The New York Times’ 5,500-word feature of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was criticized this morning for being too sympathetic. However, Amy Chozick is complicit. Her tale may reveal how Holmes attracted investors, business partners, and the U.S. media before the Wall Street Journal exposed her company in late 2015.
It’s tricky. First, as any writer can tell you, writing a profile without puffery is difficult, and profiling Holmes is even harder. Since 2016, she hasn’t spoken to the media and has persuaded many prominent individuals.
According to whistleblower Tyler Shultz, Holmes is “very, very charismatic.” She makes you feel like the most important person in her universe when she speaks. People can get trapped into her reality distortion field.”
Chozick’s narrative is remarkable since she doesn’t create a heavy-handed story reflexive readers would like.
Holmes conjures a lot. Chozick spends time with Holmes, Billy Evans, their two children, Holmes’s parents, and others in Holmes’s circle. Holmes and Evans take Teddy and Chozick to the beach. They invite her to their small Pacific coast rental property for Mexican dinner. Evans makes croissants, fruit, and coffee for them after their San Diego Zoo excursion. Chozick didn’t need to mention each of these excursions surreptitiously, but she did to let us experience Holmes’s covert charm campaign.
Holmes, whose prison term was just postponed, becomes so confident in Chozick that she considers creating another Theranos. Holmes tells her, “I still dream about contributing in that space.” “I still feel the same calling to it and think the need is there.”
Campaign almost works. Chozick adds that she realized she was writing about two persons. Elizabeth was a rock-star inventor whose criminal trial enthralled the globe. Mr. Evans and her friends call her “Liz,” a mom of two who has volunteered for a rape crisis hotline for a year.
Who can’t watch R-rated movies and who ran after me one afternoon with a paper towel to clean sand and her dog’s spit off my shoe.”
The writer sees the vision vividly when her editors shake her awake.
Chozick admits, “I was swept up in Liz as an authentic and sympathetic person. She exudes calm charm. “Amy Chozick, you got rolled!” my editor chuckled when I relayed my thoughts.
She first questions her editor, stating she knows Holmes in a surprising way. “Something very strange happened,” she continues. I spoke to Ms. Holmes’s friends, relatives, and lifelong supporters, whom she and Mr. Evans recommended. One acquaintance argued Ms. Holmes had good intentions at Theranos and shouldn’t be imprisoned. Then, this person wanted anonymity to warn me not to trust Ms. Holmes.”
Chozick writes, “Ms. Holmes’s 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. Ms. Holmes said, ‘I began my life again’ when Mr. Balwani left and Theranos collapsed. I recall Ms. Holmes ran the cult.”
Chozick purposely marvels at how much more time Holmes and Evans want to spend with her, inviting her to join them and their friends for another supper and asking if she would want to return to the zoo with her family. “I appreciated their hospitality but didn’t fully understand it,” she adds. Interviewees usually want me gone.”
Chozick learns why they “keep opening the door wider.” “In her presence, it is impossible not to believe her, not to be taken with her and taken in by her.”
In the CBS News interview last year, Shultz mentioned another Theranos-related comment. “I could go and have a five-minute conversation with Elizabeth and feel like I was saving the world again,” he added.