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There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Lately, I’ve been pretty far from my original subject matter of crying. It’s been important for me to explore other kinds of genuine emotional expression, and I’ve enjoyed my thought travels in that regard. Last night, however, simply by accident, I ended up watching the HBO documentary film There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. It’s a truly tragic story that you may remember from original news reports after July 26, 2009, when Diane Schuler drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway, causing a horrible traffic accident. She killed herself, her daughter, her three nieces, and the three men in the vehicle her van hit head-on, and injured her son, who was the only survivor in those two vehicles.

The case is indeed one that has no sure answers: There is no denying that Diane Schuler had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 with more undigested alcohol in her stomach. Her blood also contained THC, indicating that she’d been smoking marijuana. Her family—and the documentary—make the argument fairly convincingly that this was completely unlike her, in fact, unbelievable. Both she and one of her nieces had called her brother from the road and said that something was wrong, that she wasn’t feeling well, and she had stopped, apparently sober, to try to buy some pain relievers that the convenience store didn’t carry. They believe that she must have had some other kind of health emergency first—likely a stroke caused by an abscessed tooth. But her autopsy supposedly ruled that out even before the toxicology results came out.

Watching this film is hard, and there is no uplifting ending, so it made me think not only about suffering but about narrative, and the attractions and pitfalls of nonfiction. It’s instructive to compare the documentary, even with its clear sympathy for Diane Schuler, to the fictionalized version in Law & Order’s episode “Doped.” In that version, the police end up proving that its fictional driver had been doped with alcohol in a smoothie provided by someone else and with propofol, an anesthesia drug, in her asthma inhaler. It turns out that one of her colleagues at a large pharmaceutical company has drugged her because she intends to blow the whistle on a bad product.

The fictional TV show is very straightforwardly satisfying: the mother ends up being entirely faultless, her husband it turns out did know her well in his insistence that she didn’t drink, the bad guys are identified and punished, there is a clear explanation for why these terrible events occurred. At the end of the story, we may have sorrow, but we don’t have any questions. They’ve all been answered.

Of course, that is a TV tradition more than it is a habit of great fiction. And most great fiction leaves us with many unanswered questions. Most great fiction is more like nonfiction than TV episodes are. I need only mention Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Think of anything that William Faulkner wrote, especially that ending of Absalom! Absalom! wherein Quentin protests that he doesn’t hate the South and we are left with the same question he is—what his relationship with the South really is and will be. Great fiction doesn’t try to erase the mystery that comprises actual human experience for the sake of a tidy story.

Yet it is true that one of the great difficulties of writing creative nonfiction is that life doesn’t always follow clear paths. The debate in the Schuler case goes back and forth: Are the people who have lost people (Schuler’s brother and his wife, the families of the men killed in the other car) simply looking for a way to file this event in the “explained” file so they can move on? Are they too eager to condemn? Or are her husband and another sister-in-law in denial about what she was capable of? Lawsuits and counter-suits are being filed, and that’s tragic in itself. The whole question of how and why people respond so variously to one event floats in the air as unanswered as the cause of the accident.

For me, when a woman who is not generally much of a drinker and only smokes pot to get to sleep at night is determined to have been smashed and totally stoned at midday with a carful of children she loved, it’s easy to believe that something else was going on. There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane demonstrates that she was a woman who might very well be reluctant to ask for help if she was ill and might think that she could just tough it out until she got home. She had been self-medicating her insomnia for years, and she might have self-medicated herself to death if she were in pain.

Having had that extremely painful hemorrhagic stroke in 2011, I can imagine it. I rode the bicycle a mile and a half home with my head pounding as though being repeatedly hit with a nail gun. I didn’t know what else to do, though I had a cell phone and my husband could have called for help. I am very glad that I was not driving a car at the time, and I am a person not averse to medical help, so I can imagine a person like Diane Schuler trying to ignore her situation and carry on.

Having also had more than one serious medical situation that has no clear explanation, I can also believe that something happened to Diane Schuler that her autopsy didn’t detect. If they can’t always get to the bottom of things when you’re alive to tell the tale, it seems to me that with someone dead, there is a lot that’s easily missed in the body. Once the toxicology report came in, there was no interest or motivation in pursuing anything else. Those who wanted one had an explanation, and it was that Schuler was an irresponsible drunk, in spite of all the evidence of her life to the contrary. In some ways that seems to me like a fictionalizing tendency, or I should say, an oversimplifyingly fictional one just as much as the wholesome-mother version on Law & Order.

That doesn’t mean that I am satisfied by There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. It starts out with the same optimistic tone of any whodunit. But by the end its insistence on the unknowability of what happened is appealing at an intellectual level, but devastating at an emotional one. It’s the kind of movie where you don’t know quite what to do with yourself when it’s over. I myself remain unsure whether that’s a flaw in the writing and arranging of the documentary or whether it’s realistic and good. It might feel just a little too much like life. But I know I won’t forget it.