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Rep. Jamie Raskin on growing through trauma in year since Jan. 6 and his son's death


It is hard to wrap your head around just how difficult a year Jamie Raskin has just lived through. Raskin is a Democratic congressman from Maryland. He's also a husband and a dad. And to understand how those two facts thread together, you need to know this - that one year ago today, Raskin buried his only son, Tommy Raskin, who had just died by suicide. The very next day, January 6, Jamie Raskin was at the U.S. Capitol as it was attacked and ransacked by a mob of Trump supporters. Well, instead if retreating into his grief, he decided to channel it, to lead the impeachment effort against President Trump for inciting the violence. And then when that effort was behind him, he sat down and wrote about it all in a new book titled "Unthinkable," which includes the line, quote, "if a person can grow through unthinkable trauma and loss, perhaps a nation may too." Congressman Raskin, welcome, and may I say, I am sorry for your loss.

JAMIE RASKIN: Thank you for that, Mary Louise, and thank you for having me on your show.

KELLY: Tommy left you a note, left it behind. He wrote it in his final hours, which you say gave you the roadmap for the rest of your life. Would you share what it said?

RASKIN: Tommy said to us, please forgive me. My illness won today. Look after each other, the animals and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy. And it's the first thing that Sarah and I read every morning when we wake up.

KELLY: Sarah, your wife, his mom, yeah.

RASKIN: It's the last thing we see when we go to bed. And every day, I find new things in that note. And Tommy left us a huge number of beautiful essays and poems and plays and speeches. But that note is just pregnant with meaning, and it is indeed the roadmap for the rest of my life.

KELLY: And connect for me how it was in your head this year. And I guess I'm thinking specifically about your decision to take on the job of impeachment manager, this grueling high-profile job, so soon after you lost him, when you were and your family were still in such raw grief.

RASKIN: Well, look after each other means we have to take care of the people in our immediate, intimate circles, but it means we have to take care of everybody, and we have to take care of the democracy that makes it possible for us to be in a society that looks out for the mutual benefit and good of everyone.

KELLY: But let me press you on this decision, though, because what you're saying is a beautiful sentiment, but I gather your own family and your friends questioned whether this was a great idea, to take on this job in the middle of everything that your family had going on. You wrote that when it was offered to you, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered it to you, it felt like a lifeline. Why?

RASKIN: Well, I was drowning in grief and in agony. I mean, I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping. I didn't get much sleep last year, and that's one of the things that made it possible for me to write this book because I basically wrote it in the midnight hours. But I wasn't sure that I would ever be able to do anything ever again. I mean, on December 31, 2020, the day that we lost Tommy, the police were here, and my chief of staff, Julie Tagen, was here. And Julie reported to me because I have only glimmerings of memory of it. But she said I was basically catatonic, and I was seated in a chair and I was just rocking back and forth saying, I've lost my son, I've lost my beautiful son, my life is over.

KELLY: Yeah, I'm so sorry.

RASKIN: So, you know, a lot of my colleagues were saying, well, Jamie is throwing himself in this as a way to avoid the grief and so on. But I have to say that was not my self-consciousness at the time. I was really thinking Tommy was in my heart. He was in my chest. I felt him with me, and this was something I needed to do for him, for our family, for my constituents, for our country. And I feel good about that. I mean, Tommy hated probably one thing in his life, and that was fascism, that was people exercising violent power and control over other people to inflict pain and suffering on them. And I think Tommy would have been horrified and crushed had he been here a week after we lost him to see what happened on January 6. I mean, it was my best understanding of what Tommy would have had me do.

KELLY: Congressman, I got to say, I don't flinch at asking anybody difficult questions, but there is a part of me that feels awful asking you to relive any of this. I do so because you clearly want to talk, and I want to understand why. What is it you feel Americans need to understand about what happened in this country this last year, what the stakes are?

RASKIN: Well, on the personal side, people should not shy away from talking about suicide. We might think that somehow we're pulling the wool over their eyes or we're doing the right thing in not conjuring up this nightmare scenario. But in fact, it's the reverse. We invest the idea of suicide with a lot more power and some aura of mystery if we don't talk about it. And so it's not a bad word. It's just a really bad idea. And so I think we need to use that word. I also think that we need to use the word fascism. That's a word we don't like to use. And I think we need to use the word coup, too, because I think both of those figured significantly in the events of January the 6.

KELLY: And to ask again the question I put to you a moment ago, the stakes as you see them of what we have all lived through this last year, of where our democracy stands.

RASKIN: Well, the stakes are democracy itself. We have one of America's two major modern political parties that has wrapped itself around the dangerous fascistic and narcissistic delusions of one guy. That's a really scary thing. The Republican Party has positioned itself outside the constitutional order. They attack the outcomes and the results of our elections and refuse to accept them. That is the most basic precept of democracy. And I know in this environment that inevitably sounds partisan. I wish it did not. I wish the Democratic Party was not the only democracy party in America.

KELLY: So if the goal is that whatever one's politics, whatever one's party, we should all be pro-democracy as Americans, I want to circle back to that line I quoted from the beginning of your book - if a person can grow through unthinkable trauma and loss, perhaps a nation may too. You pose it as a question. What is the answer?

RASKIN: Well, it's up to us. I've thought a lot about trauma. It can strip from you everything that is most precious and important and beloved to you. But it also paradoxically makes you grow in wisdom, and it connects you to other people's pain and other people's misfortunes in a far more profound way than you ever were capable of before. I think that we can get through it if those of us who understand the derangement we've suffered build on the healthiness of our society. And that means looking to the past to our great heroes in the past. And we also look to future generations in what we owe to them. We owe them the kind of America that lives in our hearts. So that's our solemn obligation. And I'm going to be trying to observe January 6 by fighting for future generations and an America that's worthy of what prior generations have fought for.

KELLY: Congressman Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, his memoir is titled "Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, And The Trials Of American Democracy." Congressman, thank you.

RASKIN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 4, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous headline and introduction to this interview misspelled Rep. Jamie Raskin's first name as Jaime.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.