What Was Wrong With Aunt Diane…

July 26, 2011 at 6:00 am

Two years ago on Tuesday, Diane Schuler left a campground in upstate New York, where she was vacationing with her family, and set off for her home in Long Island. Four hours later she drove nearly two miles in the wrong direction on the Taconic State Parkway, eventually crashing into an oncoming SUV and killing eight people including herself, her daughter and her three nieces.

In the moments leading up to the crash, Schuler’s niece, 9-year-old Emma Hance, used a cell phone to call her mother from the vehicle. “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane,” she said. Those last few words are now the title of a new HBO documentary, directed by Oscar nominee and Emmy winner,  Liz Garbus.

Daniel Schuler, right, holds hands with sisters-in-law Jay Schuler, center, and Joyce Schuler, left, while surrounded by reporters during a press conference in Garden City, N.Y., Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009. Schuler's wife Diane was drunk and high on marijuana when she drove the wrong way for almost two miles on a highway before smashing head-on into an SUV, killing herself and seven others, a prosecutor said. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

The crash was one of the worst motor vehicle collisions in New York State history. The story rippled through the press.

Passing drivers reported that Schuler had a serene and oblivious look on her face as she stared straight ahead, grasping the steering wheel at ten and two, according to reports. Nine days after the crash, police investigators released a report from Schuler’s autopsy: the 36-year-old mother had apparently guzzled nearly 10 shots of alcohol and smoked pot, possibly while behind the wheel.

The national media vilified her as a drunk mother who cracked, but using interviews with friends and family, Garbus’ film, “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane,” captures a more nuanced portrait of a woman who seemed to have it all.

Garbus examines the events leading up to the crash and digs into Schuler’s past. Was she a reckless alcoholic who managed to keep her habit a secret? Or were the autopsy reports wrong, and was it some medical problem, like a stroke or a seizure, that caused Schuler to crash?  Garbus’ film includes extensive interviews with Schuler’s husband, Daniel, and her sister-in-law, Jay, who both argued the latter. Their belief that Schuler was the victim of a medical emergency was also documented in detail in Steve Fishman’s New York magazine article in November 2009, in which the two describe Schuler as a conscientious mother, who strove for perfection and would never knowingly endanger children. Daniel is also now suing the state for damages, claiming that the accident was a result of the Taconics poor design and inadequate signage, according to recent reports.

The film chronicles her family’s efforts to get answers from a private investigator hired in an effort clear Schuler’s name and their ultimate dissatisfaction with the results. But as the New York Times reports, the investigators’ findings are not what they hoped.

“There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane” premieres on HBO at Monday 9 p.m.



The trailer for “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane,” which airs on HBO Monday at 9 p.m.

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