Readers searching for another "tell-all" biography of Steve Jobs that focuses on his machinations as the co-founder of Apple should look elsewhere when presented with "Small Fry" (Grove Atlantic), the new memoir by his 40-year-old daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, that's set to be released on Sept. 4. Instead of focusing on her father's role as a technological iconoclast, Brennan-Jobs spotlights her own years of attempting to understand him in his role as a reluctant and capricious parent, occasionally loving and often cruel.
Brennan-Jobs opens the book in Palo Alto with a scene at Jobs' sick bed, as he fights the pancreatic cancer that would eventually kill him on Oct. 5, 2011. Brennan-Jobs finds herself compelled to steal small items from his house — nail polish, pillow cases, "two chipped finger bowls in celadon blue."
She writes, "After stealing each item, I felt sated. I promised myself that this would be the last time. But soon the urge to take something else would arrive again like thirst."
Within the context of her relationship with her father, that strange, compulsive pilfering makes sense, a secret attempt to claim his attention and her birthright even at the final moment.
Having set the scene, Brennan-Jobs jumps the narrative back to its very beginning. Though never called by name in "Small Fry," Brennan-Jobs' mother is artist and writer Chrisann Brennan. She and Jobs met at Homestead High School in Cupertino in 1972, later lived in a cabin on Stevens Canyon Road and survived on the money Jobs earned with Steve Wozniak selling "blue boxes" — illegal gizmos that made free long-distance phone calls, a business from which grew Apple.
At 24, having endured various breakups and reconciliations but never married, Brennan gave birth to Lisa on an Oregon farm in the spring of 1978. Jobs arrived a few days later, insisting to anyone who would listen, "It's not my kid."
Thanks to DNA testing, the courts would rule otherwise, ordering Job to pay child-support payments of $385 per month, which he increased to $500.
The case was finalized on Dec. 8, 1980. Brennan-Jobs writes, "Four days later, Apple went public and overnight my father was worth more than two hundred million dollars."
As she grows up, Brennan-Jobs finds herself caught between worlds — wealth and privilege, poverty and harsh judgment. She is embarrassed by a creative mother who seems perpetually on the brink of financial jeopardy. She stands in awe of her father's "genius," resents his frequent and unpredictable absences and fears his turn-on-a-dime shifts in mood.
Serious Jobs-watchers are no doubt well familiar with the arc of Brennan-Jobs's story. But it is in the private scenes and emotional details that "Small Fry" comes alive. Brennan-Jobs writes with fluid grace and extends compassion to just about everyone, especially her younger self.
She captures her own less-admirable qualities, letting her readership see her sense of entitlement, as well as the hurt she feels when thwarted in her attempts to be close to her dad. As an adult, she is able to appreciate her mother's love. She writes, "When I see my mother now, the more I feel attached. When I have to pee, I leave the door open, so we can keep talking. We are like suction cups: Once together it's difficult to pry us apart."
Brennan-Jobs gives multidimensionality to everyone she writes about. She's mostly kind to her step-mother, Laurene Powell, and adores her half-brother, Reed. (Jobs' and Powell's two daughters, Eve and Erin, are barely mentioned in "Small Fry.") Total inclusion in the family, however, seems impossible for Brennan-Jobs. She finds her father's refusal to acknowledge that he named the ill-fated Lisa home computer after her especially hurtful and puzzling.
At one point, Brennan-Jobs tells her mother that Jobs doesn't love her. Brennan disagrees. "He's always known it, but he's disconnected from himself. He doesn't know his own heart, because he lost it."
It seems an accurate diagnosis. Again and again, Jobs would dangle the carrot of his affection, only to hit his daughter with the stick of his disapproval. His initial failure to pay her tuition at Harvard University causes pain and confusion. Later, her refusal to attend a performance of Cirque du Soleil with the rest of the family results in Jobs telling her to move out of his house.
At the end, it's hard not to feel pity for Jobs as his body fails him and he becomes aware of the opportunities he has missed. Brennan-Jobs writes, "He'd waited to apologize until there was hardly anything left of him. This was what I'd been waiting to hear. It felt like cool water on a burn."
Readers of "Small Fry" may feel a similar note of relief. By the end of the book, Brennan-Jobs has earned her readers' goodwill and respect, not only as a survivor of a particularly difficult childhood but as an accomplished writer with a unique story to tell.
Michael Berry is a freelance writer for the Palo Alto Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.
What: Lisa Brennan-Jobs discusses new memoir "Small Fry."
Where: Books Inc., 855 El Camino Real #74, Palo Alto.
When: Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 7 p.m.