Read Remark book review - Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Book Review: Small Fry by Lisa Brennan Jobs, and Emerging from the Cult of Steve Jobs

Small Fry is Lisa Brennan Jobs’ memoir of growing up as the daughter of legendary Apple cofounder, Steve Jobs.

For the first several years of her life, Steve Jobs denied his responsibility for Lisa, refusing to help financially or even build a relationship until the state forced a paternity test. Once they did, though, father and daughter built a relationship that was in turns tender, confusing, stressful, devaluing, and fraught.

It’s no secret that, though he was a visionary genius, Steve Jobs was a deeply complicated man. He could be incredibly cruel to anyone in his orbit – a server at a restaurant, underlings at work, his own family.

Another Jobs-based book I read recently, Insanely Simple by Ken Segall, is meant to be an inspirational ode to simplicity in design and marketing based on Apple’s example.

But to me, the undercurrent of the book that the author kept trying to explain away was that of a creative team at mercy to the whims of a micromanaging despot.

Some of the ideas of Insanely Simple make sense, such as using straightforward naming conventions or sweating the small details up front to make the end product more streamlined and usable. Others, though, are exclusionary to the point of not allowing subordinates the chance to stretch and grow.

But beneath the words, I felt a strong sense of Stockholm syndrome. “Steve once humiliatingly threw a woman out of a meeting, but it’s okay because that’s just Steve and here’s a lame explanation I’ll devise to excuse it away and make it sound strategic!”

Yes, I made that quote up. But it shows the spirit of one of the anecdotes, plus pretty much every other misanthropic example Segall provides.

A quote from Brennan-Jobs’ Small Fry brought Segall’s book into sharper focus for me:

“We all made allowances for his eccentricities, the ways he attacked other people, because was also brilliant and sometimes kind and insightful. Now I felt like he would crush me if I let him.”
– Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Small Fry

Brennan-Jobs’ words are biting and unsparing. But from the regret she expresses in the book and, afterwards, in this article with the New York Times, it lends even more of a ring of truth.

Her attempts to apologize for his behavior strike the same explain-it-away tone as that in Insanely Simple. He told her she smelled like a toilet, but it was because she probably did. He refused to get her heating for her bedroom, but it wasn’t that cold. She sometimes sounds like she thinks she deserved his bad behavior.

How do you separate the artist from his or her art?

It’s a question I’ve been struggling with lately as more and more of my idols fall. If the person has inexcusable behavior, can I still appreciate their contributions with a clear conscience?

Kevin Spacey’s performance in House of Cards is fierce and cathartic. Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period strikes a melancholy nerve inside of me that no other art quite matches. HP Lovecraft inspired many science-fiction and horror authors with his otherworldly monsters. Louis CK’s comedy still makes me laugh. (Edit – no, no it doesn’t any more. He’s gone tacky since the accusations came to light.)

And Steve Jobs changed the face of technology in a way that changes the way we live and interact in our everyday lives. When he died, I cried. Literally. It was heartbreaking to lose such a brilliant mind.

Their legacies are tainted by their misdeeds. Am I still allowed to still enjoy their art, their contributions? Does it make me complicit?

I’ve mentioned Roland Barthe and the death of the author before. Maybe I can appreciate the work without having to consider the author/creator. All of these contributions have made the world that much richer, right?

But still…it makes me feel weird. I don’t think it’s worth the price. I don’t know what to make of these conflicted feelings.

One thing I’m sure of, though. Small Fry is an excellent book.


Small Fry
Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Published September 2018
Grove Press