Out of Character
There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
Jay Schuler, Daniel Schuler, Harold Bursztajn, Dominic Barbara
(HBO Documentary Films)
HBO: 25 Jul 2010
“I’ve watched this, like, numerous times, over and over again, and she was fine, and that’s what’s frustrating.” Jay Schuler is watching a surveillance video at a gas station shot on Sunday, 26 July 2009. The stop-and-go, effect, typical of such footage, makes it hard to read exactly what Jay’s sister-in-law Diane Schuler is doing or thinking: she parks her minivan at the pump, heads inside a convenience store, appears to look for something, then leaves without buying anything. “I’m very big into, like, mystery shows,” says Jay. “And it’s just ironic to me that I feel like I’m on one of them. I feel like I’m walking around and there’s going to be, like, this story is going to come out.”
The story she hopes might come out may or may not have something to do with this video. Shortly after this scene, Diane drove her car the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway for almost two miles: when she crashed into another vehicle, eight people were killed. The only survivor was Diane’s five-year-old son Bryan. The victims included her daughter, her three nieces, and three men in the second car.
One of the nieces called home to worry, “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane,” a haunting phrase that now serves as the title of Liz Garbus’ documentary, premiering on HBO 25 July. The film takes up a number of perspectives on the tragedy, not least being Jay’s search for an explanation as to how Diane might have done something so strange. As she and her brother Daniel (Diane’s husband) see it, the behavior was utterly out of character. Diane had made this drive—from a campsite in upstate New York to her home in Long Island—many times before without incident. Danny had seen his wife that morning; he drove his pickup truck, with the dog and the laundry, and Diane her brother’s minivan.
Jay and Danny’s sense of horror and shock was only exacerbated when a New York State autopsy report revealed that Diane died with marijuana and the equivalent of 10 shots of alcohol in her body. The report led to public outrage: the accident was the worst in Westchester County in 75 years, a gruesome scene that left witnesses reeling, and gawkers—their numbers expanded by images available on line, including the gas station footage—have made vitriolic assessments of blame, calling Schuler all kinds of names and guessing what happened.
Some observers have blamed Danny for defending his wife, seeing in his efforts either willful blindness or outright deceit. He has made his own case public, speaking not only with the New York magazine’s Steve Fishman, but also local reporters, Larry King, and other TV hosts in order to proclaim his wife a “good person,” who would never drink and drive, and certainly never endanger children. Relatives of the other victims, unable to reconcile this with the autopsy report—as well as an account of a vodka bottle found in the minivan. Danny insists he didn’t’ see a bottle in the car when they parted ways that morning. Diane was not an alcoholic,” he says, refuting accusations: “My heart is rested every night when I go to bed at night.”
His resolve seems compounded by his decision to hire an investigator, Tom Ruskin, and a lawyer, Dominic Barbara. Ruskin appears in a clip with Oprah, not answering her question about the levels of marijuana (“I can’t explain it,” he says), but otherwise, as Danny puts it, “He disappeared.” It’s unclear how or why Ruskin has been out of touch with the man who hired him, or what communication they had before his absence. The lawyer appears in his office, wondering with an assistant about where the specimens and test results have gone. The filmmakers agree to help Danny and Jay get access to some documents, which underlines possible problems in any investigation, as participants have different and shared motivations. (“It’s ironic that you could get these so quickly and we’ve been asking for these for a year,” Jay says of Diane’s medical records.)
Here, however, it’s not clear what information might be gleaned from documents. The film occasionally takes on the shape of a TV magazine story, mysterious and disturbing. But it offers no resolution. Long, overhead tracking shots show the highway now, under a poignant piano track, or witnesses recall what they saw when, that the minivan was switching lanes, that Diane got out of the car at a rest stop, looking ill, or, as she headed the wrong way on the highway, “She didn’t even put on a brake… Her eyes didn’t even move.”
Such descriptions may or may not be accurate, and may or may not be clues about what happened. And that last day may or may not be related to a lifetime full of fragments, of behaviors and experiences. Dr. Harold Bursztajn, asked by the filmmakers to provide a forensic psychiatric autopsy, suggests that this trauma likely had effects, but of course, cannot say what they were. “When someone’s gone,” he says, survivors have a “tremendous wish to remember them, which in a way is the silver liming to the loss that people experience.”
Such wishes may be both visible and fictional. The film notes that some possible interviewees (say, the parents of Diane’s three nieces) declined to participate. Interviews with the sisters of two of the men in the second car indicate their frustrations, less with Diane than with Danny. Other questions come up in interviews with Diane’s longtime friends, who describe her as a “class clown,” self-confident, and “very content, very happy with the way her life was.”
More than one interviewee notes that Diane’s mother left the family when she was only nine, an experience that apparently scarred Diane, and one she refused to speak about with family or friends. As much as he portrays a perfect marriage, Danny is sometimes frustrated, on camera and self-confessed, or described by others. Diane did smoke occasionally to relieve stress, and she visited a dentist repeatedly, seeking relief from pain. Might she have made mistakes in judgment? Might she have suffered a medical event (a stroke, perhaps, or an effect of the tooth abscess) while driving that day?
The film doesn’t answer such questions. (And it may be raising new ones: the mother of the girl whose last words give the film its title notes that this choice “only makes it that much more painful.”) The film is about effects—about anger and guilt, pain and exasperation. It’s about that “wish to remember” and also to know, or even just to be able to live with not knowing. Jay describes her own experience of trying to piece together the story: “I feel like now I can look at these things all the time, but I’m just gonna come to wrong conclusions in my head.”