Low points of life with Father

This has been an extraordinary autumn for books about the havoc bad fathers wreak on their children. It is hard to know which father comes out worst: Jonathan Miller or Steve Jobs

David Herman

William Miller and Lisa Brennan-Jobs: Survivors of “Planet-Do-I-Give-A-Shit” (William Miller photo
©the publisher. Lisa Brennan-Jobs photo ©BRIGITTE LACOMBE)

This has been an extraordinary autumn for books about the havoc bad fathers wreak on their children. It is hard to know which father comes out worst: Saul Bellow in Zachary Leader’s excellent biography, Jonathan Miller in William Miller’s dark book about his childhood, or Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, in his daughter’s memoir, Small Fry.

What is perhaps most interesting is how many ways men find to be bad fathers — critical, neglectful, in some cases, just plain mean. “When with his sons,” writes Leader, “he [Bellow] did not hide his anger or irritation.” When one of his sons phoned to congratulate him on winning the Nobel Prize, Bellow simply said, “Now you know why I was after you to be quiet 30 years ago.” The backlash was inevitable. Already, when he was 16, Bellow’s eldest son, Gregory, wrote his father a “scathing letter” accusing him of not keeping up with his alimony payments. Fifty years later, in his memoir, Gregory wrote how his father’s reply was typical, “subscribing to his self-justification that his career as an artist enabled him to let people down with impunity”. Another son, Daniel, wrote to his father, “I’ve been a better son to you than you deserve.” Leader tries not to take sides but by the end the stage is like King Lear, with corpses everywhere.

Jonathan Miller comes across as a very different kind of father. Like Bellow he is very talented: a brilliant comedy performer, television presenter and raconteur, one of the most acclaimed theatre, opera and television directors of his time, and a fascinating intellectual, fluent on subjects from the madness of George III to early 20th-century neurology.

Yet the picture that emerges in his son’s memoir, Gloucester Crescent: Me, My Dad and Other Grown-Ups, is desperately sad. Early on William, Jonathan’s middle son, writes, “Much of the time he’s far too busy with work and his big ideas to think about family life and leaves Mum to deal with all that.” Lots of the famous fathers on the Camden Town street are like this, William writes. An American friend of his parents says, “The dads live on Planet-Do-I-Give-A-Shit.” They engage in what William calls “competitive typing”, sitting at desks looking out over the gardens of Gloucester Crescent, as the plays, books and reviews pour forth. Others are slow, hesitant. “Mum says these are the ‘tortured ones’, which I was a bit worried about because I think Dad might be one of those.”

William soon learns that his father is tormented by insecurity and depression. “I’ve heard him tell Mum that, whenever he can’t think of anything to write and hates the work he’s doing, he says the best way out of it would be to kill himself.” He describes his father’s attempt to write a book on Marshall McLuhan: “He would come down to the kitchen and read what he’d written to Mum, then walk off screwing the bits of paper up and throwing them on the floor, saying, ‘It’s all hopeless’.”

There’s another side to these dark moods: Miller the performer who needs to be at the centre of everyone’s attention. “What he really wants,” writes William, “is a family who, if they can’t talk about something intelligent, sit in silence and let him do the talking so he can lecture about Charles Darwin.” The best story in the book describes a visit by Miller’s schoolfriend, Oliver Sacks, who, like Miller, had a stammer. “If Oliver is trying to make a point and gets stuck on a word, Dad goes straight in there and talks over him with his own theory. I once saw Oliver get so frustrated with this sort of situation that he twisted one of Mum’s silver spoons under the table as he stuttered until it looked like a corkscrew.”

His famous father is often critical. William doesn’t read enough and when he does find a book he likes, his father tells him he should be reading something better. He tries hard to please his father, taking science A Levels when he has no aptitude for science at all. It doesn’t end well. Even now, in his fifties, he knows his book won’t be good enough for his father. He recently told an interviewer that he thought his father would never read it. I feel sure he’s right.

One feels some sympathy for Jonathan Miller. It is hard to feel any for Steve Jobs in his daughter’s memoir, Small Fry. He and her mother were high school sweethearts. She became pregnant and had the child. “My father,” writes Lisa Brennan-Jobs, “didn’t visit or help with child support.” This was early on in his  career. More extraordinary are the stories of his meanness when he becomes the CEO of Apple. There are jaw-dropping moments when, having fallen out with his daughter, he won’t help out with her payments at Harvard and she is rescued by their next-door neighbours.

Much worse than the stinginess are the stories of his casual cruelty, humiliating waitresses, his daughter’s friends and worst of all, Lisa herself. “‘What’s wrong with you?’” he asks Lisa’s cousin. “What was wrong with her? Why did she miss social cues? ‘You can’t even talk,’ he said. ‘You can’t even eat. You’re eating shit.’” Who demolishes a young person like this?

Lisa asks if his early computer was named after her. He must have known how much this would mean to a young schoolgirl. “‘Nope.’ His voice was clipped, dismissive.” Nothing she does at school is good enough. When she wins a prize at the school debating club he says, “Better to debate in real life. The club’s kind of lame.’”

The stories these children tell are desperately sad. It is hard to imagine how they emerged from their fathers’ shadows.

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