One of the most moving films I have seen in, well….years Cracked Up currently on Netflix, is a stunning and running commentary on what goes on in homes that we never find out about. Cracked Up tells the story of Darrell Hammond, one of Saturday Night Live’s favorite stars and the world within him that remained hidden under brilliance, talent and hurt. This courageous film illustrates, in a way that few films have so well achieved, the dynamics of post-traumatic stress disorder or how pain and even the memories themselves, from one period in one’s life, in this case Hammond’s childhood, can remain hidden away in the unconscious body/mind for decades. Or what remains secreted, unspoken and all too often left to go on without intervention. Childhood abuse.
To deal with such heated material with such a light hand is pure artistry. Michelle Estrick has done something truly magnificent here in opening up the can of worms that is trauma and honoring it with a kind of creative instinct that can allow the viewer to keep looking. She and Hammond himself, tell the story through enough voices, from Bill Clinton to Porkey Pig, so that the viewer can tolerate the tale itself. But the most riveting voice for it’s true gravity, vulnerability and dignity is Darrell Hammond’s himself. His absolutely off the hook talent in his rending of his SNL characters, staggers the imagination. The clarity and precision with which he brings his them to life is matched only by Hammond’s uncanny ability to enter, not only the voice and body of their owner, but the breath and psyche, as well. Clearly he learned to do this at knife point, literally. He figured out, through the facile and flexible genius of the childhood mind, to exit his own psyche and get lost, at least momentarily somewhere, anywhere else. While leaving his body, his whole little being standing in place.
Becoming highly creative in order to find a space in one’s psyche that is livable shall we say, that can view life, or more accurately family members, from a safe distance is not uncommon with those who have experienced trauma and abuse. Creating characters who can act as defenders, like “Popeye the Sailor Man” who could throw grown-ups around the room and fight back once he at his spinach and grew muscles, is the kind of solution that a child finds very usable. Or Daffy Duck, who tries to speak but can’t really, who stutters each time words want to come out…so they never really do.
Hammond’s adaptation to his own trauma is not unlike most children who have to find ways of keeping their innocence and violated sense of safety in tact. Children learn to live in a way in two selves, in the self that they present to the world and the self who remains in the shadows. Because abused children still love and need their parents, they want to remain close. So they are faced with the peculiar task of creating a bubble of comfort around themselves that is porous enough to both take their parent in and keep their parent out. And the confusion that this causes in their minds and hearts can be profound.
One of the marks of a great actor is not only what they let us see, but what they hold back, what we the viewer are left to intuit on our own. In this Hammond is a master. Like most abused children he hangs on the precipice of wanting to tell all and wanting to tell nothing. This is the legacy of trauma, this living between worlds. And besides if children did tell, who would believe them? Because as Hammond says, “people who do stuff like that…coach little league. They teach school….they know the Bible…they do all those things….they even cry. And then they have this thing that they have to do to balance it all out.” It is the children who see this terrifying and dark side of their parents. And it becomes the children’s job, not to tell the world. And they learn to keep the secret so well, the pain so invisible, that eventually, they hide it even from themselves.
I myself having gone through family trauma and the nail-biting experience of being with those you love most, as they are falling apart at the seams. I am still unable to read suspenseful books without looking at the last chapter to see if everyone will be OK. Streaming movies are perfect, I can scroll through to the end if waiting to know feels too intense.
But not in Cracked Up. Told in the merciful voices of other characters who work together so seamlessly to keep the truth from pressing down all at once, even I can watch it. I have always believed film to potentially be a powerful force for healing. And this film has done just that.
ACE’s Connection (Adverse Childhood Experiences) has brought in trauma experts Bessel van der Kolk and tomorrow, Gabor Mate, to have an informal and very unusual exchange on trauma. Follow this link to see Hammond, Estrick and Mate interviewed by Jane Stevens founder of ACE’s Connection.