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Rep. Reflects On Son’s Suicide, Jan. 6

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, spoke at Chautauqua Institution on Monday. Photo by Cameron Hurst

CHAUTAUQUA — On Dec. 31, 2020, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin lost his son to mental illness. Tommy took his own life. He was buried on Jan. 5, 2021. The next day the U.S. Capitol was stormed by protesters, which many call an attempted coup on U.S. democracy.

It was those two events that inspired Raskin to write “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy,” which he was promoting during his visit to Chautauqua Institution.

“The book is my effort to wrestle with the enormity of all these events together. I say in the beginning that these are — I’m not sure I believe it anymore — but in some sense they are cosmically independent events, but they were inter-braided in my own life,” he said to a packed house inside Norton Hall. “I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to disentangle them to try to renew the coherence of the world that was destroyed for me during that period.”

Raskin spent the majority of his 30-minute lecture talking about his son’s beliefs. “My son, Tommy, a young man of extraordinary gifts, was born a moral philosopher, a comedian, a playwright, a prankster, a champion of human rights, an anti-war activist, a vegan, a visionary, a second-year student at Harvard Law School when we lost him, (and) a jazz musician,” he said.

Raskin said Tommy’s depression “broke him” and left his family a note the day he committed suicide. “He said please forgive me. My illness won today. Look after each other, the animals and the global world for me,” he said.

Now, more than a year and a half later, Raskin tried to offer hope to those who have gone through a similar experience.

“I want people who have lost loved ones, even those in the prime of their lives like Tommy was, to know that you will come to a time when you can speak their names without dissolving completely and breaking down,” he said. “Time will restore the coherence to you of your loved one’s life, mind and heart and you will be able to begin to see their life in its entirety, not just the final days.”

After the formal lecture, Raskin took questions for another 30 minutes. Many of the questions asked focused on the Jan. 6 attack and the future of democracy.

After Jan. 6, 2021, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Raskin to lead the impeachment trial. That role gave him a new purpose. “She threw me a lifeline and it’s what brought me back,” he said to a burst of applause.

Raskin was asked what hope he finds in the political arena today. He shared a quote from his father: “When everything looks hopeless, you’re the hope,” he said, with audible reaction from the audience.

He continued that he finds hope in people who want to get us out of the polarization and conspiracy theories. “I see them everywhere I go,” he said.

Raskin also applauded young people. “This is a generation beyond the racism and antisemitism, beyond the immigrant bashing and misogyny,” he said. “It’s a great generation and they give me a lot of hope, but it’s been a tough time for them with COVID-19 and the division and the polarization and with climate change.”

When the time came to wrap up, Chautauqua Institution President Michael Hill said he would not ask Raskin a question that was submitted about 15 times “Will you run for president?” as the audience burst out in applause.

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