Small Fry, the memoir of Lisa Brennan-Jobs, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Lisa tells the heartbreaking story of growing up in Silicon Valley, her loyalties split (and often torn) between her mother and her rich and famous father, who had disavowed paternity and did not support the family.
The central theme of the book is Lisa’s complicated relationship with her parents. Steve was absent for the first six or seven years of Lisa’s life, but the two later became close. Lisa admires, even idolizes, him for his success and wealth. It’s a stark contrast to her mother’s unstable life, which is characterized by frequent moves, changing jobs and boyfriends, and never having enough money.
Throughout her adolescence, Lisa is conflicted how to divide her loyalty between her parents, and they don’t make it easy for her. When Lisa is about thirteen, she moves in with Steve and his wife Laurene. She wants to get away from the constant fights with her mother, but she also hopes to win Steve’s affection and approval, to get him to fully accept her as his daughter. Steve doesn’t make this easy for Lisa. He only invites her into his house under the condition that she makes a permanent decision and doesn’t see her mother at all for six months. Lisa agrees, but she never gets over the guilt:
I would leave my mother. I felt giddy and guilty and numb. Maybe this was the origin of the guilt that seized me later and left me hardly able to walk sometimes, after I had moved in with them: having stolen her youth and energy, having driven her to a state of perpetual anxiety, without support or resources, now that I was flourishing in school and beloved by my teachers, I cast her out and picked him, the one who’d left. I chose the pretty place when she was the one who’d read me books of old stories with admonishments not to believe in the trick of facades.
“I’m proud of you,” he said.
Forcing your daughter to choose between you and her mother, and then telling her how proud you are when she chooses you. Nice parenting.
Lisa recounts many stories in the book where Steve was unjustifiably cruel to her. One example: Lisa often felt lonely in the large house, with her bedroom being far away from the others’. Here’s how Steve Jobs reacted when she asked him to say goodnight to her:
“Hey, would you guys come say goodnight to me sometimes?” I asked my father, standing in the kitchen. I’d built up the courage, after talking with Mona [Simpson, Lisa’s aunt, Steve’s sister].
“What?” he asked.
“Just a couple nights a week,” I said. “Because I’m lonely.”
“Nope, sorry,” he said, without pausing to think. …
A few days later I asked Laurene, separately.
“Sure,” she said.
I was flooded with gratitude and relief, the same feeling as when she pulled me into photographs, the same feeling that made me shower her with rose petals and lantana blossoms when she walked through the gate after work, so grateful it made me shiver as if from cold.
That night, she came down first, sat on my bed, and stretched out her legs. …
My father came down and sat beside Laurene on my bed. The joy and relief of this event made it hard to relax, like trying to breathe in a high wind. …
After that, they didn’t come down again. I asked one more time, my father said no, and I stopped mentioning it.
The book is full of WTF moments like this. Steve’s meanness left me speechless at times. He could be incredibly cruel to those closest to him, maybe even crueler than to his coworkers. He often let them feel his contempt for their actions or their pure existence.
Lisa never manages to win her father’s unconditional love — at least that’s how she feels. Steve regularly gives her not so subtle hints that he doesn’t see her as a full member of his family, for example when he asks her to step out of family photos with his and Laurene’s other children. Lisa’s feelings fluctuate between a sense of being owed his affection because he abandoned her as a baby and a desperate yearning for approval, to be accepted into his life.
When she returns from a student exchange in Japan and gives her mother a kimono she bought her as a gift, her jealous mother probes her what gifts she bought for Steve and Laurene:
“Did you get them better gifts that you got for me?”
“No, I got you different gifts—nothing better or worse.”
“But you spent more on them,” she said. How did she know? I should have bought her the best gifts because she had less money and couldn’t buy them for herself. …
“I’m your mother and you should be more honoring toward me.” …
How to explain to her that I’d bought them the more expensive gifts because I worried they didn’t care for me and I wanted them to like me, to love me, even? With them together, the feeling I was loved and belonged was tenuous, superficial, my place in their family not essential or fixed. They did not ask me questions about myself, or seem interested in me the way my mother was, and this made me hunger to impress them. My mother already loved me. Even when she screamed at me, I knew it. I wasn’t so sure about them.
It’s a profoundly sad story, and beautifully written. Highly recommended.
Update February 17, 2019: I’d like to recommend episode 7 of the On Margins podcast, where Craig Mod speaks with Lisa Brennan-Jobs about her book. It’s a great conversation. Alongside some delightful typography nerdery, I learned that the author sees the book a lot more cheerfully than I had interpreted it for me. Which is great!