Critics today accuse The New York Times of posting what they say is overly empathetic Profile of 5,500 words from Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes this morning.
Nice to be a pretty white lady exercising your charm on a new reporter. https://t.co/BTPukyMt9A
— Soledad O’Brien (@soledadobrien) May 7, 2023
quite unbelievable to write a performative anxious bazillion word profile of Elizabeth Holmes without ever addressing the certainty that her lies would have killed people had she not been caught, or the equally certain certainty that she knew this herself
— Albert Burneko (@AlbertBurneko) May 7, 2023
Here’s the thing: writer Amy Chozick is in on it. Her story provides perhaps the clearest picture yet of how Holmes captivated investors, business associates and the American media before The Wall Street Journal finally blew the lid on her company.
It’s not easy to get rid of it. First, as any reporter can tell you, it’s not easy to write a profile piece that doesn’t contain a certain amount of puffiness, and profiling someone like Holmes has to be more complicated than most others. She has not spoken to the media since 2016 and she is a very convincing character who managed to bend many powerful people to her will.
As former Theranos employee and whistleblower Tyler Shultz told CBS News early last year from Holmes, “Elizabeth is a very, very charismatic person. When she talks to you, she makes you feel like the most important person in her world at that moment. She almost has this reality distortion field around her that people can just get sucked into.
While Chozick may have written a sturdier story—one that reflex-readers may have preferred—the brilliance of this piece is that she takes the opposite approach. She lets Holmes bury herself.
Chozick spends time not only with Holmes, her romantic partner, Billy Evans, and their two children, but also with Holmes’s parents and others in Holmes’ job. Holmes and Evans take Chozick to the beach with their dog Teddy. They invite her to join them for Mexican dinner at their quaint rental home on the Pacific coast. They visit the San Diego Zoo together and are given croissants and berries and coffee made by Evans in a separate meeting. Chozick doesn’t have to discreetly name each of these outings, but in doing so, she allowed us to witness Holmes’s subtle charm campaign as if we were there.
Holmes – whose jail term was recently suspended – becomes so confident in Chozick’s presence that she even fantasizes about inventing another Theranos. “I still dream of being able to contribute in that space,” Holmes tells her. “I still feel the same calling as ever and I still think the need is there.”
The campaign is almost working. “I realized I was essentially writing a story about two different people,” Chozick writes. There was Elizabeth, celebrated in the media as a rock star inventor whose brilliance dazzled illustrious wealthy 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 has volunteered for the past year on a rape crisis hotline. Who can’t stand R-rated movies and who one afternoon rushed after me with a paper towel to wipe a mixture of sand and her dog’s drool off my shoe.
The writer is so stunned 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.
Chozick writes, “I was admittedly swept up in Liz as an authentic and likeable person. She is gentle and charismatic, in a calm way. My editor laughed at me when I shared these impressions and told me (and I quote), ‘Amy Chozick, you’ve been rolled!’”
At first she doubts her editor, saying she is sure she got 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 friends, family, and longtime supporters of Mrs. Holmes, whom she and Mr. Evans suggested I should speak to. One of these friends said that Mrs. Holmes had genuine intentions with Theranos and did not deserve a long prison sentence. Then this person asked for anonymity to warn me not to believe everything Mrs Holmes says.”
On another point, Chozick is demure about looking behind the artifice, writing, “Ms. Holmes’ story of how she got here—into the bright, cozy house and supportive partner and two babies—is much like the story of someone who had finally escaped a cult and been deprogrammed. After her relationship with Mr. Balwani ended and Theranos disbanded, Mrs. Holmes said, “I started my life over again.”
“But then I remember Mrs. Holmes running the cult.”
At the end of the story, Chozick deliberately marvels at how much more time Holmes and Evans want to spend with her, and invites her to another dinner with them and their friends, asking her family to come back for a another date to the zoo. . “I appreciated their hospitality,” she writes, “but I didn’t quite understand it. Most of the time, interviewees can’t wait to get rid of me.”
Then Chozick realizes why they keep opening the door wider. When “you are in her presence, it is impossible not to believe her, not to take her with her and be absorbed by her.”