Cracked Up

Synesthesia looms large in Darrell Hammond's documentary about childhood trauma.

Posted Nov 01, 2018

He's channeled presidents and other luminaries, but on Nov. 14, master impressionist Darrell Hammond will reveal his greatest role: himself.

Courtesy Michelle Esrick.
Darrell Hammond in a scene from the film "Cracked Up."
Source: Courtesy Michelle Esrick.

A documentary by director Michelle Esrick based on Hammond's life as a childhood trauma survivor: Cracked Up will premiere that evening at DOC NYC. One screening is already sold out; a second has been added.

Hammond wrote about his struggles overcoming a terribly traumatic childhood and his resulting addiction in the New York Times best selling God if You're Not Up There I'm F***** in 2011. As an adult, he suffered multiple hospitalizations and many misdiagnoses by the physicians who saw him. Ultimately, his early trauma was identified and he began treatment for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Synesthesia played the pivotal role in that breakthrough as you'll see later in this story.

I was privileged to meet Hammond for lunch with his director and executive producer Regina K. Scully in Manhattan earlier this year. His pain is palpable in person, but so are his charisma and warmth.

 Courtesy Michelle Esrick.
Congressman Bobby Scott, (D-VA), director Michelle Esrick and Darrell Hammond.
Source: Courtesy Michelle Esrick.

There I came to learn the film is much more than a film. It's not just a movie, it's a movement. There is an accompanying social impact campaign. On Sept. 24-26, Esrick and Hammond met with lawmakers and non-governmental organizations in Washington, D.C. to discuss childhood trauma and two important supporting bills: the Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Families Act and Opioid Crisis Response Act. 

Taking Capitol Hill by storm, they made the rounds to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the National Children's Alliance, Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Congressman Bobby Scott, Congressman Frank Pallone, Senator Dick Durbin,  Congressman Mike Gallagher, Congressman Danny K. Davis, Julia Frederick, a representative from Senator Elizabeth Warren's office and members of the Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means and Education and the Workforce Committees.

Then on Oct. 24, President Donald Trump signed the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act. "We are honored to have played a role in helping to get this important legislation passed and signed into law," Esrick said.

She was inspired to make the film when Hammond told her his trauma doctor said, "I don’t want you to say mental illness, I want you to say mental injury.” 

Hammond, the longest running cast member of NBC-TV's iconic "Saturday Night Live" (and now the show's announcer) told me he may have had a mental injury, but his synesthesia remained intact and helpful his entire life.

"My synesthesia is like braille," the virtuoso entertainer said. "It is a way to understand the world around me." 

Every personality he channels is encoded with a specific color. President Bill Clinton evokes orange; Vice President Dick Cheney is light blue; Reverend Al Sharpton (his favorite) is mauve.

When he tried out for SNL's Lorne Michaels, he ran through such color coding in his mind to remember each person's unique voice. And it was the same with his diagnosis and recovery. The color red was the key to unlocking his past.

"I went to 39 doctors before anyone mentioned the word 'synesthesia'," he told me, still incredulous at the ignorance (as am I). Then one day, an enlightened caregiver began exploring it and noticed the color red was conspicuously absent in his synesthetic impressions. It was key to an important memory he'd supressed. To find out more, you must see the film as this is a central part of the story's mystery.

Through it all, he told me, the synesthesia was otherwise always consistent, neither heightened nor lessened by the substances he ended up abusing.  The only times he remembered not having synesthesia were when he was very ill, like the time he had pneumonia. "It wasn't more pronounced on drugs or alcohol; it held steady," he recalled. "I performed well under the influence. Often I couldn't have done the voices without the synesthesia."  Synesthesia acts as a mnemonic, giving experiencers one more thing to hang their recollections on.

Rainbow highlighting on script showing synesthesia by Darrell Hammond.
Source: Rainbow highlighting on script showing synesthesia by Darrell Hammond.

For example, while studying for the role of Truman Capote in the one-man show, "Tru," Hammond said he marked up the script with many different highlighting pens to convey the emotion of the passages and help himself remember the lines. He texted me a photo of one of the pages, seen here.

The deep and sensitive man is now working to educate others about mental injury. On the film's website one can take a test to understand one's own potential lingering trauma from childhood. Known as the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, it is the largest investigational inquiry of its kind:

"When people are behaving in apparently self-destructive ways, it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with them, and time to start asking what happened to them," said Doctors Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti, founders of the study.

"The key phrases in the ACE movement are 'childhood trauma' and 'toxic stress'," explained Michelle Esrick. "It is the toxic stress which keeps a child in fight or flight through irregular hormonal stress responses and this is what rewires the brain and body and creates ill health downstream."

Hammond's hero's journey of helping others is now well underway — a sign of his hard-won and ongoing healing. And there's another sign, too. 

His Manhattan apartment is now painted red.

Tickets to the premiere are available here: