Last December, former Bloomberg journalist Christie Smythe, now 39, shocked the country when she revealed that she had fallen in love with “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli — who is serving seven years for lying to and defrauding investors, among other charges — only to be dumped by him from prison. Now, with a new documentary about Shkreli streaming Oct. 5, the Manhattanite writes about the fallout from that bombshell and her ongoing friendship with Shkreli.
OK, fine. I admit it. I have a thing for complicated guys.
Perfectly functional, socially evolved, emotionally mature men aren’t really my type, at least when it comes to my personal life. You might call me a bad feminist for saying that, but I don’t think, as a 39-year-old self-sufficient professional woman, that I need to justify my tastes.
Perhaps that’s one plausible explanation for why I fell in love with “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli.
You might remember when I went public about our relationship last December, via a story in Elle magazine (by writer Stephanie Clifford). The Internet had a minor meltdown over it. While it wasn’t my plan to make so much of a splash, I wasn’t shocked by the reaction.
You see, Martin wasn’t just any bad boy. He had been dubbed “the most hated man in America.” The press has used just about every negative adjective invented to describe him. He earned that treatment by massively jacking up the sticker price of a toxoplasmosis drug while he was CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, by getting sent to prison for securities fraud, and by trolling journalists in all sorts of subversive (and sometimes deplorable) ways.
Meanwhile, I had been a reporter at a major media outlet, where I broke the story of Martin’s arrest and covered his securities fraud case. I was also, at the time, married. In theory I was the last person who should have been drawn into Martin’s orbit, but I ended up there all the same.
Having degrees from two of the country’s best journalism schools, I am well aware that reporters aren’t supposed to get romantically involved with subjects or sources — and indeed, I did not do so while I was covering Martin. I’m also not inclined to cheat on a spouse, given that I’m a deeply honest person. Yet, today as I write this, I’m now (happily) divorced, (happily) no longer working in legacy media, and (happily) still friends with, although no longer the girlfriend of, Martin Shkreli.
So how did all that happen? The Internet has produced many inane theories: that I was “crazy,” or “out for his money,” or a “fame whore,” or just “trying to sell a book.” To be fair, I was working on a book about the experience, and still am. By far the most ridiculous notion people seemed to settle on was that I was somehow “manipulated” by Martin into leaving my job and my husband for him, as though a guy who couldn’t avoid being a walking PR trainwreck had magical coercive powers.
First things first: He does not.
There is certainly truth to stories that Martin can be manipulative. He’s highly intelligent, having taught himself biology and chemistry among other technical subjects, and can be highly entertaining and affable in conversation when he’s with someone he likes. Like most other human beings, he knows how to turn on his charm to get something he wants.
While researching my book, I spoke to a number of his former girlfriends and learned how he plied them with things like jewels and expensive shoes, trips and other goodies to win their favor. I’m not really interested in free Jimmy Choos and handbags, though. Nor am I interested in transparently manipulative behavior.
If there was anything at all that Martin did to win my favor, it was offering a gift of a very different sort, one that is infinitely more valuable to me: He showed respect for my intellect and my abilities. From the beginning of our interactions, I felt as though we genuinely connected. He asked for my opinion on significant matters, and seemed to take to heart many things I said. He read my writing, for real, and talked to me about it. In fact, he was impressed enough with my work that he first encouraged me to write a book.
I didn’t know how to assess all of this flattering behavior in the beginning. For a while I wondered if this, too, was some sort of ploy. But as our friendship evolved, and we spent hours together talking during many prison visits, and I got to know his family, his friends and other people in his circle, I realized our investment in each other was real.
We started to seep into each other. He began talking about taking a “woke” turn away from his previous trolling, about contributing more significantly to rare disease treatments and no longer hiking drug prices, and about trying to do good things for society.
I started to think more confidently about myself — not quite on par with Martin’s Trumpian bravado, but more sure of myself as a writer and an editor, as well as a general doer of things, and more self-assured about creating my own destiny.
Indeed, after Martin introduced me to two of his friends in prison, both men of color who had received horrifically draconian sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, pieces that I wrote and posted on Medium furthered conversations that led to both getting released.
By the time I left both my job and my husband, I had decided that neither relationship satisfied me. Both, in some ways, limited me, put controls on me and caused me unnecessary anxiety. I wanted agency, and wouldn’t settle for anything less. When I went public in Elle, I knew Martin wouldn’t be pleased. The idea of splattering a personal relationship across the pages of a magazine horrified him.
But even his feelings, in that moment, took a back seat for me when it came to deciding what I wanted. Coronavirus was raging through the US prison system at the time (and still is to a significant extent). I was sick with worry for him and also tired of hiding, so I did what I felt was best.
Now, I still live in Harlem, although I upgraded to a nicer apartment, and I found a job in the thriving digital media space, helping build a publication for an alternative data startup called Thinknum.
I don’t know what will happen when Martin gets out of prison. It is my hope that he takes to heart some of the things we talked about and makes an earnest effort to apply himself to something good. I do not imagine we would be “together” in a romantic sense, but a lifelong friendship seems probable.
In the end, if it was all a manipulation — getting me to take charge of my life and write the narrative for myself — I’m glad it worked.