On July 26, 2009, Diane Schuler left the New York campground where she was vacationing and began her trip home to Long Island with her two children and three nieces in tow. Over the course of the next four hours, she would appear on a gas station security camera, pull over at a highway rest stop, dial three wrong numbers from the shoulder and drive nearly two miles at high speed in the wrong direction on the Taconic Parkway, eventually colliding head-on with an SUV. Of Schuler, the five kids, and the three men in the other vehicle, only Schuler’s son survived.
My timing here is off, and not only because Liz Garbus’ HBO documentary about the events of that day, “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane,” premiered in July. It also doesn’t make for light holiday fare. But if you have not seen it, know two things: it is available on HBO on demand, and it is essential viewing.
On one level, Garbus’ film is an investigation, weighing toxicology reports, autopsy findings, eyewitness testimony, character analysis, phone records, and security video — a re-membering of tragedy, stitching it back together piece by piece. In the end, though, the answers, or lack thereof, are unsatisfying. By all accounts from family and friends, Schuler was an ideal mother, wife, colleague, friend — so how to explain blood alcohol more than double the legal limit, or evidence of marijuana consumption? She may have suffered from debilitating pain caused by an abscessed tooth — but can a toothache cause blackouts? She was apparently content — even under the utmost duress, though, can an otherwise happy person drive into oncoming traffic with five kids on board?
The heart of the film’s power is at this tipping point between questions and answers. “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane” becomes, through the ultimate opaqueness of those tragic events, something even darker — a film about the very tenuousness of what we call “evidence,” of what we call “personality,” of what we call “knowing” somebody. “I know Diane” is repeated like an incantation in the film, as though by knowing we can magic away the trouble, bring back the dead, restore the story to its rightful track.
I was reminded, watching “Aunt Diane,” of “Capturing the Friedmans,” another film in which the truth is so elusive as to suggest that the concept of “truth” must be an absurdity. Andrew Jarecki’s debut film, a quiet, piercing masterpiece of the form, tells of another unassuming New York family, the Friedmans of Great Neck, whose patriarch, Arnold, and son, Jesse, are accused of child molestation in the 1980s. It’s a film nearly impossible to synopsize without ruining its slippery momentum, the sense on first viewing that one has fallen into a rabbit hole from which there may be no exit.
Watching the Friedmans disintegrate, or the Schulers attempt to rebuild, is a harrowing experience. Both films call to mind my every moment of denial, misunderstanding, inattention, idiocy, worry, pain; both suggest, frighteningly, that whatever faith we have in the power of “knowing” people or piecing together “evidence” is at best unstable, at worst a complete sham. After watching “Aunt Diane” twice, and researching a bit on my own, I still cannot satisfactorily piece together how the deadly accident came to pass: how she came to a point where she would consume the equivalent of ten drinks and a joint with five kids under her supervision; how she made it past a gas station attendant, rest stop, toll booth, and miles of highway so intoxicated without being noticed; how she came to dial three wrong numbers, and what she hoped to say; how even then she could drive the wrong way at 70 mph for nearly two miles without pulling over, stopping, even slowing down.
Such questions niggle — like those of Arnold and Jesse Friedman’s guilt, of Arnold and Elaine’s difficult marriage, of the Friedmans’ family history of mental illness, disappointment, and unhappiness. They niggle because everyone is sure that the Friedmans and Schulers lived the dream. Until suddenly they didn’t, and we can’t ever quite know why.