March 28, 2019

Many people associate me with the journalism imperative “Get the name of the dog,” but I learned it from my first city editor, Mike Foley. It was a reminder to fill all the holes in your story, including the name of the family dog. But it was more than that. It was about the importance of names and what those names say about the namers.

If you name your kids Dweezil, Moon Unit, and Diva Muffin, it says something about you, Frank Zappa. If you name your pit bull Trump or Hillary, it reveals a tiny window of character that should be looked into. Not to make too much of this, but in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 2, God gives Adam dominion over the other animals: “When the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, he brought to the man to see what he would call them; for that which the man called each of them would be its name.”

Some students and professionals intuitively understand the importance of names; others, not so much. I was visiting the University of Notre Dame years ago and presented to a writing class the importance of getting the name of the dog. I was met by blank looks.

“OK, everyone, please write down the name of your family dog if you have one.”

I started with the young man seated at the conference table to my right. I forget his name but not his dog’s: Rudy.

It was my drop-the-mic moment. The family of this Notre Dame student named their dog Rudy, the first name of a scrappy, undersized football player whose only appearance in a varsity game made him a Notre Dame legend and inspired a movie. The only thing better would have been if the family had a second dog named Rockne. And maybe a third named Gipper.

This brings me to the story of Elizabeth Holmes, and if you do not know it, you have missed recent newspaper investigations, a book, magazine articles, a podcast, and a documentary on HBO. They all describe her Silicon Valley rise and her crash landing, including accusations of massive fraud. A $9 billion company was suddenly worth zero.

This is about the name of Holmes’s dog, but to understand the meaning of that name requires a brief recounting of her story. A dropout from Stanford University, Holmes created a start-up – Theranos – with what appeared to all to be a noble purpose. She wanted to engineer a small box – a machine that would be called Edison – that would change the way blood was tested in America and around the world.

No longer would you have to go to Quest Diagnostics and wait for an hour or more and have needles stuck in your veins, and vials of blood withdrawn, then wait days or weeks before you got the results. The Edison would do it all quickly and inexpensively, requiring only a pinprick of blood. The machines could be placed in drug stores, saving you time, money and the anxiety of waiting. Better and cheaper testing with quicker results would help millions upon millions around the world who lacked access to decent medical services.

It was a visionary plan and many powerful people – mostly older men – sought to attach themselves to it, including the likes of Bill Clinton, George Schultz and Henry Kissinger – all of whom appear in the HBO documentary “The Inventor.” And it turned out to be a spectacular fraud, brought to light by young whistleblowers within Theranos, and dogged investigative work by John Carreyrou and The Wall Street Journal.

How were so many smart people taken in?

You only need to view a brief video of Elizabeth Holmes to catch the strange aura of charismatic inauthenticity that surrounds her. She is tall and blond, (willowy, we would have written in the old days). Such language might be deemed sexist, except that she and her company marketed her appearance. Her piercing, unflinching blue eyes were captured and enhanced over and over in photos, posters, ads and videos.

But it was not her physical characteristics that set Holmes apart. Her obsession with Steve Jobs inspired her to wear black turtlenecks and other black clothing, eccentricities that have become part of the cultural ethos of Silicon Valley genius. Then there is her voice. Perhaps in a desire to be taken seriously as a woman, she has apparently trained herself to lower her speaking voice. It’s an eerie affectation, and I would say, distracting.

And then, finally, there was the dog. Catch these narrative details from a Vanity Fair profile by Nick Bolton.

Despite the chaos, (Holmes) believed that Theranos could still be saved, and she had an unconventional plan for redemption. That September, according to the two former executives, Holmes asked her security detail and one of her drivers to escort her to the airport in her designated black Cadillac Escalade. She flew first class across the country and was subsequently chauffeured to a dog breeder who supplied her with a 9-week-old Siberian husky. The puppy had long white paws, and a grey and black body. Holmes had already picked out a name: Balto.

For Holmes, the dog represented the journey that lay ahead for Theranos. As she explained to colleagues at the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, he was named after the world-famous sled dog who, in 1925, led a team of huskies on a dangerous, 600-mile trek from Nenana, Alaska, to remote Nome, Alaska, bearing an antitoxin that was used to fight a diphtheria outbreak. There is even a statue of Balto in New York’s Central Park, Holmes told one former employee. The metaphorical connection was obvious. In Holmes’s telling, Balto’s perseverance mirrored her own. His voyage with the life-changing drug was not so different from her ambition.

But, wait: There’s more. Back in California, Holmes took Balto to work every day, a millennial-style reminder of her dogged mission and purpose. She ignored complaints by scientists that dog hair and dander might contaminate lab samples. And then this:

But there was another problem with Balto, too. He wasn’t potty-trained. Accustomed to the undomesticated life, Balto frequently urinated and defecated at will throughout Theranos headquarters. While Holmes held board meetings, Balto could be found in the corner of the room relieving himself while a frenzied assistant was left to clean up the mess.

Around this same time, Holmes says that she discovered that Balto—like most huskies—had a tiny trace of wolf origin. Henceforth, she decided that Balto wasn’t really a dog, but rather a wolf. In meetings, at cafés, whenever anyone stopped to pet the pup and ask his breed, Holmes soberly replied, “He’s a wolf.”

The original Balto, a creature deserving a rich biography of his own, not only has a statue in Central Park — you can view his body, preserved by taxidermy, in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. If that weren’t enough, he has his own Wikipedia page.

I am not sure I will encounter another example of getting the name of the dog that generated so much narrative energy and character development.

I close by sharing with you the title of Chapter 14 of my book Writing Tools: “Get the Name of the Dog.” And while you are at it, get all the other names too. If they are not in your notebook, there’s no chance they will wind up in your story. Follow where they lead. 

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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