Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan were 23 when their daughter was born. Lisa Brennan-Jobs remembers the pride and pain of a childhood spent navigating the vastness between her struggling single mom and Apple’s mercurial founder.
Three months before he died, I began to steal things from my father’s house. I wandered around barefoot and slipped objects into my pockets. I took blush, toothpaste, two chipped finger bowls in celadon blue, a bottle of nail polish, a pair of worn patent-leather ballet slippers, and four faded white pillowcases the color of old teeth.
After stealing each item, I felt sated. I promised myself that this would be the last time. But soon the urge to take something else would arrive again like thirst.
I tiptoed into my father’s room, careful to step over the creaky floorboard at the entrance. This room had been his study, when he could still climb the stairs, but he slept here now.
He was propped up in bed, wearing shorts. His legs were bare and thin as arms, bent up like a grasshopper’s.
“Hey, Lis,” he said.
Segyu Rinpoche stood beside him. He’d been around recently when I came to visit. A short Brazilian man with sparkling brown eyes, the Rinpoche was a Buddhist monk with a scratchy voice who wore brown robes over a round belly. We called him by his title. Near us, a black canvas bag of nutrients hummed with a motor and a pump, the tube disappearing somewhere under my father’s sheets.
“It’s a good idea to touch his feet,” Rinpoche said, putting his hands around my father’s foot on the bed. “Like this.”
I didn’t know if the foot touching was supposed to be for my father, or for me, or for both of us.
“Okay,” I said, and took his other foot in its thick sock, even though it was strange, watching my father’s face, because when he winced in pain or anger it looked similar to when he started to smile.
“That feels good,” my father said, closing his eyes. I glanced at the chest of drawers beside him and at the shelves on the other side of the room for objects I wanted, even though I knew I wouldn’t dare steal something right in front of him.
While he slept, I wandered through the house, looking for I didn’t know what. The house was quiet, the sounds muffled. The terra-cotta floor was cool on my feet except in the places where the sun had warmed it to the temperature of skin.
In the cabinet of the half bath near the kitchen, where there used to be a tattered copy of the Bhagavad Gita, I found a bottle of expensive rose facial mist. With the door closed, the light out, sitting on the toilet seat, I sprayed it up into the air and closed my eyes. The mist fell around me, cool and holy, as in a forest or an old stone church.
Later, I would put everything back. But now, between avoiding the housekeeper, my brother and sisters, and my stepmother around the house so I wouldn’t be caught stealing things or hurt when they didn’t acknowledge me or reply to my hellos, and spraying myself in the darkened bathroom to feel less like I was disappearing—because inside the falling mist I had a sense of having an outline again—making efforts to see my sick father in his room began to feel like a burden, a nuisance.
For the past year I’d visited for a weekend every other month or so.
I’d given up on the possibility of a grand reconciliation, the kind in the movies, but I kept coming anyway.
Before I said good-bye, I went to the bathroom to mist one more time. The spray was natural, which meant that over the course of a few minutes it no longer smelled sharp like roses, but fetid and stinky like a swamp, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
As I came into his room, he was getting into a standing position. I watched him gather both his legs in one arm, twist himself 90 degrees by pushing against the headboard with the other arm, and then use both arms to hoist his own legs over the edge of the bed and onto the floor. When we hugged, I could feel his vertebrae, his ribs. He smelled musty, like medicine sweat.
“I’ll be back soon,” I said.
We detached, and I started walking away.
“You smell like a toilet.”
In the spring of 1978, when my parents were 23, my mother gave birth to me on their friend Robert’s farm in Oregon, with the help of two midwives. The labor and delivery took three hours, start to finish. My father arrived a few days later. “It’s not my kid,” he kept telling everyone at the farm, but he’d flown there to meet me anyway. I had black hair and a big nose, and Robert said, “She sure looks like you.”
My parents took me out into a field, laid me on a blanket, and looked through the pages of a baby-name book. He wanted to name me Claire. They went through several names but couldn’t agree. They didn’t want something derivative, a shorter version of a longer name.
“What about Lisa?” my mother finally said.
“Yes. That one,” he said happily.
He left the next day.
“Isn’t Lisa short for Elizabeth?” I asked my mother. “No. We looked it up. It’s a separate name.” “And why did you let him help name me when he was pretending he wasn’t the father?” “Because he was your father,” she said.
During the time my mother was pregnant, my father started work on a computer that would later be called the Lisa. It was the precursor to the Macintosh, the first mass-market computer with an external mouse—the mouse as large as a block of cheese. But it was too expensive, a commercial failure; my father began on the team working for it, but then started working against it, competing against it, on the Mac team. The Lisa computer was discontinued, the 3,000 unsold computers later buried in a landfill in Logan, Utah.
Until I was two, my mother supplemented her welfare payments by cleaning houses and waitressing. My father didn’t help. She found babysitting at a day-care center inside a church run by the minister’s wife, and for a few months we lived in a room in a house that my mother had found on a notice board meant for women considering adoption.
Then, in 1980, the district attorney of San Mateo County, California, sued my father for child-support payments. My father responded by denying paternity, swearing in a deposition that he was sterile and naming another man he said was my father.
I was required to take a DNA test. The tests were new then, and when the results came back, they gave the odds that we were related as the highest the instruments could measure at the time: 94.4 percent. The court required my father to cover welfare back payments, child-support payments of $385 per month, which he increased to $500, and medical insurance until I was 18. The case was finalized on December 8, 1980, with my father’s lawyers insistent to close. Four days later Apple went public and overnight my father was worth more than $200 million.
But before that, just after the court case was finalized, my father came to visit me once at our house in Menlo Park, where we had rented a detached studio. It was the first time I’d seen him since I’d been a newborn in Oregon.
“You know who I am?” he asked. He flipped his hair out of his eyes.
I was three years old; I didn’t.
“I’m your father.” (“Like he was Darth Vader,” my mother said later, when she told me the story.)
“I’m one of the most important people you will ever know,” he said.
By the time I was seven, my mother and I had moved 13 times. We rented spaces informally, staying in a friend’s furnished bedroom here, a temporary sublet there. My father had started dropping by sometimes, about once a month, and he, my mother, and I would go roller-skating around the neighborhood. His engine shuddered into our driveway, echoing off our house and the wooden fence on the other side, thickening the air with excitement. He drove a black Porsche convertible. When he stopped, the sound turned into a whine and then was extinguished, leaving the quiet more quiet, the pinpoint sounds of birds.
I anticipated his arrival, wondering when it would happen, and thought about him afterward—but in his presence, for the hour or so we were all together, there was a strange blankness, like the air after his engine switched off. He didn’t talk much. There were long pauses, the thunk and whir of roller skates on pavement.
We skated the neighborhood streets. Trees overhead made patterns of the light. Fuchsia dangled from bushes in yards, stamens below a bell of petals, like women in ball gowns with purple shoes. My father and mother had the same skates, a beige nubuck body with red laces crisscrossed over a double line of metal fasts. As we passed bushes in other people’s yards, he pulled clumps of leaves off the stems, then dropped the fragments as we skated, making a line of ripped leaves behind us on the pavement like Hansel and Gretel. A few times, I felt his eyes on me; when I looked up, he looked away.
After he left, we talked about him.
“Why do his jeans have holes all over?” I asked my mother. He might have sewn them up. I knew he was supposed to have millions of dollars. We didn’t just say “millionaire” but “multi-millionaire” when we spoke of him, because it was accurate, and because knowing the granular details made us part of it.
She said my father had a lisp. “It’s something to do with his teeth,” she said. “They hit each other exactly straight on, and over the years they cracked and chipped where they hit, so the top and bottom teeth meet, with no spaces. It looks like a zigzag, or a zipper.”
“And he has these strangely flat palms,” she said.
I assigned mystical qualities to his zipper teeth, his tattered jeans, his flat palms, as if these were not only different from other fathers’ but better, and now that he was in my life, even if it was only once a month, I had not waited in vain. I would be better off than children who’d had fathers all along.
“I heard when it gets a scratch, he buys a new one,” I overheard my mother say to her boyfriend Ron.
“A new what?” I asked.
“Couldn’t he just paint over the scratch?” I asked.
“Car paint doesn’t work like that,” Ron said to me. “You can’t just paint over black with black; it wouldn’t blend. There are thousands of different blacks. They’d have to repaint the whole thing.”
The next time my father came over, I wondered if it was the same car he’d been driving the last time, or if it was a new one that just looked the same.
“I have a secret,” I said to my new friends at school. I whispered it so that they would see I was reluctant to mention it. The key, I felt, was to underplay. “My father is Steve Jobs.”
“Who’s that?” one asked.
“He’s famous,” I said. “He invented the personal computer. He lives in a mansion and drives a Porsche convertible. He buys a new one every time it gets a scratch.”
The story had a film of unreality to it as I said it, even to my own ears. I hadn’t hung out with him that much, only a few skates and visits. I didn’t have the clothes or the bike someone with a father like this would have.
“He even named a computer after me,” I said to them.
“What computer?” a girl asked.
“The Lisa,” I said.
“A computer called the Lisa?” she said. “I never heard of it.”
“It was ahead of its time.” I used my mother’s phrase, although I wasn’t sure why it was ahead. I brought it up when I felt I needed to, waited as long as I could and then let it burst forth. I don’t remember feeling at a disadvantage with my friends who had fathers, only that there was at my fingertips another magical identity, an extra thing that started to itch and tingle when I felt small, and it was like pressure building inside me, and then I had to find a way to say it.
One afternoon around this time my father brought over a Macintosh computer. He pulled the box out of the backseat and carried it into my room and put it on the floor. “Let’s see,” he said. “How do we open it?” As if he didn’t know. This made me doubt he was the inventor. He pulled the computer out of the box by a handle on the top and set it on the floor near the outlet on the wall. “I guess we plug this in.” He held the cord loose like it was unfamiliar.
He sat on the floor in front of it with his legs crossed; I sat on my knees beside him. He looked for the On switch, found it, and the machine came alive to reveal a picture of itself in the center, smiling. He showed me how I could draw and save my drawings on the desktop once I was finished with them, and then he left.
He didn’t mention the other one, the Lisa. I worried that he had not really named a computer after me, that it was a mistake.
For a long time I hoped that if I played one role, my father would take the corresponding role. I would be the beloved daughter; he would be the indulgent father. I decided that if I acted like other daughters did, he would join in the lark. We’d pretend together, and in pretending we’d make it real. If I had observed him as he was, or admitted to myself what I saw, I would have known that he would not do this, and that a game of pretend would disgust him.
Later that year, I would stay overnight at my father’s house on several Wednesdays while my mother took college classes in San Francisco. On those nights, we ate dinner, took a hot tub outside, and watched old movies. During the car rides to his house, he didn’t talk.
“Can I have it when you’re done?”I asked him one night, as we took a left at the leaning, crumbling white pillars that flanked the thin, bumpy road ending at his gate. I’d been thinking about it for a while but had only just built up the courage to ask.
“Can you have what?” he said.
“This car. Your Porsche.” I wondered where he put the extras. I pictured them in a shiny black line at the back of his land.
“Absolutely not,” he said in such a sour, biting way that I knew I’d made a mistake. I understood that perhaps it wasn’t true, the myth of the scratch: maybe he didn’t buy new ones. By that time I knew he was not generous with money, or food, or words; the idea of the Porsches had seemed like one glorious exception.
I wished I could take it back. We pulled up to the house and he turned off the engine. Before I made a move to get out he turned to face me.
“You’re not getting anything,” he said. “You understand? Nothing. You’re getting nothing.” Did he mean about the car, something else, bigger? I didn’t know. His voice hurt—sharp, in my chest.
The light was cool in the car, a white light on the roof had lit up when the car turned off. Around us was dark. I had made a terrible mistake and he’d recoiled.
By then the idea that he’d named the failed computer after me was woven in with my sense of self, even if he did not confirm it, and I used this story to bolster myself when, near him, I felt like nothing. I didn’t care about computers—they were made of fixed metal parts and chips with glinting lines inside plastic cases—but I liked the idea that I was connected to him in this way. It would mean I’d been chosen and had a place, despite the fact that he was aloof or absent. It meant I was fastened to the earth and its machines. He was famous; he drove a Porsche. If the Lisa was named after me, I was a part of all that.
I see now that we were at cross-purposes. For him, I was a blot on a spectacular ascent, as our story did not fit with the narrative of greatness and virtue he might have wanted for himself. My existence ruined his streak. For me, it was the opposite: the closer I was to him, the less I would feel ashamed; he was part of the world, and he would accelerate me into the light.
It might all have been a big misunderstanding, a missed connection: he’d simply forgotten to mention the computer was named after me. I was shaking with the need to set it right all at once, as if waiting for a person to arrive for their surprise party—to switch on the lights and yell out what I’d held in.
“Hey, you know that computer, the Lisa? Was it named after me?” I asked many years later, when I was in high school and splitting my time between my parents’ houses. I tried to sound like I was curious, nothing more.
If he would just give me this one thing.
“Nope.” His voice was clipped, dismissive. Like I was fishing for a compliment. “Sorry, kid.”
When I was 27, my father invited me to join for a few days on a yacht trip that he, my stepmother, my siblings, and the babysitter were taking in the Mediterranean. He didn’t usually invite me on vacations. I went for a long weekend.
Off the coast of the South of France my father said we were going to make a stop in the Alpes-Maritimes to meet a friend for lunch. He wouldn’t say who the friend was. We took a boat to the dock, where a van picked us up and drove us to a lunch at a villa in Èze.
It turned out to be Bono’s villa. He met us out front wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and the same sunglasses I’d seen him wearing in pictures and on album covers.
He gave us an exuberant tour of his house, as if he couldn’t quite believe it was his. The windows faced the Mediterranean, and the rooms were cluttered with children’s things. In an empty, light-filled octagonal room, he said, Gandhi had once slept.
We had lunch on a large covered balcony overlooking the sea. Bono asked my father about the beginning of Apple. Did the team feel alive? Did they sense it was something big and they were going to change the world? My father said it did feel that way as they were making the Macintosh, and Bono said it was that way for him and the band, too, and wasn’t it incredible that people in such disparate fields could have the same experience? Then Bono asked, “So, was the Lisa computer named after her?”
There was a pause. I braced myself—prepared for his answer.
My father hesitated, looked down at his plate for a long moment, and then back at Bono. “Yeah, it was,” he said.
I sat up in my chair.
“I thought so,” Bono said.
“Yup,” my father said.
I studied my father’s face. What had changed? Why had he admitted it now, after all these years? Of course it was named after me, I thought then. His lie seemed preposterous now. I felt a new power that pulled my chest up.
“That’s the first time he’s said yes,” I told Bono. “Thank you for asking.” As if famous people needed other famous people around to release their secrets.