You probably think you already know all there is to know about Elizabeth Homes, CEO/Silicon Valley wunderkind/wolf-puppy-haver who fell from grace when she was accused of building her health care company Theranos on sham science. The story of Theranos has been adapted into a book (John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood), a podcast (ABC News’ The Dropout), and is even set to be adapted for the big screen (Jennifer Lawrence is reportedly playing Holmes, natch.)
Yet to paraphrase the opening to The Real World, you think you may know the story, but you actually have no idea. Alex Gibney’s new documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood In Silicon Valley, which premiered on HBO on Monday night, aims to provide more nuance to the familiar story by featuring never-before-seen leaked footage, as well as by trying to depict Holmes not as a turtleneck-wearing, Gru-esque villain, but as a well-intentioned mogul whose dreams of changing the world far outpaced her ability to actually do so.
Holmes and her former partner, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, have been charged with 11 criminal felony counts and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. They’re set to appear in court for a status hearing on April 22nd. (Additionally, the SEC charged them with fraud, for which Holmes settled for $500,000 and an agreement to not take a leadership position in a company for a decade; Balwani plans to fight those charges in court.)
In the meantime, here are eight of the most shocking details from The Inventor (Holmes’s wolf-puppy unfortunately not included).
1. Elizabeth Holmes doesn’t blink.
A recurring theme in interviews with Holmes’ employees, including receptionist Cheryl Gafner, is that Holmes doesn’t blink when you meet her in person, an observation reiterated by Carreyrou in his book: “The way she trained her big blue eyes on you without blinking made you feel like the center of the world.It was almost hypnotic.” Some have speculated that this was a conscious mind-control tactic on Holmes’s part designed to dominate the people around her (in the same vein as her deep, lush baritone, which reportedly was her way of attempting to be taken seriously as a woman in Silicon Valley). But it’s equally possible that this was just one of the many, many things about Holmes that was just, well, kind of weird.
2. She’s been wearing her trademark black turtleneck since she was a child.
Many have interpreted Holmes’ decision to constantly wear black turtlenecks as an homage to her hero, Steve Jobs, whom she frequently quoted in interviews and board meetings. But the decision to adopt the garment as her signature look may have stemmed from fairly early on in life. In The Inventor, Holmes mentions she has been wearing black turtlenecks since she was five years old, a narrative she basically repeated to Glamour back in 2015: “My mom had me in black turtlenecks when I was, like, eight. I probably have 150 of these. [It’s] my uniform. It makes it easy, because every day you put on the same thing and don’t have to think about it — one less thing in your life. All my focus is on the work. I take it so seriously; I’m sure that translates into how I dress.”
3. Part of the reason why she was so successful at raising money for Theranos was because she “cast a spell” on powerful older men.
Holmes was known for having lots of powerful men on her side, including Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz (whose grandson Tyler famously blew the whistle on Theranos’s shady practices) and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, all of whom served on Theranos’s board. In The Inventor, Phyllis Gardner — a professor of medicine at Stanford who served as the one skeptical voice in the media while Theranos’s technology was being hyped — attributes Holmes’s success in this realm to her ability to cast a spell on powerful people, particularly wealthy older men. “She aligned herself with very powerful older men who seemed to succumb to a certain charm. And those powerful men could influence people in the government,” Gardner said.
4. Holmes never called the wife of longtime employee Ian Gibbons after he took his own life.
One of the most devastating interviews in The Inventor is with Rochelle Gibbons, the widow of biochemist Ian Gibbons, who took his own life in 2013, after being called to testify in a patent lawsuit against Theranos. Gibbons had just been given a cancer diagnosis, and was plagued with guilt over his knowledge that the Theranos technology did not work, despite the company’s success. And although Holmes and Balwani made an effort to at least pretend like they had built a solid corporate culture, after Gibbons’ death, Rochelle says she never heard from Theranos again — except when the company reached out to her to ask her to return some proprietary documents related to the company.
5. The counsel for Theranos allegedly resorted to appalling strong-arm tactics to bury the Wall Street Journal story.
The Inventor features multiple people testifying to the strong-arm tactics of Theranos’s legal counsel as led by David Boies, the powerful attorney who was also on the board of Theranos. (He was later alleged to have played a key role in suppressing the sexual assault allegations against his former client Harvey Weinsten.) According to George Shultz, the former Secretary of State and grandfather of Theranos whistleblower Tyler Shultz, Boies sent his team over to Shultz’s house to use bullying and intimidation tactics to silence his grandson. “I wouldn’t call them attorneys. The man was some sort of an animal. Wild animal. And he [verbally] assaulted my grandson,” Shultz says. “It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever observed.”
This impression of the Theranos legal team was reiterated by filmmaker Gibney in a recent interview with Uproxx: “David Boies, recently, in a New York Times profile said, “The law is there to protect the weak against the strong.” I think that’s a paraphrase. But nothing could be further from the truth in the Theranos story, where it’s all about the strong putting its boot on the face of the weak. You know, in a very forceful way.”
6. Holmes appeared at a Harvard dinner the day the Wall Street Journal published its exposé.
Journalist Roger Parloff, one of the men who The Inventor depicts as a victim of Theranos’ fraudulent practices, wrote a Fortune cover story on Holmes and Theranos in 2014. When he interviewed Holmes, Parloff had attempted to ask some probing questions about Theranos’ technology, all of which Holmes had skirted, and Parloff (correctly) felt he had been deceived. In a visibly emotional interview with Gibney, Parloff recounts how he had attempted to call Holmes the day the WSJ article was published, to clarify some things she had told him in his Fortune article. He was shocked to find that Holmes was unavailable because she was being inducted into the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows. “I was just stunned. I was thinking in my mind, ‘The Wall Street Journal has just said you’re a fraud and the company is a fraud. The company I put on my magazine is a fraud. And you’re going to spend the whole day hiding out at this honorary horse shit? You need to get out here…and explain what the fuck is going on at your company.”
7. The Theranos commercials directed by Errol Morris were, um, interesting.
Those who listened to The Dropout and/or read Bad Blood know that Theranos hired award-winning documentarian Errol Morris (Thin Blue Line) to produce some promo spots for the company. But actually seeing the footage of these ads is another story entirely. In one bizarre ad, a grandmother receives a gift card for a Theranos blood test while her grandchild looks on, weeping. (For his part, Morris seems pretty embarrassed about his role promoting Theranos, and reportedly refused to speak to Gibney about it when they ran into each other at an event.)
Amidst all of the disturbing moments in The Inventor, perhaps one of the most grotesque is a celebratory scene featuring Holmes and Balwani jumping in a bouncy house and dancing awkwardly to M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” shortly after the FDA approved one of the company’s blood tests in July 2015. It doesn’t really provide any insight on Holmes’ character or her motivations, but boy, is it fun to watch.