HBO's Theranos documentary The Inventor looks at why scams succeed
The season of scam is in full swing.
Two months after Netflix and Hulu gave us their duelling Fyre Festival films, HBO has a new documentary about massive fraud for you to obsess about.
, airing Monday at 9 p.m., follows the jaw-dropping rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, the enigmatic young founder of Theranos, whose multi-billion-dollar startup promised cheap, portable blood tests for all. The catch? None of the technology actually worked and results were wildly inaccurate, forcing the company to correct and void tens of thousands of blood tests given at pharmacies where its equipment was used in 2014 and 2015.
Following an explosive Wall Street Journal investigation, Holmes was indicted last summer on multiple counts of wire fraud and conspiracy, and Theranos was shuttered months later. Although she now keeps a low profile, Holmes, 35, remains a figure of fascination: she’ll be played by Jennifer Lawrence in an upcoming movie about the scandal.
After watching , we asked director Alex Gibney to clear up some facts and theories about the former CEO.
1. How did Elizabeth Holmes dupe so many people?
According to ex-employees, Holmes went to great lengths to swindle investors, taking their blood samples before taking them out to lunch. (Meanwhile, lab technicians switched out the equipment and used non-Theranos machines to get results.) She also hobnobbed with celebrities and politicians, who may have helped convince U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulators to turn a blind eye.
“By surrounding herself with powerful people, it reinforces that belief in her, like, ‘Oh, if Henry Kissinger is on her board, she must be great,’” Gibney says. “It conveys a sense of power so that she can cow people into believing or at least not questioning (Theranos’ methods).”
2. Did she actually intimidate whistleblowers?
Ex-employees say there was a culture of paranoia at Theranos headquarters in Palo Alto, California, where Holmes surrounded herself with bodyguards and allegedly tracked her staff’s online correspondence to ensure no one was exposing secrets or inflammatory information. Company whistleblowers Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz claim Theranos’ lawyer, David Boies, followed and verbally assaulted them outside of work in an effort to keep them quiet.
“She used David as an enforcer to keep people from telling the truth,” Gibney says. “(It was) surprising to see how brutal she could be toward people she either thought were a threat or had crossed her.”
3. What’s with the voice?
Holmes is known for her husky, baritone voice, which some of her former employees have claimed is fake. Online conspiracies seem to back up the theory that it’s just an act: many Reddit users and YouTube commenters dissected videos in which she appears to “fall out” of the deeper register.
“I don’t think it’s one of those things where she went home at night and spoke in a natural falsetto,” Gibney counters. But he believes “she was the writer, producer and director of a very sophisticated story about herself and maybe her voice was deeper because of that.”
4. Is she trying to dress like Steve Jobs?
In the documentary, Holmes shows off her closet filled entirely with black turtlenecks and slacks, which she claims to have worn since she was a young girl.
Gibney says the uniform was “part of her emulating Steve Jobs, but also part of the costume design for her (persona). She doesn’t have time to wear any other clothes, and the black sets off the white, which sets off the red lipstick. It was a very striking portrait of a woman at work.”
5. Why does she hardly blink?
Another distinctive Holmes feature is her blank, wide-eyed stare. “A number of people remarked on how unnerving it was to be in her presence, because she never seemed to blink,” Gibney says. “The eyes are supposed to be the window of the soul, but I wonder if that refusal to blink was like turning them into mirrors instead of windows. It was this very bizarre thing where it was like she was boring into your soul, almost like a form of intimidation.”
6. Could she be a sociopath?
Although she quickly got in over her head, Holmes started Theranos with the seemingly pure ideal that if people can administer their own blood tests any time, anywhere, they’re more likely to catch diseases before they become terminal.
“When people cheat for a good cause, they cheat more than they would even for themselves,” Gibney says. “There’s no moral conflict for them, because the end justifies the means.”
Gibney declines to call Holmes a sociopath but is troubled by her lack of concern over giving patients faulty blood tests.
“I certainly think she has narcissistic tendencies and showed signs of raw delusion,” Gibney says. “She had a vision of herself and the company that she refused to give up, even in the face of putting other people’s lives at risk. That is a terrifying notion.”