When Mika Brzezinski decided to write a memoir last year, she consulted her husband, her children, her friends, and her colleagues at MSNBC’s Morning Joe for advice. What she didn’t do—until the absolute last moment—was tell her parents, Emilie Benes, a sculptor, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s former national security adviser and a person who might reasonably want a heads-up before any family secrets tumble into public view.
“I didn’t tell my family about this because then I would have had four more editors,” she says (the four includes her two brothers, both accomplished intellectuals). “The first they heard of it was this summer, when we had the galleys.”
“Don’t let the most important choice you might make in life—and that’s a partner and the possibility of having children—pass you by because you’re busy trying to climb the ladder. Because those people will drop you like a rock.”
In truth, the family didn’t so much “hear” about the project as “discover” it. Mika sent her children off to visit their grandparents with a copy of her book, All Things at Once, an unflinching look at her life as a working mother and the daughter of Washington royalty, tucked into their luggage.
• Mark McKinnon: Scarborough for President Initially, when her mother came across the galley, she was not pleased, Mika says. She tore through the book, crossing out large portions and writing furious comments in the margins: “LIES!” “Not true!”
“There was much drama in the Brzezinski household about where the truth really lies,” Mika says. “There were large family conversations: ‘Was the deer in the bathtub?’ ‘On the counter?’ ‘No, the deer was on the floor.’ Finally she wrote me a note saying, ‘I guess it’s OK. And I’m touched that you dedicated it to me.’”
The deer in question is one Mika’s mother found dead, but still warm, on the side of the road one morning when the family was living in Virginia and Zbigniew was working in the White House. Being resourceful—and defiantly nonconformist—Mika’s mother began butchering the dead deer where it lay, eventually hauling half the carcass home to serve that evening at a dinner party attended by a number of prominent guests, including a relative of Winston Churchill’s. Another time, a friend of young Mika’s discovered a different half-butchered animal in the bathtub. (Or was it on the floor?)
Brzezinski recounts that story and others—including the time she spilled caviar on Deng Xiaoping’s lap then compounded the error by trying to brush it off with her hands—in the book, depicting an idyllic, if eccentric, childhood.
It is when she reaches adulthood, simultaneously building a career and family of her own, that things get complicated.
At the center of All Things at Once is an argument about the fraught nature of modern womanhood. In broad strokes, she suggests that contemporary ideas of what it means to be a successful career gal—job first, family after—are leading a lot of young women astray. Brzezinski contends that if a woman wants a family, as Brzezinski did, she should start as early as she can, preferably in her 20s.
“One of my prevailing messages for girls who want to be in any really highly competitive business is, if you intend to have a family, then don’t forget to have kids,” she says. “Don’t let the most important choice you might make in life—and that’s a partner and the possibility of having children—pass you by because you’re busy trying to climb the ladder. Because those people will drop you like a rock.”
Brzezinski describes how she got started in television news, working for tiny stations in backwaters along the Eastern seaboard before finally getting her big break at a small Fox station in Hartford, Connecticut. It was there she met James Hoffer, the star investigative reporter and her future husband. We follow their subsequent ups and downs, her ascent at CBS—up to the moment the network dropped her like a rock. She did a short stint as a stay-at-home mom, followed by her return to the early-morning airwaves as Joe Scarborough’s relentlessly upbeat moderate counterpart on MSNBC.
Coming as it does in the wake of a barbed national discussion of who, exactly, is a model modern woman (Sarah Palin? Hillary Clinton? Michelle Obama?), All Things at Once is bound for controversy. Even if she weren’t the daughter of a Carter administration official, Brzezinski’s feelings on the difficulty of balancing career and family would stir up strong emotions.
“I’ve spent a long time in the business, and I know the costs of putting it all out there,” she says. “I know this is risky and raw. I know what it is."
The anchor gets emotional talking about the degree of vitriol aimed not just at her but also at her family—coming from both the right and the left, from people who call her a horrible mother for sacrificing time with her children to pursue her career, and from people who call her a horrible feminist for talking about the need for women to make career sacrifices if they want a family.
“I really looked at the challenges and failures I faced in my career as great lessons,” she says. “In this book, I tried very hard to take responsibility for all of them. Instead of looking at how I might be a victim of the struggle to be a working mother, what I really try to do is look at how I could’ve done better, and how I can still transcend some of those challenges.”
Friends told her not to write the book, saying she’d be opening herself up to too much criticism. She wrote it anyway.
Brzezinski has always seemed uncomfortable with the safe road. Cast as the nodding, maternal sidekick on Morning Joe, she often plays against type, refusing to be another standard, blond TV talking head—objecting to fluffier stories about Paris Hilton and Tiger Woods; taking bold stands on lightning rods like Sarah Palin; and, instead of remaining headstrong, allowing her positions to shift.
She is still reliably cheery, still the little girl she describes moderating family discussions at the lively Brzezinski family dinner table—but she has a thick skin, built up over years of trying to do it all.
Television news is a rough business, particularly on women, particularly as they age. Brzezinski, at 42, with the family and job she always wanted, says she’s digging in for as long as she can.
“I try my best to keep up,” she says, “and it’s, I will say, challenging and sometimes kind of depressing. At times, it’s kind of heartbreaking. But I’ve been given the opportunity to try and transcend it. That’s really all you can do.”
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.