Obsessed: Elizabeth Holmes, Founder of Theranos and Noted Rich Liar

Welcome to OBSESSED, a spin-off of Things I Read That I love in which I provide you a reading list / media consumption list that speaks to my primary hobby: doing obsessive amounts of research into a singular topic or story for no reason. This week’s deadline crept up on me so I am being basic and admitting that yes, after watching “The Dropout,” I have indeed consumed a lot of media about Elizabeth Holmes!


Hulu’s The Dropout: The True Story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos

The Dropout -- “Heroes” - Episode 107 -- Under intense scrutiny from the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth and Sunny double down on defense. Tyler and Erika face a difficult choice. Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) and Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), shown. (Photo by: Beth Dubber/Hulu)

The Dropout — “Heroes” – Episode 107 — Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) and Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), shown. (Photo by: Beth Dubber/Hulu)

There’s been a glut of scammer stories on the streaming networks this spring, which has been delightful for me personally, a scholar of con artists and scams who is working on their own con artist novel (based on a true story that happened to me) that I hope one day will become a limited series! Most of these productions have been very bad and garnered mediocre reviews, but Hulu’s The Dropout, about youngest-ever self-made female billionaire Elizabeth Holmes, is a noted exception.

“It turns out that what I want in a scam show is The Dropout, Hulu’s new series about Elizabeth Holmes, creator of the blood-testing company Theranos,” writes Kathryn VanArendonk in her Vulture review, later concluding that “Holmes is idiosyncratic, and Theranos is its own distinct world of catastrophe, but the show also reflects ideas about American individualism and tech culture without making them so overt that it’s distracting.”

Theranos is indeed its own distinct world of catastrophe — maybe one of the greatest stories ever told. It’s right up there for me with Dr. Death in the Cannon of Audacity.


Podcasts and Films About Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos

Like so many, I somehow missed the entire story as it was happening but later became enraptured by The Dropout podcast, which was a sensation when it debuted in 2019. In 2021, the podcast transitioned into being “The Dropout: Elizabeth Holmes on Trial,” which followed her trial week-to-week, sharing court testimony and interviewing jurors.

Bad Blood: The Final Chapter” on Apple Podcasts also followed the trial and is hosted by John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story and is featured in the Hulu series, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach.

There’s a lot of films and specials about Elizabeth Holmes out there too. HBO’s Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is definitely the best available documentary and interviews everybody fictionalized in The Dropout.

A special episode of 20/20 released in March covered the scandal and the trial, which built on the original 20/20 episode from 2019. The best part of this particular video is that it does a cool side-by-side of Elizabeth Holmes and Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes.


John Carreyrou’s Reporting and Book About Elizabeth Holmes and Other Longform About Elizabeth Holmes

Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford in 2003 as a 19-year-old to start Theranos, a company now poised to disrupt the medical diagnostic test market. She spoke about the company’s vision at their headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., Thursday afternoon July 3, 2014. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) (Photo by Karl Mondon/MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

The Bad Blood podcast is named after the book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou, world-renowned Elizabeth Holmes expert, who unfortunately writes for The Wall Street Journal, which is not exactly my favorite newspaper and is also heavily paywalled!

In the seventh episode of The Dropout, Carreyrou publishes what was then the first big news article to question the Theranos mythology, October 2015’s Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled With Its Blood-Test Technology. Later that day, Holmes appeared on Mad Money to deny the allegations made in the article. As the house of cards came tumbling down, Carreyrou posted news about Threanos as often as every few days for ensuing weeks and months and eventually years.

He also wrote three more longform pieces:

  • At Theranos, Many Strategies and Snags, which resulted from a huge uptick in newly emboldened sources (including over 20 former Theranos employees), building on his original story.
  • An in-depth piece on whisteblower Tyler Shultz in Theranos Whisteblower Shook the Company — and His Family
  • An essay in 2018 which argued that Holmes’ boyfriend Sunny Balwani played a much bigger role in the scandal than previously believed, as he “jointly ran the company with her for seven years as president and chief operating officer and enforced a corporate culture of secrecy and fear.”

Because it is very unlikely you can actually read any of those pieces, I suggest Vanity Fair’s September 2016 story How Elizabeth Holmes’ House of Cards Came Tumbling Down, by Nick Bilton. It’s probably the best accessible piece of longform on Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.

Refinery 29 has a very helpful timeline that also summarizes the jist of most of the smaller WSJ pieces that came out in the days following their initial bombshell.

In September, John Carreyrou spoke to The Verge about his six years of reporting on the Theranos story and her trial — the piece offers a great look back into the environment around tech, start-ups and reporting that enabled all the positive press of 2014 and 2015. Which brings us to…


Early Longform Reporting and Cover Stories on Elizabeth Holmes

Fortune Magazine Cover "This CEO is Out For Blood"

via amazon.com

This CEO is Out For Blood, by Roger Parloff for Fortune, June 2014

“Precisely how Theranos accomplishes all these amazing feats is a trade secret. Holmes will only say — and this is more than she has ever said before — that her company uses ‘the same fundamental chemical methods’ as existing labs do. Its advances relate to ‘optimizing the chemistry’ and ‘leveraging software’ to permit those conventional methods to work with tiny sample volumes.”

Fortune Magazine followed up this piece with a live interview at its Fortune Most Powerful Women conference. The interviews and notes that went into writing this cover story were drawn on extensively during her trial. Parloff later wrote a piece on “How Theranos Misled Me” and appeared in the HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” to talk about writing that story and its aftermath.

This Woman Invented a Way to Run 30 Lab Tests on Only One Drop of Blood, by Caitlin Roper for Wired magazine, February 2014 – A brief interview with Holmes about her technology and interviews.

Blood, Simple, by Ken Auletta for The New Yorker, December 2014 – This is the article that piqued John Carreyrou’s interest in Theranos, because it’s clear that Auletta is a little suspicious (which he confirmed in his interviews in “The Inventor.”). Auletta describes Holmes’ explanation of what happens in her machines “comically vague” and actually talks to a scientist from Quest Diagnostics who refutes many of Holmes’ claims about what is scientifically possible. Auletta also asks for data and evidence Theranos refuses to provide. It’s a really satisfying piece to read in retrospect.

How Playing The Long Game Made Elizabeth Holmes a Billionaire, by Kimberly Weisul for Inc, October 2015 — came out the same month as the Wall Street Journal exposée.

Holmes is willing to contemplate failure, but only in the scientific sense. She named one of Theranos’s internal projects Edison, as a reminder of the virtue of staying the course: When the inventor was asked why, after thousands of attempts, he hadn’t managed to make a light bulb ready for commercial use, he replied that he had in fact made significant progress–he now knew thousands of ways not to make a light bulb. In Holmes’s view, being prepared to face failure 1,000 times is simply what is required to finally get it right the 1,001st. And she has no intention of doing anything else, ever.

Five Visionary Tech Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World, by Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, October 2015 – another piece from the same month of the Wall Street Journal piece.

“By breaking down barriers to testing, she’s paving the way for a scalable approach to early diagnosis and therefore lower-cost, less invasive treatments. And by standing up to lawmakers and entities with vested interests for individuals’ fundamental right to access their health care information, Holmes may be doing more than running one of the world’s most successful start-ups — she may be starting a movement to change the health care paradigm as we know it.”


Elizabeth Holmes Trial and Verdict

SAN JOSE, CA - DECEMBER 23: Billy Evans walks with his partner Theranos founder and former CEO Elizabeth Holmes and her mother Noel Holmes as they leave the Robert F. Peckham Federal Building on December 23, 2021 in San Jose, California. Jury deliberations continue in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud trial as she faces charges of conspiracy and wire fraud for allegedly engaging in a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud investors with the Theranos blood-testing lab services. (Photo by David Odisho/Getty Images)

SAN JOSE, CA – DECEMBER 23: Billy Evans walks with his partner Theranos founder and former CEO Elizabeth Holmes and her mother Noel Holmes as they leave the Robert F. Peckham Federal Building on December 23, 2021 in San Jose, California. Jury deliberations continue in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud trial as she faces charges of conspiracy and wire fraud for allegedly engaging in a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud investors with the Theranos blood-testing lab services. (Photo by David Odisho/Getty Images)

Here is the indictment of Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani. Here’s a page of The Times’ coverage of the entire trial.

Holmes was eventually found guilty of four counts of investor fraud and acquitted on four counts of defrauding patients. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on three additional counts. She could face up to 20 years in prison but experts estimate it’ll likely be more much fewer. She will pay a fine of $250,000, plus restitution, for the conspiracy count and each count of wire fraud.

During the trial, Holmes initially blamed her former company lab director, a whistleblower. Holmes also testified that her ex-boyfriend and Theranos’ Chief Operating Officer, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, was abusive and controlling. The potential merit of those claims didn’t change the fact that Holmes was “in firm control of Theranos and wanted to make its story larger than life.” (Slate had an interesting piece on how to grapple with those allegations.) The Verge also has a great wrap-up piece on the trial as a whole, and The New York Times details what we learned from her week of testimony specifically. Sunny’s trial began on March 22nd.

You can read Court Orders and selected documents pertaining to USA vs. Holmes materials on the California Court website as well as all the trial exhibits, which are mostly emails.


Elizabeth Holmes Miscellany:

Elizabeth Holmes Accidentally Uses REAL VOICE!! A video which investigates the claim that she invented her deep voice to sound more authoritative. Truly one of the weirdest elements of this story. Here is an expert on whether or not Holmes lowered her voice intentionally. [NOTE: Both the video and the article use language that could be interpreted as a claim that intentionally changing your voice is a sociopathic behavior or a sign of sociopathy, which isn’t true.]

The Women of ‘The Dropout’ Want to Humanize Elizabeth Holmes: a group interview with Elizabeth Meriwether, Amanda Seyfried and Rebecca Jarvis, in The New York Times.

How The Dropout’s Actors Compare to Their Real-Life Counterparts: I simply love this stuff, so.

Becoming Elizabeth Holmes: How “The Dropout” team transformed Amanda Seyfried into Elizabeth Holmes.

What Was It Like To Work With Elizabeth Holmes? I’m unfamiliar with this website but it seems like the most comprehensive collection of what her former employees recently said about her on social media, specifically regarding her Green Juices.

Somehow Elizabeth Holmes’ twitter account still exists, untouched since 2015.

Real Estate of Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani: all their crazy houses and the apartment!


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Riese

Riese is the 39-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2953 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. the HBO series was RIVETING, because there are so many first-hand interviews with Holmes, and she’s just SO BANANAS. Her intense eye contact, the way she pitches her voice, I’m actually scared to watch The Dropout because I am sure Amanda Seyfried did a great job but no one can possibly be that scary???

    • wait who said changing your voice is a sign of being a psychopath

      i think people are fascinated by the claim that she intentionally changed her voice, but i haven’t heard anybody say that intentionally changing your voice is a sign of psychopathy

      ETA: ok i re-read the article i shared and they do say “Holmes’ supposed attempt to alter her voice is a detail that captivates audiences” and “The behavior might strike some people as bizarre, even sociopathic” — which I guess i took to mean specific to Holmes’s context, not as a general statement about voice changing? idk

  2. Very excited about this column! I remember falling headfirst into this scandal because I’m a molecular biologist and it just blew my mind that she got so far without anyone asking “But *how* are you doing this incredibly scientifically difficult thing??” Like I’m not an expert, I have a bachelor’s and a few years of specific job training, but I work on analyzing small amounts of bio samples and sample amount is a serious limitation…her claims raised red flags for me right away and I was in one of the most junior positions in the field. It’s amazing what “proprietary” and buzz around “disruptions” in tech can hide, even from people who should really, really know better.

    • right that’s what’s so weird about it to me is VERY early on she had a professor be like “yeah no that’s not possible” but …. somehow got enough scientists on board with trying to make it possible??? she literally just came up with an idea that was basically magic and everybody was like ok let’s do it????

  3. There is something about her that fascinates me. I know she’s deranged. I know she’s manipulative. I know she’s a psychopath. None of that matters. I am just completely obsessed with her and I know why. It’s the same reason why I’m obsessed with the characters Vilanelle, Elizabeth Jennings, and other dangerous women both real and fiction. I’ll keep those reasons to myself (I have a MS in Psychology, believe me I know why I am the way I am) – LOL.

    I think I’m gonna like this column a lot.

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