Back in 1996, Steve Jobs’ sister, Mona Simpson, wrote a novel about a Silicon Valley tycoon who has a difficult and distant relationship with his oldest daughter. He even denies her paternity altogether, and then hands out meager amounts of child support to look after her and her mom.
At the time, Jobs denied that the protagonist in A Regular Guy was closely based on him. Others thought differently, however. More than 20 years later, Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ new memoir describes just how accurate Simpson’s novel was. And what she thought of it.
A Regular Guy
A Regular Guy tells the story of a Silicon Valley tycoon, Tom Owens, who runs a successful biotech firm called Genesis. Owens is successful, but also a bully. We are told that he is a man too busy to flush toilets, that he doesn’t use deodorant, and that he went through 62 potential tradesmen before he could settle on the right one to sand the floors in his new home.
The plot revolves around the insertion into his life of a 10-year-old daughter, Jane, born out of wedlock to one of Owens’ ex-girlfriends. Owens sets her and her mom up in a small bungalow, and pays them $300 a month — but rarely sees them.
At the time A Regular Guy was published, many reviewers noted the comparison between Tom Owens and Steve Jobs. Mona alluded to a connection in interviews, but also told the Los Angeles Times that she made a lot of it up.
Jobs, meanwhile, denied the comparisons. Speaking with the New York Times about whether he felt betrayed by his sister he said that he didn’t — and called it “a novel” instead of real life. When pushed, Jobs said “About 25 percent” of the character was a version of him.
A lot more accurate than people thought
Lisa’s memoir seemingly tells a different story, though. As she tells it, A Regular Guy was a lot more accurate than a lot of folks thought at the time. Describing her response, she wrote:
“Before it was published, [Mona] sent me the bound galleys and asked me what I thought of the novel, if there was anything I would change. I was honored, but when I started reading I was surprised to find characters like my father, my mother, and myself in the pages. My character was named Jane. I’d had no idea [Mona] was writing about us. [She] had collected details of my life and put them in her book — an antique Chinese enameled pillbox she bought for me, with chrysanthemums and multicolored birds painted on a blue background.”
While Lisa writes that “other parts were made up,” she still describes the feeling of being “emptied out” onto the page. She says she stopped reading it the first time, not wanting to find out what happened to her character.
Remembering things differently
It’s just a small detail in Lisa’s book, but it’s one that stayed with me after I’d read it. Some of Jobs’ outbursts in the book are highly reminiscent of Tom Owen’s. In one section of A Regular Guy, Owens snaps at his daughter that no-one remembers Shakespeare’s daughter.
That anecdote could have been right at home in Small Fry, which is filled with similar mean-spirited or even abusive incidents.
Interestingly, Mona Simpson has seemingly distanced herself from Small Fry. Along with Laurene Powell Jobs and her kids, Mona co-wrote the following statement which was given to the New York Times:
“Lisa is part of our family, so it was with sadness that we read her book, which differs dramatically from our memories of those times. The portrayal of Steve is not the husband and father we knew. Steve loved Lisa, and he regretted that he was not the father he should have been during her early childhood. It was a great comfort to Steve to have Lisa home with all of us during the last days of his life, and we are all grateful for the years we spent together as a family.”