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Tuesday saw the release of Elon Musk, author Walter Isaacson’s mammoth new biography of the controversial tech mogul, and hardly a chapter of the nearly 700-page book goes by without a weird anecdote about the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s eccentric, sometimes self-destructive behavior. We are treated to insights about volatile relationships with family and partners, his caustic managerial style, and the toll that burnout takes as Musk struggles to deliver on promises of a fantastical future. Isaacson had total access to Musk himself, and, throughout the narrative, features perspectives from dozens of people in Musk’s inner circle (or formerly close with him) on exactly what makes the man tick.
Along the way, there are details that will make you wonder (as Musk himself is known to muse) if we’re living in a computer simulation. But this, apparently, is just the reality of being a billionaire with the power and influence of a sovereign nation. Here are just a few of the items from Elon Musk that will leave you in awe — for better or worse:
The Emotional Wreckage of Musk’s First Marriage
Musk split with his first wife, Justine Musk, in 2008, after the relationship devolved into constant and bitter verbal fights, with Musk saying things like, “If you were my employee, I would fire you,” or calling her an “idiot,” Justine told Isaacson. She also recalled once trying to explain the concept of empathy to Musk, but he said his lack of such a quality gave him an advantage when it came to running major companies. He also grew irritated by her suggestions that he try therapy, and blamed her own anger on Adderall, which a psychiatrist had prescribed to her for Attention Deficit Disorder. Justine Musk said that although the drug was “an amazing help” for her, Elon “would go around the house throwing away the pills” that he believed were contributing to their marital strife.
Musk Has Suffered From Years of Neck and Back Pain Because of a Birthday Party Stunt
When Musk and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg were publicly entertaining the idea of fighting out their Silicon Valley rivalry in a “cage match,” few in the martial arts world thought it would actually happen. Indeed, the plan fell apart before the pair could settle any logistical matters, with Musk offering at least one specific excuse: an old injury to his C5-C6 vertebrae that might need additional surgery. Elon Musk confirms that this injury occurred at his 42nd birthday party in 2013, which was themed around Japanese steampunk, with “Musk and the other men dressed as samurai warriors.” The evening featured a demonstration of Sumo wrestling, and when Musk was invited into the ring, he attempted a “full strength” judo throw on a 350-pound wrestler. He claimed to Isaacson that he succeeded, but also blew out his C5-C6 intervertebral disc. He’s since had several operations to repair it and suffers “severe bouts of back and neck pain” that occasionally see him lying on the floor during Tesla and SpaceX meetings, soothing the pain with an ice pack.
How Tesla Freshened Up a Major California Freeway
For more than a decade, Musk has been promising that Teslas will soon have fully autonomous self-driving capability. So far, that technology has yet to materialize. Yet even as far back as 2015, Musk was impatient with engineers working on Autopilot, which he would use on his commute from his Bel Air home to SpaceX headquarters near the Los Angeles airport, growing furious wherever it failed. At one point, the Tesla team realized that Autopilot couldn’t handle a certain curve on the 405 freeway because the lane markers were too faded for the car to see. Lacking any technical workaround, they decided to appease Musk by beseeching the California Department of Transportation to repaint the lines on that stretch of road. But, according to Isaacson’s reporting, Caltrans did nothing until Tesla got through to someone there who happened to be a Musk fan and agreed to the paint job, on one condition: a tour of SpaceX for him and a few others. The trade was made. “After that,” Isaacson writes, “Musk’s Autopilot handled the curve well.”
Musk’s Cold Calculations on Autopilot-Involved Deaths
Tesla’s Autopilot has been involved in hundreds of car crashes and at least 17 fatalities, with such accidents surging along with increased use of the system. Surely, Musk’s habit of exaggerating what it can do hasn’t helped. Though when it comes to Autopilot-involved deaths, he doesn’t seem to think they matter much in the grand scheme, believing the tech “should be judged not on whether it prevented accidents but instead on whether it led to fewer accidents.” After the first two reported Autopilot-involved fatalities in 2016, Musk did not immediately issue a statement, and Isaacson notes that he “could not understand why one or two deaths caused by Tesla Autopilot created an outcry when there were more than 1.3 million traffic deaths annually.” He then got angry during a press conference where reporters opened with questions about those accidents, firing back that they were the ones “killing” people if they turned public sentiment or government regulators against autonomous driving systems.
What Was Secretly on Musk’s Mind During a Rolling Stone Interview
In 2017, Musk gave an interview to Neil Strauss for a Rolling Stone cover story. He seemed distracted from the beginning and walked out on Strauss, coming back several minutes later to explain that he had recently broken up with his girlfriend, actress Amber Heard. Later in the conversation, Musk spoke unforgivingly of his estranged father, Errol Musk. “He was such a terrible human being,” Musk said, adding, “Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done.” He didn’t offer specifics at the time, but Isaacson reveals that shortly before this, Musk had learned that in 2016, Errol had impregnated Jana Bezuidenhout, a woman more than four decades younger, whom Errol had raised as his stepdaughter. Elon and his siblings were profoundly disturbed by the news, which seemed to weigh on him during his talk with Strauss, who wrote, “There is clearly something Musk wants to share, but he can’t bring himself to utter the words.”
The Personal Turmoil Behind the Infamous ‘Pedo Guy’ Tweet
The year 2018 was a tumultuous one for Musk, both in business and his personal life. One of his lowest moments came after the successful rescue of a Thai youth soccer team from a flooded cave — an effort to which he had tried to contribute a small submersible that he imagined might be used to transport the children through a treacherous underwater passage. When cave diver who had worked on the operation dismissed the idea as a PR stunt, Musk lashed out, calling him a “pedo guy” on Twitter and again falsely smearing him as a pedophile in a later email to BuzzFeed News. The fallout in the media was intense, and Tesla investors thought he was “losing it.” Why was he so out of control during this period? Elon’s brother, Kimbal Musk, believes it wasn’t merely job stress but could be partly traced back to his breakup with Heard almost a year before. “It was a result of him just being in awful grief about Amber,” he told Isaacson.
An Unexpected Consequence of Smoking Weed on Joe Rogan’s Show
Musk’s 2018 appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience was intended to be a bit of damage control at a precarious time for the CEO, who was seen as increasingly erratic. So, naturally, when Rogan offered him a toke on a tobacco-and-cannabis blunt, he confirmed that it was legal before gamely taking a puff. Even so, Tesla investors were rattled as the image of Musk wreathed in pot smoke went viral, and the company’s share price tumbled to almost its lowest point that year. There was one other, hidden ramification, too: “SpaceX was a NASA contractor, and they are big believers in the law,” Musk is quoted as saying in the biography. That meant, for the next couple of years, he was subject to random drug tests. “Fortunately,” he said, “I really don’t like doing illegal drugs.”
Why Musk and Grimes Got into Couples’ Spats
Throughout their courtship and co-parenting journey, Musk and occasional girlfriend Grimes have had their share of blowups, some of them sparked by truly unusual behavior. In 2021, for example, he was obsessed with the civilization strategy game The Battle of Polytopia, which in time began to distract him from work meetings and social events. Grimes started playing as well, noting that video games are one of Musk’s only outlets for relaxation, but, she said, “he takes those so seriously that it gets very intense.” In one game they played together, having agreed to an alliance, she betrayed him with a surprise attack, triggering “one of our biggest fights ever.” When she tried to argue it was only a game and not a big deal, he said, “It’s a huge fucking deal,” and didn’t speak to her for the rest of the day. On the flip side, Grimes was angry with Musk when he sent a photo of her having a C-section during childbirth to friends and family, without her consent. “He was just clueless about why I’d be upset,” she told Isaacson.
When Musk’s Reproductive Habits Made for a Curious Coincidence
After a complicated pregnancy, Grimes and Musk elected to use a surrogate for their second child together — and when that pregnancy also became difficult, Grimes stayed with their surrogate in an Austin hospital in 2021. However, Isaacson writes, she had no idea that in the same maternity ward, another woman was preparing to give birth to twins conceived through in vitro fertilization, also with Musk as the sperm donor. This was Shivon Zilis, a director of Neuralink, Musk’s brain implant device company. That Musk had fathered these other children with one of his top executives only became public the following year, when Musk and Zillis filed court documents so that the twins would have Musk’s last name.
Starlink’s Uncomfortable Role in the Ukraine-Russia War
Among the most explosive stories in Elon Musk concerns how Musk became a player in the Ukraine-Russia conflict via Starlink, a SpaceX-operated satellite system that delivers broadband internet. The book claims that in March 2022, Musk — who had been supporting Ukrainian forces with Starlink access — cut off their connectivity along the Crimean coast to foil an submarine drone attack on a Russian naval fleet there, fearing it would escalate the war. Musk, however, has since denied this, saying he had never made Starlink available in that region. Isaacson walked back the original claim as well, tweeting that Musk had merely ignored Ukraine’s requests to enable coverage there ahead of their attack. In any case, the incident demonstrates Musk’s impact on the geopolitical scale.
Musk’s Downplaying of Human Rights Abuses in China
At the end of 2022, as Musk tried to get Twitter under control in the wake of a contentious acquisition, he expressed an alarming opinion of a humanitarian crisis in China. Talking to reporter Bari Weiss, Isaacson writes, he said that “Twitter would indeed have to be careful about the words it used regarding China, because Tesla’s business could be threatened. He also told her that the country’s repression of the Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim minority group, had two sides. The Chinese government is placing this population in concentration camps and has been widely accused of crimes against humanity with the U.S. even going so far as to call it “genocide.”