Theranos! It sounds like a cross between a Greek god and a Marvel villain, representing hubris, deception and manipulation. The company’s avatar was Elizabeth Holmes, one of the most fascinating figures of our times with her turtlenecks, gigantic eyes and weird-ass voice who was found guilty on four of 11 criminal counts of fraud and conspiracy, with the jury hanging on three others.
Holmes’s lies were so outrageous that the spectacle would be almost comical in retrospect, if not for the real people whose lives were affected by the bogus test results she touted. Fake blood tests, on fake equipment, with fake results for people from a business built on fake partnerships and fake projections.
And if not for the fact that she used her identity as a woman in a male-dominated tech world to try and convince people to believe her at every step of the way.
Her mostly failed Hail Mary defense was the wild revelation that her ex and former co-exec, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, had been abusing her while secretly pulling the strings during the years of alleged fraud, grift, and glossy magazine profiles.
Thank god the jury didn’t fall for all of her bullshit.
It’s easy in hindsight to mock her investors, all of the idiot men who threw money at her, many of them not thinking—shall we say—with their brains. But idiot men throw money at other men all the time, too. Holmes is a master manipulator and her femininity didn’t give her any special advantage, it just gave her different tools.
She brought new tools to her trial, too, as her bombshell “coercive control” defense took direct aim at the #MeToo movement’s biggest weakness: That no one actually believes women all the time, since women are, in fact, people and people lie and dissemble. Emmett Till’s accuser comes to mind.
Nonetheless, the prosecution fought valiantly to extricate the abuse claims from the fraud claims. “Your verdict does not validate her claims of abuse,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Schenk told the jury, adding, “You do not need to decide whether that abuse happened.” Meanwhile, Holmes’s attorneys didn’t even mention the coercive control defense in their closing statements. Perhaps they felt they had achieved what they had set out to simply by muddying the waters.
Of course, women don’t often lie about domestic and sexual abuse. Discrimination litigators like myself fight the unwinnable “he said/ she said” battle every single day. For every abuser that is outed, you’ll find decades of public accusations. Survivors have been disbelieved, mocked, ridiculed, blamed, and ignored for all of human history. To this day, when survivors come forward, they know to expect an onslaught of backlash. It’s one of the scariest things a person can do, because in reality, many people’s attitudes have not caught up with the lip service given in well-crafted publicist statements.
But “Believing Women” has become a performative thing people do publicly, an homage they pay to equality, like Mother’s Day tributes. The problem with these tributes is that they are often false.
When people pretend to believe all women, what most of them are really saying is, “we have to say that we believe them, even though privately we obviously don’t.”
With her defense, Holmes attempted to capitalize upon this societal ambivalence. By all appearances, she seems to be a lying sociopath whose words should have zero weight. But the lengthy history of acceptance of violence against women makes it feel extremely difficult to accuse a woman of lying about domestic abuse. It feels like giving comfort to the enemy.
The problem with this attitude is it is silencing. When Tara Reade accused Joe Biden of sexual assault, I asked a number of female colleagues—fellow anti-discrimination attorneys—whether they would state publicly with me that they didn’t believe Reade. Nobody would do it, although many had expressed just this sentiment in private.
I don’t blame them for their predicament, or the feeling that MeToo has become some sort of zero-sum game. Feminists and sex-abuse activists feel like it’s us against the world, and there must be no cracks in the façade. Institutions coalesce around abusers as a matter of routine. Survivors often effectively suffer more punishment than their abusers do.
But ultimately, the zero-sum game is dehumanizing to women. It gives cover to private disbelief, and gives skeptics more cover—not less—to think that women are liars, and our accusations should be disregarded. It turns people into hypocrites.
It pretends that Elizabeth Holmes is somehow representative or indicative of all women, as opposed to an incredibly fascinating, history-making outlier. It’s counterproductive. The worst thing we can do for women is to pretend that this verdict is somehow a referendum on women, on “girlbosses”, on anything other than one unsuccessful criminal. Holmes is no more representative of women than Bernie Madoff is of men.
I’ll admit that there’s something satisfying about seeing a woman in the swindle game. There are plenty of jokes to be made about how adding a woman to the ranks of dudebros on the make is a form of progress. And it’s true, in a way: There is so much sexism in tech, and what Holmes did is, while obviously not laudatory, certainly awe-inspiring. That is until you remember the victims—not the investors who couldn’t be bothered to do their homework but the consumers of her dubious product, who suffered real consequences.
But the cynical #MeToo ploy prevented me from rooting for her. As an attorney, I admire her defense strategy. But as a survivor and advocate, her “coercive control” defense—which included exploiting her college rape by making it into grist for her origin story—offends me to the core. It adds to the unfair skepticism that survivors already face.
For the sake of #MeToo, I’m glad she didn’t get away with all of it.