Elizabeth Holmes, left to herself

Image credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Critics are blasting the New York Times today for publishing what they say is an overly empathetic 5,500-word profile of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes earlier this morning. But author Amy Chozick is in on the trick. Indeed, her story may provide the clearest understanding yet of how Holmes captivated investors, business partners and the US media before the Wall Street Journal finally blew the lid on her company in late 2015.

It’s not an easy thing to pull off. First, as any reporter can tell you, it’s not easy to write a profile piece that doesn’t have some level of fluff, and profiling someone like Holmes must be more complicated than most. She has not spoken to the media since 2016, and she is a very persuasive character who managed to make many powerful people bend to her will.

As former Theranos employee and whistleblower Tyler Shultz told CBS News early last year about Holmes, “Elizabeth is a very, very charismatic person. When she talks to you, she makes you feel like you’re the most important person in her world in that moment. She almost has this reality distortion field around her that people can just get sucked into.”

While Chozick may have written a story with a heavier hand—one that people reading the story might prefer—the brilliance of this piece is that she takes the opposite approach. She allows Holmes to work his magic, but offers a peek behind the curtain as Holmes does it.

Holmes pulls a lot out of his hat. Chozick spends time with not only Holmes, her romantic partner, Billy Evans, and their two children, but also Holmes’ parents and others in Holmes’ orbit. Holmes and Evans take Chozick to the beach with their dog, Teddy. They invite her to join them for Mexican food in their charming Pacific Coast rental. They visit the San Diego Zoo together, and in a separate meeting they get croissants and berries and coffee made by Evans. Chozick doesn’t need to subtly mention each of these outings, but in doing so, she lets us witness Holmes’s subtle charm campaign as if we were right there with her.

Holmes — whose prison sentence was recently delayed — becomes so safe in Chozick’s presence that she even imagines inventing another Theranos. “I still dream of being able to contribute in that area,” says Holmes. “I still feel the same calling to it as I always have, and I still think the need is there.”

The campaign almost works. “I realized I was actually writing a story about two different people,” Chozick writes. “There was Elizabeth, celebrated in the media as a rock-star inventor whose brilliance dazzled famously rich men, and whose criminal trial captivated the world. Then there’s ‘Liz’ (as Mr Evans and her friends call her), the mother of two who in the past year has come forward volunteer for a rape crisis hotline. Who can’t stomach R-rated movies and who ran after me one afternoon with a paper towel to wipe a mixture of sand and her dog off my shoe.”

The author is so dazzled by “Liz” and finds her so “normal” that her editors have to snap her out of her trance, after which she begins to see the picture more clearly.

Writes Chozick, “I was admittedly swept up in Liz as an authentic and likable person. She is gentle and charismatic, in a quiet way. My editor laughed at me when I shared these impressions, telling me (and I quote): ‘Amy Chozick, you got rolled!'”

At first, she doubts her editor, saying she’s sure she’s gotten to know Holmes in a way that might surprise readers. But then, she adds, “something very strange happened. I worked my way through a list of Ms. Holmes’s friends, family and longtime supporters, whom she and Evans suggested I talk to. One of those friends said that Ms. Holmes had real intentions at Theranos and did not deserve a long prison sentence. This person then requested anonymity to warn me not to believe everything Ms. Holmes says.”

At another point, Chozick is again understated about seeing behind the artifice, writing, “Ms. Holmes’ story of how she got here—to the bright, cozy house and the supportive partner and the two babies—feels a lot like the story of someone who had finally broken out of a cult and been deprogrammed. After her relationship with Mr. Balwani ended and Theranos dissolved, Holmes said, “I started my life over.” But then I remember that Mrs. Holmes was running the cult.”

As the story ends, Chozick deliberately wonders how much more time Holmes and Evans want to spend with her, and invites her to join them and their friends for another dinner, asking if she wants to come back for another date to the zoo with her own family. “I appreciated their hospitality,” she writes, “but I did not fully understand it. Usually interviewees can’t wait to get rid of me.”

Then Chozick understands why they “open the door further”. If “you are in her presence, it is impossible not to believe her, not to be taken with her and to be taken in by her.”

The observation brings to mind something else Shultz said about his time at Theranos in that interview with CBS News last year. “Even when I was working on the product every single day and seeing it fail time and time again,” he had said, “I could go and have a five-minute conversation with Elizabeth and feel like I saved the world again.”

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