The legacy of Steve Jobs sits in pockets and on desks across the world. But what is equally universal is the perception that this man was not a benevolent leader. His coldness and apathy has often been excused by his genius and “there was a thin line between civility and cruelty in him, between what did and what did not set him off.” In Small Fry (published Sep 2018), his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, writes about how that infamous temperament translated into his role as a father. Less of a tell-all exposé on the man, this coming of age Silicon Valley memoir is more about reclaiming the emotional injury of having grown up in this environment.
Jobs and Chrisann Brennan became pregnant with Lisa when they were 24. By the time Lisa was born, they were no longer together. Regardless, the two self-proclaimed hippies decided on her name and shortly after, Jobs began denying his paternity — until he was sued for child support. Even then, throughout the rest of his life, he would waffle on accepting or denying Lisa.
Jobs' consideration of her would ebb and flow from moments of tenderness to callousness and disregard. The title Small Fry comes from a memory that depicts both: Throughout her childhood, the separated parents lived in the same neighborhood and Brennan-Jobs spent most of her adolescence at her mother’s house, only living full-time with Jobs in high school. When picking her up to go rollerskating on the weekends, Jobs greeted Lisa with, “Hey, small fry, let’s blast. We’re livin’ on borrowed time.” What seemed like a precious nickname, she interprets to mean, “the kind of french fries left at the bottom of the bag, cold and crusty; [she] thought he was calling [her] a runt, or misbegotten.”
Overcoming this perception is what drove her to be a high achiever in hopes of receiving recognition from her father. No matter what she did, even as she gets accepted to Harvard University, all she received from her father was a dismissive affirmative response.
Brennan-Jobs’ story is complex, which reveals itself as she talks about a lonely childhood, absent of affection and stability but not devoid of resources, shelter, or food. No doubt, Jobs had his quirks that made for a less comfortable experience as he refused to fully furnish his homes, made questionably inappropriate comments, and bestowed his uncompromising dietary preferences on those around him. What is damaging, however, is the whiplash of whether he regards his own daughter as his kin, creating a constant state of longing and a need for validation that follows Brennan-Jobs.
What best encapsulates this negligence is this faux mystery he creates around the naming of the Apple Lisa computer. Jobs named one of his early projects, “Lisa” after his daughter was born but continually denied it was named after her. He tells her “no” when asked directly; he tells his wife Laurene Powell Jobs “no” when asked, and then finally, admits to Bono (of all people) as Lisa sat beside them at lunch in the South of France, hearing the truth for the first time at age 27.
This was what having Steve Jobs as a father was like — Lisa claims that he would bestow and withhold his love, or even acknowledgment of her, at whim. She wanted nothing more than to find a father figure in Jobs but instead found it impossible. As Lisa tells it, her successes meant “not succeeding as a member of [the] family” and “if [she] want[ed] to be a part of [the] family, [she] need[ed] to put in the time.”
The irony is that the memoir culminates with a Hollywood-type ending as Jobs, dying of cancer, tells her how he wished he had more time and could go back and do it again. This deathbed revelation makes it seem like Jobs was aware of the home he had created, but did not have the capacity to live up to the expectations Brennan-Jobs wanted in a father.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue