June 26, 2014

There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Liz Garbus, 2011
You probably heard the news story soon after it happened. One of those terrifying headlines about a wrong way driver that crashed on the highway, killing eight people total including herself. Basically anyone's worst nightmare. If you lived in the Northeast, it felt even more personal because those roads are so familiar. Soon after you probably caught the headline about the toxicology reports coming back stating that the female driver of the maroon minivan had alcohol in her system at the time of the crash. The equivalent of ten alcoholic drinks in her system, and also traces of THC. Perhaps you then judged her like the rest of America did. Assumed she was a bad mother that put her own kin in harms way, despite the fact that her husband came forward and with full conviction said that she would not have been drinking that day.

That woman was Diane Schuler, mother of three. On the morning of July 26, 2009 she said goodbye to her husband Daniel at a campsite that they frequented in the Hudson Valley. He assumed that he would see her soon at their home in Long Island. But hours later the family started receiving phone calls from the children in the car, saying that Aunt Diane was driving erratically and seemed disoriented. The fateful day tragically ended after she collided with an SUV on the Taconic State Parkway where she was driving in the wrong direction. She killed herself, her daughter and three nieces, and three men in the oncoming SUV. The toxicology tests confirmed that she was inebriated during the drive home, a fact that her husband Daniel has firmly denied being possible. And just like that, so many lives just stripped from the world. Utter tragedy.

This chilling (and at times difficult to watch) documentary thoroughly examines the events of that horrible day that tore multiple families apart. It attempts to retrace Diane's steps. There are interviews with family members on both sides. It revisits the scene of the accident. The pain is still present, unlikely to ever really go away. You feel it too. The shock. The sense of mystery. Daniel is resolute, completely denying the possibility that Diane would have drank alcohol and attempted to drive home with the girls in the van. And while there is substantial evidence that confirms that she was in fact intoxicated, it does seem hard to believe as the film really explores Diane the person. What's clear is that she was a caring mother. A hard worker. A loyal friend. A loving wife. Garbus effectively paints an elaborate picture of the good person that was Diane Schuler. It's the unanswered factors that make it so agonizing. The lack of closure. But you come away knowing more about Diane. You can't blame Daniel for fighting to defend her legacy. If the film's mission is to humanize a complicated woman who was quickly dismissed as a reckless killer, it certainly succeeds. 

Some additional thoughts on the film...(SPOILERish ALERT)
While Daniel's persistance is admirable and certainly understandable, there are some stand-out factors that don't fare well for Daniel's defense/denial of the situation. There is a bottle of vodka found in the van. Daniel admits that she would occasionally smoke pot. He hires Howard Stern show regular caller/celebrity lawyer Dominic Barbara as his attorney, a man who in recent years has had some serious legal issues. Not exactly the most credible figure to have representing you. Daniel dismisses the private investigator that they had hired saying that he had basically taken their money and ran, but you later discover that he did in fact reach out to tell them that the second round of testing confirmed the original toxicology results. They were told not to answer his calls at that point. At the end of the day, you could be just like Daniel and scrutinize every detail in the case but it's not going to change much and it's not going to bring anyone back. It's just sad, really sad.

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