Critics are blasting the New York Times today for publishing what they say is too empathetic a message. 5500 word profile from Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes this morning. But writer Amy Chozick is involved. In fact, her story may provide the clearest understanding yet of how Holmes so captivated American investors, business partners, and the media before the Wall Street Journal finally uncovered her company in early December. end of 2015.
Delighted to be a beautiful white lady working her charm on a NYT reporter.
— Soledad O’Brien (@soledadoobrien) May 7, 2023
Pretty incredible to write a million-word, performatively harrowing profile of Elizabeth Holmes without ever addressing the certainty that her lies would have killed people if she hadn’t been arrested, or the very certainty that she knew it herself.
—Albert Burneko (@AlbertBurneko) May 7, 2023
It is not an easy thing to achieve. First, as any reporter can tell you, writing a profile piece that doesn’t feature a degree of swagger isn’t easy, and profiling someone like Holmes has to be more complicated than most. He has not spoken to the media since 2016, and he is a very persuasive character who has made many powerful people bend to his will.
As former Theranos employee and whistleblower Tyler Shultz told CBS News Holmes’s early last year, “Elizabeth is a very, very charismatic person. When she talks to you, she makes you feel like you are the most important person in her world at the moment. She almost has this reality distortion field around her that people can just get sucked into.”
While Chozick could have written a tougher story, one that people reading the story thoughtfully might have preferred, the brilliance of this piece is that she takes the opposite approach. She lets Holmes perform the magic on her, but offers a peek behind the curtain as Holmes does it.
Holmes pulls a lot out of his hat. Chozick spends time not only with Holmes, his romantic partner Billy Evans, and his two children, but also with Holmes’s parents and others in Holmes’ orbit. Holmes and Evans take Chozick to the beach with his dog, Teddy. She invites her to join them for Mexican food at her quaint rental house on the Pacific coast. They visit the San Diego Zoo together and, in a separate meeting, eat croissants, berries, and coffee prepared by Evans. Chozick doesn’t need to mention each of these outings discreetly, but in doing so, she allowed us to witness Holmes’s subtle campaign of charm as if we were right there with her.
Holmes, whose prison sentence was recently delayed, becomes so confident in Chozick’s presence that she even imagines inventing another Theranos. “I still dream of being able to contribute to that space,” Holmes tells him. “I still feel the same call that I always felt and I still think that the need is there.”
The campaign almost worked. “I realized that I was essentially writing a story about two different people,” Chozick writes. “There was Elizabeth, celebrated in the media as an inventive rock star 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, for the past year, has volunteered for a rape crisis hotline. Who can’t stand R-rated movies and who ran after me one afternoon with a paper towel to wipe a mix of sand and dog drool off my shoe.”
The writer is so taken 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 image more clearly.
Writes Chozick: “I certainly fell in love with Liz as an authentic and understanding person. She is gentle and charismatic, in a quiet way. My editor laughed at me when I shared these impressions and said (and I quote): ‘Amy Chozick, you’ve been flipped!’”
Initially, she doubts her editor, saying that she is sure that she has 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 friends, family members and supporters of Ms. Holmes, who she and Mr. Evans suggested she talk to. One of these friends said that Ms. Holmes had genuine intentions in Theranos and that she 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 discreet again about looking behind the contrivance, writing: “Mrs. Holmes’s story of how he got here, to the bright and welcoming house, to the supportive couple and to the two babies, sounds a lot like the story of someone who finally escaped from a cult and was deprogrammed. After he ended her relationship with Mr Balwani and Theranos dissolved, Ms Holmes said: “I started my life all over again.” But then I remember that Mrs. Holmes was leading the service.”
As the story ends, Chozick deliberately marvels at how much more time Holmes and Evans want to spend with her, inviting her to join them and their friends for another dinner, asking if she would like to come back for another date at the zoo with her own family. “I appreciated her hospitality,” she writes, “but didn’t quite understand her. Interviewees generally can’t wait to get rid of me.”
Then Chozick realizes why they “keep opening the door wider.” If “you are in her presence, it is impossible not to believe her, not to be carried away by her and to be carried away by her.”
The remark is reminiscent of something else Shultz said about his time at Theranos in that interview with CBS News last year. “Even when he worked with the product every day and watched it fail over and over again,” he said, “he could go and have a five-minute conversation with Elizabeth and feel like he was saving the world again. .”