Wednesday, July 27, 2011

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Last night, when I was about halfway through HBO’s searing documentary There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, I tweeted that the film was “riveting as all hell.”  Little did I know that my scale of rivet would be drastically altered by the film’s conclusion.

Every Monday night, HBO airs a new film as part of their Documentary Films Summer Series, and damn if some of them haven’t been great.  The first I saw was Hot Coffee, which examines four popular cases, highlighting areas in each that you may be unfamiliar with.  For example: you probably think the woman who sued McDonald’s after she spilled hot coffee on herself was just some quack trying to make a buck.  Well, did you ever see the pictures of what the coffee did to her skin?

Next was Sex Crimes Unit, a hard-to-stomach look at the day-to-day workings of the New York’s Sex Crime Unit, which overseas roughly 300 pending sex crimes cases every day.

While Hot Coffee and Sex Crimes Unit have managed to linger in my head since I viewed them, I suspect There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane will continue to haunt me for weeks.

Two years ago yesterday, Diane Schuler, a 36-year-old “hyper-perfect mother” and hard-working professional, packed her minivan full of kids (two of her own and three nieces) and headed home after camping in upstate New York.  Four hours later, she drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway for 1.7 miles, eventually hitting another car, killing herself and seven others.  Days later, Diane’s toxicology report revealed she had had roughly 10 alcoholic drinks and an extremely high level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in her blood at the time of the crash.

Diane’s family, particularly her husband, Danny, and sister-in-law, Jay, immediately cried foul.  Diane, her husband tells us, rarely drank and would have never put the kids at risk under any circumstance.  Other family members agree, but as more facts begin to reveal themselves, our perception of the accident begins to curve as well.

By seeking permission from the Shulers to film their story, it initially appears that director Liz Garbus is siding with the family; believing their every word.  But as the film progresses, we realize that isn’t the case at all.  At one point, Garbus (off camera) asks Jay what she hopes to gain from doing another set of toxicology tests.  Jay says she wants answers; she wants to prove that Diane wasn’t on drugs or alcohol.  “And if the results come back the same as before?” Garbus asks.  “Well… yeah… that’s what has me worried,” Jay responds.

This denial of evidence is not only what the film relies on for dramatic merit, it’s what keeps the film in evocative motion.

Danny and Jay assert that Diane hardly drank, why then was a smashed bottle of vodka found in the van after the crash?  Danny admits that Diane used marijuana rarely as a way to relax, Jay says she used it liberally.  If Diane couldn’t see the road while driving (as the kids in the van told their other relatives via cell phone), why didn’t she simply pull over?  Why did Diane stop just after a toll booth on the Tappan Zee Bridge and leave her cell phone on the side of the road?  And what, most obviously, caused her to drive 70 miles per hour the wrong way on a major highway?
The Shuler's minivan after the crash
While the film implores dozens of interviews – from renowned psychologists, witnesses, friends, relatives of victims, police investigators, celebrity lawyers,  toxicology experts – we’ll most likely never know the answers to those questions.

The black and white is: Diane Shuler, the $100,000 a year breadwinner who was by all accounts a dedicated “supermom,” killed eight people that day.  She had no history of alcohol or drug abuse, no history of depression, and no signs of a chemical imbalance.  She rarely discussed her personal life and was assumed to function well at a high level of stress.  She was a perfect mom, and a devoted wife.  But as Garbus told HBO: “Life is often messy.  We want answers.  We want black and white, but often times the truth lies in the gray.”

I’ve rarely seen the explorations of that gray to be as haunting as it is in There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.  This is a disturbing film.  From the eyewitness calls of panic in seeing a minivan drive the wrong way on a highway, to the calls of sheer terror at the scene of the collision, to gruesome photos of the accident, to the tearful memories of what was, and what will never be. 

If you have HBO, I implore you to watch this film (OnDemand or otherwise).  In a year already filled with fantastic theatrical documentaries, the best one yet is airing on premium cable television. A

For more about the film, click here.


  1. I have watched the HBO special and read just about everything I could on this story. I think that Diane Schuler was under tremendous stress. She did everything herself everything at home the bills school for the kids buying the groceries the clothes ALL of it and was the breadwinner. I believe she tried and was tired of pretending she was someone she wasn't and on top of that had a very serious (and very secret) drinking problem. It is referred to as a high functioning alcoholic. On top that she smoked pot -- at 36. A mother of 2 small children smoked pot. Is that b/c she hated doctors and would not go on an anti-anxiety med or anti-depressant and pot was the "substitute" for those kinds of medications? She was a vodka drinker -- serious drinker. It was easy to hide as her husband as he was gone at night. I think she drank the night before at the campgrounds and had a hell of a hangover the next day. She seemed frantic at the service station and we all know that she peeled out of there -- with 5 children in the car. I think she was beside herself with her stress and hangover. She drank to get her blood sugar up..the pot on top of the vodka!!! She was out of her mind.

    I think she was an unhappy women. She had gained an enormous amount of weight and was unhappy in her marriage, but she didn't want anyone to think of her as anything but perfect. It is just classic for an addict to let some people in on what they are up to and put a wall up to the rest..Jay knew about the Pot, but the Hance family did not. She had 10 shots of vodka -- her tolerance must have tremendous. But, was it a mistake or intentional that she drove the wrong direction on the Taconic??? She got sick twice and the kids didn’t tell their parents and she smoked pot in the car and they didn’t tell their parents – or, did they?

    I also think it is MORE than suspicious that: 1. The family did not call 911 immediately when she said she called to say she was in distress and when Emma called her father. (Did they suspect or know that she was a drinker and didn’t want her to get a DWI?) 2. No one called Danny until late in the game – why? There is more to this story than the family is reveling. I am guessing that is for legal reasons. Also, the investigator said he had turned over the second set of tox reports months and months ago. Did Danny just not tell anyone that? Where does this go now?? I believe that people in this family know much more than they are saying.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I really don't think we'll ever know the full story of why this happened.

    But let me ask you something: how did you feel about the pictures of Diane's dead body? Some people seem appalled, others offended, disgusted, and so on.

    How did you feel about them?

    1. I think the showing of Diane's body tells me the documentary thinks she is guilty. They wouldn't have done that if they thought it was a medical condition. It was graphic and meant to shock.

      Here is a woman who was the breadwinner and took complete care of the household. He admitted he didn't want kids. She is taking care of 5 kids under 8 camping no less. With no help I'm sure. She was at her wits end. I'm sure she has been drinking for years.

      She did it. The 8 year old confirms she is acting strange. It's awful. I'm sure she was a good person but she was an addict. She should have gotten help. Her actions killed those kids and herself.

  3. I have ordered the book that Mrs. Hance wrote...I'll See You Again. When I saw this book, that was pretty much the first time I heard about this incredibly awful incident. I probably heard about it, of course, 4 years ago when it occurred, but I had forgotten about it. It is so heartbreaking, & so much for just the every day person to try & wrap their mind around, I cannot even IMAGINE the horror that was left for the families. How in the world does someone come to
    terms with this!!!!??? Oh, my gosh, I am so sorry for everyone involved.

    1. It really is a horrible thing, isn't it? Very puzzlingly, very curious and very very sad. I haven't heard of Hance's book. I'll have to check that out soon.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

  4. I have a question (and I'm only asking out of curiosity, not because I have an opinion either way or any axe to grind): did anyone ever come forward to say they'd sold Diane the booze and/or pot?

    1. Not that I know of. But I mean, she could have bought them herself, IF she was actually on them. Very interesting and tragic.

  5. I haven't watched this yet but I will say this - my sister was a closet alcoholic and hid it well. You cannot smell vodka, but I began finding bottles stashed all over my moms house - in the bathroom laundry bin and whatnot. There were times I'd call her and she was slurring but I thought she was just tired. I'm not an idiot - there are a million reasons you might not notice especially if you have enough going on in your own life. My mother was dying of stage 4 cancer at the time and I'm sure that took a toll on my sister - she ended up in rehab after hitting rock bottom. So after reading comments here and not having seen the documentary yet, I have to agree with the comment about those under a lot of stress as a plausible explanation for those who tend to make the wrong choices. It happens and it's certainly plausible. What a shame.

    1. Thank you for this comment. I'm very sorry to hear about your mother and sister. I would love to hear your take on the documentary, because it does such a good job of presenting both sides of the mystery (or rather, all sides). I do agree that drug addiction can manifest itself for any number of reasons. Stress, trauma, genetics, and on and on. Thanks again for your comment.

  6. I was haunted and torn by this s documentary also! One thing - I wish people would stop saying that vodka has no smell. If you're drinking vodka, you smell like alcohol. (I'm a recovering alcoholic and believe me - or not, you can always do research - you still reek of alcohol if you drink vodka!

    1. With respect to some people who have commented on this post, I too think you can smell vodka, and quite easily. You can't smell it on someone if you too are drunk, but if you're sober and someone is lit on vodka (or any type of alcohol), the smell is very obvious and distinct.

      Yet another reason this documentary is still provoking debate. What a sad story.