The memoir by Steve Jobs' daughter makes clear he was a truly rotten person
- It has been well established that the Apple cofounder Steve Jobs often acted like a jerk.
- But in a new memoir, Jobs' eldest daughter describes many ways he was cruel to her.
- The new anecdotes add colour to the many stories of how Jobs was mean or rude to employees and business partners.
- The net effect is that Jobs looks like a truly terrible person.
- His rotten behaviour was enabled by his wife, his colleagues, and his business partners.
- It's hard to say whether his business achievements outweigh his cruelty, but they certainly got more attention during his lifetime — and helped enable his bad behaviour.
It's no surprise that Steve Jobs was a jerk.
There have been plenty of accounts over the years that have detailed his cruelty, rudeness, and miserliness to workers, business partners, and even family and friends.
Still, the stories that have come out so far from "Small Fry," the new autobiography from his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs, are shocking. Jobs comes across not just as someone who could be self-centered and mean but as someone who was a truly terrible human being.
We've known for years that Jobs initially denied being Brennan-Jobs' father and didn't start paying child support until after a DNA test proved he was and a court ordered him to start paying. We've also known that he denied for years that Apple's Lisa computer, which debuted right before the Macintosh, was named for his daughter — before finally acknowledging it to her and the world.
But Brennan-Jobs' book adds fresh details. He rarely saw her when she was a young child, she says, even after admitting his paternity. While he was avoiding her and avoiding paying child support — despite already having founded and been making money at Apple — she and her mother lived in poverty, subsisting on welfare payments, her mother's low-paying jobs, and the charity of others. When he was finally forced to pay child support, he made sure that the case against him was closed days before Apple went public and he became a multimillionaire.
Even after Jobs started paying more attention to Brennan-Jobs, her mother, Chrisann Brennan, apparently felt uncomfortable leaving him with her alone after an incident in which he was said to have questioned and teased the then-9-year-old Brennan-Jobs about her sexual attractions and proclivities.
'We're cold people'
Then, when Brennan-Jobs went to live with him as a teenager, she says, he forbade her from seeing Brennan for six months, even though her mother had been the only constant figure in her life up to then. After moving in with them, Brennan-Jobs told him and her stepmother, Laurene Powell Jobs, that she felt lonely and asked that they tell her goodnight in the evenings. Instead of acknowledging her feelings and acceding to such a simple request, Powell Jobs apparently responded, "We're cold people."
When she started to become active in her high school, getting involved in clubs and running for student government, Jobs — the one, again, who previously refused to acknowledge his paternity and spent almost no time with her when she was little — apparently got on Brennan-Jobs for not spending more time with the family, telling her: "This isn't working out. You're not succeeding as a member of this family."
At one point, neighbors of the family were so worried about Brennan-Jobs that they helped her move into their house. They also helped her pay for college.
It's bad to treat employees and significant others poorly. But it's really evil to inflict such pain on a child. We knew Jobs was a bully toward many people. Now, it seems, we know he was one to his own daughter.
Brennan-Jobs comes across as a survivor of abuse
These are only excerpts from the book, which goes on sale September 4, so we don't have the full picture. And of course, they're the recollections of one person, with all the emotional baggage and bias that entails. Powell Jobs and Jobs' sister have said in a statement that the book "differs dramatically from our memories of those times."
But in her book, Brennan-Jobs brings up these incidents not to condemn Jobs but to make peace with them and him. She aims to forgive him and move on.
That's her choice and her right. But, as others have pointed out, what she endured was something many people would now consider child abuse — the intentional infliction of emotional cruelty. And in trying to find a way to forgive and understand him, she is reacting similarly to other survivors.
In trying to find a way to excuse her father, Brennan-Jobs is following a long line of people, all of whom are much more culpable than her for his behaviour. Generally, the only way to get a bully to back off is to stand up to him and for others to do so on behalf of his targets; in Jobs' case, too few people did.
When it concerned his behaviour toward Brennan-Jobs, his wife, Powell Jobs, clearly didn't stand up to him. When it concerned his behaviour toward employees and business partners, his colleagues just as obviously didn't.
Jobs had remarkable achievements — and was unbelievably cruel
I don't know how the cosmic balancing stick weighs something as complicated as a person's life, but I do think Brennan-Jobs' book puts the other stories about Jobs, the ones about how he treated his employees, colleagues, and partners, in a different light. They make him seem less like a driven leader who was sometimes harsh to achieve his goals and more like a cruel person who succeeded because those around him accommodated and acquiesced to his awfulness.
Jobs is rightly praised for his role in resurrecting Apple. When he took charge, the company was a few months away from bankruptcy. When he left Apple right before his death, it already was the most important consumer-technology company in the world and was well on its way to becoming the behemoth it is now. Given the generally poor track record of corporate managers in turning around seemingly hopeless situations, it's quite possible that only Jobs could have saved Apple and put it on that path.
And that's no small achievement. In turning around the company, Jobs saved thousands of jobs and helped to create thousands more. He also made lots of people inside and outside the company very rich.
The positive side of Jobs' ledger also includes his role in creating some of the most influential products of the past 50 years — the iPhone, the Mac, the iPad, the iPod, and the original Apple computers. Maybe similar products could and would have been created without him. But there's no denying that he had a leading role in shaping how billions of people interact with technology, in many ways for the better.
We too often glorify business leaders and ignore their failings
Of course even those achievements are leavened by less laudable ones, such as his overseeing of Apple's outsourcing of thousands of factory jobs overseas and the convoluted contortions the company made to avoid paying taxes. He also headed the company and personally benefited when it backdated stock options to make them more valuable but let other executives take the fall. Oh, and he repeatedly yelled at employees and publicly embarrassed them.
And that's not to mention his antics during his first tenure at Apple, such as how he attempted to undermine then-CEO John Sculley and refused to give stock options to one of Apple's earliest employees.
In the end, did his business achievements outweigh the cruelty he inflicted on others? I don't know.
I do know that we too often glorify business leaders for their achievements without taking a close look at who they are as human beings and how their actions — both personal and professional — affect those around them and the wider world. I also believe that focus on their accomplishments helps enables their bad behaviour.
That certainly seemed to be the case with Steve Jobs.
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