Elizabeth Holmes, left to her own devices
Critics are flaming The New York Times for posting earlier this morning what they say is an overly empathetic 5,500-word profile of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. But writer Amy Chozick is in on the con. In fact, her story may provide the clearest understanding yet of how Holmes so captivated investors, business partners and the U.S. media, before The Wall Street Journal finally blew the lid on her company beginning in late 2015.
Nice to be a pretty white lady working your charm on a nyt reporter.
— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) May 7, 2023
pretty incredible to write a performatively angsty bazillion-word profile of Elizabeth Holmes without ever addressing the certainty that her lies would have killed people if she hadn’t been busted, or the equal certainty that she herself knew this
— Albert Burneko (@AlbertBurneko) May 7, 2023
It's not an easy thing to pull off. First, as any reporter can tell you, writing a profile piece that does not feature at least some puffery is not easy, and profiling someone like Holmes has to be more complicated than most. She hasn't talked to the media since 2016, and she is a highly persuasive character who managed to make many powerful people bend to her will.
As former Theranos employee and whistleblower Tyler Shultz told CBS News early last year of Holmes, "Elizabeth is a very, very charismatic person. When she speaks to you, she makes you feel like you are the most important person in her world in that moment. She almost has this reality distortion field around her that people can just get sucked into.”
While Chozick might have written a heavier-handed story -- one that people who reflexively read the story might have preferred -- the brilliance of this piece is that she takes the opposite approach. She lets Holmes perform her magic but offers a peek behind the curtain as Holmes does it.
Holmes pulls a lot out of her hat. Chozick spends time with not only Holmes, her romantic partner, Billy Evans, and their two children, but also Holmes's parents and others in Holmes's orbit. Holmes and Evans take Chozick to the beach with their dog, Teddy. They invite her to join them for Mexican food at their quaint rental home on the Pacific coast. They visit the San Diego Zoo together and, in a separate meeting, have croissants and berries and coffee made by Evans. Chozick doesn't need to mention each of these outings discretely, but by doing so, she let us witness Holmes's subtle charm campaign as if we were there with her.
Holmes -- whose prison sentence was recently delayed -- grows so confident in Chozick's presence that she even imagines inventing another Theranos. “I still dream about being able to contribute in that space,” Holmes tells her. “I still feel the same calling to it as I always did and I still think the need is there.”
The campaign almost works. "I realized that I was essentially writing a story about two different people,” Chozick writes. ”There was Elizabeth, celebrated in the media as a rock-star inventor whose brilliance dazzled illustrious rich men, and whose criminal trial captivated the world. Then there is 'Liz,' (as Mr. Evans and her friends call her), the mom of two who, for the past year, has been volunteering for a rape crisis hotline. Who can’t stomach R-rated movies and who rushed after me one afternoon with a paper towel to wipe a mix of sand and her dog’s slobber off my shoe."
The writer is so dazzled by "Liz" and finds her so "normal" that her editors have to snap her out of her trance, after which she begins to see the picture more clearly.
Writes Chozick, "I was admittedly swept up in Liz as an authentic and sympathetic person. She’s gentle and charismatic, in a quiet way. My editor laughed at me when I shared these impressions, telling me (and I quote), 'Amy Chozick, you got rolled!'"
Initially, she doubts her editor, saying she is certain she has come to know Holmes in a way that might surprise readers. But then, she adds, "something very strange happened. I worked my way through a list of Ms. Holmes’s friends, family and longtime supporters, whom she and Mr. Evans suggested I speak to. One of these friends said Ms. Holmes had genuine intentions at Theranos and didn’t deserve a lengthy prison sentence. Then, this person requested anonymity to caution me not to believe everything Ms. Holmes says."
At another point, Chozick is again understated about seeing behind the artifice, writing, "Ms. Holmes’s story of how she got here — to the bright, cozy house and the supportive partner and the two babies — feels a lot like the story of someone who had finally broken out of a cult and been deprogrammed. After her relationship with Mr. Balwani ended and Theranos dissolved, Ms. Holmes said, 'I began my life again.' But then I remember that Ms. Holmes was running the cult."
As the story ends, Chozick deliberately marvels at how much more time Holmes and Evans want to spend with her, inviting her to join them and their friends for yet another dinner, asking if she would like to come back for another date to the zoo with her own family. "I appreciated their hospitality," she writes, "but I didn’t fully understand it. Usually interview subjects can’t wait to get rid of me."
Then Chozick realizes why they "keep opening the door wider." If "you are in her presence, it is impossible not to believe her, not to be taken with her and be taken in by her."
The observation brings to mind something else Shultz said about his time at Theranos in that interview with CBS News last year. "Even when I was working with the product every single day, seeing it fail time after time after time," he'd said, "I could go and have a five-minute conversation with Elizabeth and feel like I was saving the world again."