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.

4 thoughts on “Naming the Unthinkable

  1. I have nothing but respect for Congressman Raskin. But in recent interviews he has said that with his son’s suicide his life was over. Over? He has two other children, he led the Trump impeachment effort, he has written this book. How can he say “my life is over”? I don’t get it.

  2. Giants still walk the Earth. Thanks, Bob, for posting this. Heard NPR interview of Rep. Raskin today. Right on time before Jan. 6 a year later. He is absolutely right about staying engaged with the issues of ‘suicide’ and ‘fascism’. In a way, they are connected – both involve self-destructiveness. When I hear of some horrific act of mass murder (usually followed by the perpetrator’s suicide) in diverse circumstances of schools, vet hospital, tattoo parlor, malls, and so forth, I think the killers are a kind of ‘mine canary’ telling us something is wrong in society. People can’t cope for pervasive reasons. Therefore, the responses must be comprehensive for the building up of beloved community.

  3. My family experience with suicide, though death occurred years ago, is nevertheless, ever present. Our relationships, lives, perceptions of the world are over. A new version of life emerges that’s true but whatever that maybe regret, regrets follow along bringing blame, judgment and pain. This is life and applies to personal and political experiences. I’ve wondered how Raskin has found the strength to go so boldly forward knowing first hand the crushing grief suicide brings upon survivors? This book helps to explain the framework and support he built and had to help him.

  4. Speaking parenthetically, Grief Has No Timeline is the title of a piece by Netherlands graphic artist Lainey Molnar, whose work often speaks to the duality of our public versus private faces, particularly with reference to the cultural perception of women’s issues.

    The vast majority of us have been and will continue to be deeply impacted by grief in all its manifold incarnations. From presidential election results, to Capitol insurrections, to global pandemics, our current times make grief an all-too frequent visitor.

    You can view Molnar’s simple yet evocative image here:

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