Biographer describes Elon Musk's 'demon mode' – Evanston RoundTable

wp header logo 1840

Evanston RoundTable
Evanston's community newspaper since 1998
Sign up for our free newsletter to have Evanston news delivered directly to your inbox every weekday!
Saturday morning at Cahn Auditorium (600 Emerson Street) on Northwestern University’s campus, political consultant David Axelrod interviewed journalist and author Walter Isaacson about Isaacson’s most recent book, an authorized biography of Elon Musk.
The biography, Elon Musk, has been on the The New York Times‘ hardcover nonfiction list of bestsellers for four weeks.
Isaacson said he followed his subject around for two years, attended meetings, read emails, and also talked with colleagues, relatives and family members, in addition to Musk himself. Isaacson had total access and Musk did not have any say over anything that went in the book. Isaacson said Musk told him he has yet to read the book.
According to Isaacson, Musk believes he has unique abilities to change the world, considers himself a disruptor who questions and breaks rules and restrictions, and demands that his employees do the same. Musk currently is believed to be the richest person in the world. According to Bloomberg, as of September 2023, Musk has an estimated net worth of at least $232 billion.
Isaacson said, “He has these ideas of justice, almost like a Captain Underpants or comic book X-Man, which to some extent are applicable. There are three big epic quests. One is sustainable energy on the planet. [Tesla] Number two is taking us all to planetary space again [Space X], and third is protecting us against artificial intelligence and robots gone wrong [OpenAI and xAI] … He has a great feel for engineering … He talked about having Asperger’s Syndrome, but in his case, it means he doesn’t have deep emotional receptors.”
Isaacson said Musk is an engineering genius capable of brilliant problem-solving.
He described how only hours after Musk finally acquired the company then known as Twitter, he and Musk flew to Boca Chica, Texas, where Space X engineers were stymied on a problem. Within two hours, Isaacson said, Musk had figured out the solution. He did not mention the acquisition of Twitter, nor did anyone in the conference room at Space X mention it. Musk focused on the problem at hand.
If engineering brilliance is Dr. Jekyll, Musk’s Mr. Hyde is the cold, monotonal cruelty he will unleash in an instant. Isaacson said.
“He has multiple personalities,” he said. “Elon can be charming. He can be inspirational. He can be fun, but then he goes into what one of his girlfriends called ‘demon mode.’ And you watch it happen when he goes really dark and he’ll be cold to the people in front of him. It happens mostly on engineering issues. And no, he never did that with me.”
Where does this demon mode come from in Musk?
Musk’s mother, Maye Musk, summarized the internal battle when she told Isaacson, “Here’s the story. The danger for Elon is that he will become his father.”
Maye Musk divorced Errol Musk in 1979 and has described him as abusive.
Elon’s father is one of the first topics Axelrod brings up to discuss with Isaacson.
“If there is a character in the book who moves almost as large as Musk himself, it’s his father. He is a specter that looms over every almost every page of this book. Let’s talk about him and the influence that he had on Musk’s life,” said Axelrod.
“Elon was constantly being beaten up at school,” Isaacson said. “At one point, he was beaten so badly that he ended up in the hospital for a week. And after he comes home from the hospital, his father makes him stand in front of him, erect, for two hours while he tells him that he’s stupid, he’s worthless, it’s his fault he got beaten up, and takes the side of the people who beat him up. So this makes Elon withdraw, obviously, and have the demons in his head.”
As an adult, he is capable of the same emotional cruelty in pursuit of his goals.
A brilliant engineer/visionary leader, and a demanding, emotionally insensitive man-child capable of cruel verbal attacks: the Musk described by Isaacson seems to be both. On Saturday, Isaacson didn’t say with certainty whether Elon had become his father, but that is almost beside the point. The chaos Musk creates in his drive to advance civilization are the focus of his life.
Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson, published by Simon & Schuster on Sept. 12, 2023, is 688 pages. The hardcover price list price is $35. It’s available for sale online at Simon & Schuster and local bookshops, and to check out from the Evanston Public Library.
As a financial supporter of the RoundTable, your contribution throughout the year powers our work covering all the vital news that matters in Evanston! Please consider making an additional gift!
Your contribution is tax-deductible. We appreciate your support!
From now until December 31, new monthly donations and one-time gifts will be matched by the NewsMatch collaborative fundraising campaign. Please consider a gift to support our work in 2024! Your donation may qualify you for a great gift – click here to learn more.
Your contribution is tax-deductible. We appreciate your support!
Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about… More by Wendi Kromash
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Evanston RoundTable is the community’s leading source of news about local government, schools, civic and artistic activities, and other important issues facing our city. We seek to foster civic engagement and empower people to address complex issues facing our diverse community, promoting a better understanding and appreciation of people of all races, ethnicities, and income levels.
Evanston Roundtable
1514 Elmwood Avenue
Suite 2
Evanston, Illinois 60201
We’ve recently sent you an authentication link. Please, check your inbox!
Sign in with a password below, or sign in using your email.
Get a code sent to your email to sign in, or sign in using a password.
Enter the code you received via email to sign in, or sign in using a password.
Sign in with your email
Lost your password?
Try a different email
Send another code
Sign in with a password
By signing up, you agree to our Terms and Conditions.


About the author

Stacy Cook

Stacy Cook

Stacy is a certified ethical hacker and has a degree in Information Security. She keeps an eye on the latest cybersecurity threats and solutions, helping our readers stay safe online. Stacy is also a mentor for young women in tech and advocates for cybersecurity education.