SMALL FRY, by Lisa Brennan-Jobs. Grove Press, 381 pp., $26.
Everyone knows Steve Jobs could be mercurial, prickly and vindictive. The co-founder of Apple Inc. and chairman of Pixar Animation Studios, who died of cancer in 2011, has been the subject of a bestselling biography by Walter Isaacson, an Aaron Sorkin film starring Michael Fassbender and a novel by Jobs’ real-life sister, Mona Simpson. Undeniably inspirational and charismatic, he was also a classic narcissist.
But few depictions of Jobs’ unkindness carry the emotional force of that by his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs in her new memoir, “Small Fry.” (The title was one of Jobs’ nicknames for her.) Brennan-Jobs was the daughter of Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan, high school sweethearts in Cupertino, California, in the 1970s. Lisa was born in 1978, after the couple had broken up, and for the first decade of her life Jobs was a distant figure — reluctant to acknowledge his paternity or that Apple’s early computer, the Lisa, had been named for her.
Apple went public in 1980 and, Brennan-Jobs writes, “overnight my father was worth more than two hundred million dollars.” Lisa’s mom, meanwhile, struggles. “Money, when we had it, was quick-burning, bright, like kindling,” she writes. They often turned to Jobs for help; the book's early pages are a catalog of contributions he makes: a couch and ottoman, a silver Honda Civic, a bunk bed, numerous “small” checks. He agrees to increased child support, and then to fund therapy for Lisa. Somehow, it’s never enough.
As time goes by, Jobs drops in and out of Lisa’s life, taking her roller-skating or having her over for dinner — vegan — and a soak in the hot tub at his Woodside, California, mansion. Her mother observes that “when he failed at work, when he lost something in the public sphere, he remembered us, started dropping by, wanted a relationship.” Brennan-Jobs describes him as “far away, glinting like a shard of mirror”; the remove only made her want him more.
When Lisa was 13, Jobs invited her to come live with him, wife Laurene and their baby. He lays ground rules for the experiment: Lisa may not see her mother for six months. When high school activities start to swallow up Lisa's time, he is accusatory: “If you want to be part of this family, you need to put in the time.” It becomes a refrain. Of his confusing push-pull dynamic, Brennan-Jobs writes, “He wanted me to be around, but in another room, in his orbit, not too close. I was supposed to occupy the path drawn by a compass circling around the point that was him.”
There is no shortage of such unflattering episodes and descriptions. (Some have already made headlines; just Google “steve jobs bad behavior.”) Their relationship continued in its on-again-off-again fashion into Brennan-Jobs' adulthood, but they were reconciled at the time of his death and he left her a multimillion-dollar inheritance, according to Fortune magazine. The portrait of Jobs in "Small Fry" is damning enough that his widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, released a family statement before publication saying that the book “differs dramatically from our memories of those times. The portrayal of Steve is not the husband and father we knew.”
Yet “Small Fry” doesn’t read as a vindictive “Daddy Dearest”-style exposé. Like any memoirist, Brennan-Jobs is looking back on the confusions and bewilderment of childhood and trying to understand them from an adult perspective. Here is where the peculiar power of “Small Fry” exerts itself; it is not a complete portrait of Steve Jobs but the reckoning of a child with a parent’s oceanic influence. What parent ever emerged unscathed from such an accounting?