo, who was friends with Head for several years and directed the documentary “The Woman Who Wasn’t There” about her fabrication, has a more charitable explanation.
“I think Tania started to reach out to [survivors] simply as one human to another and ended up becoming a 9/11 survivor,” he told The Washington Post. “She needed that intimacy, that connection. She needed to be part of that community and not an outsider.”
In a strange way, it makes sense to him that someone might want to lay claim to some piece of 9/11 experience, despite the horror of the actual event.
“There’s a very pure form of love that is part and parcel with people’s reaction to survivors and people who have actually endured a horrific unthinkable event. It’s just this outpouring compassion,” Gugliemo said. “… I think people need a piece of that more than anything. That feeling of belonging.”
“It’s a dark world,” he continued, “People have voids they are trying to fill.”
The psychology behind that explanation for liars is as complicated as the stories they tell. Neither Rannazzisi nor Head is quite a pathological liar — there’s no evidence that they have a chronic compulsion to tell falsehoods, other than this one big one. Neither do they appear to have been suffering from false memories (as some psychologists argued about Brian Williams, who inaccurately claimed to have been shot down while reporting in Iraq). Rannazzisi tweeted that he wished for many years he could take back his story, knowing that it was untrue.
But Gugliemo’s explanation — that they do it for connection — is a one that psychologists have considered.
Rannazzisi and Head’s falsehoods are similar to what psychiatrists call Munchhausen Syndrome. Named for an 18th century German baron who became famous for telling unbelievable tales about his exploits (riding bestride a cannonball, driving a sleigh pulled by a wolf, dancing a Scottish jig in a fish’s stomach), a condition that causes people to feign illness or psychological trauma in order to gain sympathy. Munchhausen patients are aware that their symptoms and stories are made up, but, like Rannazzisi, they don’t know how to stop themselves from telling them. One Munchhausen sufferer, Wendy Scott, told the New York Times she faked ailments because she “just wanted to be in the hospital.”
There, she thought, “somebody will care.”
The compulsion to invent trauma may go even beyond the simple need for sympathy or attention. Particularly in cases of collective importance — like the Holocaust or 9/11 — a fabricated memory can reflect the desire to be part of the communal outpouring of emotion that stems from it.
In a 2013 article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Harvard psychologist Brendan Gaesser argued that there is “neural overlap” between imagination, memory and empathy. Functional neuroimaging studies have shown that a “shared constellation of brain regions” lights up both when patients are asked to recall a personal experience and when they are prompted to empathize with another person.
This is an adaptive trait, Gaesser suggests. Our ability to imagine a shared future and remember a shared past enables us to form the groups that make us such an “evolutionary success story.” That we respond so dramatically to another’s pain we build it into our own experience — consciously or unconsciously — could be seen as a human virtue.
Until, in cases like Rannazzisi’s, it becomes a human failing.
“It was profoundly disrespectful to those who perished and those who lost loved ones,” he tweeted about his falsehood Wednesday. “The stupidity and guilt I have felt for many years has not abated. It was an early taste of having a public persona, and I made a terrible mistake.”
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