I almost never read giant non-fiction books. That might change one day, but I’m 24 years old. Probably not happening anytime soon, especially when if I’m interested in a real story, there’s an article or documentary or something on television that will tell it satisfyingly. But the story of Elizabeth Holmes is so fascinating, so tragic, so troubling, that I picked up Bad Blood, and it definitely surpasses barriers it sets for itself by having to be grounded in the logistics of journalism. It’s quite an entertaining and fascinating accomplishment.
If you haven’t heard about the real-life story of Elizabeth Holmes that inspired the Amanda-Seyfried led TV show The Dropout and a documentary of the same title and various articles, then here’s the basics. Elizabeth as a child wanted to become a billionaire. Wanted to change the world. And she came up with an idea for a way to make blood testing not only easier and faster but less scary, stemming from her phobia of needles. Her pitch was a device, a small device, that could perform dozens, hundreds of blood tests with a simple practically painless prick of a finger and a few small drops. She and her much-older boyfriend Sunny Balwani ended up running a Silicon Valley startup called Theranos that struggled in its early years, then got a big boost from the world in the mid 2010s but was still struggling behind the scenes. And it was struggling for a multitude of reasons, such as unreasonable zero tolerance policies and unrealistic expectations, but the main factor was that it’s just biologically impossible for most blood tests to get accurate results from a few small drops nor drops from the hand rather than the arm. This is a book told from the point of view of the journalist, John Carreyrou, who was brought this story from a whistleblower, and did the investigating which eventually led to the company’s collapse and Elizabeth and Sunny’s criminal convictions.
Does anyone remember Samy and Amy Bouzaglo from Kitchen Nightmares, the only restaurant that caused Gordon Ramsay to have to walk out on them? It’s relatively likely you or a friend of yours have heard of them. That episode, as well as shattering a record, introduced an environment that a big majority of viewers said was unacceptable; taking away tips meant for the server, a reveal of mass firings, and a sense of downright aggression. One worker ended up put to tears and quit on the spot. Seeing that made the two restauranteurs scarringly infamous, and it’s easy to dislike them when we’re in the shoes of the people they shouted at. But at the same time, there are two things I think people too often forget; one, everyone has their own story to tell, and it’s possible for someone to have baggage on them, a history that can make one more sensitive, more stubborn, more sure of themselves, or even a background that makes them feel they need to take out frustrations on others, and two, the internet almost never allows anyone a second chance when they really screw up, and yet in real life everyone sometimes screws up and almost always deserves a second chance. Oh, and a third; sometimes people learn and change.
When we see people act in an unacceptable way online, it’s easy to think about someone else in our lives we hate and make us feel superior by joining the bandwagon of whoever’s already getting bludgeoned, displaying hate that we have suffered and sending it off to someone who not only just might deserve it but can’t get back at us. We might also feel like it is justifiable to object to their behaviour, so we voice our objections even at the risk of sounding hateful. We’ve all done that, including me. Gordon Ramsay’s done that. There are some big reveals in this book that make Elizabeth and Sunny seem monstrous, especially those of Ian Gibbons. This whole thing is definitely a rough situation.
This book does not tell Elizabeth’s side of the story, but this isn’t Carreyrou’s fault. She was given multiple opportunities to explain her side, and because this is a non-fiction book, Carreyrou can’t make up a sympathy story. He was only able to present the facts he was given about Theranos, and there were plenty of bombshells. So why don’t I try for a sympathy story? We are given the facts to imagine what was going through her head all those years; she had an ambition that she felt could make people love her, make her rich and make needles a thing of the past for the world, and it’s possible she made promises to investors that she’d deliver on that ambition before realizing some facts about our biology and its relationship with her proposed machinery just flat-out couldn’t work. It’s possible she felt if she declared failure and had to return the money, she’d never be trusted to run a company or work in health-care or work in Silicon Valley ever again. Feeling trapped that way must have been terrible. She testified that she was raped while in school, and that incident caused her to devote herself to her company. I can only imagine. I bet she felt, after that, she could never let herself be seen as inferior ever again, that she wouldn’t let the rapist, wouldn’t let the world who let it happen, wouldn’t let the people saying her idea was impossible and keeping her dream down, wouldn’t let any of them win.
On the other side, we hear various tales of the fear, dismissiveness and retribution she and Sunny administered throughout these years, firing hundreds of people for bringing forth objections, or being unable to devote all their time, or expressing concern what they were doing wasn’t ethical, which it wasn’t. I absolutely do not endorse the harsh working code Elizabeth and Sunny set. It’s funny; there are some companies like Apple or Vogue who have knowingly critical, pushy and relentless leaders (Steve Jobs, Anna Wintour) and the public generally says their harshness is justified in making something successful, and if you don’t endorse it, you don’t endorse being a winner. But when a failed company like Theranos does it, Elizabeth and Sunny deserve all the hate they’re getting? I feel it is easy to hate Elizabeth and Sunny; yes, what they did was wrong, and I’m glad Theranos shut down because their faulty science was putting people’s lives at risk, but it’s easy to paint a woman in a high-up corporate position and a Pakistani man as antagonists to the world, and I think we need to remember to defend and support people in the business world that are not only Caucasian and male.
So what about the book? I will admit, sometimes I felt I needed a break from the book; each chapter tells a full story of a time in the company and Elizabeth’s life, and most of the time it is about yet another tale of something shocking, so sometimes it feels the story isn’t in much motion. The book often lacks the sense that a chapter is properly contributing to the story and is necessary for the story then-on. If this were a fictional tale, I felt a fair few of these chapters, as clever as they are, could’ve been cut or have more relevance to the plot put into them. I think the book would’ve been better if Carreyrou found a way to make us feel Elizabeth and Sunny and the major characters of this story were slowly evolving and developing as the time passed. But this sort of thing is why it’s hard to review non-fiction, especially when reviewing journalistic reporting; in this field, you can’t make stuff up and you can’t assume. In other words, you can’t use the usual creative license to make something more enjoyable. But despite those obstacles, Bad Blood is still oftentimes a very entertaining book with all its misadventures and the amazing fact this is all real. That is an accomplishment on its own.
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