Small Fry

Image of Small Fry: A Memoir
Release Date: 
September 3, 2018
Grove Press
Reviewed by: 

“Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a very good writer who has somehow managed to dredge up debilitating memories without feeling sorry for herself. It’s a compelling read.”

After reading this memoir about life with her famous father Steve Jobs, one comes away feeling that author Lisa Brennan-Jobs must be the most even-tempered woman on earth. That’s what a bastard Jobs is, and that word does not begin to describe him.

But Brennan-Jobs is nothing if not understanding. Even in the title, she takes it easy on Jobs. She could easily have called this “The Cruelest Man in the World” and it’s doubtful anyone would have argued.

Steve Jobs may have been a visionary but, as has been well-documented elsewhere, he could be a son of a bitch and was an eccentric of the first order. And his first child Lisa seems to have taken the brunt of it. The story is different and powerful when it’s from the point of view of a child.

There’s nothing like primary sources. For all the books written about Jobs, this one means more because it’s so intimate. Brennan-Jobs lived in Job’s house and got nearly a daily primer on how cruel and nutty he could be—although there were moments of humor and love sprinkled here and there.

As the book makes clear, there were special moments and eventual love between father and daughter. Jobs wasn’t a total jerk 100% of the time but he was capable of so many emotionally cruel moments that there are almost too many to catalog.

  • For several years, Jobs refused to acknowledge that Lisa was his daughter (he and her mother were never married) despite a DNA test insisting she was. His lawyers were savvy enough to come to a child support arrangement just prior to his company going public, when his wealth soared to $200 million.
  • Lisa and her mother were left to fend for themselves and were so poor and had to move so many times that a pet adoption service refused to allow them to adopt a kitten.
  • When Lisa was eight or so, she asked her father in that childlike way if she could have his Porsche when he was done with it (she’d heard he’d get a new one whenever the car got a scratch). She clearly flipped something inside him: “You’re not getting anything,” he said. ‘You understand? Nothing. You’re getting nothing.”
  • Again when Lisa was eight or nine, Jobs agreed to have dinner with her, her mother, and one of Lisa’s schoolmates but mother and daughter forgot to warn the young friend about Jobs. As they ate in a restaurant, Brennan-Jobs could see everything her girlfriend did got on Jobs’ nerves, including the hamburger she ordered (he was notorious for what he put in his body and a diner for him was often a plate of carrots). Finally, he exploded right in front of the entire restaurant. He berated the child: “What’s wrong with you? You can’t even talk. You can’t even eat. You’re eating shit. Have you ever thought about how awful your voice is? Please stop talking in that awful voice.” And with that, he got up and left child in tears!
  • After Brennan-Jobs moved into Jobs’ mansion with his wife and young son, he refused to fix the heater in his daughter’s room and made her wash the dishes by hand each night rather than fix the dishwasher. She eventually hired a repairman herself who fixed it for about $50.
  • In a pique brought on by who knows what, Jobs refused to pay for Brennan-Jobs’ last year at Harvard. His neighbors felt so sorry for her that they paid.

The stories go on and on and they are insightful as they are fascinating. It’s almost hard to believe Jobs is a real character. Scrooge had nothing on him. In one heartbreaking turn, Brennan-Jobs, then a young teen, feels so lonely in her father’s house that she asks if maybe he’d say goodnight to her each night. He simply says “No.”

And then of course comes the end. The deathbed scene is almost clichéd. You know that well-worn trope that no one on their deathbed wishes they had more time at work? Well, it proves true for Jobs, the workaholic.

When he’s reduced almost to a bag of bones and hard to look at, he tells his daughter that he wished he had spent more time with her. “I’m so sorry, Lis,” he cried and shook his head from side to side. . . . ”I wish I could go back. I wish I could change it but it’s too late. What can I do now? It’s just too late.”

And then later, “I’m so sorry. I owe you one.”

This is an emotional read, a story that leaves you shaking your head not only at Jobs but at Lisa Brennan-Jobs as well. Children really are resilient and they really do love their parents almost no matter what. For all his genius, there’s little doubt who is the better person. One can’t imagine a better book about one of the greatest visionaries of our time. Certainly there won’t be another so revealing.

The stories are so shocking that it might be easy to miss the underlying truth about this book—Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a very good writer who has somehow managed to dredge up debilitating memories without feeling sorry for herself. It’s a compelling read.