Docos

Jan. 10th, 2014 09:39 pm
vanessarama: photo by <lj user="yavannauk"> (boys with cheekbones)
[personal profile] vanessarama
I love documentaries. Love 'em. Recently I saw two - one American and one English - that really stuck in my mind. They were not about similar incidents but they're both about families, people trying to make sense of the inexplicable, and most of all about the illusion of perfection and the pressure to keep that appearance going at all costs.

The US documentary was 'There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane' which you can watch here in its entirety (warning: it does contain two distressing images of Diane's dead body after she was pulled out of the wreck). It's about the Taconic State Parkway crash; Diane Schuler drove the wrong way down a highway for two miles and ended up smashing into another car, killing herself, her daughter, her three nieces and three people in the car she hit. Her autopsy showed that she'd drunk a large amount of alcohol and smoked marijuana just before the crash, but everyone who knew her insists she was a perfect mother, psychologically stable, and definitely not an alcoholic.


The first thing that strikes you about this family is that they all protest too much. Diane was the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect employee, never got angry, always devoted herself to everyone else, blah, blah, blah. It's clear there is some whitewashing going on there, from the little things that are let slip. Diane didn't drink. Well, she did have a drink occasionally, to relax. Yes, there was a bottle of vodka, but there was always one in the car, just in case they felt like making cocktails. No, she didn't smoke pot. Well, she smoked it a little, to relax. The work friends seemed more open, saying she did drive aggressively and she did drink and smoke pot.

The documentary focused on the family - in particular Diane's husband, who is now bringing up their remaining child (who survived the crash) and his sister-in-law who is helping him. Much of the doco focused on their attempts to get Diane's samples retested as they insisted there was a mistake - or maybe she thought the vodka was water? (uh, impossible) or maybe she was in horrible pain from an abcessed tooth (which she'd got treated years earlier)? Diane's brother, who lost his three daughters in the crash, did not participate and it would be interesting to hear what he and his wife had to say since they spoke on the phone to their distressed daughters who alerted them that something was going on with Diane on the trip home. They actually alerted police to the fact that Diane might be having a "medical emergency"; but it was already too late.

There are obviously some very white-washy lies being told. The sister-in-law claims that the little boy who survived told her that "Mommy's head hurt and then he was flying through the air like Superman". Yet the people who were first on the scene of the crash didn't even know the little boy was there; he was still strapped into his seat and hidden under the bodies of his cousins. I doubt he said anything about flying.

I thought the most telling part of this was the sister-in-law saying that Diane's husband never wanted kids and he resents Diane for leaving him alone with his injured son. Diane was also the main breadwinner with the high-paying, high-pressure job. You get the impression that, while the husband insists they were the perfect couple and always wanted the same things, the truth was that Diane held everything together, drove the family, and he was just going along with what she wanted. He admits she was in charge, that she mothered him. The fact that he left their campsite early on the day of the crash and drove back alone, while Diane was left to get five children under 10 organised, dressed, breakfasted and driven home, is pretty telling.

I get the impression Diane was far more intelligent than her husband, was a control freak, and a secret drinker to release the pressure - and possibly resented that he expected her to run the show without giving her any support. He bitched in the film about having to do things like the laundry and the boy's school run now, as well as work - which of course means his wife was doing all that before, on her own. I could see her getting angry. That final footage of her pulling into the gas station and allegedly looking for painkillers (although you never see her actually say anything) is chilling. No, she doesn't look drunk. She is striding, purposeful, and she looks angry and at the end of her tether. She's in a car with a bunch of little kids - and you know how loud little kids can be - and she may be hung over or have a headache, and I can imagine her taking a wee drink, then another one, and then thinking "Fuck this, everyone takes and takes from me, I don't care any more".

I don't know if that's what happened, of course. Nobody will ever know what went through Diane Schuler's mind. But I can't help feeling that everyone failed those kids, everyone. Diane failed them, yes, but I think a lot of people failed Diane, and that failed the kids as well. And the people she drove into, who all died, and their families. The doco interviews the people who tried to save the children who gave them CPR, who pulled them out of the car; they're all victims too. The little boy who was the only survivor is a victim; there;s every possibility someone will show him photos of his dead mother or call her a murderer, or that he'll find out his dad never wanted him.

It's a haunting case. I went so far as to read the autopsy report and accident report, because it haunted me so much.

The English doco was 'We Need to Talk About Dad' which you can watch on the youtubes here. It's about a happy family - parents and two boys with a "perfect" life - until the father called the mum into the garden, blindfolded her telling her he had a surprise for her... and hit her in the head with an axe. Amazingly, she not only survived but did everything she could to prevent his prosecution. Originally charged with attempted murder he was eventually convicted of GBH and spent only five months in prison. He was deemed to have suffered a temporary psychotic episode, and his wife took him back into the family home.

As it turned out, the parents split up six months after the dad moved back in, but have remained friends. The doco focused on a Christmas gathering where they were all getting together, and especially on the eldest son, Henry, who was 16 at the time of the attack and was the person who got help after seeing (from his window) his blood-covered mother crawling on the ground. Henry is dealing with conflicting feelings and with some resentment - of his dad for the attack, of his mum for various reasons, and of his little brother who was largely protected from the attack's fallout and doesn't have the same feelings about the family. Throughout the show Henry tried to tell his brother how he feels, tried to express himself to his mother, tried to ask his dad about the attack without actually *asking* him. The closest there was to an explanation was that the father had recently lost his own dad, felt used, and wanted to "smash the pedestal" of perfection he felt the family was on.

This was a sensitive program and did not sensationalise the attack at all - there were no photos of the bleeding mum, for example. It was all about the four people in the family and how they are dealing with the aftermath, and their struggle to find some kind of peace again. It was about communication and miscommunication. For example, after the attack the mother made both her sons write letters to the judge, insisting that it would be more damaging to the family if their father was imprisoned and not allowed to return to family. She realised that Henry resented writing the letter and therefore she did not send his letter to the judge, but she hadn't told him so; so he'd spent years angry and resentful thinking she had sent it.

I was really intrigued by this one. The family all so obviously still love one another dearly. It was highlighted by the many videos of the family's "perfect" pre-attack life, with the dog and the holidays and the angelic looking little boys. Yet I'd love to hear the perspective of their friends and wider family on how perfect their lives really were, and whether anyone had noticed any cracks in the facade. And nobody ever asked the father the real questions, the really difficult and painful ones. Were you disappointed when you found out you hadn't killed her? Do you wish you had succeeded? Did you plan it? Were you rational? How do you feel about her now? How do you feel about your sons?


So there you go; two haunting documentaries about two horrible events.
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