Lisa Brennan-Jobs is the daughter of a postmodern god. Steve Jobs’ enduring influence after his 2011 death proves the legendary Apple innovator is an immortal of sorts. Now, the child he initially rejected is releasing a memoir that shows the man who may be the most admired technologist of all time was deeply flawed.
Small Fry, which comes out on Sept. 4 and was excerpted in Vanity Fair (paywall) this month, is intended to be an honest retrospective, its author says. Brennan-Jobs, who was not acknowledged by her father as his own for many years, frames his famous story in her own words, to heal and recapture, to get the last word, as she says in an Aug. 23 New York Times profile (paywall).
The book excerpt and the profile piece reveal a woman who appears deeply scarred by her father’s early rejection, though she urges understanding and forgiveness. It’s almost as if she’s being held hostage by the memory of the man, and identifying with her captor, like someone suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. She asks the Times’ Nellie Bowles, “Have I failed in fully representing the dearness and the pleasure? The dearness of my father, and the outrageous pleasure of being with him when he was in good form?”
The answer to that question is, from what we’ve seen so far, is yes. What she has revealed—Jobs’ emotional callousness, his spiritual and financial stinginess with her—cast a dark shadow on his legendary status.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs marks a remarkable life
Brennan-Jobs has just turned 40, gotten married, and given birth to her own child. In a discussion of milestones with the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 13, she explains, “It was important that I examine parts of my life [in my memoir] that seemed shameful or embarrassing so I could try to understand them differently. Milestones are big enough that if you’re lucky you’re going to learn more about yourself. In this case the only way to get to something truthful was to write, to dig.”
And do she did. Brennan-Jobs reveals her complicated backstory. She was born in 1978 on a farm in Oregon. Her father, then 23, wasn’t there: “My father arrived a few days later,” she writes. “‘It’s not my kid,’ he kept telling everyone at the farm, but he’d flown there to meet me anyway. I had black hair and a big nose, and [his friend] said, “’She sure looks like you.’”
This was, of course, before Jobs was famous, and was just another young guy refusing to acknowledge paternity or pay child support. He was working on a personal computer that didn’t succeed—it was named the Lisa, like his daughter. But he would not admit a connection. When Brennan-Jobs was a teen, Apple was a successful public company, and her father had evolved into the role of icon, she held on to the idea that the Lisa tag was evidence of love. She writes:
By then the idea that he’d named the failed computer after me was woven in with my sense of self, even if he did not confirm it, and I used this story to bolster myself when, near him, I felt like nothing. I didn’t care about computers…but I liked the idea that I was connected to him in this way. It would mean I’d been chosen and had a place, despite the fact that he was aloof or absent. It meant I was fastened to the earth and its machines. He was famous; he drove a Porsche. If the Lisa was named after me, I was a part of all that.
Jobs finally did admit Lisa was named after the girl. Not because she asked. At a visit to the rock star Bono’s house, the U2 frontman inquired—with Brennan-Jobs, then 27, nearby—whether the computer was named for her. Jobs hesitantly admitted it was. “‘That’s the first time he’s said yes,’ I told Bono. ‘Thank you for asking,'” she writes. “As if famous people needed other famous people around to release their secrets.”
What was once hidden now holds hope
Brennan-Jobs is now famous herself and releasing her own secrets. Yet she seems profoundly wounded, trapped still, though she claims writing the memoir helped to free and heal her. She tells the Times that while penning the book, she covered mirrors around her work space with paper, admitting “I don’t like catching myself in the mirror because it’s like—‘Oh, self.’”
Similarly, she asks her profiler to describe her in her own words, offering a self-deprecating account of her face. “My face is uneven. I have small eyes. I wish I had dimples, but I don’t. I think right now I look jowly…My nose is not particularly delicate.”
Rather than being the memoirist recapturing her own tale, it seems as if her father’s voice is narrating her life story—one in which Brennan-Jobs is failing at being a successful family member, will inherit nothing from her father, and who stinks like a toilet. Those are just a few of the many cruel things Jobs said to her. (He did ultimately put her in his will.)
Perhaps it’s impossible to escape the shadow of a dark master like Jobs, who also happens to be your father and despite being widely acknowledge as a genius, is not a talented dad. Brennan-Jobs defends him anyway, saying he was was just unusually honest and that his toughness taught her valuable lessons.
For the rest of us, who don’t have to deal with Jobs’ legacy personally, the revelations only serve to take the icon—never admired for cuddliness—down another notch. What Small Fry and Brennan-Jobs show is something we already know and don’t like admitting. Our cultural heroes and accomplished geniuses are only just people, and often not particularly good ones.