Diane Schuler and the
Female DUI Epidemic

By Susan Cheever 01/18/12

What the ongoing obsession with Diane Schuler's bizarre and tragic death trip reveals about the soaring spike in drunk driving by American women.

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Diane and Daniel Schuler with son Bryan and daughter Erin.
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Liz Garbus, who produced and directed a documentary about Diane Schuler, There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, said, “[Making the film,] I learned about the ideals around motherhood, the way that [Diane] was put on a pedestal as the perfect mom, what the ingredients of being a perfect mom looked like. The idea is probably too much for anybody to be, yet we want people to be it."

Two and a half years later, speculation still swirls around the “real” story behind Diane Schuler’s bizarre and tragic death trip. How did the supermom turn into the mad housewife? Was she suicidal? Did she have a psychotic break? What betrayal, disappointment or rage drove her over the edge? Or worst of all, how could she murder her children?  These questions tantalize the imagination, piling mystery upon mystery, and certainly the crash on the Taconic is every alcoholic's DUI nightmare.

Toxicology reports found that at the time she caused the head-on collision that killed eight people, Diane Schuler’s BAC was 0.19, with six grams of undigested alcohol in her stomach and high levels of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) in her system. According to passing drivers who saw her driving the wrong way on the Taconic, she was staring straight ahead, both hands on the steering wheel, her expression “serene and oblivious.” She did not even have the presence of mind to brake in the instant before the collision. Yet in the face of this overwhelming evidence, Daniel Schuler remains steadfast in his denial that his wife was not driving under the influence that Sunday afternoon in July 2009.

Although he admitted to police investigators that they had been drinking that weekend, in public he has always claimed not only that his wife was not an alcoholic but that she did not drink! As for the pot, he acknowledged that she smoked now and then. But now and then may have been morning and night, according to friends whose testimony contradicts Daniel Schuler.

The fact is, Diane and Daniel Schuler lived very separate lives; she worked nine to five and ran the household, while he worked nights and spent time with his wife and daughters only on the weekends. Their conflicting schedules may well have masked other, deeper conflicts. Nothing would have been simpler than for Diane Schuler to hide her substance abuse from her husband, who seems to have been temperamentally unable to perceive, let alone confront, “the boss” about any problems at home.

In the absence of revelations from her husband, all that is left are lawsuits—and conspiracy theories. Desperate to disprove charges of his wife's apparent alcoholism, Daniel Schuler is suing the state of New York for “negligence, carelessness and recklessness” in its design and maintenance of the Taconic—the highway made her do it. Meantime, the families of the three victims in the SUV are in turn suing Daniel Schuler, claiming that he is partly responsible for the fatalities because he had to have known about her addiction.

What accounts for the continuing grip of the Schuler case on the public imagination? There's something more than "there but for the grace of God go I" mixed up in our enduring fascination with Diane Schuler—something many of us would prefer not to admit. The endless Internet interpretations of the records and relics of her life and death are ultimately based on a refusal to accept what is far and away the most probable explanation of what went wrong with Schuler that day. In that sense, we are all a little like Daniel Schuler, determined to deny the mundane reality of addiction because of its extraordinarily appalling consequences.

But as the recent report from TIRF makes abundantly clear, while it may be possible to hide a drinking problem at a dinner party, a PTA meeting, at the office or from an incurious husband, wheneve a tanked woman gets behind the wheel there is no more hiding: drunk is drunk and impaired is impaired. Drunk driving is a problem that ends all too often in death, destroyed families and crushed lives, but it begins in our own failure—or refusal—to see what’s happening around us. 

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.

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Susan Cheever, a 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. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.