What it means that the disgraced tech founder was apparently a fan of staring.
Cheryl Gafner joined Theranos as a receptionist in 2006 and was immediately struck by two unsettling things.
The first was that all of her email communication appeared to be monitored by the company’s COO Sunny Balwani, who was also Theranos’ founder Elizabeth Holmes’ boyfriend. Emails sent without Balwani or Holmes cced on them would receive responses from Balwani. He knew everything that was happening in the business.
“I found out that I was being key stroked,” Gafner said in The Inventor, HBO’s documentary about Holmes and the Theranos scandal. “That means anything that I typed was being watched internally.” Balwani was monitoring every time a swipe card was used by an employee to move in or out of the building.
But there was something even more unsettling about Theranos – more unsettling than the surveillance and the pervasive, insidious feeling that everyone was being watched.
“She didn’t blink,” Gafner recalled of Holmes in The Inventor.
Of all the comments made about Holmes, the fact that she rarely if ever blinked is one of the strangest. Sure, there are questions about the veracity of her deep voice, and there’s her penchant for Steve Jobs-esque turtlenecks. But it’s the eyes that have it.
As Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State and a member of Holmes’ board at Theranos, put it in The Inventor: “She has a sort of ethereal quality – she is like a member of a monastic order.”
“The way she trained her big blue eyes on you without blinking made you feel like the centre of the world,” John Carreyrou wrote in Bad Blood, his book about the downfall of Theranos based on his investigative reporting on the subject at the Wall Street Journal. “It was almost hypnotic.”
Holmes would train her eyes down the barrel of a news camera or into the face of prospective investors and board members, staring at them unblinkingly. If you ask some, like Carreyrou, her ability to avoid blinking became part of her allure and, ultimately, part of her deception. It helped her command attention, dominate a room and sway people to her way of thinking.
That’s one end of the spectrum. The other end of that spectrum is that all this non-blinking is just a bit strange.
Traditionally, eye contact is used to establish trust, likeability and confidence. The more eye contact you have, the more of those things you can create in interpersonal relationships.
But it’s very possible to have too much of a good thing. Too much eye contact will make a person appear unbelievable, untrustworthy and even potentially sociopathic. Studies have shown that liars blink less when they are saying something false, before blinking more and rapidly after the lie has been told. In short, if you’re not blinking, there is a good chance that you might not be telling the truth.
The key is in the pairing of the not blinking and then the fast blinking. A 2013 study, in which several experiments were carried out, correlated the finding that liars would keep their eyes open for long periods of time before blinking quickly afterwards.
At first, the idea that not blinking is linked to deception doesn’t appear to have impacted Holmes. As Carreyrou noted, many people were “taken in” by her unblinking eyes and her “hypnotic” stare. It was only after the fraudulent behaviour at Theranos was exposed that people began to analyse footage of the tech founder.
Dr Jack Brown, a body language expert, took an in-depth look at an interview that Holmes did in which she kept her eyes wide open for long periods of time, and found that this body language had a “very high correlation” with “deception” and “antisocial personality disorder” or sociopathic behaviour. But there are also other body language experts who make the valid point that there’s no way we can truly know what is going on inside someone’s head without in-depth, personal analysis. Digging through old video clips and photographs isn’t going to prove anything.
Holmes did blink, of course. It would be impossible for her not to.
There’s a short clip in The Inventor in which Holmes is interviewed and asked “Can you tell us a secret?” Prior to this question, Holmes had kept her eyes wide, staring into the camera. But here, she looks down.
“I don’t have many secrets, um,” Holmes says, eyes cast away from the camera. And then she blinks.
The Inventor airs on HBO in the US now, and in the UK later this year.
Images: HBO, Getty