Diane Schuler problem solved

(Note, August 11: Many more comments have been added to this entry.)

Kathlene M. presents a terrible homicidal drunken driver case that is sufficiently similar to the Diane Schuler case to persuade me of the idea that I have disbelieved from the start: that alcohol plus marijuana, by themselves, could have made Schuler do the specific things she did.

Kathlene M. writes:

Here’s a story with some similarities to Diane Schuler’s. The intoxicated man in this story was supposed to stay at a New Year’s party with his family and friends but left without telling anyone. He was not supposed to be driving, according to his brother who said, “”I don’t know why he decided to leave,” Samuel Gagnon, 21, said by telephone. “Everyone’s in shock.”

After visiting a Taco Bell, the intoxicated man drove the wrong way for at least 3 miles on a freeway before striking another vehicle head-on and killing its passengers (including 4 children). After the accident, the intoxicated man got out, walked around and complained about jaw pain. He was combative at times when the police showed up.

So here’s a drunk man who just killed 4 children and injured 2 other children, yet rather than being upset that he may have just killed some people, he is complaining about his jaw pain. This story shows how a person who is intoxicated can lose all reason and while they may seem aware of some things (like pain) they seem unaware of other things (having an accident that killed 4 children). This person ignored the admonition to not drive, left anyway to go to Taco Bell, and later after smashing into a vehicle and thereby killing 4 children, was also combative at times with police.

To compare to the Schuler story: Diane Schuler was aware enough of her deteriorating physical condition to call her brother, yet still not heed the reasonable plea to stay put because she had simply lost her reasoning skills due to her intoxicated state.

What made her drink so much? Self-medication to relieve possible pain from an abscessed tooth and inexperience with alcohol are possible reasons.

Kathlene continues:

Here’s more on the same story. What’s striking is that the intoxicated man, Michael Gagnon, did not remember even driving his pickup. He thought he was headed to his truck to sleep it off. So apparently he’d been operating in a robotic zombie state when he smashed into the van full of children. Like Diane Schuler, both alcohol and marijuana were found in his blood. He had a blood alcohol content that was twice the legal limit and marijuana in his system at almost three times the level of impairment, He was sentenced to 43 years in prison.

Gagnon had been drinking over several hours and, despite having hotel rooms reserved nearby, decided to go to his truck to “sleep it off,” Mr. Sanders said.

That’s the last Gagnon remembers, Mr. Sanders said.

“He believes he was going out to the truck to sleep it off. He wishes he would have gone to the hotel,” Mr. Sanders said.

Fast-food stop Authorities said between 10:40 and 10:45 p.m., Gagnon pulled into the drive-through of a Taco Bell. His confusion, slurred speech, and an odor of alcohol indicated to employees that he was intoxicated.

The employees called Oregon police, who arrived just minutes after Gagnon grabbed his food and drove off.

More phone calls came in from motorists on I-280, each reporting a pickup headed in the wrong direction. At 10:55 p.m., Toledo police were notified of the collision.

Mr. Sanders said unlike most facing prison for criminal acts, Gagnon made a choice to drink but not to cause the tragic crash.

“He made the choice to go and start drinking,” he said. “But certainly, I don’t think that anyone would believe he made the choice to go out and kill anybody.

LA replies:

This does get closer to the Schuler scenario, doesn’t it? Here’s a person operating a vehicle in an extremely unlawful and deadly fashion yet in complete unconsciousness of what he’s doing and of his surroundings. Thus the two elements that have seemed to me from the start to be mutually exclusive under any known causation turn out not to be mutually exclusive: (1) the extremely aggressive, wildly lawless, suicidal, and murderous behavior, driving for miles in the wrong direction on a superhighway with other cars careening out of the way to avoid crashing into one’s car; and (2) the robotic, zombie-like fashion, indeed the state of apparently complete unconsciousness, in which that aggressive, lawless, suicidal, and murderous behavior was carried out. This is the way I’ve described Schuler’s conduct from the start, but I didn’t know of a cause that could explain it. Now I realize that alcohol can be and is the cause. It’s very disturbing to realize that it’s possible for human beings to commit such monstrously destructive acts in total unconsciosness. From the start I’ve said that Schuler seemed to be under a demonic possession, not exactly a scientific way of looking at it. From movies such as “My Name is Bill W.,” about the founder of AA (an excellent movie by the way, with one of James Woods’s greatest performances), I was aware of the demonic grip that alcohol can have on a person. But I didn’t know that it could go this far. And that is what is disturbng. It is as though a door had been opened to a new room of the evil that is possible to humanity.

In any case, this is what was needed, some precedent that would make it believable that Schuler’s behavior was the result of alcohol alone, or of alcohol plus marijuana alone. Other examples of drunk driving that I’ve seen were not similar enough to the Schuler incident, were not extreme enough, to persuade me.

The Schuler incident was especially hard to accept as caused solely by substance abuse because she was known to be a responsible person, not a drunk; she was driving with a car full of her own children and nieces; and she did the wrong-direction driving on a big highway in broad daylight, not at night, as Michael Gagnon did. But other than that, her homicidal behavior does not seem to be different in kind from Michael Gagnon’s.

I would add, however, that none of this answers the very large question of why Schuler did so much drinking and kept drinking as her condition worsened, but it does explain how, once she had reached a certain degree of intoxication, she could have done what she did.

I thank Kathlene for her persistence in making good arguments and seeking out evidence to make her case. I recommend in particular her last comment in this thread, where she shows that the four distinct stages of Schuler’s behavior that I had laid out and said had to be all explained, could all be explained by alcohol.

I’m not from Missouri, but I am like a Missourian in that I don’t get something until I get it. I hope I haven’t tried readers’ patience with my obsession with this issue.

LA adds (August 10):

However, in a comment by Josh F. which has yet to be posted, he points out a problem in the alcohol theory: Schuler’s alcohol-induced unconsciousness while she was driving on the Taconic would have to be so deep that she didn’t hear the screams of her children and nieces.. Is that believable?

Kathlene writes:

In case you don’t want to read the additional articles I sent, here is a summary of what I found so far in my research of drunk drivers who could not remember what they were doing or thought they were doing something else. Four of these five stories had fatal endings.

1. Michael Gagnon ingested alcohol and marijuana—drove wrong way on freeway, killed a mom and 4 kids in their van; injured others. Thought he was going to his truck to “sleep it off”; didn’t realize he’d driven his truck. At accident scene, walked around and complained of jaw pain; was combative with police.

2. Lindsey Thompson ingested alcohol; possessed cocaine—drove wrong way on freeway for 10 miles with her 2-year-old in back seat; thought she was still in west Columbus; fortunately killed no one.

3. Karen Fisher ingested alcohol—hit pedestrian while driving drunk; did not remember hitting him.

4. Ryan Gonzalez ingested alcohol—drove wrong way down freeway, killed mom and her 3-year-old; didn’t remember what happened. Attorney claimed he was “sleepwalking.”

5. Cheryl Marie Riemann ingested alcohol—drove wrong way down freeway; killed a young mom and critically injured child; had “no memory of what happened” and when her husband told her, she became “so hysterical she had to be sedated.” Husband insisted she wasn’t a drinker.

August 10-11

Anna writes:

Thank you for the time and attention you have given this topic. For me, you and the contributors have presented so much of value to the discussion.

While the NYT article by Susan Dominus I quoted earlier [LA adds: see my response to Susan Dominus’s article.] may have brought a feminine outlook to the picture, I read it as a feature story, not a news article. The feminine outlook is warranted here. While the facts are paramount, you mention now what is disturbing. “It is as though a door had been opened to a new room of evil … “

The list of drunk driving tragedies is scary. While you can’t know or control the actions of strangers, a new factor here frightens. Can you still let that wonderful neighbor and friend with three girls and a new infant son, still take your daughter to a birthday party? Can you still let relative/friend drive your daughter to visit theme park/family?

Male reaction is to the facts; in these instances facts surface after the fact. A “good mother” tries to use intuition to ensure safety; before the fact. It was the hope of finding some mitigating circumstance that kept the story alive. What has come to light so far, therefore, truly frightens.

Hannon writes:

I think both of the horrific cases of deadly drunken driving you have discussed would fall under the category of blackout.

I’m surprised no one has mentioned this before. It is a fairly common syndrome among those who chronically abuse alcohol. Even without any dire outcome, one or two blackouts can be alarming enough to spur the needed wake-up call for an alcoholic to get help.

LA replies:

But it’s not simple blackout, it’s insane criminally aggressive behavior and blackout.

LA to Kathlene:

In a comment by Josh which has yet to be posted, he points out a problem in the alcohol theory: Schuler’s alcohol-induced unconsciousness while she was driving on the Taconic would have to be so deep that she didn’t hear the screams of her children and nieces.. Is that believable?

Kathlene replies:

I think it’s believable when we consider two possibilities: (1) she did hear them which is what forced her to pull over 30 minutes before the crash and what forced her to call her brother 3-4 times (according to news reports), including Emma Hance’s last call to her father. (In Emma’s call she mentioned that her aunt was having trouble speaking and seeing which are consistent with intoxication.) She may even have tried to calm them down or yelled at them to be quiet like parents do. (2) As she got deeper and deeper into a sedated state, she was blanking them out like background noise, or like a dream state or sleepwalking (as in the one drunk driver case). [LA replies: That is terrifying, that such a potential exists in human beings, under the influence of alcohol.]

More likely it was a combination of the two: first she acknowledged their screams and tried to do something with her stop and her calls, but as she got more intoxicated her brain began to tune them out in the last fateful 1/2 hour. I’ll bet if she had survived the crash, she wouldn’t have remembered much if anything.

Kathlene continues:

If we discount the functioning alcoholic theory, we could simply explain her behavior as her husband attempted to do. She had pain from an abscessed tooth for two months, but instead of going to a doctor for prescribed pain medicine, she may have been using the marijuana and alcohol as pain relievers. That day perhaps the abscess’ pain became unbearable and she tried to numb it, not realizing just how much alcohol and marijuana she was ingesting.

Kathlene continues:

What really should give Susan Dominus a case of the vapors is the unconscious evil that alcohol and other substances can unwittingly unleash. What Dominus ought to be afraid of is the fact that you or I could be driving with our loved ones down the freeway and be killed by a drunk who has no clue as to what they’re doing. When I did my drunk driver research I didn’t include the numerous stories I found because they didn’t have much detail. Yet there are numerous stories out there of people doing what Diane Schuler did.

August 11

LA replies:

Yes and no. The answer we’ve arrived at should provide the comfort that Susan Dominus seeks, in that the behavior of Diane Schuler did not strike out of the blue, but resulted from extreme consumption of alcohol. If you avoid drinking vodka and smoking marijuana while driving, what happened to Schuler cannot happen to you.

On the other hand, as you point out, the answer is not comforting, in that such behavior is possible by other people and we could be the victims of it. But such accidental death, over which we have no control, is always a possibility in this world, as Jesus discusses in Luke 13:4 when he talks about the eighteen who died in the fall of the tower of Siloam. Which is why, Jesus continues, if we are not to die a meaningless death, we must change the way we live.

Kristor writes:

Your discussion of the Schuler case was not excessive. There was something truly creepy about it. Demonic possession occurred to me immediately, as soon as I read the facts of the accident. But I have learned a lot about alcoholism from the discussion. Fascinating.

One thing I had been meaning to try to contribute was my own experience with walking unconsciousness. When I was 18 I had a bike accident, and banged my head on something—can’t remember the accident, so I don’t know what it was. I was—well, I may have been conscious, but I was not able to lay down new memory, so I had, and have, no recollection of the several hours after the accident, even though I was talking and behaving appropriately the whole time. I walked up to a house, asked them to call my godparents (my closest contacts in that town at the time), and gave them my godparents’ phone number. I waited until they arrived, and rode back with them to their house. I sat on their couch, behaving normally, for a couple hours. The only thing that was odd, according to my godmother, was that every now and then I would say, “Wow, how did I get here? What happened?” She would tell me the story again, and I would say, “Well, I guess I’m OK now.” I went through that cycle about 4 times.

Eventually I felt my conscious awareness clicking into place. I had been operating on autopilot the whole time. Either that, or I had been fully conscious, but like those people who can’t remember anything for more than 30 seconds, so that there was no way for me to string together a coherent internal narrative. Which is, when you think about it, right next door to sheer unconsciousness.

Ever since that happened, I have had a lot of respect for the automatic capacities of the brain.

Of course, the fact that alcoholism may have been involved in the Schuler case does not at all mean that demonic possession was not.

Kathlene M. writes:

I appreciated your reply in which you noted Luke 13:4 and how we must change the way we live to avoid a meaningless death.

It reminds me of Luke 21:34 in which Jesus said “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” Or the warning in Galatians 5:21 against (among other sins)…”envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

What I truly enjoy about your writing and your website is that you have a traditional conservative perspective. You also have a high standard which you apply to your readers. This is what makes your site stand out above the rest. Thank you for dedicating yourself tirelessly to such a valuable endeavor.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 10, 2009 01:47 AM | Send

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