On Sunday, July 26, 2009, Diane Schuler left the campgrounds in upstate New York where she was vacationing with her family and set off towards home on Long Island, a drive she had made numerous times before. With her were five young children: her son, her daughter and three nieces. Four hours later, she drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway for nearly two miles – eventually crashing into an oncoming SUV, killing herself and seven others. One of the worst motor-vehicle accidents in New York State history, the tragedy quickly became national news and her actions on that day, and in the past, were thrust under a microscope in a desperate search for answers.
In the aftermath, Diane Schuler was portrayed as a reckless drunk and a mother who cracked. But was she the monster the public made her out to be? Or the perfect wife and mother described by so many who knew her?
Filmmaker Liz Garbus (the Oscar-nominated The Farm: Angola, USA; HBO’s Bobby Fischer Against the World) explores this puzzling tragedy through interviews with never-before-heard witnesses and with Diane’s friends, as well as chronicling what transpired minute-by-minute.
Nine days after her deadly crash, Diane’s toxicology report revealed she had a blood-alcohol content of .19% – the equivalent of ten drinks and more than twice the legal limit – as well as a high blood level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. In sharp contrast to the toxicology report, Schuler had no known history of substance abuse or psychological problems and was generally known as a loving and stable wife and mother.
Nearly two years after the accident, There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane reveals previously unknown information about that day and sheds light on the unknown side of Diane. This wife and mother, who was also a cable TV executive, emerges in the film as a woman who strove to be perfect, often referred to as “supermom” by friends and family. As friend Sue Troccoli points out, “She seemed to be good at whatever she attempted…she was very good at her job, and she was a take-charge person, too.”
Beneath the “perfect” veneer, however, Diane had a tendency to hide whatever pain she experienced, both physical and psychological. Diane’s mother abandoned the family when she was just nine years old, leaving her with her father and three brothers. According to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Harold Bursztajn, such an event could be very traumatic for a young girl. It was obviously a wound that didn’t heal – since Diane had no contact with her mother, even as an adult – but one she never spoke about. As one friend explains, “She never complained about it [her mother leaving the family]. She never talked about it…almost like she wasn’t even there.”
In addition to exclusive interviews with family and friends – including Diane’s childhood friends, a co-worker and husband Daniel’s parents, who have never spoken out before – eyewitnesses, first responders, investigators and medical and psychiatric experts, the documentary draws on surveillance footage, family photos, news clips and expert testimony to explore events surrounding the crash. Piecing together that fateful day with a minute-by-minute retelling, the film seeks to understand how things could have gone so terribly wrong.
Just before the accident, Diane and her husband, Daniel, had been camping in upstate New York at Hunter Lake Campground with their two children and three nieces, ages two through eight. When the family left that morning, camp owner Ann Scott recalls thinking that nothing was amiss, saying, “[Diane] seemed sober to me.” Daniel left with their dog in his pickup truck, as previously planned, and Diane took the kids in her brother’s minivan, which she had borrowed for that purpose.
The film follows Diane’s husband, Daniel, and sister-in-law, Jay Schuler, who have been trying to clear Diane’s name ever since her death. Although they say she would occasionally have a social drink, and sometimes smoked marijuana in the evenings to relax, they simply cannot reconcile the toxicology results with the loving mother and aunt who would never knowingly endanger the children.
Assuming that Diane may have been impaired by a medical emergency that precipitated the crash, they hire a lawyer and a private investigator to pursue the possibility of an alternate explanation, however unlikely. As part of the investigation, the filmmakers were able to obtain Diane’s dental records, which Jay says they had been trying to get for over a year. As they look over dates of Diane’s dental appointments, Daniel says Diane had been rubbing her cheek often, but never complained of pain – an observation that others echo.
Guy Bastardi, 43, his father Michael Bastardi, 81, and family friend Daniel Longo, 72, were in the car that crashed head-on into Diane’s vehicle. Bastardi’s daughters, Roseanne Guzzo and Margaret Nicotina, say they have forgiven Diane but find it harder to forgive Daniel and Jay, who seem to them to be in denial about Diane’s culpability.
Diane’s five-year-old son Bryan was the sole survivor of the accident, sustaining a serious head injury that has left him with oculomotor nerve palsy, which affects movement in his right eye, for which he is receiving treatment. Jay has been helping Daniel take care of Bryan, and says the boy doesn’t remember the accident. When asked about it, he is said to reply, “Mommy’s head hurt. She couldn’t see.”
The need to make sense of a mysterious and shattering tragedy such as this is a natural impulse, which in many cases can never be fully fulfilled. There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane reveals a complex and complicated case – as opposed to one solved by simple or reductive analysis – that has left all those involved still wondering what really happened to Aunt Diane.
Liz Garbus’ HBO credits include the Emmy-winning Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, plus Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech, The Execution of Wanda Jean, Xiara’s Song, Coma, segments of the Addiction series and, most recently, Bobby Fischer Against the World.
There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane is produced and directed by Liz Garbus; produced by Julie Gaither; edited by M. Watanabe Milmore; cinematography by Michael Tucker; original music by Jonathan Zalben. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.