I was surprised by how much Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (2018) by John Carreyrou drew me in. I watched the HBO documentary, The Inventor, with my man friend a while ago. I’d never heard of Theranos or Elizabeth Holmes, but it was an unbelievable story. When I first heard about the book, I wasn’t sure it would be worth reading after seeing the documentary. But I kept seeing Bad Blood all over the place. It’s on a number of “best of” lists and my book club also wanted to read it. I finally gave in.
Elizabeth Holmes was 19 years old in 2003 when she dropped out of Stanford and started a company that was eventually called Theranos. She had a vision of low-cost blood tests that could be done at home with a prick of a finger. It was a grand scheme where people could have better knowledge and control over their own health. One goal was to find potential health problems such as cancer and heart disease earlier, potentially saving lives.
Elizabeth Holmes was reportedly smart, intense, and charismatic. She was able to gather an impressive array of board members, including Henry Kissinger, James Mattis and George Schultz. With these powerful connections and the promise of big money available with such an advancement in health care, she was able to bring in approximately $1 billion to the company over the years.
The dark side of this inspiring dream was that it was all an illusion. The machines didn’t work, but Holmes unabashedly lied about their performance and where they were being used. In order to keep the secret going, employees had to abide by draconian security measures that promoted fear and secrecy. There was a remarkably high turnover rate, but none of the discontented employees could complain about what was going on because of nondisclosure agreements and a rabid team of lawyers. Circumstances worsened when Theranos started testing the blood of real patients. Besides using commercial machines for most of the testing, Theranos was providing unreliable test results, resulting in real harm to real patients.
In 2015, John Carreyrou, a Wall Street Journal Reporter received a tip that all was not well at Theranos. He began investigating and published a front-page story in October of that year. I was initially surprised that this part of the book reminded me of Catch and Kill and She Said. It’s the story of a journalist trying to get to the truth behind a person with powerful connections, almost unlimited funds, no sense of decency, and a fanatically aggressive team of lawyers. Theranos kept people from talking through intimidation and nondisclosure agreements.
This might sound familiar if you’ve read about Weinstein, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to see some familiar names. One was David Boies, the attorney who attempted to protect Weinstein by killing the stories about him. In this book, Boies popped up again to keep the public from finding out about the fraud Elizabeth Holmes was perpetrating. His strategy seems to be to scare people with his own powerful name and threats of endless costly litigation. It is so frustrating to see good people trying to do the right thing being harassed and terrified in such an immoral way. It is unclear whether Boies was under Elizabeth Holmes’s spell as many of the board members seemed to be, but he must have known what was going on at some point. Power and money don’t mean anything if you don’t have integrity or a conscience. David Boies and his associates will forever be linked in my mind with staunchly legitimizing criminals for cash through bullying and harassment.
One interesting point that stuck with me was that Rupert Murdoch became one of Theranos’s largest investors with 125 million dollars. Murdoch also owns the parent company of The Wall Street Journal, the paper digging up dirt on Theranos. On two different occasions, Elizabeth Holmes talked to Murdoch about using his influence to kill the story, and on both occasions he demurred. In fact, shortly before the story was published, Holmes visited Murdoch in his office, only three floors up from where Carreyrou was working. Yet, Carreyrou only learned about this much later. Murdoch never talked to him about Theranos and never tried to influence his reporting. As much as I can disapprove of other things Murdoch has done, this was refreshing to see. The New York Times also dealt very well with the pressure Weinstein put on the publication. This makes NBC’s “news” executives look even worse. Not only did they blatantly interfere with Farrow’s reporting, forcing him to move to The New Yorker, but they also lied about it.
There is a lot going on in this story that makes it endlessly fascinating. First, I’ve been trying to figure out Elizabeth Holmes since I first saw the documentary. She’s charismatic and enigmatic. She was able to achieve amazing highs and power with virtually nothing real to sell. At the same time she was capable of causing real harm to patients and employees with seemingly no remorse. She charmed rich, powerful old men with ease, and quickly showed irritation and anger for any employee who disagreed with her. In addition, she has a voice that sounds unnaturally deep. Her family says that it is genetic while some employees (and the internet) say they have heard her with a more natural, higher voice, and that she must be faking the deep voice. I have no idea what the truth is, but part of me hopes that Holmes intentionally used a lower voice in order to trick all those old school men with money to take her more seriously. If you ignore the fact that I wholly disapprove of everything she’s done, I think it would be hilarious if she used such a superficial tactic to successfully get around ingrained sexism.
Secondly, Elizabeth’s second in command and their relationship was also fascinating. Elizabeth met Sunny when she was only eighteen years old and he was about twenty years older. At some point they became a couple, and Elizabeth eventually brought Sunny into the company as COO–keeping their relationship secret from the board. Sunny was very unlikable and something of an enforcer around the office. He spied on everyone, yelled at people, and fired them with little to no cause. He drove expensive sports cars around with vanity license plates, and I found nothing remotely appealing about him. But what did they see in each other? Or what did Elizabeth see in him? It’s hard for me to imagine the power dynamic there.
Finally, learning about the culture at Theranos and what it took to bring the fraud to light really kept me reading. Carreyrou used a number of ex-employees as sources, and they had to deal with significant fear and pressure. Theranos was working hard to get at sources before The Wall Street Journal could publish its article. The intensity of this was impressive, and even though I knew the story, I couldn’t stop reading this book. Highly recommended.
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