There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane: What Morality, Medicine & Documentary Can’t Explain

Acclaimed documentarian Liz Garbus‘s most recent documentary feature, There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (which premiered this week on HBO), examines what might have led supermom Diane Schuler to drive a borrowed minivan southbound in the northbound lane of the New York’s Taconic State Parkway two years ago. With her two young children and her three nieces (all under the age of ten) as passengers, Schuler drove her borrowed minivan at a high rate of speed until it collided head-on with another vehicle. The crash caused the deaths of eight people, including all three occupants of the other car, four of Schuler’s five passengers, and Schuler herself. Police investigators retrieved an empty vodka bottle from Schuler’s vehicle and the official toxicology report subsequently revealed both that Schuler’s blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit and also that Schuler had recently ingested marijuana.

Beyond these details of the incident, the only certainty the documentary offers is suggested by its title, There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. (The title is itself a quote borrowed from a statement Schuler’s eight year old niece Emma Hance reportedly made in a cell phone call roughly an hour before the fatal crash.) As it explores what might have been “wrong” with Diane Schuler that day, the film does not provide a single, clarifying explanation for Schuler’s actions and neither demonizes nor vindicates her. This will almost certainly frustrate those viewers who crave narrative closure for the story Garbus tells. Yet to view the documentary’s meticulous ambiguity as a failing looks past much of what makes There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane a compelling and contributive documentary portrait of how contemporary U.S. culture comprehends intoxication and its impact on society.

The search for the “something wrong” with Diane Schuler provides the narrative structure to Garbus’s documentary as the camera follows Diane’s husband Danny and (especially) her sister-in-law Jay as they seek a satisfying explanation for what happened. Danny and Jay fervently reject the official police explanation for the crash (that Diane Schuler was severely intoxicated) because such an explanation is radically inconsistent with the person they believe Diane to have been. Garbus follows as Danny and Jay seek what they call a “medical” explanation for Diane’s actions, helping along the way to untangle the information snarls created by the several ongoing investigations.

Yet, even as it takes seriously Danny and Jay Schuler’s need to find satisfying answers, Garbus’s film assiduously avoids providing answers of its own. Instead, Garbus draws upon the conventions of television “news” magazine shows to scrutinize the inherent limits of the two dominant narratives available to explain intoxication and its societal impact. These prevailing explanations are, on the  stubbornly familiar hand, that intoxication is a signal feature of moral turpitude and, on the other, that intoxication is but a symptom of a psychomedical disorder. In the film, Danny and Jay Schuler reject the idea that Diane was drunk/high on emphatically moral terms, affirming repeatedly that Diane was a “good mother” and was not “the kind of person” to drive while intoxicated. At the same time, Danny and Jay’s faith in Diane’s character is matched only by their belief in the potential of contemporary forensic investigation techniques to reveal a medical explanation for Diane’s actions. This is the point, it seems to me, of Garbus’s film: to document the tenacity of Danny and Jay’s faith, both in Diane and in science, as those parallel faiths inevitably collide with the known (and unknowable) facts of the deadly crash.

Thus, with subtlety and emotional precision, Liz Garbus’s film reveals how morality remains an intransigient, prevailing explanation for why someone drinks even as ascendant, comparably totalizing medical (whether psychiatric or forensic) explanations become ever more familiar. Yet the contribution of Garbus’s film derives from how deftly it underscores the inadequacy of all these discourses (whether moral, medical, or cinematic) to finally answer the tacit question so hauntingly posed by Emma Hance as she observed There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane will play for HBO subscribers and on HBO enabled devices in rotation in the coming months. A DVD release of the film has not yet been scheduled.

16 thoughts on “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane: What Morality, Medicine & Documentary Can’t Explain

  1. I did not hear in the documentary if this could be false results of alcohol,and mistaken for nightquill.

  2. NightQuill has Alcohol in it and will show up as if you have alcohol in your system if taken excessively.

  3. There was no mention of NyQuil in the documentary.

    As the documentary shows, three separate toxicological investigations have confirmed a blood alcohol level (of .19) in Diane Schuler’s system at the time of her death. The official investigation was that conducted by NY authorities, with subsequent separate independent exams contracted by the Schuler family and the filmmakers. Police investigators point to the empty vodka bottle found in the car as being possibly connected to Schuler’s high blood alcohol level (estimated as being the equivalent of 10 drinks consumed) but nothing has (or can) be confirmed based on the available evidence. However, as the documentary affirms, and news reports this week seem to suggest, the Schuler family continues to doubt the conclusions reached by investigators regarding the levels of alcohol and THC found in Diane Schuler’s system.

    Thanks for reading!

  4. I don’t know what the legal BAC limit is in NY, maybe 0.1 %. Even if she was 0.2 % and had smoked marijuana something else was going on. Is there any suggestion that she had been prescribed any of the so called SSRI’s such as Prozac or Zoloft? These drugs have been implicated in many cases where people have done bizarre things that are seemingly totally out of character.

  5. It seems as though the family (and the filmmaker) simply took the investigator at his word…where are the lab results/reports? I work in a field where DNA and toxicology reports are used frequently. I regularly have to hire experts to analyze those reports. I would NEVER just take an investigator’s word, even if I trusted him. It clearly seems like this investigator was more out for money than the truth. Does anyone have any actual proof that the second DNA test was even done?

  6. @Rod: Director Liz Garbus does suggest that this seems to be a situation in which a lot of seemingly minor decisions combined in a perfectly disastrous storm. Susan Cheever has also recently commented on how common it is for women in particular to use a negligible amounts of a variety of substances so as not to over-use any one. One talking head in the film also notes that, given number of drinks required for the reported blood alcohol level in tandem with the THC and the relatively tight window of consumption, it does edge into the first tier of alcohol poisoning where blackouts and other erratic behaviors are not uncommon.

    @Michelle; I don’t think it accurate to say that the family and filmmaker just took anybody’s word. As the film notes, Danny Schuler has been seeking an exhumation order for additional tests to be done. As is also shown in the film, the filmmakers did contract an array of top-tier experts to review the available data.

    That said, in a roundabout way, this entire conversation addresses the core premise of the film: that (A) a horrific incident like this begs explanation and (B) a satisfactory explanation may never be found. SO, if neither medical science nor personal morality (or documentary film) can satisfactorily explain what happened – the film seems to ask – what are we to do with our questions?

    ====

    For Garbus’s statement: http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/theres-something-wrong-with-aunt-diane/interview/liz-garbus.html
    For Cheever’s comment: http://www.thefix.com/tags/there%E2%80%99s-something-wrong-aunt-diane

  7. I can’t believe people are still debating the issue of substance abuse. It is an undeniable fact that Diane Schuler was drunk and high on marijuana. She had about 10 drinks in her stomach and more undigested alcohol at death. It appeared at some point she became ill. It has been confirmed that she was a regular pot smoker. Maybe that is when she smoked the pot, hoping it would settle her stomach. Maybe she was drunk because her husband was the ultimate loser. When he states in the documentary that he never wanted to have children and look at what he is left with, I wanted a drink myself. Now he is suing the state of NY, the family of the 3 girls his wife murdered and the family of the other passengers his wife murdered.

    Obviously, Diane Schuler had many demons that she masked quite effectively by surrounding herself with people she could control with her always helpful take control nature. Most people had no idea she smoked pot, What else didn’t they know she did?

    Accept that this middle class woman, that made $100,000 dollars a year, did knowingly drink and smoke pot while driving a van filled with children she loved. She lost control and could not ask for help due to a personality disorder that stemmed from her perceived abandonment by her mother.

    • Right on the nose…
      I’ve had neighbors like this: Drinks like fish, however, pretending they’re such upstanding people. Liars…..to the bitter end!
      I feel sorry for the parents of the three cousins (Hance)…their world was shattered by a wreckless and selfish sister. What are the chances they knew of her drinking and pot smoking? Why would they entrust their children to such a pair of careless slouches?
      Frankly — I hope Diane Schuler burns in hell for eternity.
      Danny Schuler is an obvious and pathetic liar. What does he want — pity?
      Instead, how about pity for all the innocent cildren and the victims of the Schuler’s useless lives!!!

  8. @JoyL very well said, I believe that as a society we can’t comprehend the atrocity that some people commit against their children and so in our minds we have to justify their behavior, not because we believe them to be wonderful moral people, but because we can’t fathom the irresponsibility and callousness of others.

    I would like for the Bastardi family to hire investigators to prove that Daniel knowingly allowed his wife to drive under the influence of alcohol and THC. If bar owners can be held responsible for their patrons, then why shouldn’t Daniel be held responsible for his wife’s actions.

    And when Emma Hance phoned her family stating something was wrong…why didn’t that family member get a hold of the police and have her stopped? More than likely that family member knew Diane was “messed” up and didn’t want to get the police involved, because she would have definitely been arrested and hauled off to jail and this persons’ vehicle impounded. No, her family knew and they all put the lives of those children into her hands. They are all responsible.

  9. Joely, did you see the documentary? It clearly shows that the family immediately called police (the 911 tapes are played) telling them that the girl had called and said something was wrong. They even try to see if they can get her position from cell phone pings. The accident doesnt occur until an hour after the girl calls and it seems Diane herself was trying to phone people (she makes several misdialed calls before abandoning her phone on the side of the road). Also, security footage of her at a gas station before the crash clearly shows that she was stable on her feet, knew what she was doing (she asks for headache pills they don’t carry) and speaks with the cashier. All in all, it shows to me that whatever happened I don’t believe this was something she planned or the family had knowledge of. A true mystery and terrible tragedy.

  10. She was drunk and high. She drove the wrong way on the freeway and got her and several children killed. Drugs (even prescription) and alcohol are bad. I think this is a case where the family is in denial and everyone around them is feeding into it.

  11. To the first poster’s who are trying to imply Diane could have taken Nyquil; Do you know how much she would have to have dranken to reacht hat BAC? It is physically impossible to reach that on Nyquil because there’s very little alcohol in it. She would pass out first from the sleeping agents in it. She pulled over and puked at the rest stop from slamming a bottle of Absolut Vodka.

    Seems pretty clear to me she was high and drunk and had a mental breakdown while driving. I personally can’t drive while stoned, however, I know alot of people that can. The same goes for alcohol. She most likely wasnt used to driving with both alcohol and weed in her system. I’ve done it before when I was younger, but it’s hard. She didn’t seem to be weaving so her motor skills were mostly still intact but it seems like she had a loss of reality somewhat. On top of that the alcohol and weed probaly triggered some manic episode and that’s why she couldn’t stop while other motorists honked and flashed their lights.

    This woman had a underlying mental problem that was a ticking time bomb that finally blew. I feel bad for the children and the 3 passengers in the other car that seemed to get the short end of the stick in this documentary.

    The husband knew of his wife’s problems but is most likely hiding them given the fact that the he received the 2nd DNA test from Ron’s office and chose not to divulge them. Something seems very strange with him, this is why I’m very skeptical about marriage.

  12. @ Mary.

    I do not think the Diane planned to get out wasted to the point where she lost control but I do believe that she was a functioning substance abuser and had been for years.

    Any theory that revolves around the fact that Diane had a medical emergency that led to her consumption of alcohol and pot is mute due to the fact that she had alcohol and pot in the car. How convenient! Now I ask you, who but a substance abuser loads 5 kids into a minivan with marijuana and a bottle of absolut vodka?

    Watching Danny’s reaction to Diane’s and his daughter’s death along with his recent vile lawsuit, it isn’t hard to understand how the vacation may have pushed her over the edge.

    • I’m not trying to take the blame away from Diane. Clearly the drugs were in her system. My questions arise from the facts in the timeline. It would appear that she would have had to consume a great deal of the alcohol in a short period of time. Had she been drinking heavily in the morning she would have shown signs of this in the gas station footage. Also in the hour between the girls call of her acting strangely and the collision she would have clearly been weaving and unstable in her driving (believe me, I rode with many a drunk in my younger years and the weaving was always there!). Her fast straight line driving is much more the actions of some kind of stimulant rather than 2 nervous system depressants. It’s just hard to make the facts jive with the toxicology, she should have been sluggish and slower (especially with the pot). I guess it all comes down to every individuals unique bodily response to what they ingest.

  13. I JUST WATCHED AND I REALLY WANT HER FAMILY TO HEAR MY STORY!! MY FIANCE HAD A QUAD BI-PASS AND WAS SENT HOME..A FEW DAYS LATER HE WENT BACK TO EMERGENCY ROOM IN AN AMBULANCE,THEY SAID HE WAS FINE AND ME AND HIM IN CAR,HIM DRIVING AND ACTING WEIRD WELL LONG STORY SHORT HE WAS HAVING STROKE AND WE DID NOT KNOW,IF i WAS NOT WITH HIM SCREAMING AND TUGGING HIM TO PULL OVER HE WOULD HAVE KILLED HIMSELF AND OTHERS BECAUSE HE WENT IN A TRANCE,i DROVE THE REST OF THE WAY AND WHEN WE GOT HOME HE LAYED DOWN,WE THOUGHT EVERY THING WAS OK BUT 2 DAYS LATER HE SLID OFF COUCH WITH STROKE!! i WANT HER FAMILY TO KNOW THAT PEOPLE WILL SAY ANY THING TO MAKE IT GO AWAY LIKE DRINKING AND DRUGS…

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