Technically, the voice is a baritone. Some say it’s definitely fake — another part of the same old scam. Others say there’s no way of knowing. But the impossibility of an answer rarely stops the truly curious from trying to find one. And Elizabeth Holmes’s voice has become an obsession.
No one has been able to crack Holmes so far. Not in a book, not in a podcast and not in two documentaries, the second of which came out this week. The accused Silicon Valley con woman, who lost investors hundreds of millions of dollars as she allegedly propelled a colossal lie to a $9 billion valuation, is a riddle wrapped in a blank-faced, unblinking enigma. Those who want to understand the woman have to start somewhere, and why not her most distinctive feature?
Holmes’s voice is so obviously off that it is hard, when listening to it now, not to wonder how anyone was fooled all those years. It’s hard not to wonder how anyone was fooled by Theranos, too. The company promised it could conduct hundreds of tests on a tiny machine using only a pinprick of blood. Once, when asked to explain what happened inside that machine, Holmes said, “a chemistry is performed.” And still she got away with it.
Was this all one giant “ha-ha” to believers? Was Holmes laughing behind the world’s back as it nodded along — to each dumb explanation of how the technology worked, to each masculine mumble that came from her mouth?
Or was there more to Holmes’s alleged deception than this sort of sociopathy? Her voice could be a clue there, too.
Holmes wore black turtlenecks almost every day during the Theranos years in homage to Steve Jobs. She wanted to look like a Silicon Valley visionary, and maybe she wanted to sound like one, too. Women get flak for “girly” vocal quirks across industries. Holmes was in an industry whose shiniest product is the boy billionaire. She needed to sound competent according to the definition of sexists, so she shifted down a half-octave. She needed to act competent, so she refused to admit that Theranos’s technology was going anything but gangbusters.
This leads to another explanation for Holmes’s lie: Silicon Valley loves a good bluff. You set an almost unthinkably ambitious goal, and then you hope you’ll get lucky enough to achieve it. The interim is all about convincing people to buy into your vision. In “The Inventor,” the HBO documentary on Theranos that aired this week, an engineer recounts telling the company’s leadership that so small a machine could not possibly perform so many tests. The response: Maybe he didn’t belong in Silicon Valley after all. “Could not possibly,” apparently, wasn’t supposed to be in the local lexicon.
Holmes may simply have bluffed so hard for so long that she got stuck. It’s difficult to say whether she really believed she could do it, if she just waited long enough. It’s difficult to say, too, whether Holmes’s heart started in the right place — whether she wanted to help sick people and didn’t mind allegedly lying as a means to the noblest of ends, or whether she only wanted to help herself.
Did Holmes change her voice so she could make more money, or did she change her voice because she thought it was the only way to get the world where it needed to go? Did she even realize she was changing, or did it just start happening, slowly, until she was stuck in an uncomfortable spot at the back of her throat that she could not escape without everything else collapsing?
Understanding Holmes’s voice helps people feel as if they understand Holmes, and understanding Holmes may also feel like understanding her habitat. The country has barely begun to reckon with Silicon Valley, but the techlash so far has taught people that these companies are not what we once thought they were. They, like Holmes, cannot achieve the impossible. And more than that, achieving the implausible isn’t always a good thing. Theranos was apparently fake-it-till-you-make-it — and Holmes couldn’t make it. Facebook, on the other hand, is looking increasingly like make-it-till-you-break-it. Mark Zuckerberg said he would connect the world, and he did. But he did it so well that things started to fall apart.
Realizations such as these have broadened the debate over how to handle Big Tech into something more personal than policy. Some paint today’s most powerful entrepreneurs as cash-hungry phonies who would do anything to stay on top. Others see them as idealists taken aback, trying to wrestle the worst of the world back into Pandora’s box. And others still see them as everyday businesspeople. They’re looking out for their bottom line, but they’d like to avoid plunging humanity into despair and disaster.
Knowing what has gone wrong so far might help us know how to make things go right from now on. It also might not. But it’s human to wonder, and the inhuman baritone emanating from America’s favorite fabulist seems like a fine place to begin.