We can’t get enough of Elizabeth Holmes. The founder and CEO of Theranos once captivated the imaginations of venture capitalists and magazine profile writers with her too-good-to-be-true tale of a revolutionary blood testing technology. Three years, numerous federal investigations, and eleven felony counts later, our appetite has shifted to devouring the tale of how Holmes fooled the world. The Silicon Valley morality tale – a true crime saga with a dash of Fyre Fest-schadenfreude and the added bonus of an icy blonde with a mysteriously deep voice – has thus far inspired a best-selling book, a popular podcast, and two documentaries, with a feature film and real-life criminal trial still to come.
One of the documentaries, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, debuts Monday on HBO. The film, by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, presents a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Holmes as a modern-day Thomas Edison-gone-wrong. The Wizard of Menlo Park, Gibney reminds us, was a master of “faking it until you make it” who raised money off a promise long before he figured out how to make the incandescent light bulb work. Of course, Edison eventually came through, while Holmes is facing up to 20 years in prison, and her company was forced to void tens of thousands of blood tests for patients in Arizona.
Gibney has spent a career on what he calls “the fraud beat”, with subjects including Enron, the Church of Scientology, Lance Armstrong, and the Catholic church. We spoke to him about the lessons of Theranos.
What drew you to making a film about Theranos?
I was interested not just about the details of the story but what it had to say about the psychology of fraud – not only how someone deceives others, but how they deceive themselves in order to deceive others, and how the people who are deceived get deceived. How does that happen?
We’re in the midst of something of a national fascination with scammers. Do you see Elizabeth Holmes as being part of an American archetype of a fraudster?
I’ve been on this beat for a while – the fraud beat. I think what’s interesting about Elizabeth is: What happens when you pursue a dream and your dream doesn’t work? Do you admit it? Or do you just keep finding ways to pursue the dream and pretending that it really is working when it isn’t?
I do think that we as Americans – going back to movies like The Music Man – there’s a kind of fascination with a fraudster, somebody who breaks the rules. We want to see them brought down and punished.
But I think that the more important thing about Elizabeth to me is that she did have a mission – a noble mission, in a way – that she wanted to accomplish. And what brought her down was this notion that the police call “noble cause corruption” or “the end justifies the means”. You know, if you’re pursuing a noble goal, it’s OK to fake it ‘til you make it.
I’m curious how you came to believe that her initial motivation actually was noble.
There are indications in [Wall Street Journal reporter John] Carreyrou’s book that early on she was cutting corners and lying to people. But I do think that if she had wanted to make a lot of money, she could have made a lot more than she did. If she had been Bernie Madoff and just was trying to do this in order to make bank and then leave, she could’ve paid herself a lot more handsomely than she did.
Fraud has been a through-line in your career. What is the connection between Scientology and Silicon Valley or Silicon Valley and Enron?
I think the connection between scientology and Elizabeth Holmes is the “prison of belief”. Look at what happens to [Theranos board member] George Shultz – the grandfather of [eventual whistleblower] Tyler Shultz; the noted Secretary of State. Even when his grandson comes to him and says, “You know Grandpa, there’s rampant fraud at Theranos”, he can’t undo or retract or unwind the belief that he has. He’s in a prison of belief of Elizabeth Holmes. He’s committed to her, and for him to say, “Oh wow, that’s terrible”, would mean that he has to go back to the beginning and admit that he was duped and fooled.
On the other hand, you take something like Enron and you look at people like Jeff Skilling. Jeff Skilling, I think, was not in it like Bernie Madoff. He did have a mission. His mission was that the completely untethered unregulated free market is going to end up having enormous social benefits.
This idea of the end justifies the means and trying to manipulate reality in order to conform to the dream, those, I think, are consistent.
A lot of people around Silicon Valley point to Theranos and say, “They’re not real Silicon Valley. We’re not like that.”
There’s an element of truth and there’s an element of bullshit. Fake it ‘til you make it is something that’s imbued in the DNA of a lot of Silicon Valley companies. And there are a lot of powerful Silicon Valley companies – the most respectable – who are still lying to people. Look at Apple and the battery. Look at Facebook and Google in terms of how they were mining our data and how they were misusing information and also kind of ruddering to our worst instincts.
In some ways Elizabeth was an outlier, and it is true that a lot of the powerful Silicon Valley VCs did not invest in her because they didn’t see the evidence and they were suspicious of her. But I think that, in the ethic of “move fast break things” without really considering the damage that might be caused and how that can become culturally problematic, she does share some DNA with the other Silicon Valley firms.
You were not able to speak with Elizabeth Holmes.
My producer sat down with her at the very beginning for about five hours off the record to try to persuade her to participate, and we were unsuccessful. We kept coming back and trying to get her to talk to us, and she refused. She kept saying, “When we’re back on our feet, then you can come see the successful Theranos.” Right. That never happened.
Early on we had a very tough time talking to employees because they were all terrified of [Theranos lawyer and board member] David Boies and being sued. It took a long time to build up momentum in terms of being able to get people on the record and then we got very lucky in terms of somebody from the inside giving us a treasure trove of video.
Roger Parloff, the ‘Fortune’ magazine reporter who wrote the first magazine profile of Holmes, has carried a certain amount of blame for helping to create the myth of Theranos, but he was also the only person in the film that expressed any actual remorse for what happened, so he comes across as this very tragic figure.
I see him as the beating heart of the film. It ripped him up inside that he got it wrong and that he put her on the cover. To see those moments where both his embarrassment but also his anger almost renders him speechless – it’s a very powerful moment. We live in a time when we have a fraudster-in-chief for president and everything’s being angled for everyone’s own cognitive biases, but Roger I think really took seriously this idea of pursuing the truth.
Journalists are both truth seekers but also storytellers. In coming across Elizabeth Holmes, this was a powerful story that they really wanted to tell of a young female entrepreneur in male-dominated Silicon Valley who’s really coming up with something that was doing good. But when you see something that is such a wonderful story, sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s a fairy tale. And they didn’t wonder hard enough.
One thing that the documentary makes very visible is this long list of old men who seem to have been captivated by a very young woman: journalists Parloff, Ken Auletta and Charlie Rose; investors Don Lucas, Larry Ellison, Tim Draper and Rupert Murdoch; board members George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Jim Mattis and Channing Robertson; and others, including Joe Biden and Bill Clinton.
I mean, I think that it is so utterly evident. Phyllis Gardner [a Stanford professor of medicine] refers to the board and says, “They evidently succumbed to a certain charm.” We tread lightly on it, but it’s clearly obvious that they did succumb to a certain charm. She was young. She was pretty. It blinded them in a certain way.
I think Elizabeth herself infused her own myth with this idea of youth – youth conquers all. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College. I’m going to drop out of Stanford. You don’t need that bullshit education. All you need is genius. Well, maybe if she had stayed at Stanford for a few more years and took a few more courses, it might have done us all a bit of good.
We do kind of revere youth in some ways, and Elizabeth very much inside the company used that. She had a real distrust of the older people, either because they were experienced and they were showing her up, or they just didn’t get it in the way that young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs get it. You move fast, you break things, you don’t ask a lot of questions, don’t give me your old paradigm bullshit. Well, sometimes you know that experience can be very valuable, right?
Thankfully, two very young people are also the whistleblowers who end up bringing her down. Because they’re not worried so much about families they need to support, and also I think they’re more idealistic. They’re coming out of college and they haven’t become cynical yet.
I think the men fell for her. It’s clear and it’s clear that she understood. There weren’t any women on the board. How odd was that for a woman who is the CEO?
Were you ever concerned about falling into the same trap? Personally, I was a bit surprised that the film came off more sympathetic towards her than …
Than it should have?
… than I feel, by granting that her motives were altruistic. And I think the comparison to Edison is generous.
It’s generous in one way, and there’s a couple of reasons I went there. One is, I really don’t think she is a Madoff character. So I give her the credit for at least having that sense of mission. But honestly in my view that’s not necessarily the good news. You can look at Hitler and say he was a guy who who believed that the end justifies the means, right? That’s not good news.
The comparison to Edison – yes, Edison was a for real inventor. But also let’s be honest: Elizabeth exists on a spectrum of people who over-promise and sometimes way under-deliver and sometimes commit fraud. I didn’t want to do the film in which Silicon Valley gets left off the hook. Because if she’s just the bad apple – you know that’s what they said about the people at Abu Ghraib. They’re just bad apples, and so they have nothing to do with the overall system. Well, that was bullshit for Abu Ghraib and I think it’s bullshit for Silicon Valley. I think she does exist within the context of Silicon Valley culture even though she’s an extreme outlier in many ways. So it’s that tension I kind of was interested in playing with.
I wonder if I was too generous. But it’s hard to know. She very much feels she’s a victim. And that is a hard thing to reckon with. And that’s why I put in Phyllis at the end saying, “You are not a victim.” You know, the buck stops with you, Elizabeth Holmes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
This article first appeared on The Guardian.