The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Rep. Raskin, personal grief and national trauma collided

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) speaks at a vigil marking the one year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection. In his book, "Unthinkable," Raskin addresses the trauma over Jan. 6 and his loss of his son, Tommy, a week before the storming of the Capitol. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
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If you want to avoid discussions of suicide and its legacy for those left behind, this may not be a book for you.

If, however, you have known a lonely grief and yearned to find renewed meaning in life, Jamie Raskin’s book may be the hope you’ve been waiting for.

Raskin’s book is titled “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy.”

The front cover is a photograph of rioters scaling the front wall of the U.S. Capitol. In the photo on the back cover, Rep. Raskin (D-Md.) is somberly leading the House impeachment team through the Rotunda, on their way to the Senate floor.

But open the book to the section of photos in the middle. On the first seven pages, in 23 of the 24 photos, we see Tommy, beloved son of Jamie and Sarah Bloom Raskin. Tommy as a newborn. Tommy as a cherished brother, grandson, cousin. Tommy as a 10-year-old public speaker, introducing his candidate father. Tommy as a college graduate, beaming.

On Dec. 31, 2020, at age 25, Tommy ended his life. His father found him.

The day after the Raskin family buried Tommy, a violent mob stormed the Capitol.

This book is Raskin’s way of responding to the outpouring of condolences for his family and the echoing fears for our country.

“It would be my own attempt at a personal answer, a labor of love and a way to respond to all those people who told me, in such fine-grained detail, about the love and the crises in their own families, about their grievous personal losses and their incremental triumphs, and about the desperate fears they have for our nation’s future and the most cherished hopes they have for what America may still become in a world of so many frightful dangers.”

In writing about his son, Raskin speaks for so many of us who have lost a loved one to suicide: We don’t want them to be remembered only for the way they died.

“I am a figure of unthinkable and unspeakable tragedy, someone subsumed by the grim darkness of his days,” Raskin writes in describing his first day back on the House floor after Tommy’s death. “I ardently wish that the people who are staring at me, all my colleagues, could have met Tommy, could have known him, could have seen that he was the most positive, exuberant, and dynamic life force one could imagine, truly the funniest person you might ever hope to meet.”

This is not to ignore one of the hardest parts of suicide. We are haunted by our loved one’s death because there is no forgetting how they died. I would never compare my loss to that of a parent who has lost a child. More than two years after my brother’s suicide, though, I hear his name or see a childhood picture of him, and that slammed door swings open to an image of how he died.

Raskin knows the depths of that despair, but he also offers a way out.

Throughout this book, he pivots to reflections about his son, often in unexpected moments. This is how grief works, sneaking up on us when we don’t expect it. Raskin welcomes the intrusion.

During his sound check at the microphone on the Senate floor before the impeachment trial, for example, he suddenly remembered Tommy reciting his poem, “Where War Begins.”

“I missed my dear boy,” writes Raskin. “I missed my son.”

He thought of Tommy in the midst of the Jan. 6 attack: “I feel no fear. I have felt no fear today at all, for we have lost our Tommy Raskin, and the very worst thing that ever could have happened to us has already happened. But I am still in the land of the living, and Tommy is with me somehow every step of the way. He is occupying my heart and filling my chest with oxygen. He is showing me the way to some kind of safety.”

He reflects on the signs of treachery he missed in Donald Trump, and again Tommy comes to mind. “Just as I will condemn myself for missing multiple glaring clues that Tommy was on the path to taking his own life, I will condemn myself for missing multiple glaring clues that Trump and his forces were on a path to overthrow the 2020 election and would come dangerously close to doing so.”

There’s that guilt that can cripple a survivor’s soul. What didn’t we see? How did we not know? What could we have done differently to save this person’s life?

Raskin knows there are no answers to these questions we will ask for the rest of our lives. He wishes that, in the days before Tommy’s death, he had asked his son if he was having thoughts of suicide.

“Words gain strange and mystical powers when they are not spoken at the times when they should be spoken. . . . I don’t know, and will never know, whether this change in conversation might have altered the trajectory of things for Tommy, but I at least feel convinced that this hard-earned knowledge may be of some practical use to other families struggling in a similar situation. As uncomfortable and intrusive as it may seem, it is essential to use the word suicide . . . to demystify and deflate it, to strip it of its phony pretense to omnipotence and supernatural force.”

I would be remiss in not adding that this book is a fascinating, play-by-play account of the strategy for Trump’s second impeachment trial, including the behind-the-scenes workings, of which Raskin has deep knowledge as the trial’s lead prosecutor. As the wife of a U.S. senator, I had a special appreciation for Raskin’s description of the somber pretrial discussions:

“Our Zoom meetings now bore no resemblance to most Hill meetings, which involve a lot of posing, preening, and showing off. All that status-seeking behavior was gone.” He probably did not intend that to be funny, but I still smiled.

The overarching lesson of this book is an optimistic one, particularly for anyone who loves a child, of any age. As I read Raskin’s many passages about his complicated, beautiful boy, and Tommy’s enduring influence on him, I found myself reflecting on my relationship with my own beloved children, now grown.

How much do we notice about the interior lives of our kids? How well do we know them? When they are young, we often worry about our long-term impact on them. How often do we even see their impact on us, let alone acknowledge it?

Raskin has taken full measure of his son and his relationship with him. He continues to discover how Tommy’s life has changed his and is willing to share this with all of us. He is extending an invitation for anyone who loves a child to do the same.

Connie Schultz is a columnist for USA Today and the author, most recently, of the novel “The Daughters of Erietown.”

Unthinkable

Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy

By Jamie Raskin

Harper. 428 pp. $27.99

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