What Exactly Went Wrong with Aunt Diane?

Denial is a powerful force. Take Daniel Schuler. In 2009, his wife Diane drove drunk and stoned, killing herself and seven others on New York’s Taconic Parkway. But Schuler couldn’t let this her memory rest in ruins. The day the toxicology report arrived — showing THC and a blood alcohol content twice the legal limit — he hired lawyers to clear this “supermom’s” name.

The HBO documentary, “There Is Something Wrong with Aunt Diane,” directed by Liz Garbus, follows Schuler and his sister-in-law’s quest.

This horrific tragedy has become a tale of one man’s refusal to admit his wife’s culpability, and it just keeps getting stranger. This week, the International Business Times reported Schuler filed suit against everyone he can blame for “causing” the tragedy, including the father of the three young girls his wife killed for lending her a van.

With this action, Daniel Schuler’s desperation to preserve his wife’s memory has become overtly cruel. The parents of those three girls, according to a letter read during the documentary, pretty much consider their lives to have ended that terrible July day. The mother writes that she can’t wait to die and join her girls.

The wife of Mike Bastardi, who was killed in the vehicle Schuler hit, once said of Daniel Schuler, “This is a man you can’t hate enough.” At this point we should be surprised he’s not suing Bastardi’s family for allowing Mike to drive the right way on the Taconic Freeway when they should have know someone might be driving the wrong way.

Schuler’s lawsuit also calls into question the freeway’s design and signage. Apparently people driving head on toward Diane honking and waving their arms and veering off onto the grass to avoid getting creamed were overshadowed by the poor freeway design that convinced Diane she was going the right way.

How Could Daniel Schuler Be So Obstinate?

For anyone who has worked with alcoholics and addicts, one of the most striking facts brought up in the documentary is that Diane and Daniel had totally opposite work schedules, so their only real time together was on the weekends. You can’t help but ask if that made it easier for Diane to maintain a secret drinking problem. The fact the documentary does not address this possibility is one of its most disappointing aspects. It is well known that women are more secretive about problem drinking and are very adept at hiding it, and that binge drinking among women is on the rise. It is also known that binge drinkers tend to behave much more recklessly than regular drinkers.

According to Dr. Sack, Addiction Psychiatrist and CEO of Promises Treatment Centers, it is not uncommon for family members to minimize drinking behavior or dismiss occasional binge-drinking incidents as isolated incidents.

“Ignoring signs of binge drinking or other drug abuse is potentially very dangerous. Women tend to hide their substance abuse well. And if they binge drink only occasionally, family members will often underestimate the riskiness of this behavior,” Dr. Sack says.

But if she was only an occasional drinker, how could she manage to down 10 drinks in a short period of time? Sack says, “While binge drinkers will consume large quantities in short periods of time, the amount of alcohol in her system at the time of the crash would suggest someone with a fair degree of tolerance to alcohol.”

A 2007 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that about 19.5% of alcoholics are characterized as the “functional” type. They essentially lead double lives. They are viewed by others as very successful and hardworking, and they make sure no one discovers that they are using alcohol or other drugs in secret. In fact, it is their accomplishments that make it so easy to hide their alcohol problem. In these types of cases, they may almost seem “perfect” — and the family would be shocked to discover there is a problem. In fact, many of her friends were shocked to discover she smoked pot at all, which is now an undisputed fact. Diane’s sister-in-law was one of the few who knew about Diane’s secret pot habit; she says Diane smoked mostly to help her sleep.

Diane was the real breadwinner in the family (she earned $100K a year), and by all accounts an excellent mother who was very active in her kids’ lives. But the high-functioning alcoholic learns how to separate their personal and professional life from their drinking life. They are expert at it until something comes along and destroys the façade. In some cases, that might be a horrific car accident.

Studies have also shown that women are more likely to hide their alcoholic tendencies than men. Because women are the main caretakers of the family they may feel that any drinking should be hidden from family and friends. They will often drink alone — when the children are at school and husband is at work. They tend to choose clear, odorless drinks like vodka; they can easily disguise what they are drinking by putting it in a used water bottle or mixing with orange juice.

The HBO documentary did interview outside experts who supported the evidence that Diane was drunk at the time of the accident, but in an almost apologetic way. Dr. Werner Spitz, a respected medical examiner, was the only one who seemed to say to the Schulers that the results were what they were, what do you want us to do? He reiterated that the question of alcohol will always prevail.

Daniel Schuler doesn’t let anything deter him from proving his wife’s “innocence.” He has created his own bizarre theory about an abscessed tooth causing a stroke that made her mistake vodka for drinking water. He doesn’t really explain what she mistook the marijuana for, and he doesn’t explain how the vodka bottle ended up in the van in the first place.

Also appearing in the documentary was Dr. Harold Bursztajn, apparently to give a forensic psychiatry autopsy. He admits that people are seeking to preserve her memory by focusing on a medical event where there is no evidence in autopsy, but do we really need a forensic psychiatrist to tell us something so obvious? He never really discusses the possibility that Diane was expert at keeping her behavior secret. He seems to treat the case with kid gloves, as if he’s afraid he’ll offend the family. One can’t help but feel that someone simply needs to tell Daniel Schuler that he’s deluding himself and to move on.

The family hired an investigator to redo the toxicology exam, but the results were the same: Diane was very, very drunk and stoned. Daniel Schuler’s response? We should exhume the body and do another autopsy.

While it seems incredible that the documentarians could not find one person to acknowledge Diane may have had a problem, Dr. Sacks says this doesn’t necessarily mean no one suspected she had one, “It may only mean that they feel that the family has suffered enough.”

The video footage of her walking into a gas station without swaying or appearing intoxicated is used by Daniel to claim she couldn’t have really been drunk. However, her behavior in the video does not rule out intoxication — it may just indicate long-term abuse that has resulted in higher tolerance.

“When people have a high degree of tolerance to alcohol, they may appear completely awake and lucid despite very elevated alcohol levels. It is not unusual to see an alcoholic with a 0.3 level (for some this would be lethal) who appears coherent and alert,” say Dr. Sack.

Witness descriptions of Diane with hands at two and 10, driving full-speed ahead without acknowledging honking horns or swerving cars is consistent with a black out, says Dr. Sack. Daniel Schuler would like you to believe it’s more consistent with a stroke.

Schuler hired attorney Dominic Barbara to rehabilitate Diane’s image, but his association with other questionable “celebrity” characters just gives the whole case an even more unpleasant stench.

He and his investigator, Tom Ruskin, have tried to create a phony mystery, a sense that something happened that was beyond Diane’s control. They do this by saying, how could a PTA mom and successful career woman, perfect in every way, just decide to drink 8-10 drinks and drive her children? They want you to believe that is impossible and makes no sense. However, anyone in the addiction treatment field knows this happens all the time. Mothers drive their children home from school drunk. They get away with it every day. The truth is it’s more surprising this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often.

Schuler is part of a disturbing trend in the United States: while the rate of drunk driving among men has been falling, it has been rapidly rising among women. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) reports that they receive 17,000 child endangerment calls every year from individuals concerned that children are being driven by alcohol-impaired drivers, many of them mothers.

The children in these cars are often terrified but have no idea what to do. It’s time we train them to do what a 12-year-old did in Connecticut when her mother drove her drunk: call 911.

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