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"Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab

On December 31st, 2020, U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin found the body of his only son, Tommy, in his bed. The 25-year-old Harvard law student had committed suicide after a prolonged battle with depression.

Near Tommy, there was a parting note: “Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.” The shocked father mournfully writes, “Rocking back and forth sobbing, all I could say was ‘My boy, my dear Tommy. My boy, my dear boy. I have lost my boy. My life is over.’”

Thomas Bloom Raskin had a singularly close relationship with his father and his life had made a wide-ranging impact on family, friends, and community. He was the child who, when he was only 8-years-old, asked his dad to peacefully protest against the war in Vietnam; the kind of person who would go out during a snowstorm to donate blood. He was an animal rights proponent, a vegan, and an activist for the marginalized. He had used his legal skills to advocate for the poor and those who could not speak for themselves.

The Raskins buried their son on January 5th, 2021. The next day the Maryland Representative was scheduled to make a speech in the House. But instead, an armed mob violently invaded the Capitol on that day and Raskin was whisked off to shelter in a congressional hearing room. Tommy’s 23-year-old sister, Tabitha, and her husband who were in the chamber to support the bereaved father, were ushered into the House Majority Leader’s Steny Hoyer’s office where they hid under a desk. Raskin writes that this “stomach-churning, violent insurrection; that desecration of American democracy” would have shattered Tommy Raskin. Within seven days Raskin had faced two unthinkable traumas, the death of his son and an attempt to overthrow the government.

Then, six days after the siege, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Raskin to lead the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump. He immediately answered yes. In a media interview, Raskin said “I had no choice. I felt it necessary, and Tommy was with me every step along the way.”

Raskin deftly knits together his personal account of these two unthinkable events. He interweaves his grief for his son with his concern for the nation in the proceedings of the Senate impeachment trial. Raskin recounts never-before-told stories about how close the U.S. came to losing its democratic form of government. He shares some private conversations he had with President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he was preparing his arguments.

“Jamie, I'm calling to tell you that you're a helluva lawyer but you're an even better father,” President Biden told Raskin in a February 10th phone call as the congressman headed to the Capitol for the trial’s second day of arguments. “I'm incredibly proud of you. I saw you up there and I saw myself in it and I'm so proud of you.” Raskin recalls that heartfelt phone call and adds that those words meant a lot to him because they came from the President who was grieving the loss of his own son, Beau, to brain cancer.

The trial took less than a week and ended on February 13. Former President Trump was acquitted in a bipartisan vote that fell short of the two-thirds needed for conviction. In reflecting on the trial’s outcome, Raskin notes much investigative work remains to uncover the connection between the former president and the insurrection along with the roles right-wing extremist groups and rioters played in attempting to overturn the election results.

The most powerful part of Raskin's book is his love letter to Tommy, a “dazzling, precious, brilliant... moral visionary, a slam poet, an intellectual giant slayer, the king of Boggle, a natural-born comedian, a friend of all human beings but tyrants and bullies, a freedom fighter, a political essayist, a playwright, a jazz pianist and a handsome, radical visitor from a distant future where war, mass hunger and the eating of animals are considered barbaric, intolerable and absurd.”

This memoir is sad, even heart-breaking, but it is beautifully written and has a redemptive quality about it. The first-hand account of the impeachment trial is historically important, intellectually and emotionally. Rarely does an author have the insider view, the station, and the talent to tell a story like this. Raskin leaves the reader with this hope: “If a person can grow through unthinkable trauma and loss, perhaps a nation may, too.”

About the author: Congressman Jamie Raskin represents Maryland’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before coming to Congress he served as a state senator and a professor of constitutional law at American University’s Washington College of Law for more than 25 years.

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