We inhabit an era of chronic shamelessness, and this was its crowning week.
It began with a man in an opulent cape, held up by a group of small boyservants, insisting that he had come “not to be served, but to serve” while a constellation of aristocrats bowed and curtsied to him.
Then we watched a former US president, found by a jury to have sexually assaulted someone, delight in publicly mocking his victim while his sycophants chortled.
Neither farce boggled the mind quite so much as the re-emergence and attempted rebranding of the scammer queen, Elizabeth Holmes.
Holmes is the disgraced former CEO of Theranos, who was sentenced to 11 years in jail for defrauding the company’s investors. Her true offence was far worse: She deceived patients.
By pretending to have pioneered a machine capable of conducting a wide range of medical tests from a single drop of blood, while knowing it didn’t work, Holmes risked people’s lives. Her prison sentence would have been harsher if her deception had not been exposed by The Wall Street Journal, and stopped before it could inflict more damage.
Holmes recently spoke to the media for the first time since 2016, giving The New York Times extensive access to her life on the cusp of her sentence. The resultant profile appeared in The Times’ pages this week.
Much of the reaction fixated on the credulity of her interviewer, which is far less interesting than the revisionist, self-serving mythos Holmes so shamelessly sought to construct.
I shan’t rehash the entire article (it is worth reading in full if you’re interested). Here, instead, is one anecdote Holmes relayed, apparently thinking it plausible. It supposedly occurred when she and her husband, Billy Evans, took their child to hospital with a high fever.
The first thing the attending doctor said was, “You look a lot like that horrible woman.” Ms Holmes looked at him with her piercing blue eyes, and said, “I’m sure you’re a better person than she is.”
The doctor seemed to realise who he was talking to. She continued: “Then he said, ‘Are you Elizabeth Holmes?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘I am so sorry,’ and I said, ‘Do not be, all you know is what you’ve read.’”
This story reeks of the same improbability as Meghan Markle’s claim that South Africa celebrated her wedding to Prince Harry in the streets “the same way it did when Mandela was freed from prison”.
But whatever. Its veracity is not the point. The point is Holmes’ motive in telling it, encapsulated in that quote: “All you know is what you’ve read.”
The implication is that Holmes’ fetid reputation, thoroughly earned by her disregard for the small people in her pursuit of riches, is a construct of the media. That she has been treated unfairly. That we should feel sympathy, or empathy, or anything at all for the person who would have hurt people, remorselessly, to fund her luxuries and inflate her celebrity.
Holmes’ defenders told The Times her downfall “felt like a witch trial, less rooted in what actually happened at Theranos” than in sending “a message to ambitious women everywhere: Don’t girl boss too close to the sun, or this could happen to you”.
They expressed similar complaints in letters to the court. Here, for example, is a quote from one of her sorority sisters at Stanford: “There’s an unspoken lesson for female executives: You are allowed to be successful, but not too successful.”
What. The. F**k.
It’s the sort of stupidity that short-circuits your brain. You seek the words to mock it and are left mute, impotent, your mouth ballooning open and shut like that of a vacant-minded fish.
How gullible must we be if the Elizabeth Holmeses of the world, the guiltiest of the guilty, think us vulnerable to renewed manipulation?
It seems a dumb question. But then you see the flags waving for a mundane old man in a preposterous outfit who claims a divine right to rule us. You hear the cackles of admiration for a charlatan politician’s witless, boorish humour.
People like this persist because we let them. They thrive off our hunger for idols. It’s an appetite for humiliation, and it never seems to fade.