First, a few quotes from The Confession, the autobiography of Jim McGreevey, a politically-minded Irish Catholic who remained in the closet until his late forties.
The trauma that McGreevey describes is an excellent description of conditions that Stephen operates under on the show. Read "artificial truths" as "truthiness":
[P]ost-traumatic stress disorder is the most plausible culprit behind my memory lapses. In my case the trauma went on for forty-seven years, and it was induced as much by me as by anyone else. I worked hard to ensure that I was accepted as part of the traditional family of America, building a fortress of artificial truths about myself, shoring up my own fractured identity with layers of what I considered typical adolescent and adult behavior. And I spent so much mental energy keeping track of these things that everything else fell into a chaos in my mind. (50)
This, too, is applicable:
I know now why I did certain things, or didn't do them. I know now, for example, that my intense friendships with other men, beginning in ninth grade, involved simple crushes—that's why I ached in their presence, why I always felt slightly ill thinking about them. At the time, this felt like a kind of mental defect. I sometimes truly wondered if I'd lost my bearings. Now I know I was lovesick, that's all. (50)
And this is Stephen all over:
[M]y addiction is to being central in the world, to being accepted and adored in the way that celebrities are adored--by strangers, in abundance. That is what I loved about campaigning--so much that I was almost never at home, sacrificing my marriage and family. I was pathologically addicted to "having a public." Too often, it was more important to me than anything else. My ego demanded recognition. (336)
That last one doesn't sound like it's related to sexuality, until you come to this passage from McGreevey's therapy:
On large sheets of paper, we were to begin an epistolary relationship with our "inner child." Holding the pen in our left hand, we were to write to our adult selves using the voice of ourselves at about seven years old.
"Talk about the things you're scared of," Roxy [the therapist] said. "Talk about things you need."
"Dear Mr. McGreevey," I began. I felt foolish, but I pressed on.
As I wrote in crooked cursive, I was surprised by how the exercise seemed to tap into something. I wrote about the fears--the terrors--my homosexuality had caused me. I'd never admitted this before. I wrote about how I blamed God for making me different, and about all the suffering that caused. My child told my adult about why he'd been an overachiever: to overcome the flawed character in his soul, to hide. "I am ashamed," my left hand wrote. "I live in a state of shame." (344)
Heart broken yet? Read on:
Later exercises included drawing a timeline across a large piece of paper, left to right. On the top of the line, we listed our professional achievements, our "credentials"; below the line we recounted our personal histories. I was a classic case of divided self. My public narrative was crowded with achievements. Below the line I wrote just twenty-three words: "Dating Laura", "Married Kari", "Morag [his daughter] born", that sort of thing.
I'd lived my life entirely for public consumption behind a wall of words, while my personal life was nearly nonexistent....
Roxy could tell I was still trying to please others, even in the group. "You keep trying to help other people through their issues," she told me. "Stay in the I. Look at you. Come up with your own solutions, Jim—not what your parents wanted you to be, or the Church wanted you to be, or your wife. Who do you want to be? Who are you?" (345-6)
Consider Stephen's words to O'Reilly on the Factor: "I'm whatever you want me to be." He forces himself to be what authorities (the public, the President, God, his parents, O'Reilly) want, and in the process has lost track of himself.
The actual diagnostic criteria for PTSD. I've removed the notes about the different ways in which children respond (more on that later), and added a few annotations about where Stephen's behavior fits in.
DSM-IV Criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
A. The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following have
1. The person has experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event or events,
that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical
integrity of oneself or others.
2. The person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
[The experience of trauma is subjective. "Being gay" shouldn't be traumatic in itself, but consider how Ted Haggard described it: "There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life." He sees his own sexuality as a threat, and responds with horror.]
B. The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in at least one of the following ways:
1. Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images,
thoughts, or perceptions.
2. Recurrent distressing dreams of the event. ["How many dreams about eating a banana am I expected to sit through, brain? Seriously." —TCR 2007.10.11]
3. Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring (includes a sense of
reliving the experience, illusions, hallucinations, and dissociative flashback episodes,
including those that occur upon awakening or when intoxicated).
4. Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize
or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event. [See: every time gays have appeared on the ThreatDown, every time he's lashed out at baby carrots.]
5. Physiological reactivity upon exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or
resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.
C. Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general
responsiveness (not present before the trauma), as indicated by at least three of the
1. Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma. ["Repressed Homosexual Urges" —the map of Stephen's brain, TCR 2006.8.2]
2. Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma. ["Also, you can't spell 'emotional abuse' without 'bus.' I don't use public transportation." —I Am America (And So Can You!) (10)]
3. Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma. ["I often think back fondly on the memories I haven't repressed."—IAA(ASCY!) (10)]
4. Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities.
5. Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.
6. Restricted range of affect (e. g., unable to have loving feelings).
7. Sense of a foreshortened future (e. g., does not expect to have a career, marriage,
children, or a normal life span). [See: his views on the Rapture.]
D. Persistent symptoms of increased arousal (not present before the trauma), as indicated
by at least two of the following:
1. Difficulty falling or staying asleep.
2. Irritability or outbursts of anger. [See: every TCR episode ever.]
3. Difficulty concentrating.
4. Hypervigilance. [See: ThreatDowns.]
5. Exaggerated startle response. ["What was that noise? Where are you? Oh, God! Iíll tell you anything you want to know!" —TCR 2006.11.13, on hearing a water bottle opened.]
E. Duration of the disturbance (symptoms in B, C, and D) is more than 1 month. [As of this writing, Stephen has behaved the same way on TCR for two years and counting.]
F. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social,
occupational, or other important areas of functioning. [The actor who plays him has, on various occasions, called Stephen a "terrible executive producer", "terrible husband", and "terrible father". A few reasons: he is angry, he is "unable to acknowledge [his] shortcomings", and he is "adept at blaming others"—all of which, as we will see below, can be traced to trauma.]
The following are excerpts from Back From The Brink: A Family Guide to Overcoming Traumatic Stress, by Don R. Catherall. He has a Ph.D., but this book is written to be accessible rather than technical, so it's very layperson-friendly. I'll quote it when making most of my points, and save the books with jargon for last.
Stephen, like McGreevey, knew that he was different from a very young age. Not only does he think homosexuality is shameful, he thinks all difference is wrong ("Conformity is its own reward." —TCR 2007.05.01, at the conclusion of a childhood anecdote). The ability to repress at a moment's notice has become part of the foundation of his personality; this is why:
When you shut down your spontaneous emotional reaction because it is too overwhelming, part of your personality shuts down as well. You lose touch with the part of your own emotional makeup. You're able to function, but you're emotionally numb. And this numbness isn't restricted to the emotions surrounding trauma. It can become a way of life, a new part of your personality. This is particularly true if you've been repeatedly exposed to trauma. You quickly learn to numb out and insulate yourself from the effects of the continued exposure. Abused children grow up learning to numb out at a moment's notice, and by the time they're adults, emotional numbing is a way of life. (32)
If "emotionally numb" doesn't sound much like Stephen, consider this:
Some trauma survivors combat their emotional numbing by always being "on", the life of the party, if their personalities already lean in that direction. At first sight, you certainly wouldn't think that such people are emotionally numb, since emotionally numb people are usually fairly low key. But always being "on" can cover an impoverished ability to feel. The person who's always ready to "party" may be trying to compensate for what he doesn't feel inside by creating an image of how he'd like to feel on the outside. (69)
What we see are his feelings as he would like them to be, not his feelings as they actually are. Emotional truthiness.
Stephen behaves inconsistently towards Jon. When he gets worried about Jon, he panics ("Jon, where are you? Where are you?" —first toss during TDS' broadcast from Ohio, 2006.10.30); but then he'll turn around and deny that they talk at all. This can be partly explained by the fact that his friendship with liberal, secular, intellectual Jon doesn't fit into the image he tries to cultivate. But there's more:
Many people who rely on emotional numbing seem to be feeling things quite normally until the intensity increases or they have an experience that makes them feel particularly vulnerable. Then suddenly the feeling turns off. The effect on you can be devastating. You're feeling close and comfortable with your loved one, then all of a sudden you're a million miles apart. Apparently, your loved one's empathy for you disappears. This is very hard to endure, especially when your loved one switches unpredictably from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde....
Often, this unpredictable switching-off of empathy is accompanied by rage attacks. Your loved one can abruptly change from treating you as a support to behaving as though you're the source of all his problems. (65)
Consider Stephen's statement to O'Reilly (TCR 2007.1.18): "I have a restraining order against Jon Stewart. The man is a sexual predator." Displacing his repressed homosexual urges onto Jon is one of the most blatant instances of "behaving as though [Jon is] the source of all his problems."
His erratic behavior also ties back to the overachievement which McGreevey and Stephen both experienced:
If you have an impaired ability to sustain self-esteem, you tend to find less and less lasting means of feeling all right. You may fill your life with work or other accomplishments to feel good about yourself. As long as you're producing, you can feel okay. Or you may surround yourself with people who make you feel better about yourself, whether they are admirers or people toward whom you feel superior. You may be unable to acknowledge your shortcomings and become adept at blaming others. (40)
If "you may surround yourself with...admirers" makes you think of the fanatical devotion that he demands from the Colbert Nation, we're on the same page.
One defense mechanism used by traumatized people, especially children, is dissociation: mentally distancing themselves from a situation they don't like. Spacing out when you're bored is a mild form of dissociation. It can get much more extreme:
The traumatized child uses dissociation to shift from feeling small and vulnerable to a state where he can feel more powerful and invulnerable. All children use dissociation, though the content of their fantasies varies....Dissociation is worrisome when the child begins to think of himself as a different person altogether, in order to feel that the bad things are happening to someone else. Children in situations of severe, ongoing abuse frequently resort to dissociating right out of their personality. In order to avoid the terrible thoughts and feelings associated with abuse, the child develops alternative personalities (multiple personality disorder [now called dissociative identity disorder, or DID]) in which to escape. (144-5)
Two passages for your consideration:
"That wasn't 'Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report.' That was 'Stephen Colbert, Daily Show stooge!"
—Stephen's response to a clip of himself mocking Geraldo, TDS, 2006.8.10
"My hypothetical porn name is Ceasar Honeybee, but when Ceasar Honeybee hypothetically fell on hard times and hypothetically started doing gay porn to support his hypothetical meth addiction, his gay porn name was Tyrone Hunnibi. Ceasar didnít want to jeopardize his hypothetical straight porn career should he ever get off the high-speed chicken feed."
The first case is fairly mild. In the second, he distances himself from his actions on multiple levels: by attributing them to a person with a different name, and by making them hypothetical. Both passages share this theme: when Stephen isn't proud of something he's done, he insists that it wasn't him.
Full-blown DID involves memory loss (i.e. if "Stephen" couldn't remember things that "Tyrone" had done, as if he were really two different people), which Stephen doesn't seem to have. But this much is clear: he actively distances himself from events in his past.
The same book refers to dissociation as used by children. While Stephen is not a child, he doesn't have the emotional maturity of an adult, either. Consider:
Young children rely heavily upon denial—they simply insist that they're not experiencing a disturbing thought or feeling, or that a disturbing event hasn't occured or doesn't bother them....In traumatic situations, the child may insist that she's not frightened or that the situation wasn't frightening. This style of protecting herself is all right, but there aren't a lot of backup defenses if denial proves inadequate. (150)
If you've ever seen Stephen start to lose an argument, you'll see that he invariably falls back on denial.
Some more technical detail of the effects of trauma. These are from Handbook of Interventions that Work with Children and Adolescents : Prevention and Treatment, the chapter on PTSD, edited by Paula M. Barrett.
The following describes how seemingly innocuous things like badgers (TCR 2007.7.30), vacuum cleaners (I Am America 113), and Magna Morphs (TCR 2006.7.13) are declared Number One Threats to America:
The emotional processing model also argues that traumatic events produce
changes in one's fundamental assumptions about safety and self-efficacy. These
changes lead, in turn, to the development of new assumptions that, in turn, cause an
increase in the threat-value attached to a variety of previously neutral or even
safety-signalling stimuli (Foa & Kozak, 1986). Consequently, many stimuli in the
current environment of the traumatized individual can activate the fear network,
making it more readily accessible in memory than other potentially adaptive
emotion networks, and diverting attention resources from other non-trauma related
cues. In support of this view is a growing body of literature indicating that individuals
with PTSD show an attentional bias for threat-cues (McNally, 1998). (226-7)
More on threats, as well as repression and avoidance:
Ehlers and Clark (2000)...propose that the
PTSD sufferers attach dysfunctional meaning to the PTSD symptoms (e. g., intrusive
recollections mean I am going crazy). The PTSD sufferer may also have developed
beliefs consistent with a sense of mental defeat (helplessness), permanent and
global change (e. g., my life is ruined and the world is a horrible place), and alienation
from others (e. g., people will think I am weak because I cannot cope on my
own) (Ehlers & Clark, 2000). Such dysfunctional beliefs motivate maladaptive
coping strategies like avoidance, thought suppression, rumination and distraction
that block full emotional processing of the traumatic event. They also contribute to
the individual's sense that the trauma continues to have damaging implications in
the present and generate a sense of 'current threat' (Ehlers & Clark, 2000). (228)
"Permanent and global change" is a typical thing for Stephen to perceive. When he broke his wrist, he saw it as a cultural touchstone, and began reporting on, among other things, "Hollywood glorification of wrist violence".
He is also ferocious about avoiding weakness, or even the appearance of weakness. ("Shades of gray are for brain tissue and the weak" (I Am America 153), which explains why he insists on seeing the world in black and white.)
From Neuropsychology of PTSD: Biological, Cognitive, and Clinical Perspectives, edited by Jennifer J. Vasterling and Chris R. Brewin.
Stephen believes many things that are patently untrue, sexual and otherwise (for example, that Washington, D.C. is not part of the United States). This passage sheds some light on how his brain got into such a screwed-up state:
McClelland [McClelland, McNaughton, and O'Reilly (1995)] describes trying to teach a computer simulation of this neocortical memory system about the properties of birds. The network performs well when it is given lots of examples of birds, and is told that all of them can fly. However, when it is presented with a penguin, a bird that cannot fly, the network experiences catastrophic interference and responds either by classifying the penguin as a nonbird or by concluding that birds cannot fly after all.
This description of "catastrophic interference" is clearly reminiscent of clinical accounts of how trauma overturns long-held assumptions and is hard to integrate with previous knowledge. In the process known as "overassimilation" (Resick & Schnicke, 1993) some traumatized people attempt to deny the reality of the event and turn it into a nontrauma, equivalent to trying to turn the penguin into a nonbird. In the process Resick and Schnicke term "overaccomodation", people let the fact of the trauma overturn everything they previously assumed to be true, equivalent to concluding that birds cannot fly. (279)
The last topic that I want to discuss, returning to Back From The Brink, is guilt. Stephen has plenty: Catholic guilt, closet guilt, guilt that he may not even be able to identify.
Here are some things you can think about if you're suffering from excessive guilt:
—Did you grow up in a judgmental atmosphere, where there was a rigid line between good and bad?
—Did people in your family apologize? Were apologies viewed as expressions of concern for others or as a punishment for misbehavior?
—Did you grow up feeling that it was all right to be who you are or that what you are was not all right and that you must hide your innermost thoughts and feelings? (224-5)
The list was much longer, but these were the most obviously relevant items. Stephen sees the world in black and white, good and bad; he refuses to apologize, because that would mean admitting he was wrong; and he grew up feeling pressure to conform in the extreme.
People carry extra guilt for a variety of reasons. Some people had parents or other significant adults who controlled them by inducing guilt all the time. On top of feeling guilty, these people are usually angry and likely to feel that others are playing upon their guilt feelings. Other people feel excessive guilt for the opposite reason—they got away with too much as children, felt they were taking advantage of their parents' good nature, and developed a harsh attitude as a way of controlling themselves. Children who are scared by the intensity of the terrible anger they feel at parents and siblings often learn to control themselves by feeling guilty. (222)
In which of these environments did Stephen grow up? Consider:
If you have control problems, you probably grew up in an environment that was chaotic or that contained someone who tried to control you excessively. You learned to cope with your environment by taking control yourself. Ironically, an overly controlling caretaker perpetuates the phenomenon by turning the child into yet another controlling parent. (232)
Stephen is an overwhelmingly controlling parent, as seen in I Am America: "Every organization needs strong leadership. At home my word is law. Whatever I say goes" (7). Also: "Don't worry if a rule makes sense—the important thing is that it's a rule. Arbitrary rules teach kids discipline" (11).
Oh, but here's the kicker, the passage from his book in which, without meaning to, probably without even being aware of it, Stephen presents his upbringing with a layer of artifice so transparent that its true character is laid bare:
It doesn't matter how my parents raised me, because I loved my parents....Sure, they could be a little "strict," but I often think back fondly on the memories I haven't repressed. The truth is, I wouldn't be the man I am today if it wasn't for the way my parents raised me. (10)
Written in the margin:
I had a happy childhood.
Written with an emphasis that is the in-print equivalent of shouting.
It's painful. It's heartbreaking. And it's ultimately self-defeating. But this mix of anger, repression, denial, and calculated ignorance is how Stephen copes with his trauma.
It needs to be. He doesn't know any other way.