Small Fry

by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Small-Fry-book-coverHow do you survive a father who is idolized by the world but only erratically available to you?

Who is one of the wealthiest men in Silicon Valley, yet leaves you and your mother to live on welfare?

Who denies he is your father?

Not easily, according to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs.

Her 2018 memoir, Small Fry, is alternately poignant, angering, lyrical and heart-warming.

She spends her early childhood on welfare and her high school years living in the hit-or-miss luxury of her father’s house for six months at a time. Her father develops a computer about the time she is born and names it “Lisa,” then spends much of her life denying that the computer was named for her.

Brennan-Jobs is a gifted writer, who has said the book is her attempt to reclaim her life. (Her aunt, novelist Mona Simpson, wrote about an abandoned daughter’s efforts to become part of her father’s life in A Regular Guy, and her father frequently made defining — often demeaning — comments about her.)
Born in 1978 to young, unwed parents (Chrisann Brennan and Jobs), Lisa grew up perpetually searching for her place in her parents’ divergent worlds. She lived for rare and unpredictable moments with her father, and yet was nearly paralyzed with fear that she would offend or disappoint him.

Jobs’ genius, eccentricities, obsessions, whims and contradictions are well-documented by his biographers and the business press. He was also an inept father.

Early in her life, he refused to acknowledge that she was his daughter, despite a positive paternity test and a suit by the State of California to force him to pay child support and reimburse the welfare payments that had made to Brennan up to that point. He agreed to pay $385 a month in child support. Soon after, Apple went public and he became a multimillionaire. He increased his payments to $500 a month.

One evening when Lisa was in high school, he brought home a computer and set it up on her desk.  But when he turned it on, it didn’t work. He tried a few things, then unplugged the computer and took it away. The man who gave the world user-friendly computers, never again attempted to give his daughter a computer.
Lisa was told not to tell people that she was Steve Jobs’ daughter for fear that she would become the target of kidnappers. Yet when he comes to a middle school parent-teacher conference, he “seemed to carbonate the meeting with his presence, both teachers becoming giddy near him.”
Later, in high school, after Jobs makes a cutting remark about her lack of marketable skills — despite her good grades and varied extracurricular activities — Lisa realizes, “We all made allowances for his eccentricities, the ways he attacked other people, because he was also brilliant, and sometimes kind and insightful. Now I felt he’d crush me if I let him. He would tell me how little I meant over and over until I believed it. What use was his genius to me?”
As Lisa grows up, Jobs insists that she live with him and his family for six months without any contact with her mother. The situation strains her relationship with her mother, who is edging toward mental illness. Chrisann, a talented artist, feels she has sacrificed her opportunities for an education and a career to raise Lisa. She resents what she perceives as Lisa’s transformation into a rich kid at her father’s house.

Brennan-Jobs has a gift for memorable, sensual prose. She describes a walk across her grade school campus writing, “There were cool ribbons of wind inside the warm, dry air. The leaves cracked under my feet . . . ”

Standing outside her mother’s house with Simpson soon after her 12th birthday, Brennan-Jobs observed, “It was evening, the light was yellow, the air quiet without the lawn mowers, leaf blowers and prop planes. Gnats bounced like the surface of carbonated water where the grass met the air.” Later in front of the house, she watched the “tips of grass catching the slanting light and becoming translucent, like backlit straw.”

This memoir more than proves Brennan-Jobs’ talent as a writer. She’s clear eyed in her observations and doesn’t spare herself. This child-of-a-celebrity memoir never stoops to whining or blame. Unsurprisingly, it was not well received by her stepmother and aunt.


About the Author: Lisa Brennan-Jobs (1978 – )

Lisa Brennan-Jobs today lives in Brooklyn with her husband, their son and her two stepdaughters. Her husband is a former Microsoft employee who is launching a start-up.

She graduated from Harvard University in 2000. During her college years, she wrote for The Harvard Crimson and studied overseas for a year at King’s College London.

She worked in finance in London and Italy, then design before becoming a freelance writer.

She has written for The Southwest Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Harvard Advocate, Spiked, Vogue and O, The Oprah Magazine.

Brennan-Jobs describes her reasons for writing her memoir in an August 2018 New York Times interview with Nellie Bowles, titled “In ‘Small Fry,’ Steve Jobs Comes Across as a Jerk. His Daughter Forgives Him. Should We? Lisa Brennan-Jobs has written a memoir about her famous father. The details are damning, but he doesn’t want them to be.”

The process of the book allowed her to reclaim her experiences with her father from the filters of journalism, fiction and talk shows.


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