How Much Of The Dropout Is A True Story?

As unbelievable as it may be, Hulu series "The Dropout" actually did very little in terms of changing the details and narrative of the Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos saga. In fact, nearly all of the most outrageous elements of the story featured in the show were pulled directly from real life, from the gruesome malfunctioning of the Edison machines, to the unfortunate death of one of most qualified and knowledgeable Theranos employees. Now that the series has come to an end, viewers may still have burning questions such as, "What the absolute f***?" and "Did she really play with finger puppets?" Luckily, we're here to tell you just how much of "The Dropout" was based on a true story.

Did the weird finger puppet scene actually happen?

One of the first questions I had watching "The Dropout" was whether or not Elizabeth Holmes would actually slip into the odd, childlike persona in the same way the dramatized version of her (played by Amanda Seyfried) did in the show. Specifically, I wondered if that bizarre finger puppet scene actually happened, or if it was a creative liberty taken to depict this alleged aspect of Holmes' personality.

In "Flower of Life," the fifth episode of "The Dropout" series, Holmes is more interested in playing with finger puppets than she was with conducting business during an important meeting with the marketing team. According to Stan Fiorito, a former team lead for the advertisement agency Chiat/Day, this actually happened. Holmes was obsessed with all things Apple and Steve Jobs, and since Chiat/Day was responsible for creating several successful Apple ad campaigns, she hired the agency in hopes that it would do the same for Theranos. Fiorito spoke of the finger puppet incident and more of Holmes' odd behavior in episode 3 of the "The Dropout" podcast, upon which the Hulu series is based.

"[Holmes] didn't want to have that conversation and she was really excited about showing us these little crocheted finger puppets. They were potentially for children after they got their finger prick, that they would give these away. And it was like talking to a 13-year-old girl, how excited she was that these things were made and they were going to give them away. [...] And she talked in a different tone of voice. It was interesting."

In that same podcast episode, Fiorito also states that despite Holmes' enthusiasm and claims that Theranos was eager to move forward, the disgraced Theranos CEO would suddenly stop all communications with the team, sometimes disappearing for up to a month without a word.

What really happened to Ian Gibbons?

Unfortunately, much of what is depicted in "The Dropout" concerning late biochemist Ian Gibbons is grounded in heartbreaking reality. Ian Gibbons really worked for Theranos, and in the documentary "The Inventor," he is described as the first truly experienced chemist to be employed by the company. Additionally, it's true that Elizabeth did illegally and unethically piggyback off his brilliance by attaching her name to his invention patents despite her complete lack of involvement in the creative and scientific process.

The storyline about Theranos trying to prevent Ian from testifying about Holmes' deception and incompetence is also true, down to the devastating end result. As depicted in "The Dropout," the weight of the situation was too much for Gibbons to handle, and he eventually died by suicide before he was made to testify. Neither Holmes nor any representative from Theranos offered condolences to the wife he left behind. Instead, they simply asked her for his computer and all of his work-related documents, and she never heard from Holmes or Theranos again.

Does Elizabeth Holmes really talk like that?

Technically, yes. Public records in the form of numerous TV and radio interviews reveal that Holmes did speak with a carefully measured baritone, but many former Theranos employees claim that it was not her natural speaking voice. On the other hand, members of her family have countered the accusation that Holmes intentionally altered her voice, saying that many people in their family, including Holmes, have naturally lower voices. Reporter John Carryeou state that her voice was not authentic according to his sources, and a 2005 NPR interview in which Holmes appears to speak in a "more natural sounding" voice before switching to the lower register is often cited as proof that her voice was just another drop in her bucket of fraud and deceit. There's also a popular YouTube video which splices together footage of Holmes using her signature deep voice in an interview.

Of course, this isn't to say that women can't have naturally deep voices — many can and do — but to be fair, the borderline robotic way in which Holmes spoke did not sound particularly natural. Given Holmes' talent for creating new realities, which is a nice way of saying "lying," it's fair that people would question the authenticity of her curiously deep voice.

Did the machines ever actually work?

According to several former Theranos employees, including those who appeared in "The Inventor," the machines never actually worked as promised, and they certainly couldn't run tests with just a "a single drop of blood." Additionally, as depicted in "The Dropout," the Edison devices really did malfunction in gruesome and darkly comical ways. In a "60 Minutes" interview, whistleblower Tyler Schultz had this to say concerning the mechanical integrity of the Theranos tech,

"There were components that would kinda fall off in the middle of testing that you would then have to fish out. They had doors that wouldn't close. They would get too hot. And then they would get too cold"

Further illustrating the fact that Holmes' was making the conscious decision to defraud investors, patients, and the general public with virtually non-existent tech was the fact that she routinely ordered fake demonstrations of the Edison device. In the same aforementioned interview, whistleblower Erika Cheung, who is featured as a character in "The Dropout" series, described the extent of the deceit. Cheung said, "It was kind of a show. All they would see was their blood getting collected. They didn't see what was going on behind closed doors about how it was processed." So what was going on behind closed doors?

According to Doug Matje, another former Theranos employee, it was all smoke and mirrors, with a little bit of blood. On "60 Minutes," Matie explained:

"They would get their finger pricked with a small amount of blood. Then the– they'd be led out of the room, they'd go have a meeting, go have lunch, whatever, and at which point an engineer would run in the room, grab the cartridge, bring it out into the lab."

Next, tests would be performed on the collected samples by hand — not on the Edison devices. "When I was there, we could not complete any test accurately on the devices that we were manufacturing," said Matje.

The Walgreen's deal and Theranos (un)Wellness Centers

As seen in "The Dropout," Holmes managed to dance around the fact that their tech was unreliable by convincing Walgreens to open Theranos wellness centers without the actual Edison devices that were originally promised. Before, the devices were supposed to be available in store to provide convenient testing for patients who visited the Theranos centers located inside Walgreens, but with the new plan, testing samples would be sent to an external Theranos lab to be tested.

The issue with this was that the samples were not temperature controlled during transport, and were handled by largely inexperienced individuals. As a result, many of the blood samples were not viable by the time they made it to the Theranos testing lab. Additionally, the blood samples would be diluted with water so that they could be tested on non-Theranos equipment, such as the Siemen's machine mentioned in episode 5 of "The Dropout," because the samples collected were too small to be used as is. This, of course, made for inaccurate test results

Was Holmes intentionally deceptive?

I mean, yeah. Come on. It has bee proven that Holmes' was prone to working around legal limitations in order to keep Theranos running on lies and secrecy. In the HBO documentary "The Inventor," which includes several firsthand accounts from former Theranos employees and people who were close to Holmes, it is revealed that she intentionally circumvented laws concerning doctor oversight of patient test results, going so far as to lobby the state of Arizona to allow patients to order laboratory testing without the approval of physicians. In order to further raise the appeal of the Theranos testing centers — and limit interference from knowledgeable medical professionals who would have been able to expose the awful truth behind Theranos' mythical claims — gift cards and vouchers for free testing at the Theranos wellness centers were made available for purchase.

In pushing the affordable healthcare angle while not actually providing reliable or accurate test results, Theranos took advantage of people in need by offering a fake solution to the very real issue in inaccessible healthcare. The extent of Elizabeth's deceit can't be understated, so that much of "The Dropout" is true. Further evidence of her commitment to boldfaced lying can be found in a 2019 "Vanity Fair" article which details the final days of Theranos before the company's inevitable demise. As the article states, Holmes adopted a dog, who was untrained and would often defecate freely around the office, and named him Balto. The dog was a Siberian husky, but Holmes, ever-infatuated with crafting tall tales, decided to tell people that Balto was a wolf. This would be like telling houseguests that your orange tabby cat is a tiger. It's a weird lie, but very telling in terms of depicting just how much Holmes' seems rely on just making s**t up, even when there's no real reason to.

Was Elizabeth Holmes really that obsessed with celebrity?

In "The Dropout," we also see more than a few moments to suggest that Holmes was more concerned with celebrity and appearances than the science behind her idea or truly helping people. This much appears to be true as well. In "The Inventor," the real Tyler Schultz says as much, stating that she reveled in being revered as a sort of "goddess." There are also multiple pictures and instances of her basking in the limelight with celebrities and politicians like Amy Schumer, Joe Biden, and Jared Leto. According Schultz, and others who were pulled into Holmes' orbit, her star power helped to further shield her from criticism and doubt, even from those who saw the mismanagement of her labs with their own eyes.

Was Holmes actually obsessed with Apple and Steve Jobs?

During her run as the CEO of Theranos, Holmes pranced around in what was essentially Steve Jobs cosplay and went out of her way to emulate the success of his company, Apple, right down to hiring the same advertisement agency and former Apple employees like Ana Arriola. In "The Dropout," Arriola is hired as the chief design architect for Theranos, leaving Apple after being swayed by Holmes' vision for a better world, all of which is true. Arriola began working for Theranos in 2007, not too long after meeting Holmes for the first time. She also gave Elizabeth style advice, and stated in an 2019 interview with "Elle Magazine" that the Theranos founder "was enamored with the style and iconic silhouette of Steve Jobs in black turtlenecks," but that "it wasn't her own personal style."

Further illustrating the breadth of Holmes' obsession with Jobs is the fact that she also mimicked some of Apple's ads featuring Jobs and often cited him as a source of inspiration. So yeah, it feels appropriate to use the word "obsessed" to describe her apparent fixation on the Apple founder. As for Arriola, she states that Holmes' copycat tendencies weren't limited to Jobs, but Holmes was also prone to adopting the style and mannerisms of others as well. "She copied other people... She was 120 percent fake," Arriola said.

Elizabeth and Sunny were a particularly paranoid pair

As depicted in the show, Holmes really did meet Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani in Beijing, as they were both part of the Mandarin immersion program. Holmes was 18, and Balwani was 37. Despite the lengthy age difference, the two really did develop a romantic relationship that was kept secret from investors and Theranos employees. Together, they worked to create a hostile work environment at Theranos by closely monitoring employees, frequently scolding lab workers, and engaging in other excessive surveillance and intimidation tactics. Their paranoia was so severe that Balwani once called the police on a Theranos employee who refused to sign an NDA after leaving the company, telling law enforcement officers that the man "stole property in his mind," which is nothing short of Orwellian. Considering this, it's probably not too shocking to learn that many of the strange events in "Old White Men," the fourth episode of "The Dropout," actually happened, such as the clandestine sushi lunch meeting and Sunny following lab consultant Kevin Hunter to the bathroom.

The birthday party, the dancing, and Yoda

I'd like to end this article by confirming that, yes, the really f***ing weird Elizabeth Holmes themed birthday party for Elizabeth Holmes, complete with Elizabeth Holmes masks for guests to wear, actually happened.

Additionally, "The Dropout" show creator Elizabeth Meriwether revealed in an interview that the awkward dance scenes were also inspired by real life events.

"In the podcast The Dropout, there's this anecdote from Ana Arriola. She said she saw Elizabeth one morning in her parked car dancing to hip-hop, thinking that no one could see her. There were so few anecdotes about private moments, so I was drawn to the idea that, before work, she sat in her car and danced."

Finally, the whole thing with Holmes' quoting Yoda from "Star Wars" is true. She had the line, "Do or do not. There is no try," painted in bold letters on the walls of Theranos headquarters, in addition to reciting the words of the little green guy in an interview after being asked about her "favorite sound" from "Star Wars," which you can see below.

"The Dropout" is currently streaming on Hulu.