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Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s Memoir Is the Sleeper Critical Hit of the Season

Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s memoir, Small Fry. Photo: Grove Atlantic

Steve Jobs’s official bio for Apple left out his oldest daughter, Lisa, who was born to a former girlfriend on a farm in 1978. It was no accident. Jobs famously lacked what Jennifer Aniston would have referred to as his “sensitivity chip.” He refused to acknowledge Lisa for years — her mother “supplemented her welfare payments by cleaning houses and waitressing” — then demanded paternity tests. Four days after finally accepting the results and agreeing to $385 a month in child support, he took Apple public, “and overnight,” she writes in the memoir, “my father was worth more than $200 million.”

If he was anybody else we’d call him a deadbeat dad, but because he was his holiness Steve Jobs, his reputation as the patron saint of handheld technology remained intact.

That façade began to crumble in the wake of Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography (and Aaron Sorkin’s ambivalent adaptation four years later). But this week, Lisa Brennan-Jobs herself demolished it. Her memoir, Small Fry, the sleeper critical hit of the season, has been excerpted in Vanity Fair. Its author, profiled by both the New York Times and the Guardian, details the B.A.N.A.N.A.S. neglect and maltreatment she suffered at the hands of her father. And contra Sorkin’s movie, there was no full reconciliation. On his deathbed, a time when many fathers would be revelling in the beauty of the life they had created, Jobs told his daughter that she “smelled like a toilet.”

The book is ubiquitous — covered by Esquire, Time, and of course, People. Reviewers of a less literary bent have latched onto the details of callousness oozing out of the memoir, as you might expect, and turned a firehose of empathy on Brennan-Jobs. USA Today proclaimed that “there’s no way to read [Small Fry] and not feel complete sympathy and sadness.” Business Insider argued that “what she endured was something many people would now consider child abuse.” (It really says something when part of a book review’s URL reads, “steve-jobs-terrible.”) On the Today show this morning — a massive platform not generally available to debut authors — Hoda Kotb could not stop herself from pressing Brennan-Jobs repeatedly about her father’s heartlessness. Brennan-Jobs tried repeatedly to refocus the interview on how the book is really “a coming-of-age story” which is “easy to forget because there’s the distraction of this famous person.”

That’s been her strange role over the past few weeks — defender of the man whom she lays bare as a jerk and a potential emotional abuser. Even before the book was released on Tuesday, Brennan-Jobs was so fretful about the anticipated publicity that her anxiety about “fully representing the dearness of my father, and the outrageous pleasure of being with him when he was in good form” became the focus of a New York Times profile.

And yet, every reviewer who’s engaged with the writing itself has nothing but heaps of praise for it. Kirkus, in the prepublication review that often sets the tone for all criticism to come, said: “It’s rare to find a memoir from a celebrity’s child in which the writing is equal to — or exceeds — the parent’s reputation, but that is the case with Brennan-Jobs’ debut. In a lesser writer’s hands, the narrative could have devolved into literary revenge. Instead, Brennan-Jobs offers a stunningly beautiful study of parenting that just so happens to include the co-founder of Apple.”

Vogue has included Small Fry in its roundup of the best books coming out this fall, calling it “a book that upends expectations, delivering a masterly Silicon Valley gothic.”

“Before I read her book,” wrote Melanie Thernstrom for The New York Times Book Review, “I wondered if it had been ghostwritten, like many such books [but] … Her inner landscape is depicted in such exquisitely granular detail that it feels as if no one else could possibly have written it. Indeed, it has that defining aspect of a literary work: the stamp of a singular sensibility. In the fallen world of kiss-and-tell celebrity memoirs, this may be the most beautiful, literary and devastating one ever written.”

We shouldn’t be surprised. Not only does Brennan-Jobs have an MFA from Bennington (and a novelist aunt, Mona Simpson), but she’s also the daughter of the man who sold America a trillion-dollar story.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s Memoir Is a Sleeper Critical Hit