Small Fry offers complicated portrait of Steve Jobs as a father [Review]

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Think Steve Jobs was tough as a boss? Lisa Brennan-Jobs memoir
Think Steve Jobs was tough as a boss? Here's what he was like as a father.
Photo: Luke Dormehl/Cult of Mac

Small Fry is the memoir of Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the daughter Steve Jobs didn’t want. Frequently sad and occasionally disturbing, it’s not the airbrushed portrait of Steve that Apple would like to see in print.

But it also relays some charming moments, showing us a side of the Apple co-founder that we’ve never seen before. It’s a glimpse of Steve Jobs at his most personal.

A short history of Lisa Brennan-Jobs

If you know anything about Steve Jobs and the history of Apple, you’ll know a bit about Lisa. You’ll know that she was Steve’s oldest child, born when Jobs was just 23. Her mother was Jobs’ high school girlfriend Chris-Ann Brennan (who also wrote a book about her time with Steve.)

You’ll also know that Steve Jobs denied paternity of his daughter for a long time, even after a blood test concluded that he had a 94.4 percent chance of being the father, but eventually forged a relationship with her. Finally, you’ll know about the Lisa computer, which Jobs denied was named after his daughter. (He finally came clean in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 authorized biography.)

Beyond this, we don’t know too much. Lisa was mentioned in Isaacson’s book, but she refused to give an interview for it. (She has since said she didn’t trust him.) She did speak with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for the Steve Jobs movie, although that is not exactly the most accurate historical document.

‘You smell like a toilet’

Small Fry opens with an anecdote that sums up the relationship between Lisa and her father: sometimes tender, oftentimes harsh.

Visiting when he was dying of pancreatic cancer, Lisa embraces her often-absentee father. “When we hugged, I could feel his vertebrae, his ribs,” she writes. “He smelled musty, like medicine sweat.” Jobs then proceeds to chastise his daughter, telling her, “You smell like a toilet.” (Lisa had been spraying herself with rose-scented water at the time.)

The story shocks in its bluntness. But these scenes quickly become commonplace in Small Fry.

Throughout her life, Lisa got glimpses of her father’s humanity. Some of the anecdotes about their time together prove genuinely touching.

When Jobs died, a lot of younger people who had worked with him described him as a father figure. But Jobs was a literal father to Lisa (if an imperfect one). Stories about Jobs goofing around and being immature are something we haven’t really heard too much of before. When they appear here, they are a whole lot of fun.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs on growing up with Steve Jobs

Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Steve Jobs denied that he was Lisa’s father after she was born.
Photo: Lisa Brennan-Jobs/Wikipedia CC

While anecdotes about them lounging around watching old movies are charming, however, there are other times when Jobs is portrayed as abusive and mean. He denies Lisa’s mother child support at every turn, and occasionally turns on his daughter with surprising fury.

Lisa is frequently scared of Steve, and learns to avoid his temper tantrums. Others aren’t so lucky. When Lisa’s cousin Sarah visits when they are kids, Jobs targets her for an outburst because she’s eating meat.

“You’re eating shit,” he says, telling her off in a crowded restaurant. “Have you ever thought about how awful your voice is? Please stop talking in that awful voice.”

While Jobs later acknowledged that the Lisa computer was named after his daughter, he cruelly denies this when she first asks. (“Nope, sorry kid.”)

When he does finally admit the truth to her, it’s only after the question is put to him by U2 singer Bono.

A different side of Steve Jobs

Perhaps the most borderline disturbing aspect of Jobs’ character that comes across in the book is a sexual dimension. He makes a point of making out with his girlfriend and, later, his wife in front of his daughter.

He also quizzes Lisa about which “base” she’s gotten to with romantic interests. And, in perhaps the most jaw-dropping scene, he asks his teenage daughter if she masturbates. When a shocked Lisa doesn’t respond, Jobs says, “Well, you should.”

Lisa later rationalizes this by suggesting that Steve just wanted an open, frank dialogue with his daughter. While she doesn’t seem too troubled by the anecdotes, they recur frequently throughout the book. At one point, Tina Redse, one of Steve’s ex-girlfriends, says he behaves like this because he feels awkward.

Perhaps by shocking people with this behavior he was controlling the situation as best he could, just as he liked to do with media portrayals of him.

Small Fry: A memoir worth reading

There’s a lot to like about this book. It’s probably the most literary Steve Jobs book in its stylings. Lisa is a good writer, and her story is genuinely fascinating. There aren’t too many pictures, but the few family snaps show a different, more relaxed side of Steve.

If you’re only interested in Apple, this probably isn’t the book for you. There’s no detail about the making of any of Steve Jobs’ most famous products. If you want behind-the-scenes details about the iPhone, don’t look here. (Fortunately, there is another book out this week which will be more to your taste.)

While Steve Jobs is featured prominently in Small Fry, the book isn’t exclusively about him. It is about Lisa’s life, with her father playing the part of show-stealing supporting character.

But if you’re looking for a fresh take on Steve Jobs that’s different from anything you’ve read before, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Buy from: Amazon — $11.69