HBO’s Theranos Documentary Should Have Been an Indictment of White Privilege
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley seems as enamored with Elizabeth Holmes as her investors.
History is filled with stories of dogged inventors, failing again and again before triumphing with a world-changing invention. People like Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs toiled endlessly to create tools for a better world. Elizabeth Holmes is not one of those people. And no matter how much she quotes Edison or dresses like Jobs, she remains a false idol, a pretender.
But looking and sounding the part, in addition to being a conventionally attractive white woman with some key influential supporters, was enough for her investors to pour nearly a billion dollars into the company based on her salesmanship alone.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Alex Gibney’s documentary focuses on Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout who launches her own biotech start-up Theranos with the brilliant idea of changing how blood work is done. Theranos promised a revolutionary new invention, where one drop of blood collected from a finger-prick could be popped into a machine (called the Edison), roughly the size of a printer, and run 200 diagnostic health tests based on that single blood drop. The only problem: it’s scientifically impossible.
But like a decade-old meme from a similarly white wealthy student reminds us, “impossible is nothing.” Armed with nothing more than an idea, a sob story about a deceased uncle, and a closet full of black turtlenecks, Holmes managed to convince some of the most successful men in business and politics to validate her and fund her idea. Men like former secretary of state George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, former secretary of defense James Mattis and more. Even Rupert Murdoch and Betsy Devos were name-checked as Theranos supporters.
What’s wild about the meteoric rise and fall of Theranos is the blind faith that so many older, established men placed in Holmes. Faith that was based in nothing more than Holmes’ posh upbringing, her Stanford pedigree, and her zealous, unblinking commitment. It seems that the biggest believer in Holmes’ bullshit was Holmes herself who, even after a series of exposés, remained doggedly committed to her lie.
One woman who saw through Holmes from the start was Stanford Medical School professor Dr. Phyllis Gardner, who encountered Holmes as student. Holmes had pitched her an earlier idea about a patch that could scan a person for infection and then release the correct antibiotic to treat it. Gardner humored Holmes, but assured her in no uncertain terms that the idea was impossible.
Gardner said of Holmes, “She was going to make it work and follow the model of ‘try it until you succeed … That is so completely ridiculous in terms of healthcare.” She followed up by saying, “I just want her convicted … All I want is to see her in an orange jumpsuit with a black turtleneck accent.”
The documentary will no doubt draw comparisons to another scammer story, Billy McFarland’s Fyre festival debacle, which was featured in two separate documentaries. And there are striking similarities to both McFarland’s and Holmes’ rise to power. Both came from wealthy white families, both looked and sounded the part of a young entrepreneur, and both retained a devoted following of influential investors.
But how did they do it? The answer, of course, is white privilege. Both scammers cultivated a successful persona that investors followed off a cliff with a lemming-like commitment. But unlike the Fyre festival docs, Gibney doesn’t dig deeper into Holmes’ origin story. We learn little of her upbringing, her parents, and while Gibney is an acclaimed filmmaker, he is unable to pierce the veil of Elizabeth Holmes. Perhaps he was just as mysteriously enamored with his subject as her misled followers were.
If you still can’t get enough of the Theranos scandal, it will soon be the subject of a big budget movie directed by Adam McKay (Vice) and starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes.
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