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‘Demon Mode’, near-death and cities on Mars - the strangest revelations from Elon Musk’s biography

Elon Musk and Grimes  (AFP via Getty Images)
Elon Musk and Grimes (AFP via Getty Images)

The new book ‘Elon Musk’ by Walter Isaacson, is a biography based on interviews with Musk himself and many of his key family, friends and collaborators, and it’s been making headlines around the world for the revelations into the Tesla/Space X nerd-genius.

The book is a big old 600-pages but is actually a quick read; a lightly written, almost gossipy whizz through his life that has been criticised in some quarters for failing to seriously interrogate the most difficult issues or find meaning in Musk’s remarkable rise even as it spills the beans.

But, what tasty beans they are! The deeper consideration of what Musk represents in this day and age can come in later tomes, but for now let’s enjoy some of the key revelations from the book...

Traumatic childhood in Apartheid South Africa

Musk had something of a traumatic childhood in South Africa. Indeed, the way it’s told in the book, violence was a huge part of life over there, with him and his family witnessing brawls, stabbings and fights at every turn, in a country rife with conflict under the racist Apartheid system.

As a child, Musk was relentlessly bullied, physically and mentally, and was sent to a wilderness camp which was like a “paramilitary Lord of the Flies”. After his parents split, he went to live with his dad in Pretoria which he regretted. “He was lonely . . . he used his psychological ways on me. It turned out to be a really bad idea,” says Musk.

Fights with his brother, Kimbal, became a fixture. Apparently, the brothers would only stop fighting once one had kicked the other in the balls. In the book, his family and friends continually make a point that he suffered PTSD as a result of all this early trauma.

Kimbal Musk is Elon’s younger brother, and is rarely seen without his cowboy hat (Getty Images)
Kimbal Musk is Elon’s younger brother, and is rarely seen without his cowboy hat (Getty Images)

Violent fights with his brother

The physical fights with his brother continued into adulthood. Once, when the brothers were working at their first company, Zip2, they had a fight in the office which ended in Kimbal biting a chunk of flesh from Elon’s hand. It was a disagreement about the name of the company.

A complex relationship with his dad

His father, Errol Musk, owned an emerald mine in Zambia when Musk was growing up, an unregistered one which stayed clear of the post-colonial government there. Isaacson quotes Errol as saying, “If you registered it, you would wind up with nothing, because the Blacks would take everything from you”. He goes on to insist he’s not racist: “They are different to what I am”. His emerald mine business collapsed in the ‘80s, and when Elon went to Canada in 1989, he arrived with $2000 in travellers cheques from his dad and $2000 from his mum from her beauty contest winnings. Musk promptly lost all the traveller’s cheques when a bus driver drove off without putting his suitcase on board.

His relationship with his dad is fraught, and the book describes how Errol would take the side of Musk’s school bullies. His first wife, Justine, says: “If your father is always calling you a moron and an idiot, maybe the only response is to turn off anything inside that would have opened up an emotional dimension that he didn’t have the tools to deal with.” When Musk made the move to the US, his dad said: “You’ll be back in a few months. You will never be successful.”

They’re now estranged, and Musk stopped the monthly $2,000 payment he once transferred to him after Errol began a relationship — and had two children — with his own stepdaughter. A friend says that when Musk saw his father, “it was the only time I had ever seen Elon’s hands shaking”.

‘Nightmare’ relationship with Amber Heard

Musk dated Amber Heard after her divorce from Johnny Depp. In April 2017, when she was filming Aquaman in Australia, Musk flew out to meet Heard — they did a treetop rope course together and Heard kissed him on the cheek. He said she reminded him of Mercy, his favourite character in the video game Overwatch – she subsequently spent two months designing a cosplay costume of Mercy to wear for him, which Musk shared on Twitter a few days ago. In the book, his relationship with Heard, which quickly turns difficult, forms part of Isaacson’s claim that “most of his romantic relationships involve psychological turmoil”. Musk’s Chief of Staff Sam Teller is quoted saying, “she was like The Joker in Batman, she didn’t have a goal or aim other than chaos”.

Musk’s brother, Kimbal, says of Heard: “She was just so toxic. A nightmare. The way she can create her own reality reminds me of my dad. It’s really sad that he falls in love with these people who are really mean to him. They’re beautiful, no question, but they have a very dark side and Elon knows they are toxic.”

His on-off girlfriend Grimes says of the actress: “My Dungeons and Dragons alignment would be chaotic good. Whereas Amber’s is probably chaotic evil. He’s attracted to chaotic evil. It’s about his father and what he grew up with, and he is quick to fall back into being treated badly. He associates love with being mean or abusive. There’s an Errol-Amber through line.”

Double trouble

When Musk began dating Grimes, he gave her a rapid-fire test on Lord of the Rings, which she passed. “That mattered to me,” Musk said. Grimes says of him in the book: “His emotional comprehension is just very different from the average human. If someone has depression or anxiety, we sympathize. But if they have Asperger’s, we say he’s an asshole.”

At one point, Musk’s relationship with Grimes coincided with one he was also having with an employee, Shivon Zilis, with whom he had twins (Strider Sekhar Sirius and Azure Astra Alice) via IVF. Isaacson describes a pregnant Zilis in hospital at the same time as a surrogate was carrying his child with Grimes.

Elon Musk also had twins with Shivon Zilis (twitter)
Elon Musk also had twins with Shivon Zilis (twitter)

Secret child with Grimes

One of the surprises to emerge is that had a secret child in 2022 called Techno Mechanicus with Grimes. That makes it 11 children with three different mums. His first son, Nevada, with first wife Justine, died at 10 weeks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

When Musk enters ‘Demon mode’

Isaacson frequently refers to Musk’s ‘Demon Mode’, which is when he stops the niceties and attempts to get things done with maniacal drive, working long hours with highly ambitious targets, firing whoever is not stepping up. For instance, when he paid a visit to the facility of his mega-rocket Starship, he discovered no one was working on the launchpad site – this was at 9pm on a Friday. According to Isaacson, Musk immediately ordered 500 workers from around SpaceX to get there immediately and demanded booster and second-stage rockets on the launchpad in 10 days, even though the rocket itself was not ready. Shortly after 1am, he sent an email titled ‘Starship Surge’, which read: “Anyone who is not working on other obviously critical path projects at SpaceX should shift immediately to work on the first Starship orbit. Please fly, drive, or get here by any means possible.”

Elon Musk waves as he leaves carrying his child after speaking at the POSSIBLE marketing conference, Tuesday, April 18, 2023, in Miami Beach (AP)
Elon Musk waves as he leaves carrying his child after speaking at the POSSIBLE marketing conference, Tuesday, April 18, 2023, in Miami Beach (AP)

His trans child

At 16 years old, Musk’s son Xavier transitioned to Jenna and became estranged from Musk. He became quite outspoken against trans issues on Twitter around the time, though the fallout was blamed on her Marxism by Musk. Things “became intense when she went beyond socialism to being a full communist and thinking anyone rich is evil”. Nevertheless, Isaacson links events with his child to his obsession with the woke-mind virus. He’s quoted as saying: “Unless the woke-mind virus, which is fundamentally anti-science, anti-merit, and anti-human in general, is stopped, civilization will never become interplanetary.”

Asperger’s caused by childhood trauma

Musk believes he has Asperger’s, a developmental disorder which makes people have a difficult time relating to others and a narrow focus on restricted interests. Speculation is had about whether this has been exacerbated by his childhood traumas, and close friend Antonio Gracias says, “the PTSD would flare up when he felt threatened or bullied, hijacking his emotional responses.” He’s bad at picking up social cues and admits that early in his life, “I took people literally when they said something”. He was not hardwired to have empathy, Isaacson concludes.

Musk on Mars

He fears an AI apocalypse and wants to build a human colony on Mars — SpaceX workers report having had meetings about building a city on the red planet, though Musk himself has tweeted he thinks it’d take 1000 years to get a sustainable colony there.

An obsession with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

No great surprise, but Musk loves science fiction and video games, and growing up, he was a dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons and was once thrown out of a D&D championship when he won a game in record time and was accused of cheating. On the science fiction front, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the big one for Musk, who is quoted saying, “It helped me out of my existential depression, and I soon realised it was amazingly funny in all sorts of subtle ways… I took from the book that we need to extend the scope of consciousness so that we are better able to ask the questions about the answer, which is the universe.”

Later, he put a copy of the book in the glove compartment of the Tesla Roadster he launched into orbit in February 2018 as part of the Falcon Heavy test flight, which also had a sign on the dashboard bearing the iconic phrase from the book: ‘Don’t Panic’.

This image from a video provided by SpaceX shows the company's spacesuit in Elon Musk's red Tesla sports car which was launched into space during the first test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 (AP)
This image from a video provided by SpaceX shows the company's spacesuit in Elon Musk's red Tesla sports car which was launched into space during the first test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 (AP)

The Musk family motto

The Musk family motto: ‘Live dangerously – carefully’. Which gets more David Brent, the more you read it.

His first big pay cheque

In January 1999, four years after Zip2 was launched, it was bought by Compaq Computer and Elon walked away with $22 million. He said: “My bank account went from like $5000 to $22,005,000.” He immediately bought an 800 sq foot condo and a $1 million McLaren sports car. He told CNN at the time: “Just three years ago I was sleeping on the office floor, and now I’ve got a million-dollar car.” Later he took Peter Thiel for a spin and crashed it at such a speed that the car “flew in the air like a flying saucer”. Both were miraculously unscathed.

PayPal’s falling out

After selling Zip2, he became CEO of PayPal, taking over from Peter Thiel. However, he was booted out of PayPal for various reasons, with Isaacson pointing out the problems caused by his conviction that it should try to “take over the world’s financial system” and due to his lifelong fixation on the letter X which led him to change the name of the company to X.com (familiar?). There was a big fallout when Peter Thiel commissioned research that showed the PayPal brand was more popular than X.com, which resulted in Musk ordering the PayPal logo to be stripped from the company’s website.

Amber Heard and Elon Musk (@amberheard)
Amber Heard and Elon Musk (@amberheard)

A near-death experience with malaria

Musk contracted malaria after a trip to Rio and South Africa in 2000 and nearly died. He was put into intensive care in Redwood City, where he was injected through the chest to supply him with intravenous infusions. Peter Thiel later found out through HR that Musk had taken out a $100 million ‘key man’ life insurance policy. “If he had died all of our financial problems were going to be solved,” Thiel told Isaacson.

His jig of success

SpaceX’s Falcon 1 made history on 28 September 2008 as the first privately built rocket to launch from the ground and go into orbit. Musk and 500 employees designed the system from the ground up, doing all the construction — all funded privately, mostly from Musk’s own pocket. At the successful launch, he said it “was frigging awesome” and did a jig in front of employees.

Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy rocket launches off (Reuters)
Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy rocket launches off (Reuters)

Weed problems

Musk appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast and smoked dope (legally, in California) at a time when Tesla shareholders were concerned about his mental state. This led to the share price dipping in Tesla and prompted an investigation by NASA since SpaceX was a contractor — Musk was subject to random drug tests as a result for a couple of years.

Toilet humour

Potty humour is one of Musk’s big things. He has a fart sound programmed into Teslas, and if you say the voice command: “open butthole” to the console, the electric charging port opens at the back.