The Father of Personal Computing Who Was Also a Terrible Dad

The reader is left to wonder whether Lisa is fully aware of just how disturbing this dynamic was. In another instance that would have benefited from perspective, she recounts a moment when she is 14 and tries to be close to Steve by sitting, uneasily, on his lap, trembling with fear, excitement and a “quaking electric love,” wishing they could relate like normal daughters and fathers. At one point she calls his behavior “inappropriate,” but at the end of the book she assures him that he had been “good about sex.” Was she trying to appease the aggressor, or does she not understand the scenes she has shown us?


Desperate to win over her stepmother, Lisa fawns over Laurene, hoping her “servile quality would ignite compassion, pity or love” and she would become “the long-lost daughter they might want.” She comes to the painful realization that Laurene — whom she perceived as her “last resort” — would not “inhabit the role I’d assigned her, that she was not here to fix my father for me.”

Lisa’s memoir stands in marked contrast to previous representations of Steve and the Jobs family. Laurene, Lisa’s half siblings and her aunt the novelist Mona Simpson have said in a statement to The Times that the book “differs dramatically from our memories of those times,” and “the portrayal of Steve is not the husband and father we knew.” Readers will need to decide for themselves how to judge conflicting accounts. The portrait of Laurene as a stepmother certainly diverges from her public reputation as a philanthropist and devoted mother. “Steve Jobs,” Walter Isaacson’s best-selling authorized biography, lionizes Jobs and depicts Laurene and her children in glowing terms, while painting Lisa in a largely unflattering light. Learning Lisa’s perspective for the first time, and being confronted with instance after instance of her father’s sadism, readers may find themselves reeling, thinking: What is wrong with this man?

[ Read our profile of Lisa Brennan-Jobs here ]

As a writer, however, she chooses not to speculate on the nature of her father’s pathology, but instead focuses on her childhood experience — trying to understand why gestures of nurturing, approval or warmth are inevitably followed by acts of aggression, cruelty and humiliation. At a resort in Hawaii, she watches with horror as Steve taunts a parrot, holding forth a bread crumb only to snatch it away when the bird reaches for it. The bird does not, cannot, learn: Again and again, it reaches.

Occasionally, her father tosses her a crumb. Lisa captures her father’s mystique, the frisson she felt from seeing his picture in magazines, the effect of dropping his name and the way he created the impression that knowing him was a privilege — albeit a dangerous one. She recalls the way he would pull up to her mother’s small house in his black Porsche convertible, “thickening the air with excitement,” and take her roller-skating around the neighborhood. Sometimes he would force her to ride on his shoulders; he would lurch, terrifyingly, and they would both fall — an apt metaphor for the relationship. He would tell Chrisann, “You know she’s more than half me,” and Chrisann would tell Lisa that her father had “fallen in love” with her again. Then he would disappear.

Children inhabit the world more sensually than adults, but the memories of how things looked and smelled and sounded fade, and childhood memoirs often suffer from a deficit of such details. Brennan-Jobs details scenes as richly as a prose poem, conjuring the way rare moments of connection with her father transformed the landscape. One weekend morning as they took a walk, he expounded on his belief that the two of them were West Coast people. East Coast people, he said, were phonies and lacked “the quality of holy surrender we had because of these fragrant hills that smelled of pepper and eucalyptus, all this watery sunlight.” Torn between her parents’ worlds, Lisa “bobbed between different ideas of myself,” but at such times she felt she was her “father’s confidante, the one like him, true like jeans, the Stanford hills, Bob Dylan.”