The rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes has been in the news a lot lately. I must confess I was busy with grad school when the one-time whiz kid of Silicon Valley first rocketed to fame in the 2010s. So, I missed all the initial glowing coverage and attention lavished on the Stanford dropout who created Theranos, a multi-billion-dollar biotech startup that promised to change the way health care worked in America, and was lauded as the next Steve Jobs. Consequently, when Holmes and Theranos were finally outed as frauds in a shocking investigation by a Wall Street Journal reporter, I didn’t pay much attention to the coverage then either.
But after hearing a lot of buzz about Bad Blood, the book about Theranos that was written by the investigative reporter who brought the whole scheme tumbling down, I was intrigued enough to request we purchase it for the library. And I’m so glad I did–this is a wild read and an incredibly engrossing one at that. I had trouble putting the book down. (Thanks so much to Julie for adding it to the collection!)
Carreyrou could have structured this narrative a number of ways, and if he had chosen to start with when he was first tipped off that Theranos was more troubling than it seemed and then followed the course of his investigation, it certainly would have made sense. His own work on the story had plenty of drama and twists and turns, including tremendous pressure from the highly litigious and aggressive Theranos on both him and his sources to cave and concerns about the fact his own newspaper was also touting Holmes as a groundbreaking innovator.
However, instead, Carreyrou chooses to de-emphasize the investigation–which doesn’t even start until nearly 200 pages in–for a relatively chronological account of how Theranos came to be.
It could have been easy for the story to turn into an overly complicated explanation of the science at the heart of the tale, but Carreyrou does a good job of breaking down the science behind what Holmes claimed to be doing and why it didn’t work, as well as the ins and outs of Silicon Valley startup culture, in a way that makes it easy to follow the narrative, even if you’re not much of a scientist or entrepreneur yourself.
Essentially, Holmes claimed that she could diagnose a wide range of health conditions via a simple fingerprick blood test on a small portable machine. It’s an innovation that would have made preventative care, as well as monitoring medication usage, much simpler for patients and physicians alike.
The only problem is that it is literally impossible to do all the things that Theranos wanted to do in such a small package, so the company spent years deceiving investors, business partners, and its own workforce about its capabilities and sending blatantly false test results to patients.
The result is a riveting trainwreck that juxtaposes how, internally, so many employees were alarmed at what they saw as blatant ethical violations and scientific malpractice (to the point that staff turnover was relentless as people quit or were fired) while Holmes’s most vocal supporters (including her board that attracted celebrities from the worlds of politics and business) were blinded by her charisma and kept ignoring warning after warning about the implausibility of Theranos’s claims and the major red flags that the business, Holmes, and her bullying second-in-command/boyfriend exhibited.
It’s easy to write off Theranos as simply the tale of a con artist and her scam, but what I found most disturbing about the whole endeavor was how, well, culty it was. I got some pretty serious Jim Jones vibes from the way Holmes conducted herself and her business. She seemed to really buy into her own hype and ruthlessly quashed any and all dissent, no matter how constructive or well-meaning it was, and was downright paranoid when it came to covering up her lies. The result is a great primer for how not to run a business, win friends, or influence people.
If you’re a fan of well-written, compelling investigative nonfiction about science, true crime, and/or current affairs, I highly recommend Bad Blood.
Are you familiar with the Theranos story? What’s your favorite book about investigative reporting? What have you been reading in September? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on this book or to place it on hold.