Through the Cracks

documentary screening sheds light on trauma

Eric Christenson

THE PAIN WITHIN. Saturday Night Live star Darrell Hammond’s struggles with long-lasting childhood trauma is the focus of a new documentary called Cracked Up.
THE PAIN WITHIN. Saturday Night Live star Darrell Hammond’s struggles with long-lasting childhood trauma is the focus of a new documentary called Cracked Up.

In his 14 years as a backbone cast member on Saturday Night Live, Darrell Hammond showed the world what a gifted impressionist and talented comedian he was. We’ve all seen his masterful Bill Clinton, the blustering genius of his Sean Connery, and countless moments of gut-busting laughs from one of the show’s longest-running performers.

But kept secret from the world was a heap of inner turmoil rooted from intense childhood trauma that rumbled inside him always, on- and off-set, whether the cameras were rolling or not.

Physically and emotionally abused as a child, Hammond’s heart-rending story of substance abuse, self-harm, and depression is maybe notable because of his moments in the limelight, but really it’s no different than the many stories of trauma happening to everyday folks around us who are going through the same things.

Hammond’s secret struggles are the focus of a new documentary called Cracked Up, directed by Michelle Esrick, but the film pushes the topic further into a broader mental health conversation – not just among performers and celebrities, but neighbors, friends, and family.

At 27, Hammond was diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression, one of many misdiagnoses throughout his life. Then, after a a suicide attempt, a psychiatrist helped the comedian unlock repressed childhood traumas and launched his road to recovery.

Cracked Up will have a pre-release screening in Eau Claire at the Pablo Center on Jan. 16, put on by PESI, a local company that provides resources and education for mental health professionals. The screening is free and open to the public, and organizers hope to pack the house with local folks eager to educate themselves more about trauma and its lasting effects.

“Trauma is just huge in the mental health discussion. You can never possibly know what people’s experiences are,” said Jon Olstadt, who works for PESI and helped organize the screening. “You find out how really profound that is.”

Esrick, the film’s director, will be at the event at the Pablo Center, for a Q&A and discussion after the screening. Also joining the Q&A via live-stream is Bessel van der Kolk M.D. – a trauma expert who wrote The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, something of a sacred text among mental health professionals.

The goal of screening this movie in cities all over the country is to be entertaining and educational, and it highlights the important work mental health professionals are doing daily around the globe. Understanding trauma and spreading awareness of the ways it can profoundly impact people in the long term – at the base level – goes a long way in saving lives and fostering empathy. Hammond’s story is one of millions, and any light shed on the topic can help.

“The genius things he did on SNL were kind of a result of these traumatic experiences that he had as a child. All of that traces back to his childhood,” Olstadt said. “But it could’ve been anybody.”

The screening of Cracked Up is free and takes place Jan. 16 at 6:30pm (doors at 6pm) at the Pablo Center at the Confluence in downtown Eau Claire. Tickets are free, but they are required to attend the screening and Q&A. Reserve your spot at pablocenter.org.