Visionary, Guru, Father
Visionary, Guru, Father
Miriam R. Kramer
In the captivating, superbly told authorized biography Steve Jobs, released weeks after Jobs’ death from pancreatic cancer in 2011, Walter Isaacson concisely delineates the rise of his mercurial, narcissistic subject, the global visionary who changed the world in part by exalting gorgeously simple technological design that any customer could use and understand. Steve Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, recently released Small Fry, a poignant memoir about life with her father. The latter, which illuminates her fragmented and difficult experiences of him as a family man, has rightfully been cited on multiple year-end media lists as a top non-fiction book of 2018.
When Apple CEO and guru Steve Jobs died in October 2011, he left a world profoundly altered by his presence. His ideas and unique leadership in creating tech products and companies that included Apple, the home computer, and the first generations of iPhones had changed the very way in which millions around the world live our lives, consume entertainment, and obtain information on a daily basis. Steve Jobs and Small Fry convey converging perspectives on a legendary man: one of a tech icon and dictatorial corporate leader, and the other a human view of a deeply flawed, rude, and shy man much less comfortable with filial responsibilities and relationships than his role vis-à-vis the consumers and colleagues who adored him.
Walter Isaacson paints the portrait of a charismatic man whose drive, focus, and intensity paired with his unique talents as a technological seer empowered him to harness and direct the best tech talent in Silicon Valley, effectively bridging the gap between tech and user experience within closed, self-sufficient computer systems. Inherently creative and uniquely positioned at the nexus between art and science, Jobs gained a reputation as a grade-A jerk who screamed and cried out of frustration when working to establish grade-A technological teams that could implement his visions. A tantrum thrower, the highly sensitive Jobs’ empathy was primarily for himself. Alternately a charmer, abuser, and control freak, he knew just how to lob an emotional hand-grenade and upon which friend or colleague it would make the most impact.
Isaacson’s detail-packed account follows him from his humble beginnings in a garage with original Apple co-creator Steve Wozniak to the heights of his experiences as CEO of Apple in 2011, arguably then the most influential company in the world. As a West Coast hippie who did not believe in East Coast traditional hierarchies or regular bathing, Jobs was a seeker and occasional health nut who looked to Eastern philosophy and his appreciation of aesthetics to complement his views of technology. He left a trail of odor and inspired IT designers behind him.
Walter Isaacson focuses more on Steve Jobs’ history, personality, and philosophies of leadership and design than on the wonky nuts and bolts of his technological developments, such as the ones he made at NeXT after he left Apple and before he came back to re-create the Mac and devise the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Perhaps he thought it would bog down the lay reader, although Jobs’ development at companies such as NeXT and Pixar are highly relevant to his later accomplishments.
In Isaacson’s concise and compelling biography, we see Jobs as an all-or-nothing thinker, a genius who inhabited a “reality distortion field” that compelled him to force reality to conform to his ideas rather than the opposite. He knew when it was important for an invention to conform to existing standards or make the world adopt new ones. Considering himself at the nexus of science and the arts, he considered beautifully and simply designed technology as important as the products’ external sleekness and appearance.
Isaacson also notes that Jobs spent little time focused on his family members, including his wife, Laurene Powell, and his four children. Their loss was the world’s gain, but in many cases, it was a very profound loss. In the recently published Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs offers a worm’s-eye vision of Jobs as a man: the father who loomed just out of sight, distanced from her by his fame and aloofness while fundamentally occupying her emotions and imagination
Brennan-Jobs was Steve Jobs’ first child, born in 1978 out of wedlock to Jobs and his former high-school girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan, an artist. When she was a child, Steve Jobs refused to claim her as his daughter for the first six years of her life, although he insisted on helping to name her when she was born. During that period she and her mother, who lacked a higher education and supported them by cleaning houses and waitressing, were often on welfare. Looking for cheaper accommodations, they moved thirteen times in Lisa’s early childhood.
After Lisa turned two, the district attorney of San Mateo County, California, sued Steve Jobs for current and back payments of child support. Jobs swore in a deposition that he was sterile, but the DNA test available then proved that he was the father with a 94.4% certainty. He was required to supply back payments of $6000 and a then-current rate of $385 dollars a month child support, along with health insurance until Lisa was eighteen. Jobs’ lawyers pushed for her mother to sign the agreement by December 8, 1980, four days before Apple went public, enriching Jobs to a net worth of over hundred million dollars.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs went by Lisa Brennan at that point, with her father denying his paternity once more in a 1983 article in Time magazine as he occasionally responded to her mother’s pleas for money by sending her the occasional $500 check or buying her a used car.
Throughout her childhood and early adolescence, Lisa lived a peripatetic existence with a fragile, often depressed mother whom she tried to protect. She clung to the idea that she had a famous father, even if she rarely saw him, secretly craving stability and sometimes despising the idea of hippies, with their itinerant lifestyles and lack of regular jobs. Her insecure mother would say “’[Steve] loves you….He just doesn’t know he loves you….If he saw you, really saw you and understood what he was missing, how he wasn’t showing up for you, it would kill him.”
When Jobs experienced losses at work, he finally remembered that Lisa and her mother existed, wearing his dirty, hole-filled jeans and occasionally showing up to roller-skate or spend some time with her. When she was in fourth grade, she began to spend one uncomfortable but cherished night a week at her father’s large estate outside Palo Alto, filled with many dark, empty rooms and a few that looked inhabited by a hermit.
Lisa, the adult writer, struggles to stitch together swatches of her history with this enigmatic paternal figure. Jobs could be so contradictory—cruel, narcissistic, and inconsistent in his affections or responsibilities; or intermittently caring under a brusque, shy exterior. One time he told her mother that her teeth were ugly. He also swore at and insulted Lisa’s childhood friend during a meal at a restaurant, causing her to cry. He would affectionately call his young daughter “small fry” and take her roller skating, advising her against college and telling her that university destroyed the creative spirit. He would also speak to her inappropriately about actresses he found beautiful, watching classic films with her on their evenings together. As she says, “I would be truly loved by him only if I was tall, blonde, and large-breasted, I would gather later. I had a fantastic notion that it might happen, despite the evidence.”
At age fourteen, as her mother became increasingly erratic, wavering between depressive despair and hurling verbal abuse at a daughter she actually adored, Lisa finally went to live with her father at his invitation for the first time. In finally going to live with him, his new wife, Laurene Powell, and eventually her new siblings, Lisa still found herself on the outside looking in, moving schools yet again and planning for future beyond high school with little guidance other than a desire to go to Harvard and leave California behind.
One telling detail: at age fourteen, Lisa writes in her journal “When I tell him events, they come alive. When I don’t tell him, they don’t exist.” As a repeating echo of her unstable childhood, she felt consistently insecure within her father’s new family. From her viewpoint, no one there asked her questions about herself or seemed interested in her. She acted as a perpetual babysitter for her younger brother, whom she loved, and eventually her first sister, but never felt valued or taken into account.
Lisa spent her adolescent life trying to develop some stability and identity with parents unable to fully support her. Bouncing from place to place and school to school, she finally was able to claim her independence as a newly-minted adult, even when her father punished her for refusing to play by his specific rules by not paying for some of her semesters at Harvard. With the help of family friends, she was able to remove herself from his controlling sphere of influence and live with their subsequent lack of contact for years.
One of the most moving moments in this memoir is the beginning of the book, which is also the end of Lisa’s relationship with Steve Jobs. Lisa repeatedly visited him once a month when he was dying of cancer. In a subconscious attempt to keep him with her, she stole small objects from the room, from the bathroom, from anyplace nearby. It is plain that despite his inadequacy and self-centeredness she loved her dad, and appreciated his final awkward gestures towards reconciliation.
In Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs poignantly but unsentimentally brings an emotional context to the temperamental tech titan, adding a different facet to Isaacson’s portrait. I admire her spare, luminous writing and empathize with her natural desire for emotional connection while simultaneously feeling renewed awe at Steve Jobs’ achievements. As I sit here typing on my MacBook Pro with my iPhone at hand for reference, I fully realize that his achievements have colored the public’s minds while making the entire digitized world of ideas, images, and information available at our fingertips. Her loss, fortunately and unfortunately, was our gain.