The Buried Lede in Christie Smythe’s Romantic Connection with Martin Shkreli

There’s a story of intimacy amid American social undercurrents and business culture, and how they pertain to the way we discuss women’s life choices.

Martin Shkreli in his iconic gray hoodie at his 2017 federal court trial
Martin Shkreli at his 2017 trial for defrauding investors

There was a time on the Internet when you couldn’t escape hearing about “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, most infamous for hiking the price of AIDS drug Daraprim to an obscene level. A rich young edgelord who was prime fodder for hate-tweets and thinkpieces, he became a cautionary tale in the hubris of wealth upon receiving a prison sentence for scamming investors in a hedge fund he ran, after such antics as buying a Wu-Tang Clan album no one else could listen to and trying to buy access to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign (which then donated his contribution to a charity for people with AIDS). But the real lesson Shkreli served up was that unchecked avarice only yields consequences if you screw over other rich people, and Bernie Madoff already proved that a decade prior.

A ceaseless parade of Trumpian dumpster fires dominating the media in the ensuing years began, as did a parallel procession of “main characters” on Twitter who you never want to be. Once Shkreli’s trial concluded and his sentence commenced, denizens of the Internet pretty much moved on from him as we watched the empire start to collapse in real time.

But 2020, that messy bitch who just kept going when her drunk ass should’ve gone home in March yet, had a final boss battle for us after hurling all over the interior of your 2002 Pontiac. Pharma Bro is baaaaaack!

The Internet’s brain broke upon ELLE publishing this feature about legal journalist Christie Smythe opening up in this bizarre half tell-all, half fashion shoot detailing how she grew attracted to Martin Shkreli after she spent all this time covering his trial until she was the only one he’d grant access to, then suddenly she’s visiting him in prison and making plans for a life together. Naturally, the Internet handled this with as much aplomb as you’d expect.

I ignored the throbbing commentariat and clicked the ELLE link, figuring I’d go in with an open mind. As sure as Toad made little green apples, I’ve done some questionable things (and guys) so perhaps I’m not in a position to judge her like the rest of the Internet who so quickly goes from being terminally horny online to Victorian schoolmarm at click speed.

I read it in full, twice.

I found myself blinking at the monitor and experiencing a sudden thought cloud before the takes began to crop up like those chin hairs where I swear to god, I yanked one out then six more came to its funeral.

I had a revelation upon doing this. Both in the story that was told and in how people are viscerally reacting to it. As the title implies, I think the lede was really buried here. You’ll see why soon.

I am but a humble shitposting dork from The Bronx who really loves toads and occasionally gets derailed from making video games for a living. That involves processing and parsing a great deal of the human experience and shoving it on a screen in some manner, so here we are: me coming to you live from my overheated dump in The Bronx, extricating the bizarrely human elements of this story the Internet is losing its collective shit over.

Since there is something indelibly human I find about this story despite what you may construe about the morality of the cast here.

My take isn’t about Martin Shkreli himself, as there’s not much I can say about him that hasn’t already been said countless times already. It’s not even about Christie Smythe herself, as I don’t know her and I’m just going by that ELLE feature and what people are saying about it.

Rather, it’s how the story of this seemingly unlikely romance is framed as Smythe “throwing away” this enviable life for one of the most hated men in recent history. When that’s not the story I am seeing at all.

The tweet straight from the source bluntly says it: “threw it all away”.

Something about those exact words struck a chord in me. Because I have to blunt with you, I’ve heard them myself.

When I left the financial industry in 2014, I was told I was throwing my life away to make video games and that it was such a shame I worked so hard on those stupid accounting degrees to go do that. They didn’t see how long I went without income, how I had to fight both fresh-faced grads and Boomers for $25/hour bookkeeping jobs in one of the most expensive regions in America, and the shitty and exploitative jobs I barely held onto.

Now, before you say “Not the same thing! The context isn’t even a romantic one!”, that’s the point. This is a phrase frequently hurled at women with such facile because we can never do any goddamn thing right and we absolutely receive more unsolicited advice about our lives than men. We scaremonger women with parables of how they’ll throw their lives away over the wrong career or romantic choice, because this is a direct byproduct of benevolent misogyny: perfection is expected of you so if you dare fuck up and go against the grain, the world will let you know in no uncertain terms what you SHOULD have done, you would-be perfect angel of light.

The woman of the hour even said so herself.

Perhaps most of us disagree with the first half of the tweet, but that second half is actually what I’m going to dive into. It’s the real heart of this story; most of you went straight for the jugular instead of the carotid artery (I don’t know if this analogy works, I know amphibian cardiology better than human heart parts.)

I’d argue that while the catalyst was incredibly unexpected and universally loathed, she didn’t throw away her life. Rather, it was beginning even if her credibility has been tarnished by this.

Something that we as a society do not acknowledge is that stasis is a slow killer for women just as much as it is for men. Maybe even more so.

Stasis kills.

People have a tendency to associate women with needing stability, even though it’s a gender-neutral concept. But stability can lead to stasis, this “is this is it now?” deal. You attain the professional and relationship statuses most people only dream of. But are they truly making you happy? Were they really what you wanted? If you’re living someone else’s dream instead of your own, it makes people pretty unsympathetic to you even if the object of your affection isn’t a wealthy edgelord most people hate.

Stasis is suffocating.

Men get sympathetic narratives about stasis; aw look, he needs to go spend his hard-earned money on a sports car and get an adrenaline boost when that pretty woman half his age smiles at him. (Seriously fellas, go enjoy it. I’m not snarking here.) If a woman expresses discontent with hitting the Life Goals™ but can’t understand why she’s crushingly sad in stasis, people snap at her about how she should be grateful, don’t you know how good you have it, and to shut up.

Upon reading that feature over twice, I saw a lot of talk about Smythe and her husband both working stressful but coveted jobs, going to the same bars every weekend, and it’s the kind of life that I bet most people would kill for. As someone who fought and worked hard for my professional autonomy, I can’t imagine dedicating yourself to an employer like Bloomberg LP without eventually breaking down over how much control they’re exerting over your life. We only see the side she’s discussing there, but I’ve worked enough jobs I hated to know I hate traditional employment. So don’t mind my bias here!

But in an age where employment has grown more precarious, especially in journalism, I can see why she’s getting dagger eyes from many a journalist over “throwing it all away” even though it sounds like she’s pivoting to a different kind of writing career she’ll like better to at least end part of that stasis. Speaking from experience, the web content world is also always an option that provides plenty of stability metered out with excitement. Either way, her husband seemed resentful of her making various career decisions and wanted to halt some of them to the point he was starting to exert just as much control as Bloomberg and oh, I felt something as I read that line.

I made my entrepreneurial journey single and it was precisely because of shit like this. I will not take paternalistic condescension over my business decisions, especially if he has no idea how entrepreneurship works let alone the games and media industries. Not when my name is recognized in my industry to some degree and it’s my “stupid video game” wealth that paid for said idyllic apartment.

I’m sure her ex-husband’s a swell guy otherwise, who couldn’t understand the stress his wife was going through at work and decided to get mansplain-y about this one thing. But because women are second-guessed on everything and then given a scarlet letter for unpopular choices? This part is being passed over and the Internet mob is jumping straight to the “But how could she choose MARTIN SHKRELI?!”

From what I gathered, it sounds like Smythe was going to leave her husband and/or job anyway. The sheer thrill of this famous criminal suddenly pulling her into this new world, forging this emotional connection then yanking it back just as quickly, clipped at that stasis she was dying to break. Hollywood couldn’t write a romcom this captivating.

If you can’t comprehend why she did this, this is only part of the equation. Stasis kills women just as much as it kills men. At work, in our closets, in bed. Strong communication might end it in an otherwise happy relationship. But you can have two perfectly wonderful people whose life goals just diverge now, or if the cheater sought sex and/or affection from somebody else? There’s something the cheatee couldn’t provide, often through no fault of their own.

So, she didn’t “throw her life away” for a guy who’s hated for good reason. The attention he gave her simply sped up breaking the stasis. Because it really sounds like she was going to leave the great job and husband regardless of the outcome and millions of you glossed right over it.

Success and intellect do not inure you from being human.

Okay, I’m going to talk about the second half of that equation now: Mr. Shkreli. Or rather, his behaviors that led to things progressing then ending how they did.

In perusing that ELLE piece, reading about Shkreli’s romantic communications gave me flashbacks from the Valley of Emotionally Unavailable Fuckboys from whence my ex came. Those weren’t just red flags; they were wholesale red textile shipments complete with red flagpoles.

I’m sure many ladies reading this have been there: the guy who goes on and on about how he doesn’t want a relationship, yet he acts like your boyfriend for all intents and purposes and you’re the first woman he calls when something major happens like job loss. He’s either messaging you every other day or goes a month without saying, after he promised you this amazing future together. The kind who talks up how he’s so adventurous and/or kinky, but he basically keeps a finger on your pulse through texts or DMs more often than you two actually getting together let alone having sex. We have ten million new definitions now for these pernicious new dating norms, everything from “stashing” to window-shopping and what Pharma Bro did was “breadcrumbing”.

But even after life and relationship experience has wizened us to make like a tree and get the fuck out of there when we see those red flags slowly rising, we’re still human underneath it all. We screw this part up no matter our age, gender, origin, culture, subculture, religion, values system, color, creed, favorite hardcore band, whatever. Because we are human.

Smythe formed this genuine intimacy with Shkreli through having to cover him so extensively for work, and she likely interacted with him more than her co-workers or even her husband at points. When you have to interact with someone that often for business, like I did with my business partner across the world for my first venture? Especially when most of that interaction is online? Forming this incredibly intimate friendship is virtually inevitable, and romantic attraction in due time is not uncommon.

And well, Martin over here couldn’t use the “busy with work” excuse after his sentence kicked off. (Seriously guys, women know how jobs work. Don’t try that one on us.) But in spite of this, he drew Smythe in with the intimacy they wound up creating.

In addition to being fascinated with him as a person in spite of the atrocities he committed, she did the very human thing of giving in to this basar instinct to desire a guy lavish you with attention. Keep in mind, we live in this society where women are bombarded with these messages about how we’ve failed as human beings if we’re single, sad old maids wasting away if we don’t have boyfriends by 35, so maybe don’t be too quick to pass judgment that she jumped at making life plans with an incarcerated tech bro she forged this fortuitous degree of intimacy with. Come on, TED BUNDY got nudes and marriage proposals from complete strangers. Are you really that shocked?

No amount of wealth, success, good looks, prestige, and intellectual prowess can overcome this incredibly human desire to revel in attention. Even if the giver yanks it back and ghosts you for a month at a time. I know, because I fell for it when I thought I had a chance at a real relationship with a less-disgraceful tech bro who pulled similar behaviors. I figured, “Hey, at least he doesn’t lord over my every move and ask me where I am every night. I could jive with this?” (Narrator: No. Rachel could not jive with it anymore after a certain point.)

Couple that with breaking out of stasis by this dangerous forbidden love with a totally inaccessible guy, you got a deadly combination. Some consider it to be a Greek tragicomedy come to life now that he has ghosted her via attorney, asking many of us if it was really worth it.

It sounds like Smythe has broken the stasis she was in, even if things with the catalyst didn’t turn out like she thought they would. I’ve known many women in my time, wealthy and poor alike, who were promised incredible futures with houses, marriage, babies, and vacations by men who left them high and dry. My ex never made good on a single promise. So I ask once more: you really that shocked given the man in question’s record?

Intimacy Brain and Stasis Brain really mess with you. While I don’t agree with the means, she chose herself upon recognizing her unhappiness with her old career and marriage, and I’ll give her props for that.

And now I’ll just leave you with this:

-Attraction and intimacy alike come from unexpected places.

-Sometimes, you don’t always truly know someone.

-Please stop talking to women like we’re fucking idiots, really, it’s tiresome.

-Stability is great. Stasis is suffocating and it actually chokes cishet women sooner than it does cishet men.

-Martin Fucking Shkreli of all people got this successful woman angling to be with him. Steven Miller has actually married and procreated. YOU PROBABLY HAVE A CHANCE AT LOVE!

Game dev, writer, small biz & tax consultant to indie devs. Above all, socialist childfree shitposting crazy toad lady from The Fucking Bronx www.sonictoad.com

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