It is a good thing, says Lisa Brennan-Jobs, that she did not write her memoir of growing up in the shadow of her father, Steve Jobs, when she was still in her 20s. The 40-year-old, who lives with her husband Bill and their four-month-old son Thomas in Brooklyn, could not have done justice to the story, she says, because, “I don’t know if I’d have been able to get over the self-pity.” She is also glad she didn’t wait until her 40s to write the book, when the experience of having Thomas has made her “softer, more forgiving”. Instead, she spent the best part of her 30s writing a book that is neither self-pitying nor soft, but is a portrait of a childhood in which the key factor is not that her father was a man who changed the world, but that he was a man who, over and over, tried and failed in mostly ordinary ways.
It is relatively well known by now that Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple who died eight years ago of pancreatic cancer, had a child with his high-school sweetheart when the pair were in their early 20s, and that a few years later, when on paper at least he was worth hundreds of millions, had to be sued for child support – events around which the whiff of scandal still lingers.
There is no point denying what happens when one first meets Brennan-Jobs: the extent to which one looks through her for her father’s outline, in terms of both appearance (she is fair-skinned and, as her father himself noted, very much his child around the eyebrows), and her manner (animated to the point of nervy). There is also no avoiding the fact that interest in Brennan-Jobs is stoked by her father’s fame, or that walking into her Brooklyn apartment, which is small and three storeys up, one’s thoughts immediately jump to the question of what happened to the inheritance. (And again, when it transpires it’s a spare property, used as an office, and not the house that she lives in.) These are the rapid mental calculations that Brennan-Jobs has grown used to seeing flash across strangers’ faces, and in spite of her chipper demeanour she gives the impression of being exhausted by them. So, too, by the central drama of her early life as she tells it: that Steve Jobs, a man lauded by the world as a visionary, appeared for long stretches not to love her, or even to admit she was his.
She can say all this now, and with a smile, but it wasn’t always this way. “When I first started writing the book, I wanted to garner self-pity, because I felt really badly about myself,” she says. Thomas lolls on her lap, and she looks slightly daffy with happiness. “I mean, gosh, that’s gone. A lot of the veil of shame has dissipated and I don’t know if it’s age, or writing the book, or both. But I wanted to have some scenes that would make you feel really bad for me, because I felt ashamed of the fact that I had this father – clearly I was not compelling enough for my father, this incredible man, to unequivocally own. I would think, was I an ugly baby? I even asked him that once. And I knew it was cheesy and facetious even as I asked it, or possibly manipulative. But it was a feeling that kept coming up because he wouldn’t look at my baby albums. I’d leave them out, and then once he was like, ‘Who’s that?’ And I was like, ‘It’s me!’”
Brennan-Jobs talks very quickly and often backtracks to undercut what she has said – not, I think, because she is unsure of herself, but because she is operating in a constant mode of simultaneous translation: there is the meaning of what she says in the moment she says it, and there is the use to which it will be put, at some unspecified date in the future, in service to the myth of Steve Jobs. It gives her the brittle air of someone running for political office.
She is also wrestling with an origin story that has been interpreted so many times by other people that she must fight tooth and nail to possess her own story. In outline: Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan got together as hippyish teens at high school in Cupertino, California, and were on-again off-again until Brennan got pregnant, at which point they were decisively driven apart. Jobs had just founded Apple with Steve Wozniak and was working on early versions of what would become the Macintosh. To put it mildly, fatherhood was not in his plan. And yet, after the baby’s birth, he called his early (failed) version of the personal computer the Lisa, then spent the next 20 years pretending the name was just a coincidence.
It was the kind of infuriating denial that, according to Brennan-Jobs, characterised almost every stage of his parenting, including most famously his denial that she was his. Forced by the state to take a DNA test, Jobs quibbled with the results, and in 1982, when his daughter was five, told a journalist from Time magazine that “28% of the male population of the United States could be the father”.
What was this? The best Brennan-Jobs can do at explaining is to say, “His love for me blindsided him. And then if you’re someone who’s used to controlling things, and succeeding at everything, and you find this one thing you can’t succeed at, it’s hard not to push it away.”
He would not be the first man to ditch an unwanted child to focus on his own self-advancement, but what is interesting about the story is that Jobs never seemed quite able to make up his mind. For the first seven years of his daughter’s life he was almost entirely absent, after which he would drop by, occasionally, at one of the series of small houses where she lived with her mother – or else promise to drop by, then stand her up. Enough of a relationship developed that, when Brennan-Jobs fell out with her mother during adolescence, she was able to move in with Jobs. But it was never something she could rely on.
Many of the most shocking scenes in the book turn on small acts of unkindness that seem to come from Jobs’ perpetual shock at having a daughter at all. “You’re not getting anything,” he snaps at nine-year-old Brennan-Jobs when she asks winsomely if she can have his Porsche when he’s done. “You understand? Nothing. You’re getting nothing.” When she lived with him as a teenager, he wouldn’t get the heating fixed in her room or have the dishwasher mended. He dragged his feet over her college fees at Harvard, refusing to pay after her first year, in retaliation for some perceived slight. (Wealthy neighbours who’d befriended her stepped in and paid, and it wasn’t until years later that Jobs reimbursed them.) He had stringent rules about how she had to behave in order to be considered part of his family: be home early, not spend too much time with her mother (whose requests for money enraged him in spite of his wealth), respect his authority as total.
There is a small, excruciating scene in a restaurant, which takes place when Brennan-Jobs is a teenager and out to dinner with her parents and her teenage cousin, Sarah. Jobs becomes enraged when Sarah orders a burger – he hates meat – and, turning to the girl, says, “Have you ever thought about how awful your voice is? Please stop talking in that awful voice.”
When I bring this up, Brennan-Jobs looks embarrassed and mutters something about her cousin’s voice actually being quite annoying. “I look back and think, was that a day when he learned that his company would fail? I don’t know what happened. I do remember that when he was in a mood you could tell.”
It is hard for her to resist rationalising away his worst behaviour. “It’s not a memoir of suffering,” she says forcefully. “There are those – people who were locked in closets. This had so much joy.”
And after all, her life has been successful. After graduating from Harvard, Brennan-Jobs moved to England to do a postgraduate degree at King’s College London, and lived intermittently in the city for much of her 20s, working in finance and getting the occasional freelance journalism gig, before returning to the US to study creative writing.
The fact is, she says, at least some of her father’s unpleasantness came from the fact he was awkward. “Really awkward. It’s hard to overstate that. I had a surprise party for my mother when I was eight [organised by Jobs’ then girlfriend, Tina], and he sat on the floor and his awkwardness had its own charisma. You could hardly pay attention to other things because you were so worried about him. Even at eight I felt it: ‘Oh God, are you OK?’ And people have been forgetting that he wasn’t successful when I was growing up. He wasn’t succeeding, not with me, not with his relationship – because he and Tina were off and on – not with his work. And he kept on trying, even though he kept on failing.”
There is almost nothing about Apple in the book, beyond Brennan-Jobs’ timid boast to school friends that her father invented the Macintosh computer, and that’s because, she says, “I didn’t feel like my childhood was set up against his work. Because when he was engaged with work, he was often delightful. It was fun, we got to look at different things together… looking at font serifs is fun.”
Looking back, she says, she supposes this was somewhat naive; clearly his ability to engage with Brennan-Jobs and her mother was indexed to what was happening at Apple. “When he wasn’t doing well at work, he’d come find us – his heart would open enough to allow us in. So I imagine we were in competition, not with his work per se, but with the state of mind that isn’t focused on family. It’s not a fun thing to be the person set up in opposition to the work everyone loves. And also… if he was able to love me more fully when his work wasn’t going well, then what am I? I’m the person carrying around the wish for his failure.”
She adds quickly that she never did wish failure on him. She wished he’d be more charmed by her. She wished he’d be normal. “I was not capable of making him melty the way fathers seemed to be around daughters, and I of course took that personally.” She wished he knew better how to be around a child. “All I wanted was closeness and sweetness and for him to relieve me. To let me be the star, probably. To be like, ‘Well, how was your day?’ And to listen. And at such a young age, and so used to the spotlight, and to everybody fawning on him… he didn’t know how to be with me.” (She used to envy her three half-siblings, a brother and two sisters born when she was in her teens, and wonder if “maybe he was more conventional to them”. But she has doubts about that, too – she’s not convinced he was any more present in their lives than he was in hers.)
It is still slightly amazing that she dared to write any of this. As a child, Brennan-Jobs’ fear of displeasing or disappointing her father was excruciating. When she was eight, it was established that she would spend every Wednesday night at his house, but she became so anxious that she wet the bed and her mother made other arrangements. This book would surely have enraged the control-freak side of Jobs, and yet, she believes, he gave her tacit permission. “There was a phrase that my father kept using at the end: ‘I owe you one, I owe you one.’ And I thought, ‘What an odd phrase.’ I had never heard him use it before. And he kept on repeating it and crying. And he was very serious about it. And there was a feeling I had that was, ‘OK, this. You can give me this, that I’m allowed to tell my story in the most honest, kindest way possible, and with love.’” (He once asked her if she was going to write about him and she replied, “No.”)
It’s the love she returns to, again and again: the times he would come over with his roller skates when she was a child and they would skate for hours through the streets of Palo Alto; the time he sat in a freezing cold amphitheatre without a sweater, to watch a play starring her middle-school boyfriend. He was weird about sex, kissing and groping her stepmother in front of her and making jokes about how Lisa would grow up to be a stripper – things she concedes it is difficult to relay “so that it doesn’t sound creepy”. But even here, she is determined to defend her father’s efforts as “odd and wonderful”, an attempt by Jobs to strip sex of shame and insist on the prevalence of love, so that in spite of her parents’ woeful relationship, “I never felt that I was the unwanted spawn of an accidental coupling.”
She wishes he could have resolved his “ambivalence and guilt” about her earlier on in their relationship, and after the tuition fee fight about Harvard there were long periods of silence between them in her 20s. But when he got ill, she remembered the other stuff. “It took me a long time to realise he was dying,” she says. “I couldn’t quite get it. And finally I thought, ‘Oh God, I’d better tell him some good things; he probably won’t care.’” She thanked him for his honesty about sex, “and it was like pouring water on dry ground. He was like, ‘I really tried!’ I thought: I didn’t know there was any back story behind his parenting, that he was being methodical.” And yet: “One of the difficult things you realise when you’re very sick is that the only thing you could do to make it better is time, and it’s the one thing you don’t have. And that is the position you don’t want to be in on your death bed.”
In 2014, Brennan-Jobs learned there was a movie in the works based on Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography of her father. She hadn’t read the book in its entirety, but what she had read and heard of it, she hadn’t liked. And so she did something shrewdly calculating: she called Aaron Sorkin, who was writing the screenplay, and arranged to have coffee with him.
In many ways, the film that came out in 2015, simply entitled Steve Jobs, is devoted to Brennan-Jobs: the blameless child who exposes and ultimately begins to resolve shortfalls in her famous father’s humanity.
As it turns out, this was precisely Brennan-Jobs’ intention on meeting the screenwriter. “We had coffee three times and my goal was to charm him,” she says, “so that if he did put me in as a character in his movie, I would not be a bad character, or untrue. Because I heard that in Walter’s book I wasn’t coming home, I wasn’t visiting [Jobs]. And I did love my father. And so I sought Sorkin out, just to make sure he knew I was a human being.”
Brennan-Jobs is clearly conflicted about her father’s approach to his fortune. While she was living in London, a friend of her father’s “called him and said, ‘Why don’t you just help her with some money?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m not going to send her money, because I’m not going to ruin her.’” These days Brennan-Jobs has convinced herself it would have been much worse to have been raised a spoilt heiress, or to have had a father who ignored her and then bought her off “with a pony and a few pretty dresses”.
At other times, however, she finds it odd to have been so punitively treated, to have been, as she sees it, “the one other person who is supposed to uphold the value system that involves some degree of deprivation – except for him. He deprived himself. He had one house. But if he could go back, I imagine he would not have done to us what he did when I was little.”
I suggest that Jobs’ decisions about money could seem spiteful at times, and she says, “But maybe he didn’t know how to do it.” However misguided he was, she believes it was still all about values, and “in moments of joy, he communicated a value system that I believed in”. Jobs didn’t believe in adornment, in his emotional as in his professional life, although of course the hair shirt can be as vain as the gold cuff links. At root, however, it was the dream of what having been a hippy once promised: “That there is an importance to simplicity and the best stuff is, ‘Did you do your work as well as you could? Did you love who you loved as well as you could?’ You don’t die and think, ‘How comfortable was I?’”
Jobs would seem to have failed substantially at the love part of these aphorisms, but the point, says his daughter, is that he tried. And when, for example, he snapped her head off for asking about the Porsche? “He was worried that I was going to be a little shit.” She smiles. “And maybe that was mixed in with not having wanted me at all.”
These days, her idea of family is a million miles from the cold hearth of her father’s house, or the hippy chaos of her mother’s. Brennan-Jobs and her husband Bill, a software designer – “apparently that’s my type,” she says, drily – met online and “it was so wonderful, because for a while he didn’t know who my father was”. She only let him find out “when I knew he was smitten. That was so important to me. I sometimes feel, ‘Oh, I know my dad would’ve liked you’; he’s straightforward, kind, good.”
Being in New York is important, too. Her father loved California and she needed to find space for herself elsewhere. And the fact is that the inheritance, said for each of the children to have been in the millions – the majority of Jobs’ $10bn fortune was reportedly left to his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs – has surely helped. “The story of the bitter, axe-grinding daughter – that’s where the inheritance question can play in. But I feel pretty at peace with what happened,” she says. “I wish we’d had more time together after he’d unburdened himself of his guilt, because I think we had a similar sense of humour and it was always a delightful surprise how much fun we could have.” In fact, she says, “When he was dying, I said to him – and it was a little bit of a stab, but – I was like, ‘Maybe next time, if there is a next time, we can be friends.’ And what I meant by that was, wouldn’t it be fun to be colleagues and work together?” She understood, at some level, that his heart was elsewhere, that it was the people he worked with – or the work itself – that got the very best of him.
In spite of his regret and his sorrow, in some ways her dad was himself up until the very end, and there is consolation in that, too – the integrity of even an unpleasant truth. “I remember when he was really sick, he was holding a whole bowl of candy and I teased him and said, ‘Hey, wanna share them?” She smiles. “And he responded, ‘No. They’re all mine.’”
‘I felt like we were the centre of the world’
An exclusive extract from Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Now on weekends when he was around, my father came over to take me skating, my mother waving goodbye to us as we set off. I was nine.
By this time he’d been kicked out of his company, Apple. He was in the process of starting a new company called NeXT that would make computer hardware and software. I knew he also owned a computer animation company called Pixar that made a short film about two lamps, a parent and child.
He called me Small Fry. “Hey, Small Fry, let’s blast. We’re livin’ on borrowed time.”
I assumed small fry meant the kind of french fries left at the bottom of the bag, cold and crusty; I thought he was calling me a runt, or misbegotten. Later, I learned fry is an old word for young fishes sometimes thrown back into the sea to give them more time to grow.
“OK, Fat Fry, let’s go,” I said, once my skates were on. Sometimes he worried he was getting too thin. “They say I need to gain weight,” he said. “Who?” I asked. “People at work,” he said, standing in the middle of the room with his skates on. “What do you guys think?” Other times he worried he was getting a paunch, and asked us about that, too.
We would head for Stanford University. On this day the road was still wet from rain.
The palm trees that gave Palm Drive its name grew in the dirt between the sidewalk and the road. We looked up at the hills beyond the university – from far away they appeared smooth and unblemished. The neon-green blades shot up through the dirt clods two or three days after the first heavy rain and remained through winter. “I love the green hills,” he said, “but I like them best when they’re yellow, dry.”
“I like them green,” I said, not understanding how anyone could like them when they were dead.
We reached the Oval and then the Stanford quadrangle with its covered, shaded pathways made of diamonds of cement in alternating earth-toned colours, like a faded harlequin costume.
“Want to get on my shoulders?”
He leaned down and grasped under my armpits – I was small for my age – and hoisted me up. His weight tilted and bobbed. We did a loop around the square, under the arches, past the gold numbers on the glass doors. He held my shins in his hands, but let go when he started to lose his balance. He tripped, tripped again, struggling to stay upright – I swayed, terrifyingly high up. And then he fell. On the way down I worried for myself, for my face and my knees, the parts of me that might hit the ground. Over time I learned he would always fall. Still, I let him carry me because it seemed important to him. I felt this like a change of pressure in the air: this was part of his notion of what it meant to be a father and daughter.
We got up and brushed ourselves off – he wound up with a bruise on his butt and a scrape on his hand; I got a skinned knee – and headed for the drinking fountain at the side of the quadrangle.
On the way back through the campus, on the sloping downhill on the rough cement, I was a tuning fork for the road, flying out ahead of him. “Ah AH!” I sang, my throat vibrating with the stones. “You’re all right, kid,” he said. “But don’t let it go to your head.”
“I won’t,” I said. I’d never heard the phrase before: Let It Go To Your Head.
“You know, I didn’t go to college,” he said. “Maybe you won’t go either. Better just to go out and get into the world.”
If I didn’t go to college, I would be like him. At that moment, I felt like we were the centre of the world. He carried it with him, this feeling of centre.
“They teach you how other people think, during your most productive years,” he said. “It kills creativity. Makes people into bozos.”
It made sense to me. Still, I wondered why he always wanted to skate around Stanford, why he seemed to love it, if he didn’t believe in it.
On University Avenue he pointed to a bum crouched in a nook with a cardboard sign. “That’s me in two years,” he said.
When my father and I got back to my block, kids were out playing in the yards and on the sidewalks. We stopped across from our house, and a few men who lived nearby gathered around my father – three fathers holding three babies. They wanted to know what he thought about this or that. The mothers chased after the toddlers to give the fathers a chance to talk. I stood nearby, proud that it was my father they wanted to talk with. They discussed people I’d never heard of and companies I didn’t know.
The babies began to fuss, squirming, letting out little cries and yelps.
My father continued to talk – hardware, software – the same discussions that seemed to come up over and over with all the men we saw in Palo Alto those days. Soon, all three babies began to wail and the fathers had to stop talking and take them away.
This was around the time, my mother would say later, that my father fell in love with me. “He was in awe of you,” she said, but I don’t remember it. “You know she’s more than half me, more than half my genetic material,” he said. The announcement caught my mother off-guard. She didn’t know how to respond. Maybe he said it because he’d started feeling close to me and wanted a greater share.
“You gotta stop and smell the roses,” he said, on another skate. He said it urgently, then stopped and put his nose deep in a rose and sighed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was only an expression. But soon I got into it anyway, and we looked for the best rosebushes in the neighbourhood, crisscrossing the streets. I noticed good ones he’d missed behind fences, and we trespassed across lawns on the toes of our skates to get to them.
• This is an edited extract from Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, published on 13 September by Grove Press UK at £16.99. Order a copy for £14.44 from guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846
Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article.
Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, including your name and address (not for publication).