Spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen this documentary yet and want to, you may not want to read this until after you have.
This is going to be a different post from any I’ve written before. I’m not exactly sure what it is. It’s not quite a review, although the documentary named above inspired it and is addressed. It’s also not quite a psychological evaluation as I’ve had no formal training in psychology beyond a handful of college classes, a lot of private reading, and some personal experiences that seem instructive in this case. But whatever it is, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.
As a guy who is fascinated by the true crime genre, finance, dark triad personality disorders, and the uncanny tendency of all three to intersect with one another, the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos story is a boatload of intrigue that I’ve been keeping a morbidly fascinated eye on for quite a while now. When I found out the best producer of movies that currently exists (even though the company technically produces tv shows) had done a documentary on the topic, I had to check it out. And it did not disappoint. I think this story is very important because it highlights a major problem I see in the collective psyche of much of our society today in a way that perhaps nothing else has yet. Specifically, people seem to care far more about recognition than about whether or not it is actually deserved. I’m not so naïve as to think this is a new phenomenon. But I do think the advent of social media has amounted to not just pouring gas on the fire of this human weakness, but throwing a stick of dynamite or two in for good measure.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Theranos was a company created by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes for the purpose of making her famous in exactly the way Steve Jobs was, except with the added bonus of the halo that comes with being in the medical field. Note the way I worded that. It appears the end is the only thing that mattered to Holmes. The means were always negotiable. She was convinced she had solved the fairly minor problem of the pain people feel when blood is taken from them for testing purposes. Supposedly, her idea, which eventually took the form of Theranos’ Edison machine, could accomplish many medical tests using a tiny amount of blood relative to existing methods. Many people, including both one of her professors at Stanford and a renowned scientist she and her management team employed and subsequently helped drive to suicide via overdose of psychological abuse, told her in no uncertain terms that her concept was impossible; and at least as of today, they were correct. This minor detail failed to stop her, however, and she went on to use it to both bilk investors out of hundreds of millions and subject innocent people to medical tests she was well aware would not produce reliable results.
For me, there are two primary questions in this story. One, while Holmes certainly appears to score extremely high in traits of all three dark triad disorders, is she so out of touch with reality that she genuinely believes she and her company did nothing wrong? Second, how on earth did she dupe so many highly sophisticated people into investing huge amounts of money into, and staking their reputations on, an idea so unsound based on current science, without showing any sort of evidence that it could even possibly work? We’re not just talking about multiple past presidents, a respected general, and other extremely successful people here; we’re talking about the leadership of two massive corporations and the majority ownership of a third. This wasn’t some Nigerian royalty email scam targeting people who barely know who they are anymore, much less how the internet works.
As for me, I believe Holmes is absolutely culpable of her actions and was wholly aware of the reality of what she and her company were doing. I was so close to being prepared to admit she probably didn’t know her actions had been morally wrong because she was most likely incapable of discerning right from wrong at all. But one key pattern of behavior convinced me otherwise. For me, the smoking gun was the way she responded when the shit began to hit the fan. After the Wall Street Journal article came out and the whole world was talking about the fraud that was Theranos, she went into damage control mode. In particular, she denied having been aware that the Edison machine had been used in any commercial blood tests.
There is almost infinite evidence that she had been aware of that, but that’s not what seals the deal for me. Instead, I’m focused on the psychological subtext. If someone absolutely believes she is innocent, then she is almost certain to double down on her position in the face of any accusations to the contrary – no matter how many or how damning. But Holmes did the opposite; in attempting to disavow personal knowledge of certain activities her company was being accused of, she implicitly admitted the validity of the accusations that those activities had been morally wrong. Thus, at least on some level, she did have a moral compass and at a minimum, it did tell her she was in an indefensible position. Instead of fighting back as she had for virtually her entire life, usually by denying reality and convincing people that hers was better, her self-preservation instinct kicked in and her greatest delusion – that fame was absolutely the only thing on earth that mattered and that it was a bargain at any price – seemed to vanish. Could the sudden change have been the result of fervent advice on the part of an attorney? More than likely. But had she been totally, 100% insane, no advice could have pierced her perception of her moral invincibility.
I believe I’ve seen the question about how she sold her idea answered more than once in my personal experiences and numerous times in books and other educational contexts. Over the course of my life so far, I believe I’ve encountered two very strong dark triad personalities. By the by, those who know me will be aware that no, my ex-wife is not one of them. Anyway, my experience with each of these two individuals could be summarized the same way. While I found their actions deplorable and had almost no doubt about that, I couldn’t help but feel so deeply drawn to these people that I ignored the blaring alarms going off in my head and made decisions that seem impossibly stupid in hindsight. Other people’s experiences with these two individuals appeared almost universally similar to mine. This is an important point to note. If you think you’ve met a Nelson Mandela or a Mother Theresa, take a good, long, objective look at how you arrived at that conclusion. The odds are at least equally good that you’ve met something closer to the opposite and are currently in significant danger. Remember, if Hitler hadn’t been able to charm a ton of people, we wouldn’t use his name as a superlatively pejorative term because almost no one would have ever heard it in the first place.
Going back to Elizabeth Holmes, much has been made of the fact that most of her “suckers” were old, white men. The implication, of course, is that a pretty blonde girl did what pretty blond girls are well known to do and used the men’s small heads to render their large ones useless. But there’s a problem. If any of these men were unusually susceptible to that brand of chicanery, they would either have failed to attain such levels of wealth and power or at least had both consistently chipped away at while developing certain reputations as a result. Aside from Bill Clinton, I’m not aware of any of these men possessing such reputations. And all of them are, in fact, rich and powerful, or Holmes would never have been talking to them in the first place, much less soliciting their investments or help in other forms.
Plus, as a man who often feels terrifyingly vulnerable to such female manipulation, I don’t see that capability in Holmes. She is just so thoroughly asexual. Aside from photo shoots, and even often then, she almost never appeared well put together and even if she did have a good body, no one would have ever known since she wore her Steve Jobs costume every single day. Then you have to factor in the fake man voice. Plus, she has a case of crazy eyes so severe I think the term would have been invented for her had it not already existed and I believe I would find that to be very de-arousing even if every other part of her were an LA 10 and she even had the kind of personality an LA 10 almost couldn’t by definition. Throw in an extremely self-righteous brand of absolutist thought pattern and that’s a hard no from me on the loneliest, most desperate night – and for plenty of reasons besides that I’m old enough to know to “never stick my dick in crazy” (again…). And bear in mind that while I’m doing pretty all right for myself in life, I don’t have anywhere near the number or quality of options that a Bill Clinton does.
What I do see in her is someone who hypnotized people into thinking she was something truly special. And again, this is coming from someone who has been taken by this type of messianic figure – twice – and has performed every bit of the obsessive post analysis one might expect out of someone who isn’t accustomed to being anyone’s fool. In only one of the two cases was I after sex and even then, sex was only a minor part of the equation. What I felt made even that most powerful of desires seem almost secondary. It was an irrepressible, unexplainable impulse to be involved with this person in any way I could – and against literally all logic. Based on every description of Holmes I’ve read, whatever “that” is, she has it. And it is a very common feature of a dark triad personality.
So going back to the documentary where this all started, do I think it’s worth watching? Unequivocally yes. It does a fantastic job of framing the story in context, bringing viewpoints both diverse and valuable (Dan Ariely’s brilliance is heavily featured, for example) into the discussion, and avoiding taking the easy road of outright indictment. It could have simply turned into a laundry list of charges and a mountain of damning evidence. But while even the most unbiased retelling of this story is going to have plenty of both in it, this documentary did the heavy lifting and as a result, it had more than just that. To the extent that people have positive things to say about Elizabeth Holmes and had the balls to do so on camera, they were allowed to. And some of the most viscerally shocking evidence was left out altogether. For example, the fake voice was entirely ignored and neither the constant canine sidekick, which was treated better than almost any human (another very loud dark triad alarm), nor daddy’s less than illustrious, and not entirely irrelevant resume, was even mentioned. I don’t believe those omissions, or any others, were due to a lack of thoroughness. Instead, I believe the people who made the documentary prioritized piquing the interest of the viewers so they would do their own research and come to their own conclusions above hitting every bullet point. I believe that was the most valuable approach and my personal conclusion is that as usual, HBO has done it again.