Review: 'Small Fry' Details Lisa Brennan-Jobs' Experiences Growing Up as the Daughter of Steve Jobs
I have a lot to say about Lisa-Brennan Jobs Small Fry, but I suspect that what I have to say is no more interesting than what Lisa Brennan-Jobs has to say in Small Fry. I mean, look: Everything is relative, and people have the right to complain about their own experiences, and it is unfair to compare the experiences of the somewhat estranged daughter of Steve Jobs to, say, Dorothy Allison or Augusten Burroughs. We all have expectations for our lives, and our disappointment arises not out of what we have, but what we don’t. If you are the daughter of Steve Jobs, you might expect a certain kind of childhood, and if that childhood falls short of those expectations, you are allowed to feel disappointed. And you are allowed to write about that disappointment. But I do find it exceedingly difficult to feel much in the way of sympathy for Lisa-Brennan Jobs in Small Fry when the stakes of her disappointment are so relatively low.
That is not to say that Steve Jobs doesn’t come off like a dick in the memoir. He does. A controlling, petty, mean-spirited asshole who was stingy with both his money and affection. He denied paternity to Lisa-Brennan Jobs for years, and he was very slow to come around as a father to her. In the meantime, Lisa lived with a bohemian single mother of little means who suffered from depression and, occasionally, suicidal ideation. But Lisa’s mother also loved her deeply and cared for her fairly well. She lived, in part, off of child support payments from Jobs, and as the years went by, Steve was begrudgingly less stingy with his money (late in his life, Jobs even bought Lisa’s mother a house).
Lisa Brennan did not always benefit from Steve Jobs’ wealth, but she grew up around it. She grew up in the orbit of successful people. She was able to attend private school. She lived with her father for several years. She attended Harvard, and while Jobs refused to pay the tuition for her final year there, Brennan had neighbor friends who were able to pick up the slack. To lead a life that would eventually take her to Harvard, and to be among people who cared about her enough to pay a year’s tuition when her father wouldn’t suggest to me that Lisa Brennan’s childhood would be the envy of 98 percent of the population.
But to her, it was a disappointment, and I totally understand that. The expectations that Lisa had were higher. She wanted a father who would dote on her, and Steve Jobs wasn’t that person. She wanted a father who didn’t use his money to control her, and Steve Jobs wasn’t that person. She wanted a father who treated her equally to her other half-siblings, and Steve Jobs was not that person. To Lisa Brennan, Steve Jobs was a man whose approval she spent her entire childhood trying to win, but Steve Jobs never offered it. He was a shitty father to Lisa Brennan. He neglected her. He minimized her accomplishments. He sometimes insulted her, and he set standards for Lisa that no one could realistically achieve, and when she didn’t meet those standards, he alienated her. He did this in part because he was a shitty human being, and in part, because he just really didn’t understand how to be a better one.
When Lisa Brennan lived with her father during her teen years, she had to wash the dishes every night. She had to babysit her brother. She had to sleep in her chilly room because her father couldn’t be bothered to fix the heater. For the daughter of Steve Jobs, this is seen as pitiable. For most everyone else, this is seen as “childhood.”
Nevertheless, and no thanks to her father (but thanks, in part, to her father’s name), Lisa turned out alright. She turned out better than alright. She went to Harvard, to graduate school. She’s led a very successful career, and she’s a hell of a great writer, as Smally Fry can attest. She has a remarkable way with words and a talent for placing her reader into a scene. It’s just that, once placed inside that scene, it’s hard for me — and for many others, I suspect — to think anything other than, “This ain’t so bad. My Dad’s a socially awkward asshole who has no idea how to parent, but it could be so much worse.”
The problem is that Lisa Brennan’s story — as impeccably and vividly written as it is — is not going to resonate with too many people, at least not those who didn’t grow up under the shadow of one of the most successful entrepreneurs in American history. Ultimately, the biggest problem with Small Fry is that it’s only interesting as it pertains to Steve Jobs, and even then, it’s only interesting if you care about what kind of father Steve Jobs was. (I don’t.) In and of itself, Small Fry is a marvelously written but spectacularly uninteresting story about the daughter of an obscenely wealthy man who didn’t get to enjoy many of the spoils of that wealth, and who received affection from her father only sporadically. It’s a bummer, but the story is hardly worth the 400 pages devoted to it.
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