When Lisa Brennan-Jobs was very young, her mother took a picture of her wearing nothing but a false nose and glasses and sent it to Steve Jobs.
“I think it’s your kid!” Chrisann Brennan wrote on the back of the photo.
In return, the big-nosed, bespectacled Steve Jobs — who was, indeed, Lisa’s father, but who had denied it repeatedly — sent Chrisann $500. She used the money to sublet a room in a house in Menlo Park, Calif., “with a hippie who kept bees.”
And that anecdote tells you everything you need to know about Jobs and Brennan, who had been high school sweethearts and who had a child together when both were 23: He was a cold, manipulative, selfish man who used money to control people. She was needy and eternally broke.
Their daughter’s memoir, “Small Fry,” is not a book you would read unless you were interested in Jobs — the writing is capable but doesn’t sparkle, the anecdotes are depressing and just pile up.
But if you care about Jobs, the book will tell you a lot about his obsessed, self-absorbed and mercurial character.
Once he finally admitted paternity, he began sending Chrisann money sporadically, and occasionally he bought her lavish things — a couch, a car and, much later, a house. But just as often, he promised things he never delivered on.
When Chrisann first asked him to buy her a house, he toured the house in question and then bought it for himself and his new wife.
Lisa lived with him off and on throughout her adolescence, and he used emotional blackmail to manipulate her. Whenever she exhibited independence, he would ominously accuse her of not wanting to be part of the family, and she would drop whatever she was doing and come crawling back.
But was she part of the family? Her bedroom, in a separate part of the house, had no heat, and he refused to get it fixed. It was her job to babysit his three other children at his command and also do the dishes each night, but he refused to get the dishwasher repaired. Lisa, lonely, the odd child out, asked him to tuck her in at night. His response: a flip “Nope.”
He told people he had three children, but of course Lisa made four. He refused to admit that his first computer, the Apple Lisa, was named after her, and for some reason this denial seemed to disturb her more than anything else. (Finally, when Bono asked him, Jobs admitted the truth — another weird detail of Lisa’s weird childhood.)
Throughout the book, Lisa recounts slights, hurts, snubs and rejections, as well as more intimate details — such as Jobs’ habit of walking around the house in a black T-shirt and underpants, and his stringent food restrictions. (A dinner might be grated carrots with half a lemon.)
The indignities pile up, right up until Jobs’ cancer death. (Among his last words to her were, “Lis? You smell like a toilet.”) The man was a jerk, but that was clear from Page 1.
Moments of joy — roller-skating together, or jumping on a trampoline — are tinged with anxiety and awkwardness: On skates, he often fell. On the trampoline, they never bounced in sync.
“Small Fry” is an excruciatingly sad read, a tell-all memoir from a woman who craved acceptance and paternal love from a man who was incapable of giving it. Because his name was Jobs, we read.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. 612-673-7302. @StribBooks
Small Fry: A Memoir
By: Lisa Brennan-Jobs.
Publisher: Grove, 381 pages, $26.
Coming Sunday: A review of “Dream Country,” by Shannon Gibney.