Vike Profile: Steve Jobs’ daughter reflects on high school

Benjamin Huang, Arts and Entertainment Editor

Journalism advisor Esther Wojcicki welcomes Lisa Brennan-Jobs (right) to the Palo Alto High School Media Arts Center during a presentation about Brennan-Jobs’ book, Small Fry, in October 2018. Brennan-Jobs graduated from Paly as part of the class of 1996. “In the beginning it [high school] seems terrifying, and then by the end you feel really comfortable,” Brennan-Jobs said. “You not only feel good on campus, you feel maybe good in your own skin too.” Photo: Micaela Wong

“My father asked, ‘What’s going on in here?’ and the boy said, ‘it’s the paper,’ and we peered into the room. There were lots of people inside, working on computers and lounging on beanbags, and I thought, if I did decide to go here [Palo Alto High School], I’d work on the paper too.”

According to Lisa Brennan-Jobs, she would go on to do just that.

According to Brennan-Jobs’s autobiography, “Small Fry,” she was born to artist Chrisann Brennan and Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 1978. Jobs initially denied that he was her father, even after a paternity test showed that there was a 94.4 percent chance. He would continue to deny paternity until years later after leaving Apple.

Brennan-Jobs lived with her mother during her childhood. A court order legally required Jobs to pay child support, but he was largely uninvolved in her upbringing.

Brennan was forced to support herself and Brennan-Jobs by waitressing and teaching an art class.

When Brennan-Jobs lived with her mother, she attended Nueva High School and later Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco. Then, after she moved in with her father, she transferred to Palo Alto High School during her second semester of freshman year.

“Everything had changed in my life,” Brennan-Jobs said in an interview with the Voice on Saturday last week. “I had moved from my mom’s house to my dad’s house. My mom used to drive me to places, and my dad didn’t, so I couldn’t seem to get to any of the extracurriculars and I was completely college-focused since even the beginning of freshman year. I knew that if I couldn’t get to any extracurriculars I was going to have a hard time getting into college, so I figured I should just go to Paly.”

Brennan-Jobs described her initial experience with Paly as “a little bit of a rocky start.”

“I had been in a private school for a while, and the textbooks at Paly were kind of old and scruffy,” Brennan-Jobs said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, no!’ And I didn’t really have any friends. A lot of the people there had known each other for a very long time because they had been going to school together for a while and I was new.”

However, Brennan-Jobs said she slowly acclimated to Paly and grew to enjoy her time there.

“I loved the paper and I loved mock trial and I did the literary journal,” Brennan-Jobs said. “I loved all that. The differences were that there was less hand-holding, it was a lot bigger, and at the beginning it felt very lonely. But by the end it was quite wonderful. Which I guess is a nice arc for how high school should be.”

Lisa Brennan-Jobs (right) smiles in a photo of the Mock Trial club that appeared in the 1996 edition of Madrono. Photo: Benjamin Huang

Brennan-Jobs was elected to the position of editor in chief of The Campanile during her senior year. According to Small Fry, she and the other editors in chief published exposés about the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education issuing its staff members credit cards to buy luxuries during layoffs.

After Paly, Brennan-Jobs went on to study at Harvard and spent her senior year abroad at King’s College in London.

Brennan-Jobs said that if anything, her high school experience has helped her adjust better to unfamiliar situations.

“I think more than any one specific class or activity, the part that’s been the most informative and reassuring to me was how I began feeling so terrible about the place … and by the end felt so comfortable and happy,” Brennan-Jobs said. “And so this idea that you can make a place that seems so formidable into your own is something that I’ve kept with me.” 

On Sept. 4, 2018, Brennan-Jobs published Small Fry, which details her early life and her complex relationship with Jobs.  In October, she discussed the book with her former journalism advisor, Esther Wojcicki, in front of a large audience in Paly’s Media Arts Center.

“I guess instead of hiding all this stuff, I need to kind of understand all the places where I did shameful, devious things, and then I need to bring them out into the light,” Brennan-Jobs said at the presentation. “That became a way to kind of unlock the book for myself, because when I could find the ways that I was ashamed of things I’d done, then I found myself on the pages.”

The memoir includes some accounts of behavior from Jobs that seems strange, even harsh: Jobs openly discussing sexual topics with Brennan-Jobs as a child, refusing to install heating in her bedroom, and even telling her that she “[smelled] like a toilet” as he wasted away from cancer. 

However, according to Brennan-Jobs, Small Fry is not a condemnation of Jobs for these actions.

“Some people that I’ve talked to are like, ‘Oh, yeah, my dad would have said that,'” Brennan-Jobs said at the presentation. “Other people are scandalized. … When you write a book, when people read it, it becomes their book. So if you’re scandalized by it, I guess that’s OK. But I wasn’t meaning it to be so scandalous. Because it was the truth.”

For as many instances of cold behavior from Jobs to those around him, Small Fry also depicts periods of warmth and love between Brennan-Jobs and her father.

“I think about now, as an adult, what it might have been like for him, deciding, ‘I want to be involved in this kid’s life. She’s my daughter and I am starting to love her,'” Brennan-Jobs said. “He was kind of awkward. Physically, he would trip a lot and stumble. And also emotionally, he kind of didn’t know what to say. Even though he was so amazing in front of crowds of people, with me he was kind of quiet and a little weird. We would go out for hours, and I think about how that might have taken some courage on his part to keep on trying.”