Medical Examiner

Do We Really Have to Feel Bad for Elizabeth Holmes?

The once-in-a-generation fraudster is alleging abuse. Do we have to believe this woman?

a blonde woman in a blue mask
Elizabeth Holmes arrives for the first day of her fraud trial. NICK OTTO/Getty Images

Elizabeth Holmes met Sunny Balwani when she was 18 years old. He was 37. They began dating around the same time that Holmes dropped out of Stanford to start a blood testing company, Theranos. About six years later, Balwani joined Theranos as Chief Operating Officer. He was known for his temper. He left the company in 2016, amid investigations into its technology.

Holmes is now alleging that her relationship with Balwani was abusive—that Balwani controlled how she ate and dressed, and monitored her text messages. He would withhold affection, he would throw sharp, hard objects at her. Balwani, through lawyers, denies the allegations, calling them “salacious and inflammatory.”

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I’ve been turning the news over in my head since it broke. I’d already been thinking about Holmes because her trial for fraud began Wednesday, and is set to last months. Among those who may testify to illustrate the consequence of an unreliable blood testing technology is a woman who was told by a Theranos blood test that she had miscarried, and a  couple people who were told they were positive for HIV, when neither was the case. Holmes, once celebrated for being so rich and innovative and also a woman, is now causing genuine trouble for women founders stuck in the shadow of her image, and also for other founders of blood testing start-ups. By the best account that exists—Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood—the technology that landed Holmes her celebrity status did not exactly work, a fact that she spent a lot of effort covering up.

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The question I’ve been asking myself since learning of Holmes’ claims is this: What does it mean to be a person who takes allegations of intimate partner abuse seriously, to believe that taking allegations of abuse from women seriously is necessary for the very fabric of our society and sense of wellbeing, and then be confronted with allegations from Holmes?

It is very important to note that the allegations came to light not through a statement from Holmes directly, nor through reporting that would have verified these claims. They’re made through a court filing—Holmes’ lawyers are leveling the allegations not to seek justice from Balwani, but as part of a defense strategy in the fraud trial. The court filing requests that Holmes be tried separately from Balwani, instead of together as originally planned, as his presence in the courtroom with her would be triggering. This concession was granted; Balwani’s trial is scheduled to take place following Holmes’.

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More broadly, the allegations seem to be setting up Holmes’ lawyers to use a tactic known as the Svengali defense, as Carreyrou outlines in an episode of his podcast, Bad Blood: The Final Chapter, which will follow the fraud trial. This means that her lawyers will claim not just that Balwani abused Holmes, but that Holmes was basically Balwani’s puppet, without much agency of her own, and thus she is not to blame for the fraud.

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Anyone who has paid attention to the Theranos saga will see that this plainly doesn’t make sense: Balwani was forced out of Theranos by Holmes, as Carryrou notes. He had been against her doing so much press, but she kept doing it. In a series of text messages read by actors in an episode of Carreyrou’s titled “Sunny and Elizabeth,” it’s clear that these are a pair of people making joint decisions. “It was clearly the Elizabeth show there’s no question about it,” Kevin Hunter, a lab consultant hired by Walgreens to vet Theranos, told ABC’s podcast The Dropout—there are a lot of podcasts—which also explains that employees would catch Holmes in small lies even before Balwani came on board. It’s even hard to imagine that Balwani controlled her clothes and meals—Holmes was famous for a while for her green smoothies (made by a personal chef), and Steve Jobs-style black turtlenecks (she once told Glamour that her mom started dressing her this way at age 8.)

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It would be easy to dismiss the allegations as just another tale spun by a grifter, an attempt to evade consequences. As my colleague Aarron Mak’s reporting makes clear, though, it isn’t even clear that releasing the allegations now will end up helping Holmes. It could create enough ambiguity that it would help her as a defendant, but this tack will be stronger if she takes the stand—and if she takes the stand, she may be caught in a lie, if she’s caught in a lie, there may go her credibility with the jury. The strategy is high risk, high reward—perhaps the perfect one for a woman who launched herself to riches with a faked vocal affect. And, yes, it does feel gross to talk about abuse in the context of it being a tactic in a fraud trial, with advantages and disadvantages. But this is the context in which Holmes herself has brought the allegations to light.

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Maybe we will get more information on what happened in the coming weeks. Maybe her lawyers will have evidence that changes things, or complicates them even further. Right now, though, stuck between the poles of “believe women” and “well, maybe do not believe this woman” (“believe women” has never meant “believe all women” ), I am trying to just sit with the idea that there is so much we don’t know.

We don’t actually know what the interiority of Sunny Balwani’s and Elizabeth Holmes’ relationship was like. While it seems clear that so much of Theranos was her own, we don’t know whether he controlled her in big ways, or in small; if there were interactions that fit a recognizable definition of partner abuse, or if there were just a hundred small moments that happened between a woman and a man who had a twenty-year age gap and met when she was 18 (which may well, from the vantage point of 2021 and age 37, feel kinda gross to Holmes now too). Holmes can be held accountable for her wrong doings, while also having been deeply hurt. And, as much as my kneejerk reaction is to (yes) believe women even if they are (yes) apparent fraudsters, we of course don’t know that Sunny Balwani did anything wrong, relationship-wise, at all. These allegations could be spun from whole cloth by a woman rummaging around for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Or there could have included instances of abuse—and yet, those instances may very well not absolve Holmes of fraud related to Theranos’s claims and technology. It is possible to be both a victim and a villain.

For more on Elizabeth Holmes, listen to this week’s episode of The Waves:

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