book reviews

A review of Small Fry, by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

I’m not exactly sure what made me download Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ book Small Fry. It’s true that I became an Apple convert about eight years ago and all of my computers and devices were made by Apple. I didn’t know that much about Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ father, the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, who died in 2011 at age 56. He’d had a form of pancreatic cancer. I do remember that after his death, a lot was written about how eccentric he was, particularly regarding his diet. But aside from that, I didn’t really have a particular interest in Apple beyond my Apple products.

I just finished reading Brennan-Jobs’ book, which was published in September 2018. I found it surprisingly interesting and engaging reading. Brennan-Jobs is the product of Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan. They had met in 1972, when they were students at Homestead High School in Cupertino, California. Chrisann was an artist, and Jobs was enchanted by her. Back then, he was kind of a “bum”. He had attended Reed College in Oregon for a short spell, but dropped out of school, and he and Chrisann had an on again, off again relationship. Lisa was born on a farm on May 17, 1978. Her parents took her into a field and named her together, but then Lisa temporarily lost her dad when he claimed he wasn’t her father.

For several years after her birth, Steve Jobs denied paternity. Even though Lisa looked a lot like her dad, and he had even helped name her, it took a legal case and a blood test to finally prove to Jobs that he had a daughter. This was happening during the earliest days of Apple, so there was a lot of press about it. Once the blood test proved Lisa was Jobs’ daughter, he started to take an interest in her… although she mostly grew up with her much poorer mom.

In heartbreaking detail, Brennan-Jobs describes what it was like to grow up the daughter of such a brilliant but eccentric man. She explains his complicated family life; he had been the product of a Muslim Syrian man and his German-Swiss girlfriend. The girlfriend’s parents objected to her marrying a Muslim, so she gave Steve up for adoption. He was raised by Paul and Clara Jobs, who were working class white folks. Steve’s adoptive mom was the daughter of ethnic Armenians who had immigrated. Paul and Clara Jobs also adopted a daughter named Patty, to whom Steve was never close. Steve also had a biological sister, the novelist Mona Simpson. After he met his biological mother, Steve and Mona began a brother-sister relationship and Mona was part of Lisa’s life. When Steve and Chrisann were dating as teens, Steve’s adoptive mom confided in Chrisann that for the first six months of his life, she had been afraid to get close to him because his bio mom wanted him back and she was afraid she was going to lose him. At the time, Chrisann didn’t know why Mrs. Jobs was telling her that, but as Jobs came of age, it became clear. He turned into a very strange person who had stormy relationships.

One might assume Lisa Brennan-Jobs would have had the coolest upbringing ever. Her dad helped found Apple, and NeXT. He was a multi-millionaire who lived in big, empty houses and shopped at Armani. But Lisa always seemed to teeter on the brink of his life. He chose when he wanted to acknowledge her, and seemed to kick her out and pull her back into his life whenever it suited him. When she did something he didn’t like, he would accuse her of not trying to be part of the family. More than once, he cut her off financially for doing something against his wishes, or he would simply act like he didn’t care about her at all. Still, somehow, she stayed in his life until he died. Sometimes, he was okay and even approached being loving somehow. But then he’d spoil the loving moments by being shitty. His first computer was called the Lisa, but he later claimed he’d named it after an ex-girlfriend. Lisa’s mom rightfully called bullshit on that one.

I am very impressed by Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ writing. It’s clear and easy to understand. I thought Small Fry was well-edited, especially considering the complex nature of Brennan-Jobs’ relationship with her dad. I am astonished that Brennan-Jobs seems to be so together, particularly since her mother appears to also be a bit eccentric. Chrisann Brennan’s mom was schizophrenic and cruel; consequently, she spent years living with her father and his second wife. With parents like Lisa’s, it would seem she’d seem less wise than she does in her book. But then, she is a first born/only child (Jobs had three more children with his wife, Laurene Powell), and first born/only children often grow up fast and are very responsible. Lisa was very motivated and managed to accomplish a lot on her own, a quality I admire very much. She even graduated from Harvard, although she basically namedropped her dad’s name to score acceptance.

In some ways, Small Fry reminds me a bit of Tara Westover’s Educated, which I read and reviewed on my old blog. I don’t think Brennan-Jobs’ upbringing was quite as chaotic or shocking as Westover’s was, but when you consider who her dad was, it does seem crazy. Poor Lisa attended a birthday party for one of her father’s other children. There was a display depicting the family– Steve, Laurene, Reed, Erin, and Eve. Lisa wasn’t on the display, and her little sister announced to her friends that Lisa was “Daddy’s mistake”. Ouch. (Actually, when I was a kid, my mom referred to me as a “mistake”, too, so I kind of know how it feels.) I just got the feeling that Lisa never really felt secure with her place in the family, since Jobs was constantly accusing her of not trying hard enough to fit in. And Jobs was also often verbally abusive to people, particularly regarding food. Jobs was notoriously obsessed with his diet and would yell at people who either didn’t serve him the food he wanted exactly how he wanted it, or he would berate people who didn’t eat the way he felt they should. He once screamed at Lisa’s cousin on her mom’s side for eating a hamburger, which he considered “dead food”.

To be honest… Steve Jobs may have given us Apple, but he sounds like he was a major league asshole. A brilliant asshole, yes, but an asshole just the same. I felt great empathy for Lisa. It’s tough growing up with a parent like that, especially when your friends have parents who are caring , supportive, and kind. Anyway… I’m glad she at least got a gorgeously written book out of the experience, and it’s one of which she should be very proud. I highly recommend it to those who like a good memoir.

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