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Rep. Jamie Raskin searches for answers in 'Unthinkable' journey of trauma and grief

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., speaks to reporters as he leaves a House Judiciary Committee markup after passing both articles of impeachment, accusing President Donald Trump of abusing power and obstruction of Congress, Dec. 13, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Andrew Harnik
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., speaks to reporters as he leaves a House Judiciary Committee markup after passing both articles of impeachment, accusing President Donald Trump of abusing power and obstruction of Congress, Dec. 13, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In his memoir Unthinkable, hitting shelves Tuesday, Congressman Jamie Raskin, D-Md., is on a journey — moving through layers of excruciating trauma and grief.

On the last day of 2020, Raskin lost his son to suicide. A rising legal star, Thomas Bloom Raskin died at the age of 25.

"I continue to arraign and prosecute myself for every sign, every clue, I missed," writes Jamie Raskin, a former law professor who is also father to two daughters.

Raskin's book opens in the depths of loss and despair, followed days later by the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. This as the family, like the rest of the world, was already struggling against the crushing weight of the pandemic.

For his part, Raskin was helping lead arguments against GOP attempts to overturn President Joe Biden's election, as his youngest daughter, Tabitha, and a son-in-law watched from the House visitor's gallery.

As Raskin sat in the chamber, it was celebrity Alyssa Milano, a family friend, who alerted the congressman by text that rioters had breached the Capitol.

Raskin and his relatives were trapped during the attack. Raskin was ushered away from the chamber, while his daughter and son-in-law went into hiding under a desk in House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's office.

Raskin writes that "stomach-churning, violent insurrection; that desecration of American democracy" would have wrecked Tommy Raskin.

"So as a congressman and a father of a lost son and two living daughters, I would take a stand, with everything I had left, against that violent catastrophe in the memory and spirit of Tommy Raskin, a person I have, alas, not even begun to properly render in words," Jamie Raskin writes.

The siege propelled Raskin to a new mission as the lead House manager of former President Donald Trump's second impeachment and now as a member of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

In some ways, Raskin became one of Democrats' congressional first responders to the events of Jan. 6, present at several key turns in the efforts to ensure that such an attack does not happen again.

During his rendering of the Senate impeachment trial, Raskin takes readers into private conversations with Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he led his arguments.

"Jamie, I'm calling to tell you that you're a helluva lawyer but you're an even better father," Biden told Raskin in a Feb. 10 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 recounts Biden, who lost his own son Beau to brain cancer, adding.

Raskin also talked strategy with Pelosi during a last-minute scramble to potentially call witnesses, including House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.

"McCarthy?! I wouldn't trust him any more than I would trust the guy with ram's horns," Raskin recounts Pelosi having said, referring to the "QAnon Shaman" who took part in the Capitol riot.

Pelosi was not impressed with reports that McCarthy had a profanity-laced response to Trump during a heated Jan. 6 call when the latter questioned the Republican leader's loyalty.

"When McCarthy was saying, 'Who the eff do you think you're talking to?' he wasn't acting like a tough guy, like a mobster," Pelosi told Raskin. "He was basically saying, 'Mr. President, no one has been carrying your water in this election business more than me, who the eff do you think you're talking to?"

McCarthy has not publicly discussed the call or confirmed its details.

Pelosi, rather, was more interested in Washington GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler as a witness. Herrera Beutler shared details of the call publicly, which were submitted to the trial record, rather than testifying.

Ultimately, the trial ended Saturday, Feb. 13, taking less than a week's time. Trump was acquitted in a historic bipartisan vote that still fell short of the two-thirds needed for conviction.

Throughout the book, Raskin notes much of the Jan. 6 investigative work remains. This includes connecting more of the dots between Trump's role and the insurrection, along with the roles his closest allies, right-wing extremist groups, and rioters played in attempting to overturn the election's results.

The plans helped fuel a first hearing for the Jan. 6 panel showcasing front-line witness accounts from officers. The lingering questions have developed into several lines of investigative inquiries now being chased by the House select committee investigating the Jan 6 attack.

But despite the committee's aggressive work so far, grave danger remains for the country, Raskin warns in the book's epilogue.

Raskin, a longtime critic of the Electoral College system, issues a stark and dire warning for the future of U.S. democracy, which he says is in an "uncertain and perilous place" after the Jan. 6 attack.

"[T]he twice-impeached Trump should be a pariah and outlaw in mainstream American political culture, but instead he is the undisputed master of one of our two major political parties and continues to dominate many of the levers of political power in the country," Raskin writes.

In his writings about these dire concerns for democracy, Raskin weaves in and out of the grief of losing his son Tommy, who battled depression. They had hung out the night before Raskin discovered Tommy's lifeless body where he lived in the basement apartment of the family's Takoma Park, Md., home.

"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,'" Raskin writes of one of the book's darkest moments.

Among his regrets, Raskin wishes he would have noticed more signs of his son quietly withdrawing from life and asked Tommy directly if he was considering suicide.

"But we connected no dots. We were blindsided and bypassed," Raskin writes.

In the wake of the tragedy, the family has seen an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike. Several charitable efforts have been launched, including the Tommy Raskin Memorial Fund for People and Animals, which has raised $1.2 million from donors around the world.

Raskin says the family also received more than 15,000 letters, messages and emails.

"But when I contemplated actually trying to respond to each person individually, it stressed me out, and that is when I decided to write this book," Raskin said.

The journey to make sense of Tommy's death and honor his life has added a new fuel for Raskin to right the wrongs of the Jan. 6 attack.

"I have learned that trauma can steal everything from you that is most precious and rip joy right out of your life," Raskin writes. "But, paradoxically, it can also make you stronger and wiser, and connect you more deeply to other people than you ever imagined by enabling you to touch their misfortunes and integrate their losses and pain with your own."

"If a person can grow through unthinkable trauma and loss," Raskin continues, "perhaps a nation may, too."

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.