As you might have noticed, I keep coming back to Steve Jobs. There was a long long time when I simply couldn’t get enough of him.
His dying obviously didn’t help. Death is weird that way. Jesus too, only ever came into his own after getting crucified.
They’re similar in some ways, Steve and Jesus. Both liked to hide behind a veil of mystique, and most of what we know about them is what their fans cared to document. JC had his disciples, Steve had a long line of fan-boys. (Walter Isaacson, Brent Schlender, Rick Tetzeli, Ed Catmull, Jeffery Young, William Simon… The list could go on.)
There’s one difference however. Whereas the gospel of Jesus Christ was an exclusively male affair, there are at least three female takes on Steve. These are the books by his sister, his daughter, and by the mother of his first child. Reading them one after another, it’s almost like I can viscerally register how the trance-like infatuation is finally coming to an end.
Chrisann Brennan appears in both those books, and she really rubs me the wrong way. Or rather: the portrayal of her does. She comes across as a self-centered hippie who can never stick with her latest art project long enough for anything to become serious.
To some extent, perhaps it was me who wanted to read her that way. Maybe it made it easier to forgive Steve for how shitty he treated her.
To some extent also, I suspect that both Lisa and Mona tried so hard to see the goodness in Steve, that they subconsciously cast him as a shimmeringly white Yang and needed to contrast him with Chrisann as the dark Yin.
I’m thinking that, because now that I finally get around to reading Brennan’s book The Bite in the Apple : A Memoir of My Life With Steve Jobs, she strikes me as very different.
Indeed, although she struggles with severe dyslexia and never really went anywhere career-wise, I consider her novel superior to that of the celebrated writer Mona Simpson. The Bite in the Apple is a one-hit-wonder of the kind that sometimes happen when a story badly need to come into the world; one feels how every single paragraph is a labour of love.
And it’s that intense love which holds the key to redemption.
Because here’s probably the first time we get a straight look at the man behind the myth. It’s a look that can be jaded and exasperated—after all, Brennan did have to endure buckets of abuse—but never one that waivers in its conviction that there’s a heart of gold in the boy living inside that man who’s given a free-out-ot-jail card every time he’s acting like a jerk. A stance that is beautifully reflected in the following passage:
Of course, it must have been sort of wild to have your genius recognized at the age of twenty-two, to be thrust into such a role of authority. Steve had always been a brilliant misfit, but at this time—to be generous—he wasn’t managing his growing power very well. In fact he was positively despotic. Excellence had always been a gorgeous thing in Steve, but now he was using it like a weapon. He’d look for excellence and when he didn’t find it, he’d behave badly and take it out on people. It was as if the values of aesthetics were replacing decency and ethics in the mad pursuit to be the best of the best.
His famous Reality Distortion Field, which I’ve previously often seen described with almost religious reverence, is also rendered here in a tone much more down to earth. As it turns out, the famous field could sometimes glitch and back-fire:
For years I had seen people tune Steve out because he would at times pull for a concept of reality that was just so off that one dropped into patience waiting for it to be over. Sometimes there would be a noble soul who loved the art of debate and so took time with him to argue the points and laugh and give him a run for his money. But this was never, ever my forte, I just found it annoying.
What really gets to me though, are the scenes from the early days, the innocent time before Steve found his calling and got pulled into the vortex of fame.
I’m especially charmed by Brennan’s depictions of Steve’s world as a teenager. The muted frustration he must have felt growing up in a drab suburban home, adopted by square parents who seemed utterly incapable of showing their affection.
It’s the Steve of this era—the awkward kid with a strange sense of humour—who Chrisann falls in love with. And for better or worse it became the persona which Steve got stuck with in her mind til death did them part (Brennans’ book came out two years after Steve passed away).
It’s not like that “inner Steve” was a pure soul who would later be corrupted by fame however. The cruel streak was there already in the beginning. Here’s Chrisann again, after one of the many ups and downs of their volatile relationship:
Steve had been protective of me before, but now he was jealous and acting as nasty as a mean old snake. Except I didn’t understand this then. His meanness had a way of making me blank and confused in self-doubt. Steve sometimes asked me where all my confidence was going, with as much blame as confusion. He wasn’t reflective enough to make the link between how he was treating me and how I was losing myself. I believed in him. I let myself be influenced by him. And I let my defences down because I loved him. But this was a mistake. Ironically, when I made myself vulnerable to Steve I fell prey to his vulnerabilities and projections. Steve felt so bad about himself that he wanted to win at everything with everyone. Including me. And yet—irony upon irony—it was Steve’s belief in his own specialness that made him look so disapprovingly at me.
As I turn the last page of Brennan’s book I feel a twinge of regret.
At first I assume it’s because of how I’ve somehow betrayed my idea of Steve, by letting his score-settling and possibly vengeful ex-girlfriend get the last word.
Then I realize how that very narrative was always part of Steve’s reality distortion project. That really it was him who had been vengeful; not acknowledging his child for years, and using his vast powers to spread false rumours about her mother:
Steve wanted to control what people thought of him. That’s likely why he started to seed people with the notion that I slept around and he was infertile, which meant that this could not be his child. People believed him, I think, because people wanted a hero. Apple was succeeding, and Steve was brilliant, but mine was an old story, and no one really cared about a single mother. A mother who was married, yes. But a single mother? No.
So in the end, I come to think that it was indeed a very good thing that Chrisann Brennan got the last word on this story. For her sake of course, but also for mine. Because perhaps finally now, Steve’s spell over me is broken.