It has been a year since the insurrection at the Capitol in January of 2021. There are several retrospectives airing this week on that infamous day. What was initially hard to watch has become numbingly familiar and the sound bites and video clips tend to lose their power. But this week, Maryland’s Congressman Jamie Raskin released a book called Unthinkable and was featured on multiple talk shows. His commentary was riveting, cutting through the clutter of repeated video recordings from the events of the first week of January one year ago.
But the title of his book, Unthinkable, implies so much more than a recounting of events at the nation’s capital on that fateful day. Tragically, Raskin’s son Tommy had committed suicide just days earlier. His family buried him on January 5, one day before swarms of Donald Trump’s supporters overran and brutalized Capitol police, invaded the halls of Congress and desecrated the Capitol building with all manner of offensive acts from parading through the corridors with a confederate flag to smearing feces on its walls.
Unthinkable follows the Congressman on the final days of his son’s life. The evening before Tommy Raskin’s suicide, the two had dinner together, watched some TV and then Tommy went off to bed. When his father went in to wake him up the next morning, he found him dead, a brief note in his hand. “Please forgive me. My illness won today. Look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy”
According to news accounts, Raskin’s book (transparency dictates that I tell you I have not yet read it) draws on the intersection of this deeply personal pain against a backdrop of national trauma. This is a principal theme in my own book, Beyond the Comma where I posit that we become fuller human beings as we connect life-changing moments in our personal lives (I call them “comma moments”) with broader, shared events in our communities. The profound intersection in Congressman Raskin’s life makes the incidents and anecdotes in my own story pale, almost to the point of invisibility. Yet, the very poignancy of Raskin’s narrative is, I imagine, why I am so struck by his experience.
The Congressman’s way of dealing with his grief was to throw himself back into the fray and take on a leadership role in Congress, especially around those issues that he believed constituted a moral imperative. As he told Vogue’s Nathan Heller, “Trauma can put you in touch with other people’s difficulties and pain and longing in a way that you were never able to be before.” He became a key player in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump and he currently sits on the House Select Committee to investigate the January 6th insurrection hoping to ensure that such an event would never occur again.
But perhaps Raskin’s most lasting contribution is the imperative to “name” the dangers that confront us, both as individuals and as a society. He says, “But mental illness is a real thing, and just because it’s invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there.” And in his media interviews he spoke repeatedly about the need to use the word “suicide” when confronted by a loved one who you suspect is in danger. He likens the silence about suicide to not talking to your teenage child about sex, or like failing to discuss Fascism when our democracy is imperiled. Rather, by “naming” the unthinkable, we remove some of its power and begin to open a dialogue about words and ideas that have become taboo in our culture.
The events of Jamie Raskin’s life in the opening days of 2021 were tragic, but his honesty and courage not to remain silent are an inspiration—a lesson from which, if we are attentive, we can all learn and apply in our own lives as well.