When Jamie Raskin revisits those shattered days of January, what surfaces in his memory are the sounds. Among them: a hideous pounding, the hammering of an enraged mob trying to violently force its way onto the floor of the House of Representatives, bashing some unseen, heavy thing against the central doors leading to the chamber, again and again. “I will never forget it,” says the Democratic congressman, who has represented Maryland’s 8th District since 2017.
Then came a chorus of screams as the House floor devolved into pandemonium on the afternoon of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Some people raced to shove furniture against the shuddering doors; others began making phone calls to loved ones, saying what they thought could be final goodbyes. Raskin remembers someone yelling instructions to retrieve the gas masks — he hadn’t even known there were gas masks beneath the chairs — and someone else calling for members of Congress to remove the lapel pins they wear to identify themselves. Several Democrats were shouting furiously at their Republican counterparts: You did this! You let this happen! He glanced up at the gallery and saw Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., succumb to a panic attack as Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., tried to tend to her.
It was chaos, but Raskin watched it unfold with a strange sense of remove, a clarity of focus; he did not feel the visceral fear that gripped so many others around him. He would come to make sense of this later: What was there to be afraid of when the worst thing imaginable had already happened to him?
The day before, on an overcast winter morning, Raskin had stood surrounded by his family at a cemetery in Montgomery County, Md., and watched as the casket cradling his 25-year-old son, Thomas Bloom Raskin, was lowered into the ground. Tommy, as he was known to all who loved him, a student at Harvard Law School, had died by suicide on the morning of New Year’s Eve. “Al mekomo yavo veshalom,” Rabbi Jonathan Roos said to the family gathered there – May he go in peace – and then they took turns shoveling dirt into the grave. The hollow thud of frozen earth striking wood was followed by the wails of Raskin’s wife and two daughters, and these, too, were sounds he would not forget.
That night, it had been decided that Raskin’s younger daughter, Tabitha Raskin, and his son-in-law, Hank Kronick – who is married to Raskin’s daughter Hannah – would meet the congressman on Capitol Hill the following day for the certification of the electoral college votes, while Hannah and her mother, Sarah Bloom Raskin, would stay home with family. “I thought Tabitha didn’t want me to leave her alone,” Raskin says, “but it turned out she didn’t want me to be alone.” Amid the frenzied evacuation from the House floor, Raskin urgently texted Tabitha and Hank; they were barricaded in the office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., along with Raskin’s chief of staff, Julie Tagen. They spent a harrowing 45 minutes sheltering there, crouched under a desk, fearing for their lives as insurrectionists stomped down the hallway and jiggled the knob of the locked door as they passed.
The vivid details of that day are seared into Raskin’s memory and chronicled in his forthcoming book, “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy,” which will be published Jan. 4, just before the first anniversary of the insurrection. In the aftermath of such wreckage, both personal and historic, it felt essential to Raskin to make a record of everything. By the time Tabitha and Hank left the Hill to go home on the night of Jan. 6, Raskin had already spoken the word “impeachment” to his House Judiciary Committee colleagues David Cicilline, D-R.I.; Ted Lieu, D-Calif.; and Joe Neguse, D-Colo. He returned to the House floor after midnight and delivered the concluding remarks for the Democrats, in response to the Republican objections to the electors from Pennsylvania, and then the counting was over at last, the election formally certified. It was past 4 a.m. on Jan. 7 when Raskin finally arrived home in Takoma Park, Md., bearing the weight of a wounded family and a wounded country.
In the weeks that followed, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tapped him to lead the impeachment of President Donald Trump, Raskin found himself catapulted into the national spotlight. Both before and during the trial, his widely circulated remarks and arguments blended a scrupulous interpretation of constitutional law with the emotion of the insurrection’s human toll. He spoke of his family’s experience, how the assault on the Capitol came the day after burying Tommy, “the saddest day of our lives.” Colleagues and friends and media interviewers asked him repeatedly about the convergence of his son’s death and the impeachment proceedings, how he was handling both these monumental experiences simultaneously.
“I think a lot of colleagues were saying, ‘Jamie is dealing with his grief by throwing himself into the impeachment and the trial,’ which didn’t quite capture it for me,” Raskin tells me. “Tommy was a passionately political and moral person, and fascism is probably the one thing he hated in his life. I knew he would want me to fight for our family and our country, and so I felt that he was with me, in my chest, in my heart. I felt it physically, and I felt it ethically.”
He is still trying to make sense of the intersection of these disparate tragedies – how, at the end of one awful year and the beginning of another, he suddenly found himself reeling from back-to-back calamities, each the outcome of something long-simmering beneath the surface. “The truth is that I see those two terrible, traumatic events as very intertwined in my life,” Raskin says. “In a cosmic sense, they were logically independent of each other. But in my life, they are inextricably bound.”
“Please forgive me,” Tommy had written in his final hours. “My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.”
“My road map for the rest of my life,” Raskin has said of his son’s farewell message. For those who didn’t know Tommy, who weren’t acquainted with the full reach of his empathy, his unwavering focus on justice and morality, it might be difficult to understand how Jamie Raskin sees it: The work of defending a vulnerable democracy is not a distraction from the staggering depths of his grief, but rather a channeling, a place to direct all the love for his child who is no longer here to receive it.
– – –
There are many highly visible families who turn abruptly inward after loss, retreating from the public gaze, issuing only brief statements to request privacy as they mourn. The Raskins made a different choice. The day before their son’s burial, they published a lengthy and soulful statement about his life, a vivid portrait of Tommy and what he ultimately endured. They disclosed his struggle with depression, and the manner of his death, and included the entirety of his farewell note. That degree of openness did not necessarily come naturally to all of them, “but Jamie is the most hardwired for it,” says Sarah Bloom Raskin, former deputy secretary of the Treasury under President Barack Obama and a professor at Duke University School of Law. “He completely gathers strength from other people. He trusts people’s ability to love and care. He attributes to humanity the best of intentions.” And so it was decided that they would share with the world exactly who and what had been lost.
Tommy was born in January 1995, two and a half years after his older sister, Hannah, and two years before his little sister, Tabitha. An effervescent boy with his mother’s clear blue eyes and his father’s mop of wild curls, he and his sisters grew up in the Takoma Park home just outside D.C. where the Raskins have lived for over 30 years, on a sloping street beneath a canopy of trees.
Jamie Raskin – the son of Barbara Raskin, a novelist and journalist, and Marcus Raskin, an author, philosopher and co-founder of one of Washington’s most prominent left-leaning think tanks, the Institute for Policy Studies – was a constitutional law professor at American University when his children were young, with no inkling that he might one day run for public office. That changed in 2005, when he learned that his Democratic state senator, 30-year incumbent Ida Ruben, was pushing to expand the death penalty in Maryland and impeding marriage equality. When Raskin stood on his front porch in January 2006 to kick off his state Senate campaign to represent Maryland’s 20th District, 10-year-old Tommy was the one to introduce his father to the modest crowd gathered in the front yard.
“He was a natural at politics. But that was a small part of him,” Raskin says. “He had a very philosophical soul. I mean, from a very young age he would say, ‘Let’s have a debate about free will and determinism.’ Or, ‘Let’s have a discussion about the mind-body problem.’ ” Tommy was the kind of kid who might disappear to his room for an hour because he “needed to think,” but he was never a loner: His friends and family describe a magnetic presence and raucous sense of humor, the reigning champion of family stand-up comedy competitions and a devout Boggle enthusiast, a prolific writer of elaborate, illustrated stories as a young child who later produced innumerable essays, legal briefs, poems and plays as a young man.
Tommy’s parents each saw something of their own fathers in their son. Tommy and his maternal grandfather, Herbert Bloom, bonded over their passion for the written word, while Marcus Raskin shared an irreverent libertarian streak with his grandson, Jamie Raskin says. He is fond of telling about the time he walked Tommy to elementary school and they spotted another little boy who had been suspended for a week and was finally making his return. “I said, ‘Tommy, look, they let him out of jail!’ ” Raskin says, “and Tommy said, ‘You mean they let him back into jail.’ “
At that same young age, Tommy imagined that he might one day like to become governor of Maryland, but by the time he was 12, Raskin says, those political aspirations had been abandoned. “The more he learned about electoral and legislative politics, the more he realized that was not for him,” Raskin says. “At one point he just said to me, ‘I don’t think I could do what you do.’ And I said, ‘You mean, be a law professor?’ And he said, ‘No, I can do something like that. But I don’t think I could be in politics because I don’t think I could handle being around people who I have just fundamental value disagreements with.’ “
Raskin shakes his head slightly when he remembers this. “I felt like such a politician when he said that, like somebody who puts up with so much nonsense and hypocrisy. And you do, in politics. You have to,” he says. “You spend a lot of time being delicate about people who maybe are liars, or warmongers, or pro-insurrectionists.” In those early conversations about politics, Raskin recalls, he used to tell Tommy that there are two kinds of politicians: justice politicians and power politicians. “And I think Tommy made a decision as a kid that he basically didn’t want to be around power politicians,” he says. “He’s right. Every day I put up with so much avoidance of the truth. And that wasn’t for him. It was a poignant moment between us.”
Yet Tommy remained deeply involved in politics: He joined the Young Democrats club as a high school student and rallied people to volunteer for Obama’s 2012 reelection; he campaigned for his father during Raskin’s state Senate races and again in 2016 when Raskin decided to run for the open congressional seat vacated by now-Sen. Chris Van Hollen; he spent countless hours discussing and debating matters of ethics, policy and political philosophy with his dad. A teacher by nature – Tommy founded a peer tutoring program in high school to help his classmates with math and English – he was adept at persuading others to consider new perspectives. He was a passionate animal lover and committed vegan but never engaged in sanctimonious proselytizing of veganism: “I’m working for a vegan world, not a vegan club,” his parents recall him saying, noting that he successfully converted many carnivorous friends and family to his cause by making them feel welcomed rather than pushed (his father has been a vegetarian since 2009). Tommy rejected the idea that anyone must choose between animal rights and human rights; in one of his spoken-word poems, he argued that indifference to the suffering of animals set the stage for the neglect and dehumanization of vulnerable people, and so it was necessary to treat all living beings with care and dignity.
At a socially distanced drive-in memorial that the family hosted in April outside RFK Stadium, dozens shared reflections that conveyed this blend of moral integrity and personal decency. “He was honestly the smartest person I ever had the pleasure of knowing, but he was never pretentious, and he never made anybody feel stupid around him,” said one of his friends. Tabitha still referred to her brother in the present tense: “I’ll miss how he expresses love. He’s so gentle and so warm and so kind.” Another friend said: “He believed in me. … When I stood in Tommy’s gaze, I glimpsed a version of myself I could love.” And another: “He felt other people’s pain like no one else I know.”
When Sarah Bloom Raskin took her turn behind the microphone, her blue scarf ruffled by the cold breeze, she quoted a line from the poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” “Tommy brought us to those fields. He brought us on those journeys,” she said. “We listen to him and think we’re sitting on our family room sofa, but instead we are elsewhere. … We’ve been transported to these reimagined places with new ideas, new openness, and we wonder: How did we get here? Can we come again? And how do we stay?”
Can we come again? How do we stay? For the Raskins, these questions – once pondered in Tommy’s presence – had assumed a new resonance. What the family was grasping for was a sense of continuance, a way to hold on to all Tommy had given them, to serve as a conduit for his vision and his ideals. In Jamie Raskin’s case, that work began within mere days of burying his son.
– – –
On a bright Friday afternoon in late September, at the end of a grueling week on Capitol Hill, Raskin appears at the front door of his home and peers out onto the wide porch, where I am lavishing attention on the family’s two dogs – Potter, the grizzled mutt, and Toby, the blue-eyed husky. “It’s been a really hard week,” Raskin says – referring to tense clashes between left-leaning and centrist Democrats over the terms of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan – “and I’m really craving a hike. How about Rock Creek Park?”
When he reappears a few minutes later, he’s swapped his tie and jacket for Nike pants tucked into hiking boots, and Potter and Toby happily take their places in the back seat of the car. In his long-ago life before the pandemic, Raskin used to trek through Rock Creek Park with the dogs at least once every week; when the country shut down in March 2020, he started going nearly every morning. Tommy, who had returned to his parents’ home that same month after Harvard’s campus closed, would often join his father.
It’s a quick drive to the park, and the dogs pull excitedly at their leashes as we set out on the trail. Our walk today is a brief respite from a relentless schedule; Raskin will spend his Friday night writing photo captions for his memoir. He started working on the book this past March, a period when he was, he says, “still drowning in grief and agony.” Tommy’s death had rendered the future wholly unrecognizable, so Raskin moved back in time instead, excavating memories for hours every night, staying up until 1 or 2 a.m. to meticulously chronicle his son’s 25 years. “I wasn’t getting much sleep anyway,” he says. “I like the feeling of working when everyone else is sleeping.” When he submitted the manuscript – all 900-something pages of it – his editor told him he’d actually written two books: a comprehensive biography of his son, and a gripping memoir of the 50 life-altering days that spanned Tommy’s death, the insurrection and the impeachment that followed. The publisher was interested in the latter.
Now that the book is complete, what follows feels like a kind of resurfacing. “When I first finished the book, I felt this enormous sense of relief because it was such an overwhelming project,” he says. “But then I felt a lot of sadness to be looking at the world again without Tommy, and so much difficulty still in it.” The pandemic is not over; people are still dying. The country remains bitterly divided. The scope of the insurrection is yet to be fully revealed by the ongoing congressional investigation, an effort Raskin is helping to lead as a member of the House select committee on the Jan. 6 attack. And there is the perpetual ache of missing Tommy, the lingering temptation to replay certain moments and conversations, scouring the past for clues that might reveal how the unthinkable came to be.
As a teen, Tommy was a troubled sleeper, a boy who sometimes worried excessively that he might have hurt another person’s feelings. When all his friends were eagerly getting their driver’s licenses, Tommy chose to hold back; he never drove in his life, Raskin says, “because he was always afraid that he could hit somebody, and he never wanted that responsibility.” But it wasn’t until college that Tommy’s depression emerged with startling intensity, presenting primarily as an obsessive anxiety. With his family’s encouragement, he sought out a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with both depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He found some relief through medication and a regimen to keep himself healthy, and he remained very private in his struggle. “Even his friends and girlfriends – and he always had a girlfriend – didn’t know fully everything he was going through,” Raskin says.
In his early 20s, Tommy came to identify strongly with effective altruism, a philosophy that focuses on identifying the best possible way to help others. Around that same time, Raskin says, Tommy decided that he would not have children of his own, because he did not believe that doing so would be a morally responsible choice. “He would state it as a philosophical principle: that no one has the right to impose an experience of pain on anyone else. And, of course, stated as an abstract proposition, that sounds totally fine – but then he translated it to: ‘Therefore, it would be wrong to have children, because you would be exposing them both to the possibility of great joy, but also to sadness,’ and obviously he was …” Raskin trails off. For a man who found such profound joy in becoming a father, someone known to friends and family for a lifelong, indefatigable sense of optimism, it is excruciating to consider that Tommy was not presenting his argument from the standpoint of a prospective parent, but a son in pain.
We keep moving through the trees, the cool air filled with the sound of crickets trilling. “When he would say he didn’t want to have children,” Raskin finishes, “I think that was as close as he would come to expressing the difficulty of depression for him.”
With Tommy living at home, Jamie Raskin saw how his son agonized over the collective suffering wrought by the pandemic. “We’ve been living in a time of just terrible pain for people, and he felt all of it,” he says. By that time, Tommy had battled depression for years, “but the whole situation was made immeasurably worse by COVID-19 and by the condition of our society under Donald Trump,” Raskin says. “And I want to be clear: I’m not saying that Tommy died because of Donald Trump. Tommy was struggling with depression, but depression exists in an overall social context, and COVID-19 was a terribly isolating and ravaging experience for a lot of young people.”
Despite the psychological toll of 2020, those closest to Tommy never doubted that he was only at the start of a brilliantly promising life: He’d spent the summer enthusiastically working as a legal intern for the animal rights nonprofit Mercy for Animals; he was a passionate law student and devoted teaching assistant who spent countless hours with his undergraduate students on Zoom, guiding them through their work.
A few weeks before he died, as Tommy and his father stood together in their kitchen, Tommy said, “I don’t think I’ll ever be happy.” Raskin offered his trademark positivity and loving reassurance, and this memory is a difficult one for him: “I kept talking, but I should have asked him whether he was having any thoughts of suicide,” he says. “One of the things I regret is that I didn’t really use that word very much, you know? I think that was a mistake. I think it’s probably best to talk about it.” He exhales. “These are things that can keep you up at night sometimes.”
Toward the very end of December, a strange tranquility fell over Tommy, and Raskin recognizes this now as a sign of something amiss. He suspects that Tommy had made up his mind about what he was going to do and did not want to be dissuaded, and so he was going to some lengths to project a sense of stability. “His normal state of being was ebullient, riotously funny, enjoyable. None of that was there. But he wasn’t acting depressed and upset. It was a kind of serene calm,” Raskin says. “But it was an act of some sort.”
Among the most gutting passages of Raskin’s memoir is his recounting of the final hours of Tommy’s life. Sarah Bloom Raskin was visiting her mother out of state; Hannah was at home with her husband in Nevada, and Tabitha was with her partner’s family in Pennsylvania. Father and son watched TV together and talked about Tommy’s plans for the spring semester. “Love you, dear boy,” Raskin told him when they hugged good night. “Love you, dear Dad,” Tommy answered.
Raskin found his son the next morning, lying in his bed in the downstairs apartment in their home. What followed was a hellish blur: a frantic call to 911, a desperate effort to resuscitate his son, the shrieks of his wife and daughters when he reached them by phone, the hours-long wait for them to travel home to Maryland.
Tommy had met with his longtime psychiatrist for an hour the day before he died; the doctor observed no sign of a man about to make such a choice and, like everyone else who knew Tommy well, was astonished by the way his life ended. Especially for a father who was exceptionally close to his son, who saw eye-to-eye with him on so many things, Raskin still struggles with how unfathomable it feels. He has never experienced depression, he says. When he battled Stage 3 colon cancer in 2010, undergoing grueling rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, what he remembers most is a fervent desire to live.
We cross a bridge over the gurgling creek, and here Raskin pauses for a moment on the path, to focus on describing a particular epiphany: At the end of March, Raskin underwent an MRI exam to identify a growth on his stomach that turned out to be a benign cyst. Enclosed in the narrow tube, his arms pinned at his sides, he was immediately consumed by panicked claustrophobia. A nurse had told him the scan would last 37 minutes.
“And I began to think about Tommy,” he says. “And what he must have felt like, being trapped in the desperate emotions of depression, you know? And they have given me a little hand contraption that I could squeeze if I felt like I couldn’t take it. And I was going to squeeze it right away, and then I began to say to myself: If Tommy could live with that kind of feeling for weeks, or months, or years, I could certainly handle 37 minutes.”
So he lay still and imagined running the trails of Rock Creek Park, weaving between trees, along the paths he knows by heart. The same trails he walked with Tommy and his girlfriend, through a freshly fallen dusting of snow, only a few days before he died. Raskin pictured himself here, and that is how he held on until the procedure was complete.
His expression is distant, remembering those long minutes in that cold machine. “For the first time, I felt like I had some sense of what Tommy must have felt, because, you know, when he said in his note to us, ‘Please forgive me, my illness won today – ‘ ” his voice wavers. “I’d been obsessing about whether that meant that he had no control, and it was the illness that was compelling him to do this, or if it meant the illness was so overwhelming that he was making a voluntary decision. And that second possibility made me feel like maybe” – he winces, blinking back tears – “maybe there was some margin for choice, that we could have done something, you know? But after what happened in the MRI machine, I realized there was really no difference.” His voice is almost a whisper.
He starts walking again, the dogs padding along at his side. Raskin is thinking of all he has read about depression, the testimonies of those who have called it “the beast” or described it as “total darkness.” He wants to understand his son’s experience to the extent he is able, he says, even if that understanding brings still more pain.
– – –
There is a transformation of identity that follows a sudden, catastrophic loss, the reorienting and redefining of oneself within a new, incomprehensible reality, and this process is one that Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., understands intimately. Her 17-year-old son, Jordan, was murdered in 2012 by a man who confronted Jordan and his friends at a gas station, complaining about the volume of their music before firing 10 bullets into their car. In the wake of that trauma, McBath left her 30-year career as a flight attendant and devoted herself fully to gun control activism. After the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., she decided to run for Congress with a focus on addressing gun violence, and was elected that fall. McBath, Raskin’s friend and his colleague on the House Judiciary Committee, knows the horror of losing a child; she knows the urge to devote oneself to public service as a way to forge meaning from that loss; she knows how consuming the work of serving as a member of Congress can be.
So when she realized Raskin had returned to the Hill only a few days after Tommy’s death, “I went immediately to see him, and he just fell into my arms and just started weeping and weeping,” she remembers, speaking by phone from her home in Marietta, Ga. “And I knew exactly what he was feeling. I know it. I know those emotions, I know the pain and the doubt. I just wanted him to know that, you know, ‘I’m not just offering you sympathy, I’m here. I know exactly what you’re going through.’ … I love Jamie. We all do. I think every one of my colleagues just truly admires him. We admire his intellect and his sense of compassion.”
McBath worried for him, too, as he navigated the intensity of the impeachment process. When he accepted the role of lead impeachment manager, she recalls asking him, “Are you sure this is what you want to do? Are you prepared emotionally to do this?” He assured her he was.
In his opening argument before the Senate, making the case that Trump was still subject to the Senate’s jurisdiction despite no longer being in office, Raskin presented a graphic video of the violence that unfolded at the Capitol. “Senators, the president was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on January 13th for doing that. You ask what a ‘high crime and misdemeanor’ is under our Constitution? That’s a high crime and misdemeanor,” he said, in remarks that soon went viral. “If that’s not an impeachable offense, then there is no such thing.” He sought to humanize the experience of being at the Capitol that day, explaining that his daughter and son-in-law had accompanied him in the midst of a devastating week for their family. His voice broke when he recounted his exchange with Tabitha after they’d been safely reunited, after he promised her that this would not happen the next time she came with him to the Capitol, and she replied: “Dad, I don’t want to come back to the Capitol.”
“I remember watching him, thinking, I just can’t imagine how he’s doing this now,” McBath says. “The fortitude and the strength and the courage was just amazing to me. Because his sense of duty to this country is so profound, and I really believed that he was saying to himself, ‘This is what Tommy’s expecting me to do.’ And he carried on, even as broken as he was.” She was one of many colleagues who rallied around him then. After the Senate voted to proceed with the impeachment trial, President Joe Biden called Raskin: “You’re a helluva lawyer,” the president said, as the congressman recounts, “but you’re an even better father.”
McBath urged Raskin to create more time for himself and his family. “What I recognized was that he was not setting boundaries for himself, to allow himself to fully move through the grieving process,” she tells me. “I tried to say, ‘Your family needs you, Jamie.’ “
And they did, says Sarah Bloom Raskin, but they are also a family that is deeply familiar with what it means to live with a public figure. “He was called upon to take on this role, and we would have loved it if he hadn’t been,” she says, “but he is somebody of great skill and empathy, and he’s a constitutional law professor, and there was no better person to do it. He had to do it. At the same time, we were like, ‘We want you to stay with us, stay in our little cocoon’ – we were not quite ready to be so outward-facing. It was quite early in our grief. But he was the person of this moment in history, so we completely understood.”
It took Tabitha Raskin, a 24-year-old math teacher at Georgetown Day School, a little longer to feel entirely understanding. “I was not happy with him at that time,” she says. “I just felt like we all needed him around; we needed his full attention. We needed time for us and the family.” She knows her father feels clear that Tommy would have wanted him to accept the role of lead impeachment manager, to steer the charge for accountability and justice; she has a more nuanced way of thinking about it. “Tommy just wasn’t one to impose his beliefs on anyone or expect others to do things. He wouldn’t have pushed my dad to do it,” she says. “But I think he would have said: ‘If you want to do it, you’ve got to do it.’ So I grew to understand that.”
McBath remembers how long she spent in the haze of her own raw grief – it was two years, she says, before she could truly begin to make sense of a life without her son. So she is still keeping a close eye on Raskin, because she knows where her friend is, even – especially – when he seems like he’s somewhere else.
“I watch him,” she says. “And I see him at times, sitting on the House floor by himself. And he might be looking at his hands, he’s not really looking at any one thing, but I can see him thinking. And I know he’s thinking about Tommy.”
– – –
We return to Rock Creek Park for another hike a few weeks after the first, this time on a stunning Saturday morning in October. The park is busier with weekend visitors, and as we wind along a trail bathed in mottled sunlight, a passing hiker does a quick double-take before raising his hand to greet his elected representative.
“Thank you, Congressman, for everything you do for us,” he says to Raskin.
“Thank you, dear man,” Raskin replies, placing his palm over his chest. “I appreciate it.” The man’s walking companion chimes in as she approaches from a few steps behind: “Are you still managing to stay optimistic, despite the horror?” Raskin assumes that she is referring to the investigation of the Jan. 6 attack; he’d appeared on CNN the night before to discuss the work of the House select committee, which has issued subpoenas against Trump administration officials and rally organizers. “Yes!” he says emphatically. “We’re going to make it through. We might even put some of these people in jail if we have to.”
Raskin has always been well recognized among his fiercely loyal constituency when he’s out and about in his community, but never more so than now, in the waning months of a particularly high-profile year for his career. He is greeted repeatedly, by some people he recognizes and others he doesn’t, many of whom address him with a gentleness that conveys a certain familiarity with his story.
He’s used to this, he says, meaning the overlap of professional and personal space in his life, and he actually prefers it. “I’m not a person who is good at rigidly demarcating public life and private life. I just see it as life,” he tells me as we continue along the path. “As you can tell from people coming up to me and talking – they want to talk about their kids, my kids, how they know each other, their work, my work, our society. For me, it’s all one thing.”
There was a time, soon after Tommy’s death and the insurrection, when Raskin thought his career might be over – that leading the impeachment could be the last meaningful political work he would ever do. In the depths of his despair, Raskin says, he sometimes thought: Let them – Trump, his allies, his supporters – have it; let them have the country, the political system they seemed intent on controlling by any means. But then Raskin would think of his daughters, his nieces and nephews, the grandchildren he might have one day. He would think of the most vulnerable Americans, and the constituents who reach for his hand when they pass by on these trails, who say, “Thank you” and “Keep up the good fight.” He would think of all of them and remember what Tommy wrote: “Please look after each other.”
“I know that I have a responsibility to do whatever I can to preserve American democracy, which is fragile in a lot of ways. I feel that strongly, and I know Tommy felt that strongly and would feel that strongly,” Raskin says. “And so as I’ve gotten stronger and stronger, I know that this is a political and personal mission that I can never back down from, ever.”
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The letters started arriving as soon as word of Tommy’s death became public – hundreds of letters, then thousands, and now there are boxes and boxes filled with more than 15,000 messages of support and solidarity and sympathy. In those first weeks, a family friend began compiling a list of “acts of kindness” carried out in Tommy’s memory; what began as a local gesture quickly went national, then global. A couple in Silver Spring pledged to donate their stimulus check to support housing for immigrants. A woman in New Zealand made a donation to a suicide prevention nonprofit. A man in São Paulo, Brazil, wrote that he had delivered a homemade meal and pet food to someone who was living on the streets with his dog. As the list soon approached 1,500 acts of kindness, it became too time-consuming to continue recording them all.
The reverberations continued: In July, the Thomas Bloom Raskin Act went into effect in Maryland, expanding the state’s 211 crisis call center to allow counselors to proactively check in with people who have registered as needing mental health support. A nonprofit organization started by the Raskin family, the Tommy Raskin Memorial Fund for People and Animals, swelled to over $1 million in contributions and has announced numerous grants, gifts and the establishment of a paid internship at Tommy’s former workplace, Mercy for Animals. The foundation is run by Tommy’s sisters and cousins, and having this mechanism in place to quickly respond to issues that Tommy would have cared about – such as the resettlement of refugees from Afghanistan and Haiti – has been a comfort, the family says.
“There’s so much attention that he would put into this, and so making sure that we’re appropriately honoring him – it feels good, but it’s also a little overwhelming,” says Tommy’s sister Hannah Raskin, a 29-year-old vice president at Silicon Valley Bank. “I know that he would know that we’re doing our best, and he’d be understanding and happy that we’re all getting together and thinking about other people.”
Tabitha says she sometimes feels this pressure, too, knowing how meticulous Tommy was in his research and his thinking about moral dilemmas. “We can’t end all of the hurt in the world. But at the same time, knowing that we can relieve the hurt for some people, for some animals – it wouldn’t be enough necessarily for Tommy, but it would matter,” she says. “Every little thing matters. We all do what we can.”
Sarah Bloom Raskin has found solace in spending time with Tommy’s friends, the many people in his orbit who reached out to the family after his death, wanting to be close as they moved through their collective grief. Getting to know some of those people, seeing her son again through their eyes, has been deeply meaningful, she says: “His friends are ambassadors to the path forward.”
Jamie Raskin says it’s still too soon to see exactly where that path leads, though he knows the principles that will guide him. On the day Tommy introduced his father as a political candidate in January 2006, Raskin vowed to always represent the moral center rather than the political center, to push toward an alignment of the two. That is how Tommy lived, he says: “Tommy was totally antiwar, and he was vegan, and he had these positions that would be considered radical in terms of conventional political norms.” In life, Tommy always challenged Raskin to embody his ideals; in death, Tommy bestowed on his father a reaffirmed sense of resolve.
When he considers what lies ahead, Raskin recalls his graduation from Harvard Law School, and the professor – the civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Derrick Bell – who asked Raskin what he planned to do next. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t really know yet,’ ” Raskin recalls. “And he said, ‘Good. It’s really good not to have ambition for specific titles and offices, but to have ambition for values and how you want to live.’ “
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The police found Tommy’s farewell note hours after they arrived at the Raskin home, and it was confiscated before any of his family members could see it or know what his words for them had been. Because of the New Year’s holiday, they were first told it might be days before they could receive it – “and that would have been absolutely agonizing,” Raskin says – but Brian Frosh, attorney general of Maryland, and Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart stepped in to make sure the note was returned to the Raskins as quickly as possible.
It was written on the back of a Boggle word sheet, in Tommy’s instantly recognizable, endearingly childlike print, and when it was given to them it felt like a relief, “like a gift,” says his mother – one last chance to hear from their boy, to feel reassured that he would not have wanted them to blame themselves. That he had done the best he could.
Nearly a year later, the note is kept atop the dresser in their bedroom. “It’s the first thing we look at every morning,” Jamie Raskin says. He has come to see in Tommy’s words more than just the day of his death, but the embodiment of his life, the distillation of all he tried to do in the quarter-century he shared with them. “I think his parting instructions about how he wanted us to live are very consistent with trying to take care of our family, our friends, our country, our world,” he says. And so it feels right to begin each day with Tommy’s final message, now his father’s road map, a reminder of the work still to be done: To help rebuild a fractured country, to reimagine the life of a family, to inhabit the visionary places Tommy once showed them. To find a way to come back, and stay.
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If you or someone you know needs help now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can also reach a crisis counselor by texting 741741 to the Crisis Text Line.