Her character was prominent in Aaron Sorkin’s movie Steve Jobs–the precocious little girl whose father, the cofounder of Apple, kept denying he was her father. In Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s new book Small Fry, she describes life with her struggling mother, Chrisann Brennan, while her mysterious millionaire genius father popped in and out. Brennan-Jobs tells her story in a literary style, with a frankness that works well with the subject matter. Here are some of the pithiest snippets, taken from a recently published excerpt at Vanity Fair.
In the spring of 1978, when my parents were 23, my mother gave birth to me on their friend Robert’s farm in Oregon, with the help of two midwives. The labor and delivery took three hours, start to finish. My father arrived a few days later. “It’s not my kid,” he kept telling everyone at the farm, but he’d flown there to meet me anyway. I had black hair and a big nose, and Robert said, “She sure looks like you.”
During the time my mother was pregnant, my father started work on a computer that would later be called the Lisa. It was the precursor to the Macintosh, the first mass-market computer with an external mouse—the mouse as large as a block of cheese. But it was too expensive, a commercial failure; my father began on the team working for it, but then started working against it, competing against it, on the Mac team. The Lisa computer was discontinued, the 3,000 unsold computers later buried in a landfill in Logan, Utah.
Until I was 2, my mother supplemented her welfare payments by cleaning houses and waitressing. My father didn’t help. She found babysitting at a daycare center inside a church run by the minister’s wife, and for a few months we lived in a room in a house that my mother had found on a notice board meant for women considering adoption. Then, in 1980, the district attorney of San Mateo County, California, sued my father for child-support payments. My father responded by denying paternity, swearing in a deposition that he was sterile and naming another man he said was my father.
Visits from Jobs
We skated the neighborhood streets. Trees overhead made patterns of the light. Fuchsia dangled from bushes in yards, stamens below a bell of petals, like women in ball gowns with purple shoes. My father and mother had the same skates, a beige nubuck body with red laces crisscrossed over a double line of metal fasts. As we passed bushes in other people’s yards, he pulled clumps of leaves off the stems, then dropped the fragments as we skated, making a line of ripped leaves behind us on the pavement like Hansel and Gretel. A few times, I felt his eyes on me; when I looked up, he looked away.
One afternoon around this time my father brought over a Macintosh computer. He pulled the box out of the backseat and carried it into my room and put it on the floor. “Let’s see,” he said. “How do we open it?” As if he didn’t know. This made me doubt he was the inventor. He pulled the computer out of the box by a handle on the top and set it on the floor near the outlet on the wall. “I guess we plug this in.” He held the cord loose like it was unfamiliar. He sat on the floor in front of it with his legs crossed; I sat on my knees beside him. He looked for the On switch, found it, and the machine came alive to reveal a picture of itself in the center, smiling.
Ghost of Lisa
By then the idea that he’d named the failed computer after me was woven in with my sense of self, even if he did not confirm it, and I used this story to bolster myself when, near him, I felt like nothing. I didn’t care about computers—they were made of fixed metal parts and chips with glinting lines inside plastic cases—but I liked the idea that I was connected to him in this way. It would mean I’d been chosen and had a place, despite the fact that he was aloof or absent. It meant I was fastened to the earth and its machines. He was famous; he drove a Porsche. If the Lisa was named after me, I was a part of all that.
Near the End
I tiptoed into my father’s room, careful to step over the creaky floorboard at the entrance. This room had been his study, when he could still climb the stairs, but he slept here now. He was propped up in bed, wearing shorts. His legs were bare and thin as arms, bent up like a grasshopper’s.”Hey, Lis,” he said. As I came into his room, he was getting into a standing position. I watched him gather both his legs in one arm, twist himself 90 degrees by pushing against the headboard with the other arm, and then use both arms to hoist his own legs over the edge of the bed and onto the floor. When we hugged, I could feel his vertebrae, his ribs. He smelled musty, like medicine sweat.
Jobs died of pancreatic cancer on October 5, 2011.
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs will be published by Grove Press on September 4, 2018.