‘Small Fry,’ the Story of Silicon Valley’s Poor Little Rich Girl

When Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computer, died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, he was worth an estimated $10.2 billion. Despite being raised by a middle-class family and dropping out of college after just six months, Jobs was wealthy almost his entire adult life. He had earned his first million by the time he was 23, in 1978.

That was also the year he and his girlfriend Chrisann Brennan had a baby girl named Lisa.

As Steve’s star continued to rise (by 1980, Apple was worth more than $1 billion), Chrisann and Lisa lived hand-to-mouth, relying on charity, and moving 13 times before Lisa was 7. In fact, their life was so peripatetic, they weren’t allowed to adopt a kitten Lisa desperately wanted. Jobs denied his paternity until Chrisann sued for child support, then agreed to a modest sum quickly — right before Apple went public and his worth increased exponentially. For the rest of his life, he would extend and withhold affection for his eldest daughter sporadically, insisting that she make an effort to be “part of the family,” while consciously excluding her from family portraits or his official bio.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs, who chronicles this uneven relationship with her famous father in the new memoir Small Fry, remembers her youth as a sort of fairy story. She believed she was a princess in disguise, a Cinderella of sorts, forced to live in poverty but secretly the daughter of a wealthy king. Ironically, when she was finally invited to live in the castle, she became more of a Cinderella than ever.

Chrisann, an artist, struggled financially as a single mother, and also fought periods of depression, rage, and talk of suicide. Early on, Lisa recognized that one of her most important jobs was to protect her mom. This became more and more difficult as she grew up, reaching a crescendo when Lisa was in middle school and she and Chrisann fought virtually every night. Her school contacted Steve and suggested that he take Lisa or they would have to call Social Services.

Moving into the Jobs mansion was a dream come true for Lisa. But she soon felt conflicted. She was sorry to leave her mother (one of Steve’s conditions was that she not see Chrisann for six months). And, life with her father wasn’t as secure as she had hoped.

Steve Jobs may have been a genius when it came to personal computing, but his interpersonal and parenting skills left much to be desired. He demanded utter loyalty, to the point of reverence. He insisted on a very limited diet, forgoing meat, butter, and anything else that he felt made the body less than pure. The home had dozens of empty rooms and no couches anywhere. He refused to heat the wing of the house that Lisa slept in or to pay to repair the dishwasher, so she had to wash dishes each evening by hand. He also expected her to babysit her younger half-siblings rather than pursue her own interests.

Jobs seemed keenly aware of what his daughter needed, and yet he chose to withhold it. An important part of her personal mythology was an anecdote about a computer named “Lisa.” Lisa, which wasn’t a success like the later Apple, was supposed to have been named after her. Yet Jobs denied this, claiming instead that it was named for an old girlfriend. “Sorry, kiddo,” he told her. Years later, he admitted that the machine had indeed been named for his daughter. But he confessed it to Bono — celebrity to celebrity — and not to Lisa herself.

Perhaps the most troubling memories in Brennan-Jobs’s narrative involve her father’s grossly inappropriate talk of sex. He discussed the “bases” with his adolescent daughter again and again, detailing what sexual activity lined up with each. He asked her over a family breakfast whether or not she masturbated. (When she abashedly admitted that she didn’t, he told her “You should!”) He speculated about which classmates Lisa would have sex with, and he pointed out a strip club where, he joked, she would someday work.

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