As a father and as a constitutional law scholar and legislator, author Jamie Raskin suffered pain almost beyond endurance – twice, within the span of a week.
On December 31, 2020, he walked downstairs in his home and found the body of his only son, Tommy, who had committed suicide.
Still in mourning on January 6, 2021, he was in the US Capitol Building as a member of the House of Representatives to witness the certification of the votes in the Electoral College, confirming the election of Joe Biden as president – when a mob of then-president Donald Trump supporters violently broke into the seat of American democracy, aiming to stop the certification process and bloody some lawmakers in the process.
Raskin, who represents my congressional district, tells the story of that “unthinkable” week and the resulting impeachment hearings against Trump, in this book that was assuredly painful to write and, at times, to read, as I identified with his anguish.
The author acknowledges the lasting trauma that these two events caused him. “Although Tommy’s death and the January 6 insurrection were cosmically distinct and independent events, they were thoroughly intertwined in my experience and my psyche. I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to disentangle and understand them to restore coherence to the world they ravaged.”
His son, who suffered from depression, apparently was a remarkable person, both compassionate and extremely bright. One story in the book illustrates both traits.
Being chauffeured back to college in Massachusetts by his mother, Sarah, for his sophomore year, Tommy read an article by a professor critical of animal rights, one of his passions. He emailed the author challenging him to a debate on the subject, but was told that it would only take place if Tommy published his views in a peer-reviewed journal. The youngster wrote the article, had it accepted by a journal and scheduled the online debate – all before arriving in Boston. Wow!
On January 6 – one day after burying Tommy – Raskin was at work at the Capitol to witness the certification of the election results. At 2 p.m., as House members were giving speeches, members — through text messages – became aware of the attack on the building and the mob that was walking its floors and threatening lawmakers. Members were told to put on gas masks.
Not long after, they heard the mob trying to break into the chamber. The police told the members to get back from the bolted door and drew their guns. Shortly thereafter, the legislators were evacuated through the tunnels running under the building.
Raskin describes the fear felt by the legislators. “Our downward flight into the darkened basement of the Capitol was chaos,” he notes. “We did not know where we were going. Masked and frantic, our staccato steps bouncing off the walls, we kept bumping into one another, especially with so many phones pressed to ears to call spouses, children, parents, staff.”
He was even more apprehensive because one of his daughters, Tabitha, and a son-in-law, Hank, had come to the Capitol and were in the visitor’s gallery when the insurrection began.
They had been whisked away and hidden in the office of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland). The door was bolted from the inside, furniture was pushed up against the door as a barricade and Tabitha and Hank were hiding under a desk before being rescued.
The building was cleared of the insurrectionists, and the lawmakers returned to certify the election results.
Afterward, House Democrats decided to impeach Trump for inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol (though the Senate blocked a conviction).
Speaker Nancy Pelosi “threw me a lifeline,” Raskin writes, by asking him to lead the delegation of nine managers who would be sent to the Senate to prosecute Trump.
It was a difficult assignment but “became, paradoxically, a salvation and sustenance” for him on his way out of this low point in his life, the former constitutional law professor says.
Most of the book relates in great detail the work of the managers as they made their case to the senators. Ultimately, partisan politics won out, and although the Senate voted 57-43 in favor of conviction, the vote fell well short of the 2/3 (67 votes) needed to ratify a conviction.
If you are an aficionado of American constitutional law, you will be thrilled by Raskin’s descriptions of the oral arguments he and his managers made. Otherwise, you may think that the author sometimes got himself entangled in those oh-so-common literary weeds.
Sure, he was unable to get Trump convicted. His book is a little “weedy.”
But writing Unthinkable must have been therapeutic, and, somehow, for whatever reason, he seems to have been able to survive the death of his beloved son and carry on with his life.
For overcoming what is the most horrendous tragedy in the human experience – outliving your child – he deserves our admiration and respect.
The writer’s memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s (Chickadee Prince Books), can be purchased online.
UnthinkableBy Jamie RaskinHarper423 pages; $27.99