On his deathbed, Steve Jobs asked his daughter Lisa, “Are you going to write about me?”
“No,” Lisa said.
“Good,” Jobs said.
But she did. And it’s not good because Steve kept refusing to acknowledge Lisa as his daughter and hardly supported her. Bad parents will rue the day their children write about them.
Lisa Brennan is Steve’s daughter with Crisann Brennan, his high school sweetheart in Cupertino, California. They lived together on and off for several years.
At 23, Crisann was working in the packing department of the newly-formed Apple when she told Steve she was pregnant. Steve furiously left and refused to speak to her, maybe advised by a lawyer. Ashamed, Crisann quit Apple and lived in various friends’ houses while pregnant. Lisa was born in 1978, two years after Apple was founded.
Penniless, Crisann gave birth to Lisa on a farm with midwives. Steve visited on the birth day, looked at the baby who had his nose, eyebrows, and chin then declared, “It’s not my kid.”
“She sure looks like you,” Crisann’s friend told Steve.
Then weirdly, he and Crisann sat in the fields and chose a baby name together. When Lisa asked her mom, “And why did you let him help name me when he was pretending he wasn’t the father?”
“Because he was your father,” Crisann said.
Steve did not support Lisa and Crisann. They lived in poverty and survived on government welfare. Crisann took odd jobs and cleaned houses in fancy neighborhoods around Silicon Valley. Soon, the government realized that they were supporting the daughter of a Silicon Valley tech multi-millionaire. So the state of California sued Steve to pay child support and reimburse past welfare paid to Lisa.
In response, Steve denied he was the father. California demanded a paternity test and the court ordered Steve to take one. The result was positive at the highest possible percentage rate at that time.
To settle the lawsuit, Steve gave Lisa and Crisann a rock bottom support of $385 a month. It was later increased by about a $100, but it still was not enough to meet Lisa’s needs. They couldn’t even afford a car and mother and daughter rode a bike to get around. A few days later, Apple’s IPO made Steve worth $217 million.
With his newfound wealth, Jobs bought himself a 7,000 acre estate. Meanwhile, he bought Lisa and her mom a Honda Civic that they had to pick up themselves.
In 1983, when Lisa was five, Steve launched the “ahead of its time” LISA computer, ostensibly Local Integrated System Architecture. Meanwhile, Lisa was ashamed that she could not read in her early elementary years and even tried to fake read a book in class by memorizing the words.
Throughout his life Steve denied that he named the computer after his daughter, even when Lisa asked him directly years later, he said, “Sorry kiddo.”
Steve played with his paternity percentage result and used it to sully Crisann’s reputation in an interview for the Time magazine cover “Machine of the Year” (January 1983). Steve said 28% of the US male population could possibly be Lisa’s father.
Despite the paternity test, Steve still publicly denied for years that Lisa was his daughter, even when he showed others her picture from his wallet. After his death, during a birthday party, Lisa’s young half-sister introduced her as “Daddy’s mistake.”
Later, when Steve finally married and had three more children, he kept saying he had three kids. Not four.
After years of living in numerous rentals, Crisann and Lisa found a simple bungalow of their dreams. They excitedly asked Steve to buy it for them since they had never owned a house. Maybe, they thought, Steve would make this grand gesture for them to make up for all his years of neglect. Instead, Steve bought it for himself and housed his new wife and new baby in it—a few convenient blocks from Lisa’s rundown rented house so Lisa could babysit her half-brother.
Eventually, Steve says, “You’re my kid, you know.” He asked her to take his surname Jobs.
Why this book
Seven years after Steve’s death, Lisa’s book still views her father like a God—a mythical whale to her small fry stature. A small fry is a fish that’s too young to catch and is thrown back to sea. It also means insignificant.
From the first line of Lisa’s biography, Small Fry, it feels like a toddler trying to pull at her father’s fingers to get his attention saying, “Daddy, look at me!”. Lisa begins at the end of Steve’s life. As her father lies dying upstairs, shetries to steal small things from her father’s home—tokens of what should have been rightfully hers.
The memoir has no table of contents, just as Lisa has no monetary motivation to write her story. She needs to be heard and we need to listen.
Although Lisa does not judge nor criticize her famous father, she describes his hurtful actions. Telling what someone did is worse than saying he was awful. Her story echoes a child’s yearning for a paternal relationship and the pain of trying to capture it. Like a child of divorce, Lisa waits for Steve to pick her up to take her out. Many times he fails to come with no explanation nor apology. It must have been heartbreaking for a child.
Lisa relished her drives with Steve in his beloved Porsche. One day, Lisa asked Steve if she could inherit his Porsche. He angrily said “No! You will get nothing.”
Lisa only saw her father sporadically in her young years and tried to live with his new wife and son in her teen years. When her half-brother was born, Lisa candidly expressed her jealous wish that she had been the one born into this time, into this family, into this love. But she adored her half-brother and was often tasked to babysit him.
Even when Lisa thought she was becoming a part of Steve’s family, he kept saying “If you want to be a part of this family…” whenever he was displeased with her. As if she needed to earn her place in his family.
Steve’s fatherhood is rich in cruel detail as it is poor in affection. I could not comprehend how a parent can fail to love his child or be so stingy with his money or kindness.
Papa can you hear me?
Who knows why Steve treated Lisa that way? Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve surmised that being abandoned by his father and put up for adoption left Steve with a void.
Steve is in the company of other notable adopted tech founders: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (Bezos is his adoptive surname) and Oracle’s Larry Ellison (Ellison is his uncle’s surname). Bezos had a loving adoptive dad and was an achiever from a young age. But Ellison’s adoptive dad told him he would never amount to anything and he dropped out of college twice. Ellison was a typical unfocused youth until he decided to earn millions in his 30s.
Two US presidents never knew their dads. Bill Clinton’s (Clinton is his adoptive surname) dad died in a car accident before he was born. Barack Obama’s father was a Muslim from Kenya who left his mother when Barack was two and died when he was 21.
Two US super athletes were fatherless. The most decorated Olympic gymnast, Simone Biles, was adopted by her maternal grandparents because her mother abused substances. Basketball superstar Lebron James’ dad had a criminal record so he was raised by his teen mom. Lebron idolizes his mom so much that he has her name tattooed on his arm.
Two world artists were abandoned. John Lennon’s father left him and his mother, so he was adopted by his aunt and uncle. Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci was illegitimate, which precluded him from a good education and career opportunities.
Research established that paternal absence is detrimental to a child’s development when a need goes unfulfilled, whether economic, social, or emotional. While fathers have a specific contribution, what matters more is a child’s solid relationship with a parent figure. That’s why some children of absent fathers still manage to grow up stable and successful.
“Children who have secure, supportive, reciprocal, and sensitive relationships with their parents are much more likely to be well adjusted psychologically than are individuals whose relationships with their parents (mothers or fathers) are less satisfying.” (Michael Lamb & Catherine Tamis-Lemonda)
A man becomes a father when he sires a child. He then gives the child his name, support, and protection. We all carry the names of our fathers. Sometimes we inherit his face and fortune too. But the greatest legacy is a father’s love, time, and approval. It gives us a strong sense of self when our father makes us feel that we are precious, that we matter, that we are not small fry.