Steve Jobs: Let Us Not Judge Him

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     In the first few days after Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, died, the media and the public seemed to be obsessed with putting him on a pedestal, speaking of him as nearly a saint. Then, just a few days later, they seemed determined to knock him off that pedestal, mentioning every flaw he ever had. Although his own adoption and his fathering a daughter whose mother he did not marry had not been much publicized during his life, suddenly there was a great deal of speculation about those facts, how they might have influenced him, and so on. Always interested in news stories with adoption connections, I decided to do some reading about him.
     I know very little about computers, let alone iPhones, iPods, etc., and I knew even less about Steve Jobs, so I was coming at this without any prior opinions one way or another. About all I knew about the man personally was that a client of mine, many years ago, said he grew up with Steve Jobs and they used to do various mood-altering substances together. I have no reason to believe that was not true, and Mr. Jobs himself made no secret of what he did and did not use.
     I am writing this article in the first person because it is strictly my experience of reading and thinking, and does not reflect any policy of any organization. It does represent my viewpoint at this time, which is that we cannot get inside Steve Jobs’ head and decide what he felt or why. The man is deceased and I was not his therapist, and neither were all the people now purporting to be experts about his thoughts, feelings, motivations, and behaviors.
     After reading several magazine articles, with various viewpoints of Jobs, and various comments about his adoption and his daughter, I decided I would rather read something more in-depth, rather rushing to any judgment, so I went to the bookstore and purchased the 572-page biography of Mr. Jobs by Walter Isaacson and sat down to read it. I plowed through the entire book, pondered it for several weeks, then went back and highlighted what I thought were significant portions, particularly those related to his adoption and to his eldest daughter, since that was to be the focus of my writing. Mr. Isaacson had known Jobs well and for some time, and both Jobs and his wife agreed to have him write the book, and did not restrict what he was to say, even if it put them in a negative light at times.
     I learned a lot about Jobs’ life—probably more than I needed to know—but I found the book interesting and thought-provoking. I would recommend that people read it and come to their own conclusions, or to very few conclusions, which is what I did.
     The book begins with a chapter entitled “Childhood: Abandoned and Chosen,” which begins with a section headed “Adoption.” His birth parents were college students, from different backgrounds: Joanne Schieble was a Catholic from Wisconsin; Abdulfattah “John” Jandali was a Muslim from Syria. That they were even involved in 1954 was shocking to many, let alone that she went to Syria, to his family’s home, with him that summer. Her parents were not at all happy with their relationship, and her father, of conservative German heritage, threatened to cut her off completely if she stayed involved or married this man. In 1954, this was a bigger threat to a young woman than it would be today. She was pretty spunky to have defied her father, especially to the point of going to Syria. While there, she learned to cook Syrian dishes from Jandali’s mother.
     When they returned to the U.S., Joanne discovered she was pregnant. She and Jandali were both 23, graduate students, but they did not get married, the only “acceptable” solution in those days. Her father was dying, and she knew he would disown her. Abortion was neither legal nor safe at that time, and keeping the child and remaining single was certainly not an option. So, she went to San Francisco, where a doctor had a private “shelter” for unwed mothers, whose babies he delivered and then quietly placed in private, closed adoptions. This was not unheard of, nor illegal, and was probably the most humanitarian solution at that time.
     Joanne, again, was assertive enough to request that her son be placed with a college-educated family. Had she gone through an agency, she would have had no say whatever. He was to be placed with a lawyer and his wife, but after his birth, they decided they’d rather have a girl and backed out. This fact is hard for me, as a birth mother of a son, to accept—that someone would change their mind, based on the child’s sex. Nevertheless, they did, and so he was placed with Paul Jobs, a mechanic, and his wife, Clara. Joanne was able to find this out (again, amazing in 1954) and insisted they sign a pledge that they would send him to college. She also delayed signing the adoption papers as long as possible, hoping that when her father died, she and Jandali would marry and they could get their son back. Her father died after the adoption was final, and the couple did marry, in a Catholic church. Jandali got his Ph.D. the following year, and they had another child, a daughter named Mona. They divorced in 1962. Closed adoptions being what they are, she did not find her son for more than 20 years.
     The Jobses told Steve from early on that he was adopted, and they adopted a daughter, Patty, when he was two. When Jobs was about six, a neighbor girl asked if his being adopted meant his “real” parents didn’t want him. He burst into tears and ran home to ask his parents. They assured him that he was wanted, that they had picked him out, and that he was special. They did not say he was abandoned, which, indeed, he was not. His birth mother had gone to great lengths to assure him of a good home. Yet, even the author describes him as “abandoned,” and reports that Jobs’ friends were certain he was scarred from being “given up at birth.” They speculated that his relinquishment (they never use that term, always saying “given up” or “put up for adoption” or “abandoned”) led to his need to control his environment, that it made him independent, insensitive (or overly sensitive, depending upon the quote), and abrasive. Apart from attributing everything to this one aspect of his life, reality does not show any meaningful correlation between abrasive personalities and adoption. As I read this passage, I thought, “Well, my son whom I relinquished, and with whom I am reunited, does have a somewhat abrasive personality, but so do two of my other three sons, who were not adopted, so I can’t really attribute that part of him to his having been adopted.”
     When Jobs himself was 23, he did father a child, a daughter, himself and did not marry her mother. There has been much speculation and rushing to judgment about “why” he did this, including the daughter’s mother stating, as if it were a wise saying, “He who is abandoned is an abandoner.” Aside from the fact he was not “abandoned” one would assume he fathered a child for the same reason most people do: he had unprotected sex, as most young people do. He did not marry the young woman, Chrisann Brennan, because their relationship had been on again, off again, for some time, and was not really a committed relationship at that time. He said he knew a marriage between them would never succeed.
     At first he denied, to himself and to others, that he was the father—not an unusual stance for a young man, then or now. She made a decision to have the child, or at least did not make a decision not to, and he did help name her, although she was given only her mother’s last name, not his, on the birth certificate. He did not marry Chrisann Brennan, and at first, did not support the child, but after the state of California insisted he have a paternity DNA test, he paid back support and paid child support from then on.
     In her early years, he did not see her a lot, but their contact gradually increased. He bought her a $700,000 house, in her name, which her mother persuaded her to sign over to her. Then Chrisann sold the house, took the money and went to Paris with her “spiritual advisor” and stayed there until the money ran out, then returned to San Francisco and became an artist creating “light paintings and Buddhist mandalas!” In the meantime, the daughter, Lisa, had moved in with Steve, who by that time was married to Laurene Powel and had young children. She lived with them throughout high school and college vacations.
     Having been stepmother to teenagers, I have to have great admiration for Ms. Powell in her willingness to take this on and succeed. Jobs and Lisa’s relationship has certainly had many ups and downs, and while part of this had to do with her mother’s and her own resentment that he did not raise her from the beginning, many parent-child relationships have ups and downs, and offspring often are in the middle between parents who are not together, whether they were ever married or not. Jobs did pay for her schooling, helped make decisions about the best school for her, and it was a school, in fact, that strongly suggested she move in with Jobs and his wife, rather than remaining with her mother.
     When Jobs was 31, a year after his turbulent ouster from Apple, his adoptive mother dying of lung cancer, she told him what she knew of his background and how they came to be his parents. Soon after that, he searched for and found his birth mother. The author, Isaacson, uses the term “tracked down” repeatedly, another insensitive term that brings to mind predator and prey, rather a neutral term like “searched for.” He located the doctor, who told him the records had been destroyed in a fire, which was not true, but then wrote a letter, sealed it in an envelope, and wrote on it “To be delivered to Steve Jobs on my death.” By this time Jobs was well known, of course. The doctor did die a short time later, and his widow sent the letter to Jobs. It gave him the basics of his parents’ story and his birth mother’s name. Within a few weeks, he located her and learned that he had a full sister, Mona Simpson. His birth mother and sister had both taken the name of the second husband, and kept it after that marriage ended. Steve Jobs had been reluctant to tell his adoptive parents of his search, lest they be offended, but after his mother died, he told Paul Jobs, who was perfectly comfortable with Steve having contact with his birth family. How unfortunate he waited, as his adoptive mother might have welcomed contact. At any rate, he did contact his birth mother, Joanne Simpson, and met her. She was overwhelmed with emotion on meeting him, and told him how she had been pressured to sign the papers, how she had always missed him and was sorry she could not have raised him. She had never told her daughter that she had a brother, and that day she did. Mona Simpson was at that time finishing writing a novel based on her mother and her own childhood. Jobs was thrilled to find he had a sibling, a full sister, and when they met they found they were very much alike in some ways, different in others. It took Mona a while to adjust to her mother having another child to share her affections, but they did become close, although she did later write a novel based on him, A Regular Guy, which described some of his quirks very accurately. Sometimes, she reported, she felt protective of him.
     Mona had been trying to locate (again, the author says “track down”) their father, who had left when she was five. The author actually says “wandered off.” I doubt he just wandered aimlessly. Jobs was bothered that their father had not treated Mona and his mother well. The father, when found, seemed unable or unwilling to think about what might have happened to his son, not knowing Mona had already located him. It turned out that Jobs had actually met him before, in the restaurant Jandali owned, but had no idea at the time that he was his father. Later, Mona and Jobs went to the restaurant together, but he had asked Mona not to disclose the relationship. He talked about the restaurants he had previously had, including a Mediterranean restaurant north of San Jose. “That was a wonderful place. All of the successful technology people used to come there, even Steve Jobs. Oh, yeah, he used to come in, and he was a sweet guy, and a big tipper. Mona had to refrain from saying “Steve Jobs is your son!” By this time, Jobs was wealthy and said he didn’t trust that Jandali would not try to blackmail him or go to the press. He asked Mona not to tell him about Steve, and she didn’t. Years later, Jandali noticed it online, but he did not contact Steve. Mona, on the other hand, turned her search into a novel, contacted various members of Jandali’s family, both in the U.S. and in Syria, and, in 2011 was writing a novel about her Syrian roots. Neither Jandali nor Steve Jobs seemed interested, or able to contact each other. Again, not being inside either man’s head, I cannot say why they were reluctant. Steve did maintain a relationship with his birth mother and she and Mona would often spend Christmas at his house. Joanne was often tearful and still apologetic about having relinquished him. He would tell her, “Don’t worry. I had a great childhood. I turned out okay.”
     Jobs did seem to have had a good childhood with loving parents, who did not try to make him into anything different from what he was born to be. He attributed his love of detail and perfection in products, even the parts not seen, to his father’s meticulous work in restoring cars. He did at times rebel, and they strongly disapproved of his drug use and some aspects of his unusual lifestyle, but he maintained a good relationship with them and never spoke disparagingly of them.
     After Jobs married Laurene Powell (who was pregnant with their son when they married), he became more settled in some ways. They had a total of three children, plus his daughter Lisa. The author speculates on how each child adapted to Steve who “wasn’t always there for them.” Many busy fathers, well-known and not, have focused more on work than on their children. They did not cancel business trips to attend a six-year-old’s soccer games, nor always show up at 5:00 p.m. on the dot for supper and homework. In years past, this was accepted as normal behavior. Now it is routinely criticized.
     This book has much more to it, both about Jobs’ career and his various relationships. There was a great deal of overlap between business and personal relationships. There is no doubt he was mercurial, though I hardly think he should have been diagnosed as either bipolar or sociopathic, both of which have been suggested by various people. In this article, I have only focused on passages related to his adoption and to his eldest daughter, only a small part of who he was. By the end of the book, I felt I had some insight into him, that he was a very complicated person whose ideas led to many changes in our society’s culture, and who should be neither worshiped nor condemned. History can be the judge of his professional life, and we don’t need to judge his personal life. Adoption was part of his story, but by no means the only important part.

Excerpted from the April 2012 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2012 Operation Identity