By the age of 25, Thomas Bloom Raskin had already accomplished a great deal: He was a graduate of Amherst College who went on to intern at the Cato Institute and J Street, among other prominent organizations; a passionate vegan who wrote philosophical defenses of animal rights and converted those around him to giving up meat; a political writer who had essays published in The Nation and elsewhere; and a law student and teaching assistant at Harvard Law School who donated from his teaching salary to charities in his students' names.
Tommy, as his father Jamie Raskin calls him, was also tormented by depression. Tommy Raskin took his own life on Dec. 31.
"Tommy was remarkable from the beginning," Jamie Raskin tells NPR's Scott Simon. "He had a photographic memory and, like some other kids in our family, knew all the presidents and vice presidents in order. But it wasn't his mind that marked him as so extraordinary. It was his heart. The stories of his love and compassion are absolutely astounding."
Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Takoma Park, represents Maryland's 8th Congressional District in Congress.
Tributes to Tommy have poured in over the past few days.
A neighbor wrote to the Raskin family about a time when Tommy organized a group dinner in high school so a classmate of his who didn't have a date to the prom wasn't left out. The classmate never forgot it.
"We've been hearing stories like this ever since it happened," Raskin tells Weekend Edition. "I mean, Tommy, he felt all of the pain and the suffering in the world, which is how, of course, he found his way quickly to vegetarianism. Nobody in our family was a vegetarian, and now everybody is."
Tommy wrote at length about philosophy and animal rights; he thought about how human lives should be measured against those of animals and animal suffering. He wrote poetry. Speaking at DC VegFest in 2017, he recited his lengthy poem "Where War Begins." An excerpt:
"When it comes to the right to live free from the blight
of aggression, oppression, from tyrannous might,
how smart you are friends shouldn't matter at all;
trauma is still trauma for the creatures that crawl."
Animal Outlook, where Tommy interned, called him a "dynamic force for good in this world, driven to expose, challenge and uproot all forms of injustice, including the suffering forced upon animals." He worked as a summer associate at Mercy for Animals, which wrote that his "kindness, passion, & empathy inspires our continued advocacy & remains in our hearts."
His love for animals was perhaps most challenging at home though: Tommy was allergic to dogs and cats.
"We are a very big dog family," Jamie Raskin says. So Tommy "had a special relationship with them. He would take Benadryl or whatever to be around them. And he would pet them sort of by gently touching the very top of their heads. And he would say, 'Potter, Toby, you're such a fine sentient being.' "
By multiple accounts, that kindness toward sentient beings included people.
"He held a rare level of empathy and compassion," writes Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, where Tommy interned. Out of all of the group of interns, "somehow he was the one who took responsibility for making sure everyone was doing OK, that no one felt left out, that everyone was connected."
Jamie Raskin says, "You couldn't be in his presence and say a negative thing about people. He didn't mind gossip if it was good gossip. [But] if it was nasty, Tommy would say, 'Excuse me, but it's hard to be a human.' And then that would be the end of that."
In his 20s, Tommy faced serious depression, his parents write in a remembrance. It was "a kind of relentless torture in the brain for him" that became "overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable."
Depression affects hundreds of millions of people around the world and is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. It increases the risk of suicide. Most people who die by suicide have had a mood disorder such as depression.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem. A study published in September found that the percentage of people experiencing symptoms of depression was three times the percentage compared with before the pandemic.
Jamie Raskin received a standing ovation when he spoke during debate Wednesday over the Republican effort to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's electoral win. He says he was heartened by words of support from fellow lawmakers of both parties on the same day, Jan. 6, he had to evacuate the chamber because of a violent mob takeover.
"That has been a solace and a comfort to me, that at this time of the ugliest possible division, where we've got a violent, seditious mob invading the Capitol, that there is still enough decency and humanity that we can share each other's pain in this situation," Raskin tells Weekend Edition.
Going forward, Raskin says, his family "will keep Tommy very close to our heart. And we will fight for every single thing he asked us to." He says Tommy knew that "the things that we say are our values and principles ... only have meaning if we act as if they're true, if we make them real. And so we can't let them be empty rhetoric."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tommy Raskin played jazz piano. He always made time for the lonely kids in class, disdained gossip, loved animals and believed they have rights. He won prizes at Amherst, wrote poetry, drew people to veganism and went on to Harvard Law. But this young man, with what his parents called a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, began to be tortured later in his 20s by a blindingly painful and merciless disease called depression. Tommy Raskin was 25 when he took his own life at his home on the day of New Year's Eve. His father, Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, joins us.
Congressman, thank you for making time for us. Our condolences to you and your wife, Sarah, and your family.
JAMIE RASKIN: Thank you for inviting me to talk to you, Scott.
SIMON: Tell us about your son, who you and your wife called a radiant light in this broken world?
RASKIN: Well, Tommy was remarkable from the beginning. He had a photographic memory and, like some other kids in our family, you know, knew all the presidents and vice presidents in order. But it wasn't his mind that marked him so extraordinary. It was his heart. The stories of his love and compassion are absolutely astounding.
We got a letter from a neighbor whom we don't know super well. And she said we had no reason to notice or remember this, but there was a kid who felt like he was the only person in the school who didn't have a prom date. And Tommy learned of it and then said, well, rather than having people go on dates, why don't we just have everybody come over to our house for dinner? And she said that her son never forgot it. And we've been hearing stories like this ever since it happened. I mean, Tommy - he felt all of the pain and the suffering in the world, which is how, of course, he found his way quickly to vegetarianism. Nobody in our family was a vegetarian. And now everybody is.
SIMON: Help us understand his feeling for animals.
RASKIN: Well, the funny thing is we have a bunch of dogs in our (unintelligible). We are a very big dog family. And Tommy loved them, but he was allergic to dogs and cats.
RASKIN: So he had a special relationship with them. You know, He would take Benadryl or whatever to be around them. And he would pet them sort of by gently touching the very top of their heads. And he would say, Potter (ph) or Toby (ph), you're such a fine sentient being.
RASKIN: He drew the line very strictly at sentient beings. And Tommy, who loved eating - he actually ate what are called bivalves, like mussels and stuff like that because they are not sentient, so they don't suffer. And so, you know, he took very seriously feelings.
SIMON: And, Mr. Raskin, you went back to Congress this week of all weeks. Your colleagues received you with great love, though, didn't they?
RASKIN: They did, indeed. And I have been moved by what our colleagues have said. And Speaker Pelosi has been unbelievably supportive and Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, but also Liz Cheney, who said some really beautiful things about my family. And a lot of Republicans have reached out. And I tell you, that has been a solace and a comfort to me that, at this time, with the ugliest possible division where we've got a violent, seditious mob invading the Capitol that there is still enough decency and humanity that we can share each other's pain in a situation.
SIMON: What would you like us to take from Tommy Raskin into our own lives now?
RASKIN: Well, you know, you couldn't be in his presence and say a negative thing about people. He didn't mind gossip if it was good gossip.
RASKIN: It was nasty, Tommy would say, excuse me, but it's hard to be a human. And then that would be the end of that. You know, he lived and acted as though the truth were true. The things that we say are our values and principles, he knew they only have meaning if we act as if they're true, if we make them real. And so we can't let them be empty rhetoric. We will figure out a path of life going forward, Scott, where we keep Tommy very close to our heart, and we will fight for every single thing he asks us to.
SIMON: Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, father of Tommy Raskin, thank you so much for being with us, sir.
RASKIN: Thank you. And the rest of my family sends love to you, Scott, and to everybody at NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RANNAR SILLARD'S "WINTER PASSING")
SIMON: If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1-800-273-8255 - or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting 741-741.
(SOUNDBITE OF RANNAR SILLARD'S "WINTER PASSING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.