Before it collapsed like a house of cards, the Silicon Valley biotech startup Theranos had established clinics in dozens of retail locations thanks to a lucrative partnership with Walgreens. Its non-functional blood-testing technology — the bogus product that drew lavish media profiles and led to a company valuation of $10 billion — was used on unsuspecting Americans who believed they were receiving cutting-edge care to monitor a wide range of health conditions. It’s hard to overstate what a violation this is, and harder to imagine it could have happened without Theranos CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes knowing exactly how she was harming the public.
To that end, Holmes is now on trial for nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, all of it relating to twin schemes: deceiving investors on one hand, and doctors and patients on the other. If convicted, she could face 20 years in prison. But her legal team put her on the witness stand to make the case that she’s a victim, too. This week, she testified that her decisions at Theranos were steered by her then-boyfriend Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, who served as president and chief operating officer, alleging that he sexually and emotionally abused her. This, her lawyers argue, means she was mentally impaired at the time of the crimes in question. John Carreyrou, the reporter whose exposés on Theranos helped to bring it down, has referred to this as the “Svengali defense” — an attempt to prove that Balwani was so manipulative, controlling and intimidating that Holmes had no choice but to obey him.
Balwani is facing the same charges, with a trial set for next year, so it’s not as if he’s evaded responsibility for what happened at Theranos. Neither would anyone dispute that his relationship with Holmes was unusual and concerning — they met when she was an 18-year-old studying in China and he was a 38-year-old married grad student in business school, and began dating the following year. And yes, it’s altogether possible Balwani was the kind of partner she described — coercive, cruel, paranoid, domineering — as employees who worked under him have painted a similar character in Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood, and elsewhere.
But what, exactly, does it have to do with Holmes’ actions as chief executive? Is abuse a justification for deliberately misleading the market and medical regulators about your invention?
Shanti Singh, a former tech worker and community organizer in the Bay Area, doesn’t think so. She’s followed the Theranos scandal since it first broke, as well as Holmes’ trial, and recently tweeted that she was “insulted on behalf of survivors at this […] ‘I was just following a man’s orders’ defense.”
In a private message, she further explained where she’s coming from. “I was assaulted more than once in college and have watched close friends deal with the trauma of rape,” she writes, explaining that some of them suffered serious consequences for making their stories public. “I also have friends who’ve escaped abusive relationships. So basically, I have the bog-standard experience of a woman.”
Still, Holmes’ bid for sympathy rings hollow. “I can’t imagine anyone using their trauma to excuse hiring black-ops people to stalk their employees, turning a grandfather against his grandson or literally making an employee so miserable that they commit suicide,” Singh tells me. (The grandson is Tyler Shultz, a whistleblower whose grandfather, the late statesman George Shultz, was a Theranos director; the employee who died by suicide was chief scientist Ian Gibbons, who knew the blood tests didn’t work and was being pressured by Theranos not to give a deposition in a patent dispute.)
Holmes, Singh goes on, had the “elite of the elite,” including the attorney David Boies and Henry Kissinger, “completely wrapped around her finger and brought their full force down to bear on anyone no matter how big or small who stood in her path. I don’t even think there’s a word in English to describe how deeply cynical it is to use trauma as an excuse for what she did to other people. Sexual assault is about asserting power and dominance, and she’s basically saying that because she was assaulted that gives her the right to crush other people under her thumb.”
Lili Balfour, a consultant to startups, founder of Atelier Advisors and creator of an education program for entrepreneurs, also objected to Holmes’ defense, tweeting: “Nobody forced her to commit fraud.” Film producer Lynda Obst called the argument “offensive,” and contrasted the depiction of Holmes as a victim with her previous image as “an avatar of female empowerment.”
Meanwhile, on cross-examination, prosecutors got Holmes to admit she tried to quash Carreyrou’s negative reporting in the Wall Street Journal by reaching out to Theranos investor Rupert Murdoch, and that ultimately, no problems with the blood tech or business were ever withheld from her as CEO — but she persisted anyway in faking demonstrations and documents to convince outsiders that the startup would revolutionize health care. In what world does a pattern of intimate partner abuse exonerate her for these unethical and criminal decisions?
What the jury makes of Holmes’ preferred narrative — in which she was somehow powerless to run her own company as she wished because of Balwani’s overpowering influence — remains to be seen. But in the court of commentary, this maneuver has played poorly. “It’s an argument that’ll really only fly when a rich, powerful, well-connected woman is using it,” Singh says. “Does it hurt #MeToo’s legitimacy? Absolutely. Is it a new innovation? Doesn’t feel like it at this point. It’s almost depressingly predictable.”
It seems fair to say that many survivors are upset that Holmes drew a straight line from her trauma to years of corporate malfeasance, not least because she’s lent ammunition to misogynists who believe that women can get away with anything by blaming or accusing men. “Metoo Privilege Now as Get Off Out of Jail Card [sic],” reads the title of a recent 4chan thread on the abuse allegations. The Men’s Rights subreddit has also discussed the testimony at length. “They’re strong, independent women until they get into trouble,” wrote one redditor this week. “Then they become innocent victims of male oppression.” Another agreed, adding: “Let’s hope the pussy pass gets denied.” A third redditor complained: “Women have no shame. They’ll do anything and everything to take from men and avoid repercussions because the system greatly favors women.”
And just as female entrepreneurs are unfairly compared to Holmes in the wake of her downfall, the consensus that her pivot to victimhood is purely self-serving would help to erode faith in more disadvantaged survivors who speak out. By all means, Balwani should be held to account — but not at the cost of letting his collaborator evade culpability. After all, Holmes spent more than a decade making herself synonymous with the brand, as the once-in-a-generation wunderkind who alone could take credit for what she claimed Theranos had achieved. Toxic relationship or not, she was always determined to take a dangerous shortcut to the top.