It is an image that, for any number of vilified public figures, is supposed to offer the audience a measure of closure: a version of the perp walk to the front door of the jail. On Tuesday, Elizabeth Holmes, erstwhile founder of the blood testing startup, Theranos, self-presented to a federal prison in Texas to begin her 11-year sentence for fraud. So much about Holmes has turned out to be phoney that, on looking at the photos and feeling the first peckings of sympathy, I instantly checked myself to see where I was being manipulated.
Still, a measure of sympathy remained. Holmes was dressed in jeans and a sweater, her black turtle-neck long retired along with the contrived pitch of her voice. It is always curious in these circumstances to consider what the fraudster tells herself has actually happened, how far into denial the internal narrative goes. On the evidence of her own testimony and the interview Holmes gave to the New York Times last month, she is deeply invested in the story of her own victimisation, both by her former business partner and boyfriend, Sunny Balwani, currently serving his own almost 13-year sentence, and by Silicon Valley itself. Even the wording of her apology – “I am devastated by my failings” – seemed designed to position her not as the instigator of her own bad behaviour but as just another of its passive victims.
And there has not been a lot of introspection. Holmes has characterised the faking of blood test results at Theranos, with its potentially life-threatening consequences, as a case of trying to “realise her dream too quickly”, a reach for a positive spin that makes one want to scream. Seeing her turn herself in this week, should, at the very least, have delivered the cheap dividends reliably offered by schadenfreude. For some reason, however, it didn’t land, and, studying the video, I have a sheepish sense it may be because she wore little glasses and hunched her shoulders ever so slightly while walking.
Or perhaps, to borrow from Holmes’s own playbook, extending sympathy to the woman isn’t a matter of being conned but is part of the noble dream of humanity. I’m trying to recall whose, if anyone’s, incarceration I have truly enjoyed. Possibly Martin Shkreli, the “pharma bro” and little twerp who raised the price on some of the drugs made by his company by more than 5,000%. In 2017, he was sentenced to seven years for securities fraud and conspiracy. I had a tough time identifying with Anna Sorokin, the “fake heiress” who was sentenced to four years for larceny and theft of services in 2019 and remained flatly brazen throughout. I assume that if Trump ever fully gets his comeuppance, I will have no trouble whatsoever in celebrating.
In the case of Holmes, however, it has been hard to get much satisfaction off the ground this week. She is leaving behind two young children, the timing of whose births almost certainly pushed back the start date of her sentence, but that nonetheless constitutes a circumstance deserving of pity. According to the New York Times, the women’s low-security prison she has entered will require her to work; for example, in the cafeteria, for $1.15 an hour, and she will be invited to attend a course on how to become more efficient. One can think of courses she might be more readily in need of – how to squarely confront perpetrating a fraud, for example, or understanding the load-bearing limit you can put on the word “dream” – and she will surely sell a book about all this when she gets out. But when you pause to think about the reality of walking up to the jail with the prospect of no release for more than a decade, it is tough not to gulp at how this story has ended.
And, by all accounts, Holmes is still trying to manipulate opinion. This is the truly startling thing about her: the sheer nakedness of a hustle that presents, at this stage, as the kind of vulnerability only present in those who have absolutely no idea how they appear to others. Her pitch in the New York Times was so obvious as to be almost funny, from her straight-out-the-gate mention of doing shifts for a rape-crisis hotline, to her wardrobe switch from black to pastels, to the dreamy vacancy of her new resting face. What, if any, stable identity lies behind all this, it is tempting to see as pitiably, unenviably thin.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist
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