Review: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

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The term “Gaslight” (from the 40’s movie) describes one person’s gradual manipulation of another’s perception of reality.  The result is terminal internal questioning and ultimate madness.  Along the same lines, the word “Theranos” may have a similar fate.  I think it will become the modern shorthand for the disastrous results that come when psychopathic charisma and megalomania combine with a fake-it-till you-make it techno bro-culture.

“Bad Blood” is John Carreyrou’s riveting story of how a business cult is created with the glow of a favorite daughter and her promise of solving big problems with simple ideas.  The world desperately wanted it to happen.  It wanted this brilliant Stanford student, this shining example for the world’s future businesswomen, this modern day Marie Curie, to succeed and have her deep baritone voice lead us into the light.  Our heaviest hitters signed on:  George Schultz, Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch.  Her rise was fast and the trapping of a generational talent came to her- the wealth, the fame, the responsibility.  Then it collapsed under the weight of her own false claims.

Here is a taste of her magnetism in action.  Notice her taking up the Steve Jobs visionary mantle and the disconnect of her deep voice with her countenance.  It’s like looking into the eyes of a female Rasputin.

After the fact, I find it interesting that I can easily remember the word “Theranos”, but have trouble coming back to Elizabeth Holmes’ name.  That’s why the word will persist.

She flew too high and two fast without ever really having wings in the first place. She (and her complicit co-horts) raised over $900mm and spent it all.  Her boyfriend was her chief lieutenant and hatchet man- a horrible instance of corporate governance.  Like all great gaslighters and skilled manipulators, she sprinkled in enough credibility in the story to give the true believers something to hold onto.  When the lie got too big and couldn’t be engineered away, she doubled down and replaced talent and process with misguided loyalty.  She shielded and siloed information to to keep the puzzle pieces obscured.  If someone questioned her, they were gone with the full weight of Theranos’ legal resources aimed directly at them as they walked out the door. Doing the right thing is expensive in this country.  It isn’t an obvious decision when the threat of years of litigation.  Carreyrou does an excellent job of documenting the courage, the sacrifice, and the foibles of his sources.

This is a book that should be in every business ethics class.  It should remind everyone who works for a corporation that a culture of honesty and respectful criticism is an important check especially when actual data is so hard to come by.  Without trust in the workplace, the company is doomed and good people will be hurt.

Beyond the book’s lessons, it is also an avalanche of a read.  As the reporter Carreyrou closes in on the ruse and David Boies and the other lawyers fight back against the Wall street Journal, the suspense heats up.  The journalistic process (and the slow, relentless logic of the scientific method) races to its ultimate conclusion.  A story too big an audacious to be true actually is and the characters are held for what passes for corporate accountability these days.   Roger Lowenstein described it as “the West Coast version of All the President’s Men.”  He’s right- it’s that good.  GRADE: A

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