Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (her father is Steve Jobs, you know, that Apple guy) is a terrifically-written memoir. From the start, Brennan-Jobs has a difficult task. She’s going to be judged by a higher standard. Is this a celebrity memoir or something else?
It’s something else.
Phillip Lopate’s review: “No other book or film has captured Steve Jobs as distinctly as this one has.”
It begins like this: Lisa is born to very young unmarried hippies who don’t mean to have a baby. Lisa’s mother keeps the baby while Steve travels and has no parenting responsibilities. Lisa’s mother is an artist with little business-savvy and can barely make rent. Steve invents the computer “the Lisa,” becomes very famous and rich and often publicly denies his paternity.
But he loves Lisa. He comes to roller skate with her sometimes. He gives money to Lisa’s mother (though she has to sue him for child support.) He sometimes has Lisa stay over at his mansion (which contains no furniture.) They eat salad and freshly squeezed juice. It is hard for him to relate to his child, yet he obviously wants to.
The characters are complex, like real life.
Lisa’s mother: Even though she’s moody, prone to rage for the life she’s saddled with, I admire her. Poverty and stress make for a hard life and I could easily understand the emotional hysteria. She raises Lisa with the world is on her shoulders and her art in the backseat. She’s mostly kind to Steve even when he’s cruel.
Steve alternates between creeping me out and making me angry, though in the end you think maybe he just didn’t know how to be a dad, didn’t know HOW. Wealth and stress? Well, that’s a combustible combo, too.
Lisa’s writing is both succinct and beautiful. On her mother:
“She pulled over, jammed on the brakes, and sobbed into her arms. Her back shook. Her sadness enveloped me, I could not escape it, nothing I could do would stop it…at the height of her hopelessness and noise, I’d felt a calm presence near us, even though I knew we were alone in the watery hell, the car jerking. Some benevolent presence that cared for us but could not interfere, maybe sitting in the back seat. The presence could not stop it, could not help it, only watch and note it. I wondered later if it was a ghostly version of me now, accompanying my younger self and my mother in that car.” (a memory at age 3)
“But it didn’t matter what she said, or how she explained. I saw us as a seesaw: when one of us had power or happiness or substantiality, the other must fade. When I was still young, she’d be old. She would smell like old people, like used flower water. I would be new and green and smell of freshly cut branches.” (a memory around age 4)
As a teenager, Lisa goes to live with Steve, who requires that she cut off contact with her mother for six months. Lisa writes:
“I would leave my mother – I’d said the words out loud. I felt giddy and guilty and numb. Maybe this was the origin of the guilt that seized me later and left me hardly able to walk sometimes, after I had moved in with them: having stolen her youth and energy, having driven her to a state of perpetual anxiety, without support or resources, now that I was flourishing in school and beloved by my teachers, I cast her out and picked him, the one who’d left. I chose the pretty place when she was the one who’d read me books of old stories with admonishments not to believe in the trick of facades.”
Oh, so good.
On her dad, whom she always calls “Steve,” after he’d been particularly cruel:
“We all made allowances for his eccentricities, the ways he attacked other people, because he was also brilliant, and sometimes kind and insightful. Now I felt he’d crush me if I let him. He would tell me how little I meant over and over until I believed it. What use was his genius to me?” (8th grade)
I found the ending to be cathartic and satisfying. Lisa’s mother says to Lisa:
“‘He’s following you around, your father,” she said, when she came to visit me after he died.
“Him. I don’t know how else to say it. I can feel him here. And you know what? He’s overjoyed to be with you. He wants to be with you so much he’s paddling behind you. I mean, he’s delighted just watching you butter a piece of toast.”
I didn’t believe it, but I liked thinking it anyway.'”
Like many memoirist, Brennan-Jobs writes from a place of sadness and reflection (though I did laugh out loud when she flushes her tights down the toilet.) She longs for what we all long for: to be loved by a mother and a father. I turned the pages greedily, at once enraged and empathetic. It’s a fascinating story. Also heartbreaking, but redemptive, all the same.