The Real Reason Karen Carpenter Was Driven To Anorexia

Taken from the Independent which is published in Ireland.  Their website is located    HERE.

Karen Carpenter was the instantly recognisable smooth voice of the wholesome 1970s brother-sister band, The Carpenters. Together, they sold 100 million records and had 17 hits before Karen’s shocking death from anorexia at the age of 32 in 1983.

In those days, eating disorders like anorexia were little-heard of and even less understood. Today, an estimated 200,000 people suffer from eating disorders in Ireland.

For years, biographers and filmmakers tried to tell the Karen Carpenter story but were thwarted by a family who were both grieving the loss of their daughter and very controlling about how they were viewed.

In the 1989 CBS film The Karen Carpenter Story, screenwriter Barry Morrow was blocked at every turn from telling the true story of Karen’s desperate desire for her mother’s affection. Karen’s mother Agnes and brother Richard insisted on scenes being rewritten as they were being filmed. Anything that reflected badly on the family was excised.

Now a new book by Randy Schmidt reveals the emotional problems at the core of Karen’s eating disorder, her relationship with her mother and Agnes’s inability to show the love and affection that Karen so desperately craved. Karen was adored by millions, her circle of friends loved her dearly but it was her mother’s love she never received.

Schmidt spoke to hundreds of friends and colleagues when writing Little Girl Blue and the picture that emerges of the Carpenter family is one of a controlling matriarch concerned with outward appearances.

Agnes is portrayed as stressed and uptight and was known among Karen and Richard’s musical acquaintances as the dragon lady. At Karen’s worst, her family insisted she had no emotional problems and that her ‘overdieting’ was something they could sort out by themselves.

In Little Girl Blue, Karen’s disorder is described as having started out innocently enough, when she wanted to lose a few pounds after leaving high school.

She had been a chubby teenager and in 1973, she saw a photo of herself that prompted her to take action. She had put on weight and didn’t look good in her stage outfit so she hired a personal trainer who put her on a carbohydrate-based diet.

Naturally, she began to bulk up. She fired her trainer and took her own extreme measures. She lost 20lbs and “looked fabulous”, said a sister of an old boyfriend. But unfortunately she didn’t stop there.

Her manager Sherwin Bash was horrified when he saw her new skeletal body. She hid by day beneath multiple layers of blouses and jumpers but at night, when she took to the stage in low-cut slinky gowns, there was often a collective intake of breath from her fans. They thought she was dying of cancer.

Friends were at a loss as to what to do. Karen was always a strong character when it came to getting others to face up to their problems (not least when her brother Richard suffered a Quaaludes addiction) but she refused to admit that her weight loss was anything more than stress-related.

At restaurants, Karen pushed her food around her plate or urged her friends at the table to try her meal, stealthily getting rid of her food whilst giving the impression she was enjoying her meal so much she wanted others to try it too.

Anorexia was a new disease and certainly not one with the high profile it has today. People were not aware of how to deal with it. They thought it could be cured by eating.

One friend read an article in a copy of Reader’s Digest and passed it on to Karen’s mother but as far as she could tell, Agnes never showed it to Karen.

Sherwin Bash also confronted Karen’s parents about her weight but they again took the stance that it was private family business. They thought psychiatrists were for crazy people.

In 1975, Karen was admitted to hospital, physically and emotionally exhausted from two years on the road and years of extreme dieting. This particular occasion got her mother’s attention and she nursed Karen. She even regained some weight — the singer, who was 5ft4in tall, now weighed 7st 6lb.

Despite the disastrous effect Karen’s weight loss had on her periods, she had always wanted children and in 1980 she met a handsome property developer called Tom Burris. Two months later they decided to marry.

This set off alarm bells for Karen’s friends and as the wedding date neared, Karen discovered some devastating news. Tom had had a vasectomy before he had met her and had neglected to tell her, despite her wishes to have children as soon as possible. He offered to have the operation reversed but Karen decided to call off the wedding.

When she told her mother, Agnes said she would do “no such thing” and ordered her to go through with the wedding because friends and family were travelling especially for it and it had already been paid for. And Karen did.

The marriage to Burris was a disaster. While Karen assumed he had his own money — he drove flash cars — it became apparent he was broke. He spent her money, asking for anything up to $50,000 at a time until she had nothing but investments left. He was cruel and impatient with her, calling her a “bag of bones” and telling her he would never have a child with her. Karen filed for divorce in 1981.

It was clear to Karen’s friends that her problem was emotional and that year she went to New York to get treatment from a psychotherapist called Steven Levenkron, who had written a book on eating disorders.

Karen had found new ways to keep weight off. She was taking huge volumes of laxatives — 80 to 90 tablets a night. She was also on thyroid medication to speed up her metabolism, despite the fact that she had a normally functioning thyroid. She was still exercising on her daily two-mile walk to Levenkron’s office and it later emerged that Levenkron was not even a real doctor.

After a few months in therapy, Levenkron called Karen’s parents and Richard to a family session, where they were urged to tell Karen they loved her. Richard readily told her but Agnes, whose love Karen really craved, chastised Levenkron for addressing her by her first name and informed him that was not how their family did things.

When Karen’s heart began beating unusually, she was admitted to hospital with dehydration and fed through a tube. She gained weight, stopped seeing Levenkron and returned to California.

By 1982, Karen was physically and emotionally depleted. On one occasion, her maid found her asleep on the floor of her wardrobe. On February 4 that year, Agnes found Karen naked, face down in her wardrobe, dead. She was 32 years old.

She had died from ‘ipecac poisoning’. Ipecac is a drug used to induce vomiting in overdose cases and Karen had been using it as another way of controlling her weight. She was not aware of its side effect of slowly dissolving the heart’s muscles and had been taking it every day.

In the final scene of The Karen Carpenter Story, Agnes Carpenter’s character gazes affectionately up the staircase at her daughter for the last time and says, “And Karen … I love you.”

Karen says, “I love you too, Mom. Goodnight.”

That final conversation on the eve of Karen’s death was unfortunately created by CBS “for the purpose of dramatic effect”.

Little Girl Blue: The Life Of Karen Carpenter is published by Omnibus Press.

Irish Independent


18 thoughts on “The Real Reason Karen Carpenter Was Driven To Anorexia

  1. Karen’s actual date of death was Feb 4, 1983, age 32. She would have turned 33 on March 2nd. To me, she was the greatest singer that ever lived; let’s just regret that she’s gone and enjoy the musical legacy she left behind!

  2. Thank you for dropping by Scott. This is by far the most viewed article on my blog. Many of the searches that bring people here are more of the tabloid variety that I won’t share.

    Yet at the same time eating disorders are out of control and destroying too many lives. My hope in sharing this article is that it would serve as a warning that this disease is real, dangerous, and can impact people throughout every class of society.

    With you I regret she left us much too soon yet I hope and pray her story would make a difference in people’s lives.

  3. Karen had such a pretty voice. Very few female artists today have such a gift. Her voice now adds beautifully with all other angels in God’s heavenly choir.

  4. Thank you for dropping by JLL. I got to meet Karen and her mother in the early 70’s at a local shopping center as she lived nearby. Even got some autographs! I think she and Alison Krauss have two of the prettiest voices I have ever heard and it saddens me Karen was so unhappy and died as she did. My hope is that she knew Christ and is in Heaven with all of the other saints who have gone before us. God bless!

  5. I am consistently frustrated by the message that Karen’s eating disorder by not because she thought she was too heavy, but because of her lack of her mother’s love. I had anorexia when I was a teenager, I tell you, that I was definitely driven to it, because I wanted to be skinny. I did not want a plump or overweight body, and I thought skinny was cool. Karen was a public figure, to be seen by so many people she would have been very conscious of how she looked. She would want to look slim and not overweight. I know she got carried away, so did I, for fear of any weight gain, and fear of gaining weight to no end. Many girls my age were weight conscious and scared of looking even slightly over. Also, a lot of us felt that straight legs were fashionable, and not greatly exaggerated hips, and a very small waist which certain magazines seemed to portray, which scared some of us off. I do not care for straight legs anymore, but as aforementioned, seemed fashionable at the time.Maybe Karen’s mother kept telling her she needed to lose weight, before her problem got so drastic. My mom used to drive me crazy telling me I needed to lose weight, when I was a teenager and even when I was older. Anyways, I am sick and tired of psychiatric diagnoses hitting at false information..

  6. Thank you for dropping by and commenting bunny rabbit. I’m no expert on eating disorders but I do know there are multiple “triggers” that lead people down that path.

    Karen developed her ED at a time when much wasn’t known about it publicly and sadly her death was a force to place the topic out there for all of us to come to grips with.

    I can’t say what took her down that destructive path. Weight concerns? A comment that someone made about her weight? Her family issues?

    What I do know is that ED’s are not uncommon and there’s even those who would glorify them. Hopefully treatments are found that can help those who suffer from ED’s in a lasting way as ED’s are harsh taskmasters. I hope you are doing well. Allan

  7. The Carpenters are one of my favorite memories when I was 5 (now 47). My parents would play those 8 track tapes over and over. I’ve got those songs ingrained in me and now that I’m older I’ve grown to love Karen’s voice. I’ve done some reading lately on her life and am deeply saddened as I learn more. Such a beautiful voice sung by one so full of pain and suffering. I’m sure singing was her therapy, where she could block out life’s troubles and bring joy to her audience. I too hope Karen knew Jesus as he clearly says, “no one can come to the Father but by me.” John 14:6

  8. Ringer, I’ve read a lot on Karen’s life as well and I wish she could have avoided anorexia but it wasn’t meant to be. She leaves behind a brilliant musical legacy and as a result of her death the topic of eating disorders came out of the shadows. Thank you for dropping by and commenting.

  9. I’ve always loved Karen’s voice, feel that no one has ever come close to replicating it. It’s so sad in the manner of how she died, just wish she had someone who she could confide in, and maybe she’d still be with us today. Like its been said before, we will NEVER know what went on behind closed doors, and the fact that Richard has such a tight grip on how the family “is portrayed”, because heaven forbid we find out they’re just like everyone else, with some type of dysfunction, because no family is “perfect”, we never will know the whole truth. There had to be some type of crap going on, for her to react that way. Anyway, thanks for this, I truly appreciate this.

  10. Zena, I originally posted this back in 2010 and it is by far the most popular article I have ever done. Just this past week it’s absolutely incredible the number of people that have dropped by to see this article.

    Karen lived an incredible life and then Anorexia invaded and we know it ultimately took her life.

    Karen’s voice was perfect and she captivated the world. Maybe it’s best that we don’t know all of the details of her life as it might be better to remember her when she was at her best.

    Anorexia Nervosa and all other mental illnesses attack people in every level of society. Karen’s tragic death opened the door for America to talk about something most couldn’t comprehend. Those discussions continue to this day.

    Thank you for dropping by. God bless you and Merry Christmas!

  11. At 18, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard she died. It was so sad. She had one of, if not the, most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard. We are all appointed a time to die so I don’t normally say much about those things but on rare occasion I wonder “why so young” ~ I’ve often wondered that about her. Why she had so die so young…
    I never knew her mother was like that with her, it’s sad. I’m glad she had her brother’s love.

  12. You said it perfectly Stacey. We’re human and there are things that just don’t make sense. I always thought Karen deserved the happy ending in finding her soul mate and being ED free. I think legions feel the same way. Often life barges in and wreaks havoc with our plans. I have to believe that God is in control in spite of the pain that is so prevalent in our world. God bless you and Merry Christmas!

  13. This is the first time I’ve read the whole story about Karen…’s so sad and she was such a beautiful woman with a voice of an angel. Thank you for sharing erunner

  14. Always knew about the Carpenters music but never realized what Karen went through. Just reading what she went through her last few years is so gut wrenching. Such a sad ending to a beautiful person’s life.

  15. My heart goes out to Karen every time I think of her, listen to her or see the t.v. movie about her. I don’t know exactly how she felt, but I do know that what may have started out to be a weight issue may very well have fallen into the mental disorder based on what her movie portrayed and what is written about her. If you have a lack of control in your life because of outside circumstances that you can’t seem to control. ie. mother/father, abuse, deaths of loved ones, trauma, etc. anorexia and bulimia, are ways that you can take control of your own life. That is until the anorexia or bulimia gets out of hand and starts controlling you. I suffered with bulimia for about 7/8 years and there would be times that I stood in front of a mirror and my brain would have me thinking that I was heavier than I really was. Eating disorders are pretty serious. Karen could have been trying to fill a void that wasn’t being filled and she could do that for a time by her controlling if she ate or not. I used to do that by what I kept in my body and what I got rid of. It worked for a time.

  16. Hi Vicki. Thanks for dropping by. Karen’s passing really brought the topic of Anorexia Nervosa to the public eye. It is recognized as a mental illness and is relentless as its grip on people is so hard to break.

    There is a lot of speculation out there as to what Karen dealt with personally that brought her to the place that her heart gave out on her. Regardless, her death was much too soon and a tragedy for all who knew her as well as her many fans.

    I am happy to read that you were able to overcome your bulimia. That is quite an achievement! Merry Christmas!! Allan

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