News of Theranos has become ubiquitous—the medical technology startup that was meant to disrupt the healthcare system by diagnosing a “menu” of more than 200 different diseases via lab tests performed from just a drop of blood. The technology to accomplish this didn’t exist—it never existed—and it all ended up being a massive scam. But the company continued to grow and forge meaningful partnerships, even as it was fudging its blood test results by using machines from legacy manufacturers, and even as it was covering up just how off-mark its own work was. The extent of the company’s deceit was finally unearthed in 2015 by journalist John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal, and founder Elizabeth Holmes’s net worth plummeted from $4.5 billion to zero in the next year. By 2018, Holmes was charged by the SEC of committing massive fraud. This is the now extremely well-tread subject of HBO’s documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which debuted on Monday.
What Elizabeth Holmes actually sold everyone—delivered in her affected baritone and unblinking eyes—or so the documentary argues, was a story. It was a story about skyrocketing prices in the broken medical system, the barriers to entry for clear and easy blood work. It was her story about losing a beloved uncle, that somehow mapped onto thousands of other people who had suffered similarly. And, importantly, the story centered on a kind of medical terminology that was inscrutable to most people. Technology is so often sold as a kind of cure all; who were we to say that a drop of blood would be too little? All we know is what we do or do not like, and many of us don’t like needles. None of us like the expense of blood tests, or how difficult it is to navigate the medical system in order to actually get one done.
This argument is a compelling one—the notion that Holmes’s successful scamming came from selling a story rather than a product. It’s easily defensible, and the narrative is so popular it has already been produced in myriad forms, and continues to be profitable for those who tell it. The most detailed account, of course, is Carreyrou’s best-selling 2018 book Bad Blood, which was optioned into a feature film before it was officially released (in a stroke of nearly comical predictability, the lead will be played by Jennifer Lawrence). There’s the six episode podcast from ABC Radio and ABC News’ Nightline. There’s also the coverage of all of those stories, pieces like this one. I know I'm participating in this, too. If you’re in the habit of consuming mass media right now, you’d practically have to live in a pneumatic tube to immunize yourself from Elizabeth Holmes and her company.
But the The Inventor (executive produced by Graydon Carter, the former Editor-in-Chief of Vanity Fair, where reporter Nick Bilton has also reported on Holmes) argues that—beyond this story of the broken medical and pharmaceutical establishment—Theranos’s success is also in the optics of the founder and the concept of “genius.” The documentary contends that Holmes benefited most of all from adopting such a persona. All geniuses, you see, are some kind of scammer. Edison, for whom Theranos’s faulty medical device was named, repeatedly misrepresented the history of the invention of the lightbulb. There’s also the implicit understanding that Silicon Valley itself is built off of the idea of moonshots—promising more than what exists, borrowing money to scaffold an imagined future, disrupting. The built-in argument is: The crazier the scam, the more virtuosic the leader must be, the more likely it is to be taken seriously because it will “change the world.”
Under this framework, Holmes’s whims are excused as the workings of a virtuoso of medical entrepreneurship. Her failings could be attributed to the kind of mentality found in Edison’s own famous quote which Holmes herself apparently adored: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” To punctuate this idea, the documentary trots through a series of side by side images—the portrait of a lauded genius from the annals of history, next to a portrait of Holmes in a very similar pose. The photo of Steve Jobs holding an iPod next to Holmes’s famous Forbes cover story image, where she holds the tiniest vial of blood between her thumb and index finger. Holmes also now infamously played the part with her almost monastic adherence to the all-black wardrobe, an overt nod to Steve Jobs.
But this idea of Holmes as a “genius” mostly serves as cloud cover for the more usual suspects in the Theranos fraud story. Are we to excuse the advisory board or the investors for signing on after we come to understand how well the pathologies of “genius” map onto Holmes? Are we to excuse them because they don’t have medical knowledge but put their faith in this idea of Holmes? The Inventor doesn’t really answer these questions, beyond reminding viewers that Holmes is a “zealot” whose lies are interpreted by others with a kind of purity of intention—as if believing in her mission, and the fact that she didn’t actually want to do ill to others is a balm to the ways her company had already hurt users (and would continue to do so, if it resumed business unchecked).
But the versions of herself Holmes presented to the public, bolstered by her expensive fortress of lies and paranoia, did not exist in a vacuum. That Holmes positioned herself as a genius ultimately isn’t that interesting (though to be clear, this isn’t to excuse her for what she’s done). Many of us tell bald faced lies for any variety of reasons, or act zealously when pushed to a tight corner. But most of us will never have the opportunity to turn those lies into an empire, because we don’t have a family history that includes entrepreneurs and doctors to impart a trickle-down legacy and a plausible backstory for greatness. Many of us wouldn’t have access to the money that Holmes procured from her personal connections to get her company off the ground. Many of us couldn’t benefit from the optics of the all-black wardrobe even if we tried, because it wouldn’t be a white face peeking above the turtleneck.
Theranos may have attracted consumers with the promise of fixing something that was so broken it demanded a solution—much like Goop’s hokey product line that has found a market by relying on the failures of women’s healthcare. But more than that, it skated by because so many people in power vouched for it, like watching a terrifying version of the children’s parable “The Emperor's New Clothes” play out in real life. Like most scams, the reason for the company’s ascent is far more banal, and doesn’t take the mind of a genius—just a crew of powerful people not above falling for imposters. These scams require the hubris of such powerful people who are mostly white and mostly men. That is the narrative worth examining. Our current, numerous retellings of the Theranos tale are just that—retellings. Just because her story is fascinating doesn't mean everyone can fascinatingly tell it, and our own versions have already become generic.
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