In Small Fry, writer Lisa Brennan-Jobs has published an unflattering memoir about life with her father Steve Jobs. The book contains passages detailing Jobs’s cruelty, some of which — notable an episode in which he declined to heat her bedroom — may shock Apple fanboys. But those same iPhone enthusiasts have probably heard stories about what Jobs was like as a manager and CEO. The man was famously a jerk. As such, the question the book begs is this: Why are we shocked that a man known for his brutality in the workplace be any different at home? The answer, such as it is, seems to be that Americans expect the brutal titans of industry to be redeemed by their home lives.
This expectation is insane.
Steve Jobs was famous for swearing at his employees, offering withering criticism of their work and being a general dick. He once fired Pixar employees without notice or severance. When they complained, he said, “Okay, but the notice is retroactive from two weeks ago.” On a different occasion, he recruited an employee by telling him, “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit.”
So why would readers be shocked he once told his daughter she smelled like a toilet? Why is it surprising he once told her that she wasn’t “succeeding as a member” of the family? It all seems pretty consistent. There’s continuity there at least.
And yet, there’s this unspoken idea that when men behave terribly at work it’s all a posturing power play. Arguably this is part of an even more common notion — propagated by Hollywood and the memoir industrial complex — that everyone has a soft side. This is not true. Cutthroat people tend to be that way all the time. Some aren’t, but those are likely the exception. Men as intensely driven as Jobs was don’t tend to be easy to be around. Henry Ford routinely humiliated his son in public. John Paul Getty Jr. wouldn’t pay his grandson’s ransom. (Bill Gates seems chill.)
It would be nice if all men, even the most demanding ones, went home and played happily with their children. They don’t. And even if that’s an obvious point, it’s worth reiterating, especially in a society that puts so much emphasis on professional success and perpetually shies away from judgments about parenting decisions (witness the bizarre dissembling of people talking about spanking). Bad men tend to be bad parents. And sometimes great men are bad parents as well. Whether or not they struggle as caregivers because they’re used to the rough and tumble of the business world doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs has clearly forgiven her father. She’s been clear on that in multiple interviews. And that’s great. She is to be lauded for coming to terms with his behavior. That said, her forgiveness shouldn’t trigger our admiration. Those that lionize Steve Jobs might want to consider… not. There’s more to life than iPods.
All that said, Jobs was a tremendously accomplished individual. He did have a sort of greatness. The issue is when we conflate that greatness with goodness. That does not only a disservice to his family, but to the good men out there who deserve to be recognized for toiling away — in some cases managed by managers managed by managers managed by Jobs — and providing their kids with emotional support and comfort at the same time.
It’s possible to read Small Fry and enjoy a voyeuristic look into the life of an icon. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s also frustrating to imagine what Jobs could have achieved if he was kind and patient — the products he would have made if he was more capable of understanding and caring about the needs of others.
Anyone disappointed to hear that Jobs was not a consistently strong paternal presence either doesn’t know much about the guy or is playing the fool — perhaps willfully. In depicting her father honestly, Brennan-Jobs does the naive a service by lifting the curtain on a legendary life. She does all of us a service by acknowledging that her father was, like everyone else, an individual. And, like everyone else, he had good qualities and bad. No one is perfect. Some are less perfect than others.