As I write this, I’m wearing a washed out grey t-shirt with a picture of Steve Jobs on its front. It’s hand drawn, my teenage daughter made it for me, it’s one of my favorite possessions. It’s also, I realize, cringe-worthy to push fifty and still be hung-up with such a profoundly predictable obsession.
My bromance with Steve goes back as far as I can remember, exerting a powerful influence on my values and choices in life. I never knew exactly what was so alluring, which is probably part of why I had to keep coming back for more. I used to revel in grainy interviews on YouTube, and read everything I could get my hands on that promised to be even vaguely related. Histories of Apple, of Pixar. Obviously the biographies; authorized and otherwise. Catching glimpse after glimpse of the Great Man through shards of broken mirrors, he seemed to move ever further away; getting fuzzy around the edges rather than coming into relief. Quite frustrating, and of course it only helped to strengthen the fascination.
Then I happened upon Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ coming-of-age story Small Fry.
She was the unwanted and initially unacknowledged daughter who grew up with her hippie mum in the poor parts of Palo Alto, moving from one dump to the next, trying to make ends meet while her wildly successful father made headlines.
Then Steve hit a brick wall when he was kicked out of Apple. In search of a new identity, he entered the life of his daughter when Lisa was around nine years old. Small Fry mostly revolves around the the ensuing decade.
Picking up Brennan-Job’s book, I initially felt a severe case of cognitive dissonance. The prose is exquisite, but I was incapable of digesting more than a few pages at a time. Here was Steve again, utterly recognizable, but but no longer the centerpiece of the narrative. Instead the story is about a relationship; the shifting power-field between a vulnerable little girl who desperately needs to be seen by her father, and a man who mostly seem to use the interactions in order to reinvent himself.
Here’s Steve’s trademark attention to details on display; as he shows Lisa the difference between serif and sans-serif fonts, or as he scrutinize the Stanford campus masonry when father and daughter go there on their regular roller-skating sessions. Familiar glimpses of the sensibilities that allowed him to make dents in the universe.
But here’s also a deeply insecure man who is heart-wrenchingly dysfunctional in his dealings with a child yearning for closeness.
And sure, it’s not like this side of Steve had been unknown to me. The fact that he could be a difficult man is hinted at in almost every account. But when Ed Catmull or Jony Ive or Walter Isaacson or any of the other grown-up men portraits Steve, his volatility always seemed intrinsic to his greatness. Like: of course he could be a complete bastard; how else would he have been able to achieve what he did.
The same qualities seen through the eyes of a child look *very* different. Far from the imperfection that complete the masterpiece, Steve now come across as someone you really wouldn’t want to spend time alone with, not unless you happened to be creating epoch making icons of industrial design together.
When people speak and write about my father’s meanness, they sometimes assume that meeanness is linked to genius. That to have one is to get closer to the other. But the way I saw him create was the best part of him: sensitive, collaborative, fun. The friends he worked with got to see this more than I did. Maybe the meanness protected the part that created—so that acting mean to approximate genius is as foolish as trying to be successful by copying his lisp or his walk or the way he turned around and wagged his hands around his back and moaned to pretend he was making out.Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Small Fry, 2018
It’s a sobering experience to read Brennan-Jobs’ book, and as tends to be the case with such experiences it’s eventually well worth its price. Coming out of it I feel uncomfortably self-conscious wearing my T-shirt, but then also at the same time infinitely grateful that I managed to father three strong beautiful daughters, one of whom had enough humor to see my pathetic crush with Steve for what it was, and still not laugh me in the face for it.
A couple of days after finishing her book, I ran into this interview with Lisa Brennan-Jobs. What follows are a some parts I found especially pithy:
I was running from something i couldn’t quite name, and I wanted to stop running from it, i wanted to slow down time and hope that if i wrestled with this feeling long enough, I would come out of it feeling less afraid, so i think i wrote it because i wanted to feel less illegitimate. I wanted to feel like i could stand on this planet and belong.Lisa Brennan-Jobs interviewed at LiveTalksLA, October 2018
Rather than unravelling the knot, I wanted to look at it so carefully that it didn’t haunt me anymore. And the result has been that I feel more in the inner circle of my own life. I guess it’s a funny thing that you would put all your shameful and devious things in a book, and then come out of it feeling less ashamed and less devious.