Themes

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Last Updated on February 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood leads the reader through an energetic tale of avarice, nepotism, high-expectations, and fraud as he tracks the emergence and ultimate disintegration of the start-up company Theranos. Founded in 2003 by the then nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos had claimed to have developed a near-perfect  portable blood-testing device, which would be capable of detecting blood-borne diseases such as STDs and blood-cholesterol levels with from only a few drops of blood. On the surface, the new system seemed a miracle, capable of testing patients quickly and inexpensively. Theranos’s system, however, was much less successful that Holmes was willing to admit, and through a convoluted and surreptitious network of deception, the Theranos CEO was able to fool investors and major brands into backing a company whose product didn't actually work.

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In her efforts to cover up the shortcomings of the Theranos blood-testing machine—named "the Edison"—Holmes proved willing to lie to the venture capitalists who committed millions of dollars to its development. When showing investors or potential business partners the Edison in action, Holmes's team used several deceptive tactics to mask the problems with the machine. For example, Theranos programmed the Edison to display a loading screen instead of an error message, so if the machine broke mid-demonstration, employees could simply claim the testing process was taking a while and usher the visitors out. Sometimes, Theranos employees would load the samples into the Edison, and then once everyone had left the room, they'd retrieve them and test them using normal lab equipment. When they would call later to report the results, they never revealed that these results hadn't come from the Edison. When Holmes's chief financial officer, Henry Mosley, expressed his reservations about fooling investors, Holmes coldly demanded that he leave the company for good. These circumstances highlight what is probably the most salient theme of Bad Blood, namely, that both greed and the insatiable lust for power can irreparably corrupt individuals and create a scenario in which that corruption may continue to reproduce itself. As Holmes and company leadership continued to weed out the perceived weaker members of the team who weren't "committed" enough to the company, Theranos became more and more stacked with people who were willing to skirt the truth for the sake of making a large profit.

A second theme that runs through the book concerns perpetual mendacity, and the inevitability of its failure. The more money that companies such as Walgreens or Safeway poured into the R&D of Theranos’s miracle system, the more necessary it became for Holmes to maintain the facade of sound test results, reliability, and pinpoint accuracy. By the late 2010s, in the continual absence of any hard scientific data, it seemed as if the only thing holding Theranos together was Holmes’s charisma and ability to persuade. Even so, after consistent requests by investors for hard evidence and threats by the Securities and Exchange Commission to shut the company down for fraud, it was becoming almost impossible to maintain the illusion that the Theranos system worked as well as Holmes claimed it did. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that, by 2014, several patients who had been tested by the Theranos system, in addition to external doctors and pathologists such as Adam Clapper, became increasingly skeptical about Theranos’s test results. Eventually, the lie finally became to unwieldy to contain, and in 2018 Theranos was forced to shut down its operations. The underlying theme here is that success built upon a lie becomes invariably beholden to that lie. As success, (exemplified here by that of Theranos and Holmes) builds upon itself, its foundation will be unable to support it if it is based upon false claims, indicating that dishonesty in business or any other endeavor is inevitably not profitable.

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