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.
Part of the problem is that compared to men, women are delicate creatures. Because of our smaller size, we are at greater risk than men for alcohol-related problems. We have less body water to dilute alcohol as it passes through our digestive track. We have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme responsible for metabolizing alcohol, so our bodies are exposed to more alcohol (and its toxic byproducts) and for a longer time than men.
Women who drink more than the government guidelines for “moderate drinking”—one a day—are at sharply increased risk for many cancers, for diseases of the heart, brain and liver (cirrhosis and hepatitis) and for miscarriages. More than half of all domestic violence incidents involve alcohol as well as half of reported rapes and many more assaults. The 30% of women who drink during pregnancy may cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in their children, the leading cause of intellectual disability in the West with a lifetime cost as high as $800,000 per child. And of course a child with an alcoholic parent is far more likely to become an adult alcoholic and have other psychological problems.
Alcohol is more deadly for women than for men, but women often hesitate to seek treatment. “We have a double standard for women,” Marty Mann, the first woman in Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote in 1970 in an analysis that is still very true. “In some areas behavior that is permissible for men is absolutely unacceptable for women…. This means that when a woman feels uncertain about her drinking…she goes underground.”
Some 5.3% of American women drink in a way that threatens their health, but it is still hard to wrap our minds around the fact that the frazzled mother of three, or the sexy, stalled mistress of a married man, or the business exec who can’t seem to live on her salary, might actually all have the same problem—alcoholism.
Another reason alcoholism in women often goes unnoticed is that we tend to spread our addiction among several different substances at once. To be slightly addicted to a lot of things is far more acceptable than to be enslaved by addiction to one thing. An alcoholic woman can “pass” as someone who (1) occasionally gets drunk and (2) is always struggling with her love of sweets and a bit of extra weight and (3) can’t quite live within her budget or balance her checkbook and (4) sometimes sleeps with the wrong man, and no one—not even the woman herself—spots this as classic addiction strategy.
Such a woman would likely recoil from the label of alcoholic (she only drinks too much every now and then) or food addict (it’s just 10 pounds) or a money or sex addict. But addicts are known to frequently switch from one substance to another—one recent study found that a significant number of post-bariatric patients who could no longer act out with food acquired new addictions like gambling, smoking or alcoholism. Alcoholism in women often goes unnoticed because we tend to spread our addiction among several different substances at once. To be slightly addicted to a lot of things is far more acceptable than to be enslaved by addiction to one thing.
This was my method for hiding addiction, and it may also have been Diane Schuler’s. She struggled with overeating. She smoked pot at night to “get a good night’s sleep,” according to her sister-in-law. And she clearly understood and depended on the benefits of alcohol. Like Schuler, I succeeded so well that I hid my addictions for years from almost everyone, including myself. I had no idea that the problems in my life—the failed marriages, the financial struggle, the late-night eating, the idiopathic fainting spells, the occasional embarrassment after too much wine, the fender benders—had anything to do with alcoholism. I did well at work. I was a good mother.
Alcoholism may have been a problem formy father and my third husband. It certainly was no problem for me. My father had several heart attacks and suffered from delirium tremens so bad he sometimes couldn't hold a glass in his hands, my husband often passed out at the dinner table. They both drank huge pools of gin. If they were examples of alcoholism, how could I possibly be one as well? For women asking themselves this question today, the tragic story of Diane Schuler—who was clearly a good mother and a good worker and an awful alcoholic—provides an acute, dreadful incentive to look in the mirror.
Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.