DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Wednesday 3 August 2011

There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (2011) dir. Liz Garbus


By Alan Bacchus

You may have heard this story already, as it made the press rounds a couple of years ago. It’s a strange case of a seemingly normal, well-adjusted middle-class mom travelling home from the cottage with her two young kids and three nieces. She inexplicably loses her sense of direction and starts speeding the wrong way on the highway before tragically killing eight people, including herself and all but one of her passengers.

So what happened to Diane Schuler? According to the autopsy her blood alcohol level was well above the legal limit and there were strong traces of marijuana. Diane’s husband, Daniel, appeared on Oprah, Larry King and other shows to vehemently deny the allegations. But science doesn’t lie, does it? Liz Garbus’s haunting documentary on the subject follows Diane Schuler’s husband and sister-in-law as they fight to clear her name and search out the truth about what happened to Diane on that fateful drive home.

Director Liz Garbus, fresh off her absorbing Sundance-screened doc Bobby Fischer Against the World, sympathizes with the family, who, because of the alcohol and drug tests, has had Diane’s name dragged through the mud as a drunk-driving irresponsible mother. As Garbus goes through minute-by-minute details of the four-hour journey from the New Jersey campsite to the Taconic State Parkway, we get to know the intimate details of Diane Schuler’s life.

We hear accounts of Schuler’s oldest niece calling home from the car on Diane’s cell phone alerting her parents to her aunt’s mysterious ailment. A migraine maybe? An embolism? We’ll never know exactly what happened in that car.

As important as the investigative details are, the details of Garbus herself and the life she led up until that point are just as interesting. Garbus expertly draws a thorough character sketch of Diane, who at nine years of age, traumatized by her parents divorce, grew up developing a subconscious urge to be in control. This trait helped her succeed in her career and raise two kids virtually on her own while Daniel worked nights. But it was a trait that also may have contributed to her death.

In legal terms this is called character evidence, and it feeds precisely into the objective of the film, which is to exonerate Diane and explain to the world what kind of exceptional circumstances must have contributed to the accident.

The final moments of the eyewitness accounts describing the accident are haunting and confounding. The images and descriptions of true blood-curdling horror have stuck in my mind for over a week since I saw the film. But the strongest lingering effects are the contradictory actions of Diane in these last moments of her life compared to the righteous decency and high level of responsibility she had shown as a wife and a mother. There was indeed something wrong with Aunt Diane and sadly we’ll never know what.

There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane is currently playing on HBO as part of the HBO Documentary Films Summer Series.


Anonymous said...

One of the best documentary's I have ever seen! Very well done Ms. Garbus. You delivered a truly unbiased, clear, set of facts.

To Jay Schuler, your sister in law was drunk and high and unfortunately for 8 precious lives, that was fact.

I have seen this now 4 times over the last week or so, and as a man who avoided the dentist for 26+ years, know's what it's like to battle a tooth ache with alcohol.

Anonymous said...

Very good documentary. I have watched it 3 times in the last two days. what I think I learned:

1. Jay needs to give up and just accept that it happened. The best thing she can do is see to it that Brian has the best possible care, love and life. I fear for him not just because of the scars this will leave on him but for one other BIG reason which I will come to later. But, whatever happens, Brian needs to stay in therapy as long as possible. He is not only going to have to live with this event but he is going to have a lot of issues with his father.

2. Diane and Dan didn't have a marriage. She just took the place of his mother, which suited her needs to be the mother she didn't have. His mother and father said as much in the film. His mother "spoiled him", he was Diane's "oldest child", and "she made all of the decisions and did everything".

3. What I learned about Dan from this film was also shocking. He is indeed a selfish, spoiled child. He is angry, YES BIG TIME. He is angry that Brian didn't die too so he would be free. "Running off to Alaska", this is "my life now"! But what was most telling was Jay's telling of how Dan never wanted children and Diane was supposed to take care of all "this stuff". Which means taking care of Brian, housework, shopping, doctors, you know, all of lifes little unpleasant tasks.

4. This family apparently knew very little about what was going on inside of Diane. They seem to know even less about Dan. We know what happened with Diane. I hope they see Dan for what he is before something awful happens to Brian. I wouldn't trust Dan with Brian; he is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. And now I have read he is suing Diane's brother and sister-in-law when they have lost all of their children!!!!

5. Diane was running as fast as she could from dealing with her mother and the emotional scars that left on her. Why she did what she did will never be known. Self medication does sound like something she practiced for quite a while. What is known is that this time she overdid it!

6. A real marriage is talking and working things out together. I was also a fixer and tried to be a perfectionist for a few years for tramas that happened in my childhood. The difference was that I had some intospection and knew what I was trying to do and why. Talking things over with my husband who dared and cared enough to ask the right questions out of his love for me made me realize that I needed to seek some help and I did. BTW, we married at 17 and 19 respectively, just celebrated our 41st two weeks ago. We were best friends and confidants before we ever married. We each in our own way had a few demons from our childhoods that needed dealing with. Just being able to talk about them with someone who you know really loves you can be the difference between making a good life and catastrophe like this story.

How is the hell can you be married to someone for 13 years and never know the person you are married to. You know her mother left the family when she was a child but you don't pust to find out all about that...you don't care enough to find out...you don't force her to talk about it...too much trouble? Letting her live in denial is the same as neglect.

I think this documentary answered enough questions for me that I can understand how this happened. Not everything but enough.

Good luck Jay. Dump Dan. Get custody of Brian and move on. Reconnect with Diane's brother Warren and his wife. Just read they are expecting. Think this will make such a difference in their lives.

Dan deserves no sympathy. He is hurting only for himself. Not for Diane or any of the many, many peoples' lives who will never be the same. He never once mentioned his daughter in this movie. She's no longer a problems to him. Over and out.

Anonymous said...

I wish they had spent more time discussing addiction. Over and over Dan and Jay say they want the "medical" explanation. Well, addiction is a medical explanation. There is such a fundamental lack of knowledge about this terrible disease. Indeed, all the evidence that they use in her "defense," all the reasons why she couldn't have been drinking or smoking, her go-getter take-charge personality, her intelligence, her need to control and be perfect, all of these are hallmark signs of an addictive personality. I have seen families who don't have the foggiest clue their perfect, over achieving, pillar of the community loved one is an addict until they have checked themselves into rehab, and even then, they still refuse to believe it.

But let's indulge the conspiracy theory. 1) Some sort of rare medical event happens inside her brain: stroke, embolism, or some massive wave of pain from a toothache 2) This causes her to reach for a bottle of vodka that just happens to be in the car. She drinks it either knowing it is vodka, but too out of her mind to realize the dangers, or, somehow mistakes it for water. (If that is the case, she must have lost her sense of taste or taste-reasoning because she drank a full soda can's worth of booze.) 3) Now in this intoxicated/break-from-reality state she decides to smoke a joint. 4) Even though she is allegedly not a drinker and only an occasional pot smoker, the massive amounts of booze and drugs do not cause her to pass out or lose motor functions instead is able to drive with quote "precision," right down the fast lane on the wrong side of the highway.

She also stopped off at the gas station and bought three winning lottery tickets. I mean that could have happened too. But sorry, there is a pretty logical explanation here. She had been secretly binge drinking and smoking for an undetermined amount of time. She probably thought she had complete control over her addiction, an illusion she maintained right up until the moment eight people died. That day, for whatever reason, she overdid it. It spiraled out of control and she couldn't allow herself to be out of control. She couldn't admit to herself or anyone that she was blind drunk on a Sunday morning driving a car full of children. She probably was just thinking she had to get home, she just had to get home, no matter what, if she just made it home, everything would be fine.

People must understand this is a terrible, frightening disease and stigmatizing her as a bad mother and bad person only set the stage for another tragedy. Dan and Jay need to own up to what happened instead of living in denial. Being an addict doesn't make you a bad person. Jay says she doesn't want her to be the poster child for drunk mom's. Well, she should be. And she is, a terrible cautionary tale for those who are in denial about their addictions.

Anonymous said...

Diane Schuler seems to have been a high-functioning hidden alcoholic. A lot of comments about her fit the profile of an alcoholic - resentment and need to control.

She could easily have hidden her drinking from her husband since they had opposite schedules during the week. And if she slipped up she was such a confrontational, difficult person, people probably didn't want to confront her. She sounded intimidating. Her way or the highway.

There were subtle clues in the film. Jay says no one knows she smokes as she smokes outside after meeting with the famous medical examiner. ??? So this family kept secrets from each other. If they didn't know she smoked then they also could not have known Diane drank.

Jay and Dan definitely seem to be in denial. And if they admit the truth of the autopsy tests, they seem to think it reflects on them. They are trying to protect themselves. They probably do know more than they admit.

Where were the witnesses to Diane's 4 hours of random driving? Didn't anyone see her during that time before she got on the highway in the wrong direction?

If she was a rare drinker and rare pot smoker, why did she have both with her in the car?

Alcoholism is a medical condition, a disease. It is fatal if not treated. 12 Step programs do work. And Al-Anon helps families deal with having an alcoholic family member.

Dan and Jay are increasing the suffering of those the accident affected. They could use this tragedy to speak out about substance abuse - as the sisters of Mr. Bastardi said. And they should express their sorrow for the victims instead of feeling sorry for themselves. Dan is now suing his brother-in-law for some reason. Horrible.

Also - people need to get involved when they see something is wrong. Why didn't the other motorists go over to her when she was honking and stopped at the rest stop? What if she needed help? Why didn't they go to see if they could help? She was leaning over. Why ignore her? It would have been obvious she was drunk and the kids frightened. But anything could have been wrong.

And the little boy Brian at the end of the film - the last image is of him slapping his father's hand away. Children know. That gesture says it all.

Alan Bacchus said...

Well said anonymous. Thank you

Anonymous said...

I was the last to comment. I just wanted to add:

The way witnesses describe Diane Schuler driving fits the description of an alcoholic blackout. People are able to function but they are not in their normal consciousness. They do things they would not normally do.

People are told after blackouts that they were violent or outrageous or said very hurtful things. That's why they say "Don't drink and dial." Drunk phone calls? They are acting with no filter. They have no memory of their actions and are horrified to be told what they did.

Diane was driving as if she were the only person on the road and ignoring the cries of the children in the car. She didn't notice the other cars swerving or coming straight at her.

Also - if an alcoholic has to abstain from drinking as they want to - as she would have to over the weekend, they are desparate to drink once they have the chance. Once the spouse is gone they go straight to the drink.

She was impulsive. As reported, she would go out for groceries and return with a car. She had poor impulse control.

Dan was like her child. She gave him a cushy life. He wouldn't rock the boat. He wouldn't confront her about her mother issues or possible evidence of substance abuse. He was a classic enabler.

She had an aversion to doctors. Substance abuse is self-medication for emotional issues. Doctors would have detected something in blood tests.

She and Danny were very "private". Secretive. Cut off from friends. Limit themselves to those who wouldn't say anything or challenge them.

Why didn't Danny follow her in the truck home from the camp? Did she order him to go straight home so she could drink? She had 5 children with her. The responsible thing would be to follow her to assist or if she had any car trouble. She had to stop at McDonald's alone with FIVE children? How did she watch all of them and get food, go to the restroom and let them play outside on the play area?

Or did she and Danny perhaps argue as they left the camp? That would have made the urgency to drink even greater.

Jay says Diane "was fine" on the gas station video. High-functioning alcoholics can function with high levels of alcohol. The alcohol level had probably not totally hit her yet and she might not have smoked the pot yet.

This is speculation but when you stand back and look at the whole picture, it's pretty clear.

The documentary held back perhaps because of the pain of all involved. They had to be careful to maintain access to Danny and Jay.

This just shows how deadly the disease of alcoholism/drug abuse is. It is a progressive disease. It is fatal. If left untreated, it leads to death - by accident or disease. Untimely death. And it tragically at times takes the lives of others.

I had a phenomenal, beloved cousin who died from alcoholism in her fifties. After a life of various serious internal illnesses caused by her drinking. Her home was immaculate. She never got over the grief of her married lover's sudden death when she was young. She never married. She didn't take rehab or 12 Step seriously. It was a slow suicide. She only drank vodka.

She died on the job. She had internal bleeding from her esophagus, was taken to the hopsital and died. Her coworkers were enablers. She couldn't have been functioning that well. She worked at a very important international bank.

I hope people learn from this documentary, discuss it and see the extreme depths of denial that humans experience. As one of the doctors said, humans weren't built to comprehend this level of tragedy.

But they should try - for the victims and to prevent future victims.

Anonymous said...

Any possibility they were having a double life?. I think maybe she even had issues about her sexuality. They were so unattached to each other, he did not knew her at all. After watching so many episodes of INTERVENTION It's so clear divorce damages children and specially girls at age 8-9.

By the other way, I Know pain can make you do crazy things. I had a teeth abscess and almost die of it.

This case affected me over days...

Anonymous said...

She not only had her parents divorce when she was 8 or 9, but her mother left and she didn't go with her. They said that was extremely rare. So it was even more traumatic. She cut off from her mother and never dealt with it.

And she was parentalized at that young age. She became the substitute mother for the family and that interferes with a child's normal development. Children are supposed to be allowed to be children.

Even if she had severe tooth pain and she was only trying to stop the pain (which I don't think was the case), she had severe psychological pathology going on to do that. She should have asked for help in getting the children home safely. Call 911. Or family. But pull over and wait.

I agree -- this film gets under your skin and is so creepy and upsetting. For me - music in a film is extremely important to set the tone. I do agree with a film composer who said it should not be overused (this is more for regular films, not documentaries).

But the music in this documentary had such a perfect, creepy, trudging tone - it made the film that much more icky - like a horror film.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter what drove her to drink and drugs. She made the decision to consume a very large amount of alcohol/drugs then drove a van full of children.

This was premeditated.

There is just no excuse for this. None. People need to stop enabling people with addiction issues when they make decisions that endanger other lives.

And people in her family know more than they let on. There's something else going on here. Denial doesn't explain everything. I come from a family of drinkers and sooner or later, you catch them.

Personally I think the doc was offensive and an insult to the families of those she killed and someone should consider suing the husband and sister-in-law for making this doc.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter what drove her to drink and drugs. She made the decision to consume a very large amount of alcohol/drugs then drove a van full of children.

This was premeditated.

There is just no excuse for this. None. People need to stop enabling people with addiction issues when they make decisions that endanger other lives.

And people in her family know more than they let on. There's something else going on here. Denial doesn't explain everything. I come from a family of drinkers and sooner or later, you catch them.

Personally I think the doc was offensive and an insult to the families of those she killed and someone should consider suing the husband and sister-in-law for making this doc.

Anonymous said...

Hello Mr Bacchus/ Ms. Garbus, was wondering if you have any contact information by chance? I have a few good questions about the horrific tragedy. I believe people can frame other people all they want for alchohol and or drugs but the documentary clearly states that she had excruciating pain of the head. My Father just told me a story that blew my mind. He said that his Aunt had apparently had a stroke, she had excruciating pain in her head before she had past away infront of her kids. Another odd but possibly true question could be, could she have been allergic to skunk spray? She was driving on a highway, I (myself) just drove past a skunk that had sprayed and it drove me into a bad state of mind, I thought of this movie/documentary when i did.

They say she had ALOT of alchohol and marijuanna in her system but trully do you honestly think this woman would take that much, lets get real folks. Your thoughts and remarks are garbage, this story lives on and so shall Ms. Schuler and the kids that were in that vehicle.

If you could get back to me on this Mr. Bacchus and/or Ms. Garbus that would be much appreciated. Possibly contact information by chance as well. My email is mikey_hockey_11@hotmail.com.

Think about it, so many possibilities and so much hurt, these people have had enough!!