There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

The film takes up a number of perspectives on the tragedy, not least being Jay's search for an explanation as to how Diane Schuler might have done something so strange.

There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Rated: NR
Director: Liz Garbus
Cast: Jay Schuler, Daniel Schuler, Harold Bursztajn, Dominic Barbara
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2010-07-25 (HBO)

"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."


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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