Diane Schuler, Racism, and Denial

I guess I’m pretty late getting in on this story, as I only learned of it today, but apparently on July 26, 2009 around noon, a woman named Diane Schuler drove over a mile and a half going the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway, and eventually plowed her minivan into an on-coming SUV.  All three passengers in the SUV, Diane, her daughter, and 3 nieces were killed.  Only Diane’s 5 year old son survived the crash.  She was driving home after a camping trip with her husband, who had decided to take a separate vehicle because he was going to go fishing while she took the kids home.  At first, there was speculation that there may have been an underlying medical issue that caused her to crash, such as diabetes or a seizure.  She had apparently pulled over to a rest stop and called her brother-in-law (the father of her 3 nieces that were killed) 30 minutes prior to the crash and told him that she was “disoriented” and was “having problems seeing”.  He claims he told her to wait there and that he would come get them (apparently he was 2 hours away; some reports stated he called the police, but others didn’t mention this).  She then left her cell phone behind, and continued to drive, entering the Taconic State Parkway going the wrong direction until that fatal crash that left 8 bodies lifeless, and countless others devastated.

Well, toxicology reports are now in, and as it turned out, Diane’s blood alcohol content was more than double the legal limit, the equivalent of about 10 drinks, and she had apparently ingested marijuana within an hour of the accident (although I’m not sure that statement can be accurately made).  The toxicology report was actually available several days ago, but was only now made public because the medical examiner’s office decided to wait until after the funeral to make the announcement.  What immediately struck me was that when this incident initially took place, the majority of comments on the various news feeds and blogs seemed to give this woman an incredible amount of respect and the benefit of the doubt.  People had no problem accepting the husband’s claims that it must have been some kind of medical issue (even though she had no history of a medical condition), and many came up with numerous alternative possible excuses for what happened.  Very few speculated that this white suburban soccer mom could have been drunk or high.  I have no doubt that had the woman been a black or hispanic woman, it would have been assumed from the start that drugs and/or alcohol played a part.  Secondly, the toxicology report would have been released immediately, with no regards to the funeral.  I read comments where this very issue was brought up on several message boards, and the white responders immediately condemned the commenter for bringing race into an issue where it didn’t belong.  I understand that race is technically not a factor in this story, but what the comments were trying to point out was that the only reason race is not a factor is because the woman was white.  How can people not understand that?  Are peoples’ lives truly that sheltered?  I guess it’s all too obvious to me since my kids are still being called “niggers” at school, and neighbors who don’t realize whose kids are mine still make racial comments about other neighbors to me, as if it’s normal or okay.  But it is what it is, and racism will always be an ugly reality, at least as long as I live, I’m sure.  What upsets me though, is when people attempt to downplay it or deny it.

The other thing that amazed me about the reactions to this story is how many people expressed shock that a mother would be driving drunk and high with kids in the car in the middle of the afternoon.  Are you kidding?  That was my life every day growing up, and I know I wasn’t the only one.  Alcoholics don’t care about the time of day, or the safety of others.  I remember being about 10 and my mom took me to lunch at some Mexican restaurant, and she drank what must have been close to a gallon of margaritas.  No one in the restaurant questioned her about how she was planning on leaving, and they continued to bring the drinks.  When we got to the parking lot, my mom said she was too drunk to drive (hell, she couldn’t even stand up straight), and she told me I was going to have to do it.  I was terrified.  I got behind the wheel, and couldn’t even see over the dashboard.  I started the car, put it into gear, and laid on the gas.  Problem was, I was in reverse, and we took off going backwards, me panicking and swerving all over for about 2 blocks.  I managed to get my foot on the brake pedal, and my mother slammed the car into park.  She then punched me several times, and ordered me out of the car.  We switched places, and she took over driving, weaving in and out of traffic, nearly missing parked cars and pedestrians.  I was praying the whole time that someone would call the police so we would be stopped before we got killed.  Well, we didn’t die, nor did we get stopped. 

My mother had driven drunk and high with me in the car many times before, for as long as I could remember, and while it was always terrifying, it was just the way it was.  When I was really little I remember she would go to Sonic and order a large cherry limeade and add about half a bottle of alcohol to it, and drink it while we were driving.  She’d do the same thing when we were at the lake or laying out by the pool.  She was always drunk and always high on something.  But when she would come to my school, she would act like she was Donna Reed or something.  And when my friends were around she would act like June Cleaver, only a “cool” version who would let the kids smoke, cuss and sometimes get a little sip of her limeade.  All my friends would tell me how cool my mom was and how they wished they had a mom like her.  She was a property manager for an apartment complex that had 24 units, and had the owners and all the business people convinced she was fabulous.  Only a very few people actually knew she was a drunk drug addict who abused me horribly.  She was the epitome of evil back then.  I could never understand how she fooled everyone.  But this story and my previous observations have led me to see that the biggest factor in how she managed to fool everyone for so long may in fact have been race.  Even though she is half Native American, she was raised by whites and to many people appeared to be white.  I often wonder if the state would have stepped in and taken me from her had she been black or Hispanic. 

The other factor in both stories is blatant DENIAL.  Even after the toxicology reports came out, Diane’s husband continues to insist she didn’t have a drinking problem, and is even going so far as to demand an exhumation and an independent autopsy to find some medical condition that would explain what happened.  Never mind the 6 ounces of undigested vodka in her stomach, her BAC, or the Absolut vodka bottle that was found under the van.  That’s the same for my mom, too.  Even when she was involved in multiple drunken driving accidents and being ticketed numerous times for DUI, people would turn a blind eye and say she was just having a good time and got a little out of control.  I watched her drink until she passed out night after night, and even witnessed her shooting up at the kitchen table and overdosing.  Eventually people began to admit she had a severe problem and she was forced into rehab… several times.  But the one thing people never seemed to admit or accept was the abuse I suffered at her hands.  The few who actually witnessed it and her adopted parents who got the medical bills knew… but no one would admit just how serious it was.  Even my ex-husband didn’t believe the stories I had told him about her abuse until she got drunk one night and confessed everything to him.  I’ll never forget the look of sadness and guilt in his eyes when he realized I had been telling the truth.  It doesn’t matter now… she’s old and sick from years of drug abuse, she had Hepatitis C now and her whole body is riddled with problems.  She can’t hurt me anymore.  But when I read stories like this I can’t help but remember how life was for me growing up, and how all those people who turned a blind eye and chose to stay within the comfort of denial could have stopped my suffering.  And I am willing to bet that someone somewhere could have prevented these children and the innocent men in the SUV from dying as well.

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