Mommy's Little Secret: The Truth About Diane Schuler
Until a devoted mom named Diane Schuler killed eight people, including herself, her daughter, and three nieces in a horrific car accident, no one suspected she could be an alcoholic. Nice, middle class women like her just weren't made that way.
Just about two years ago, a 36-year-old mother with five small children in her minivan took a wrong turn on her way back from the Sullivan County campground where the family had spent the weekend to their house on Long Island. Diane Schuler, a successful account executive and the mother of two of the children in the car, sped up the Taconic Parkway in the wrong direction for almost two miles before crashing into an oncoming SUV. Eight people were killed: Schuler, her two-year-old daughter, her three nieces aged 8, 7 and 5. Three others died in the SUV she collided with, including a coupe in their sixties.
The crash was the most devastating motor-vehicle accident that Westchester County had witnessed in more than 70 years. Still, that wasn’t the reason the accident attracted national attention. For a few days, Schuler’s bizarre behavior was a mystery. She was, by all appearances, a great wife and devoted mother, a warm, responsible employee and boss at Cablevision—why had she lost her way? Explanations—excuses—were quickly advanced: The Taconic is a narrow highway with no shoulder and few places to pull over; Schuler suffered from diabetes and had been complaining that morning of a toothache.
When the toxicology reports came back two weeks later, the information they contained hit the American public, who were by then entranced by the story, like a proverbial ton of bricks. Diane Schuler had been not only drunk but stoned as she made the fatal mistake of entering the Taconic via an exit ramp. In fact, Schuler had the equivalent of 10 drinks in her system and high levels of THC in her blood. In addition, witnesses later reported seeing Schuler at two different times that morning on her knees by the side of the road, apparently vomiting. A red minivan had been spotted careening, tailgating, flashing headlights, honking and straddling two lanes—all signs of DUI—along the same route that Schuler had followed.
As depicted in an elegant, heartbreaking documentary by Emmy Award¬winner Liz Garbus that is airing this month on HBO, ever since the accident, Schuler’s husband has dedicated himself in the two years since the accident to a pointless—some might say insane—effort to clear his wife's name of the charge that she was an alcoholic. (Can you imagine someone trying to clear their name of any other chronic disease?) The documentary is called There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, which were eight-year-old Emma’s last words to her father when she called him on Schuler’s cell phone, which was later found by the side of the road. (On the morning after There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane debuted, Daniel Schuler, a public safety officer for the Nassau County Police Department, announced that he was suing both the state of New York for not keeping the Taconic safe and his brother-in-law Warren Hance because he owned the minivan. Talk about epic denial.)
Schuler was condemned for abdicating what is presumed to be a woman’s primary responsibility: to protect her children. She was a good mom—everyone says so—and yet good moms don’t get so wasted behind the wheel of a car as to put their children in danger.
As Garbus deftly shows, Diane Schuler’s problem was alcohol and drugs, and it was a problem she had been able to successfully hide both at home and at work.
It’s hard to raise children, and a long car trip with five children under eight may have seemed intolerable without a drink or two. In fact, police found an empty bottle of Absolut vodka in the crushed metal of Schuler’s minivan. For many women, especially women with young children and necessary jobs, alcohol or marijuana are what make it all seem possible.
Schuler came from a drinking culture—her husband had a previous DUI—and she knew what magic booze and pot can work. A drink can calm frayed nerves and confer patience enough to deal with the clamoring demands of young children. A joint can clear a headache or blunt the kind of dental pain Schuler suffered from.
For a long time, drinking can work very well. For Diane Schuler, however, the solution had become the problem. She’s an extreme example of what happens to many female alcoholics, women who feel under intense pressure to be Supermoms, to excel at careers and to look good at the same time.
In the aftermath of the Schuler story, there was a great deal of useful reporting about women and alcoholism. For a month or two, a light was shone on this significant problem that we generally prefer to ignore. Over the past decade, a slightly madcap trend in “drinking moms” has emerged. Websites like vodkamom.com (“they whine; I drink wine”) and tweets from #martinimom ("Like a soccer mom. But with vodka") encourage a naughty glass of wine or three to ease the difficulties of raising children. At the time of Schuler’s accident, a Sacramento mom’s Facebook page called “OMG I so need a glass of wine or I'm going to sell my kids” had some 72,000 fans; since then it grown into a members-only website complete with advertising, shopping, recipes, etc.
Women alcoholics are different from men, and they are often harder to spot. For one thing, many people have a hard time believing that a woman—that delicate creature bursting with maternal instincts—can have the same alcohol problems as men. But we do. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that one third of all alcoholics are women, although many experts consider that estimate too low because of the strategies women often use to conceal their addiction.