For the first three years of Lisa Brennan-Jobs life, her father, Steve Jobs, denied that he was her father. Then the State of California sued him for child-support payments. In a deposition he swore that he was sterile and named another man as her father. Ultimately, a DNA test confirmed that he was her father and he generously agreed to pay Chrisann, her mother, $500 a month instead of the $385 the court required. Four days later Apple went public and Steve Jobs was worth $200 million dollars.
Don’t be mistaken, Small Fry is not a celebrity memoir. Small Fry is the exquisitely written story of a young girl longing for a relationship with a father who is alternately embracing and cruel, generous and withholding, magnanimous and selfish. It’s the story of a young girl looking for a family and a place to belong. Her mother, Chrisann, tells her “He loves you . . . He just doesn’t know he loves you.” Later, Lisa would hear that he carried a picture of her around in his wallet and pull it out at dinner parties claiming she wasn’t his kid, “But she doesn’t have a father, so I’m trying to be there for her.” Sporadically throughout her childhood, Jobs would stop by to take Lisa and Chrisann out to dinner or take Lisa roller skating around the neighborhood.
Chrisann and Lisa moved thirteen times by the time she was seven, creating a life so unstable that the Humane Society refused their application to adopt a kitten. Chrisann was an artist who struggled with relationships and felt overwhelmed as a single parent. By the time Lisa was a teenager she and her mother were fighting so often that school counselors intervened to recommend she move in with her father.
Finally, Lisa thought she would have an opportunity to develop a real relationship with her dad. But from the start things went awry. There were stipulations. She could live with him as long as she had no contact with her mother for the first six months. She could live with him if she took his last name. She could live with him if she babysat her step-brother Reed, whom she dearly loved, whenever her father and step-mother asked. He insisted that she swear her fealty to the family by doing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted.
Perhaps the most telling scene in the book is in Hawaii. Lisa watches her father repeatedly hold out a crust of bread for a parrot, snatching it away just as the parrot lunges for it.
Lisa tried to ingratiate herself to her step-mother Laurene but admitted her expectations of her were unrealistic – she wanted Laurene to fix her father. In a counseling session with the two of them, Lisa, not above being manipulative as a teenager, began to cry, and told them that she felt very lonely. Laurene responded finally by saying, “We’re just cold people.”
When Lisa left for college, it was as if her father thought she was leaving him, and he punished her by not talking to her, though he still expected her to babysit whenever she was home. He stopped paying her college tuition, something he’d grudgingly agreed to do even though he discouraged her from going. This might all seem like poor little rich girl, except that the emotional abuse was pervasive from the time Lisa was a young girl, love being something that her father used like a wager in a game of cards.
Does it end well? We all know how it ends. Jobs dies. But before he dies, he and Lisa have a reconciliation. She visits him weekly and as her father becomes thinner and weaker, he confesses, “You were not to blame. I want you to know you were not to blame for any of it. . . I’m so sorry, Lis.” It was, as they say too little, too late.
I recommend Small Fry for fans of Educated by Tara Westover.