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Hello, all. It's Rachel May again.

Recently, I came across a research paper I wrote last year for a college English class dissecting the life of Karen Carpenter, a singer from the 70s who died in 1980 from complications of anorexia nervosa. She was part of the band "The Carpenters." I thought that maybe providing my perception of her life and death might help some of you guys to understand eating disorders more or at least to gain some perspective. In order to get more out of this article, if you are not already familiar with Karen Carpenter and her story, it may help you to do a little bit of your own prior research as well before reading this paper.

Let me know what you think and I hope this helps.

Peace, Love, and Food,

Rachel May

The sixties and seventies times of rampant free speech, testing all of the limitations and boundaries contained in obscenities. Music became an expression not merely of the innocent love portrayed in fifties music, but of drugs, sex, and political action. Heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Quiet Riot, Black Sabbath, and ACDC began to take stage. However, scrunched somewhere in the midst of this hardcore liberation period rested a very clean-cut, straight-laced brother and sister duo known as the Carpenters. Richard and Karen Carpenter, with their softer, melodic tunes were quite controversial for this time period. It wasn’t "cool" in that day and age to like the Carpenters and yet, as their careers progressed, they began to rise against the charts, ultimately selling over one-hundred million records in the course of their career (Frye). They were being parodied, criticized, and scrutinized and yet, at the end of the day, people would go to their homes, shut their doors, look around conspicuously, and then remove their newly bought Carpenter’s records from underneath their Led Zeppelin sweatshirts. The Carpenters were undeniably a musical success. However, that success came not just with glory, praise, and adoring fans, but with responsibility, pressure, and the overflowing messages of the media. The inverse relationship between the increasing success of Karen’ career and the deterioration of her personal being contributed greatly to the Carpenter’s ultimate demise—her death from complications of anorexia nervosa. (Frye)

Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by the severe restriction of one’s diet in due to a consuming obsession with one’s weight. (Curtis) Symptoms of anorexia include a refusal to remain a healthy weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, and numerous health problems due to starvation including low blood pressure, heart problems, and metabolic difficulties. (Curtis) Although on the surface one may see such a disorder as a simple and easily fixable problem, this is certainly not the case. On the contrary, anorexia is a complex mental illness with many contributing factors. Karen Carpenter is a prime example of this complexity. Contrary to popular belief, most anorexics do not just “decide” to become anorexic. In fact, the majority of anorexic cases begin with a simple diet. In 1967, Karen started the "Stillman diet", a doctor supervised diet in which one abstains from fattening foods, portions food carefully, takes vitamins, and drinks eight glasses of water. Ultimately, she shrank down from 145 pounds to a healthy 120 pounds at 5’4, which she would maintain until around of 1973. By the fall of 1975, in the midst of the prime of her and Richard’s music, she would already be down to 80 pounds, eventually collapsing on stage while singing “Top of the World” at one of their concerts. (“Carpenter’s Bio”) For many years during her lifetime, Karen also took 100 Dulcolax laxative pills a day with syrup of Ipecac and thyroid medication to increase her metabolism. (Randall Beach) Despite these ever-growing symptoms of anorexia, Karen remained in complete denial about her illness until approximately the last year of her life. (“Carpenter’s Bio”)

Predispositions of an eating disorder rested within Karen long before her stardom. Beginning with Karen Carpenter’s relatively ordinary youth, Karen was already a different and interesting personality. Growing up, Karen was much more interested in outdoor sports than girly pursuits. An ad in a 1989 feature story claimed that childhood friends nicknamed her “Butterball”, yet according to them Karen took such comments lightly in those days, never showing visible concern about her weight. (Lott) However, Karen’s inner psyche hoarded several unspoken issues. Such issues included the inadequacy she felt next to her musical prodigy brother Richard, the yearning for control due to her hectic family life, and the inherent need to please others. An expert pianist, arranger, and composer, Richard Carpenter began to develop musical talents at an early age. In fact, by the time he was 15 years old he was studying piano at Yale University and playing in a jazz trio in various venues around New Haven. (“Carpenter’s Bio”) Soon, Richard’s parents began to see promise in Richard; thus in 1963, the Carpenter family moved to California to further Richard’s music career. (“Carpenter’s Bio”) Meanwhile as praise and adoration was placed heavily on Richard, Karen willingly accepted this, cheering on her dear brother on the sidelines. It wasn’t until Karen’s high school years when she realized her own musical inclination (besides of course her interest in hearing it.) After agreeing to take band to weasel out of gym class (which proves now to be quite ironic), Karen developed a profound interest in playing the drums. (Carpenter’s Bio”) Although Karen picked up rhythm and tempo quite naturally, her parents at first met her with much apprehension. According to them, “girls didn’t play drums.” Because of their initial feelings against it, Karen began to teach herself rhythms by using chopsticks and a set of bar stools until finally, she received her first drum set. Eventually joined Richard in a jazz band along with tuba and bass player Wes Jacobs where she occasionally sang. Richard, noticing Karen’s early potential in singing, began to encourage it teaching her how to harmonize and compliment with his melodies. Nevertheless, Karen’s first passion was playing the drums; throughout her lifetime she referred to herself as a drummer first and a singer second. (Carpenter’s Bio)

Time went by and sure enough in May of 1966, Karen and Richard signed their first record label with Magic Lamp records. (Carpenter’s Bio) Being underage at 19 years old Karen Carpenter’s parents had to sign her record contract for her. (Carpenter’s Bio) The Carpenters were ecstatic about what they thought to be their first break-through in the business. Within a year, however, the record company had to shut down due to lack of funding. Thus, the Carpenter’s breakthrough eventually came on June 24th, 1966 when they won the Battle of the Bands at the Hollywood Bowl. (“Carpenter’s Bio”) Following this RCA records took notice of the talented trio and signed them to their label. However, some adjustments needed to be made. RCA records were concerned that their jazzy sound was not “commercial enough” so ultimately Wes Jacobs left and Karen Carpenter began to take on a larger singing role in the band, often singing behind her precious drum set at their concerts. Later, however, due to decisions made by Richard and several others involved in the music business aspects, Karen needed to leave her drum set behind and take center stage during concerts. Their whole philosophy was “the singer has to be seen” and being a 5’4 woman, the drums covered very much of her. Karen, however, when hearing the news was very upset by these demands. Asking Karen Carpenter to give up drumming on stage was like asking Linus to give up his blanket. Therefore she fought it for a while, but due to her naturally submissive personality and her inherent desire to see the band succeed (mostly for her brother), she eventually agreed. (“Carpenter’s Bio”)

Karen’s lack of control and overshadowed opinion regarding band issues ultimately became a pattern during the Carpenters’ career as musicians. Naturally being the more decisive personality that he was, Richard took charge, scheduled all national and international of their tours, and wrote and arranged nearly all the music. A cover ballad version of a well-known Beatle’s song "Ticket to Ride" on their Offering album was their first hit, remaining widely controversial—some people loved it and others absolutely hated it. This particular song peaked at #54 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Top 20 of the Adult Contemporary chart. (“Celebrating the 40th Anniversary…”) Eventually, Following this, Richard used his brilliant arranging skills to adapt a myriad of other songs, including "Reason to Believe" (originally by Tim Hardin), "Please Mr. Postman" (originally by the Marvelettes), "Desperado" (originally by the Eagles), and "We’ve Only Just Begun" (originally from a Crocker National Bank commercial.) (“Celebrating the 40th Anniversary…”) Pop music listeners of the seventies had mixed reviews on their adaptations, some said they were geniuses, others claimed that their sound was "too light", "too melancholy", or resorted to fidelity criticism in adaptation, which chastises the use of the extreme variations in their adaptations which stray greatly from their original creations. (Hutcheon 20) However, despite the controversy, the Carpenters began to reach their prime swiftly as their careers progressed. Yet with this progression, so did the pressure to exceed expectations not just of the audience, but of their families, friends, and themselves. As time went on, they began to fill up their schedules, increasing the amount of tours in which they performed. During their Japan tour alone, they toured in 21 different cities within 27 days. (“Carpenter’s Bio”) Let’s not forget that they did this while simultaneously recording, rerecording, and rerecording again their new songs in the studio. Understanding their perfectionism is crucial to understanding the drive of the Carpenters:

“. . . To the average listener the song was already complete, and even those of us watching and listening were unable to perceive why the Carpenters would suddenly stop, say "no, that's not right," and start over again. . . . With a technician standing by, the Carpenters entered the sound booth and the 16-track tape containing their latest release was started. It will sound like 12 to 15 voices on the radio Friday, and all of them are Richard's and Karen's.” (Lott)

This perfectionism was not only reinforced by themselves, but by their fans, critics, and parents. Without this quality, the Carpenters would not have spent an insurmountable period of their lives in the recording studio, going on countless tours, and always attempting to improve what they had previously done. Without Karen Carpenter’s natural inclination towards seeking perfection, her eating disorder may not have progressed to the far extent that it did. Thus, the parallels between Karen’s perfectionism in her career and her perfectionism when applied to her personal life begin to surface. This same perfectionism which drove Richard and Karen to work was one of the same personality traits that caused Karen to feel unsatisfied with her healthy figure and her already successful 20 pound weight loss. According to Richard himself, Karen always thought she could “do much better” in the studio no matter how hard or long they worked. (“Carpenter’s Bio”) She must, in turn, have internalized and applied this same mindset whenever she looked into the mirror. However, while the astute perfectionism applied to Karen’s career and personal life parallels, the outcomes of this perfectionism posses an inverse relationship. In other words, as Karen’s fame and musicianship progressed, her health, well-being, and sense of self abruptly deteriorated.

A celebrity lifestyle is no picnic. With the outburst of new media such as television shows and music videos, image became especially important to the Carpenters. Besides the incessantly nagging value of image in society, there is also an enormous loss of control that comes with a deal. When one is a celebrity, one is subjected to a loss of privacy, a swift schedule determined by producers and directors, and a rapid loss of free time. Karen Carpenter was not the one calling the shots in the recording studio, nor was she the one deciding on what she was going to do during the course of her day. In addition let us not forget the context of her personal life. As the Carpenters created their intricate and meticulous music, Karen was becoming very ill, beginning to show several outward symptoms of anorexia such as thinning hair, sunken eyes, pale dry skin, irritability, decreased energy, and peculiar food habit, such as “pretending to eat” and playing with her food. Karen barely had the energy to live a normal life and insurmountably less to meet the demands of her celebrity lifestyle. She was literally forcing herself to stay awake on stomach of little to no nourishment.

During the final year of her life, Karen had every intention of making a full recovery, she was even noted to have said, “I’ve got a lot of living to do” just months before she died. (“Carpenter’s Bio”) However on February 4th 1983, Karen’s life unfortunately was cut short when she died of heart failure in her parents’ home shortly after being checked out of the hospital after intravenous feeding. Despite these horrible circumstances, there was a definite silver lining after her death. Suddenly, an outburst of eating disorder sufferers were able to slip out of their denial and get help as family members and friends of disordered individuals began to recognize the signs. Frantic individuals seeking help and making calls entered the scene abruptly as the danger of eating disorders suddenly became more real. Over time, information and prevention research, thus, became more important, thus more accessible and available to individuals who needed it. One of the myriad of lessons that we can learn while dissecting Karen’s life is that fame and happiness do not go hand-in-hand. Behind the gorgeous rich voice singing beautiful, cheerful lyrics such as “Your love’s put me at the top of the world” and “We’ve only just begun to live”, was a sufferer inside. Although, the apple pie, All-American image was something the media somehow could not ignore, Karen Carpenter was far from perfect. Driven? Of course. Talented? Undeniably. A perfectionist? Undoubtedly. Perfection however was a whole different story. Thus, due to the contributing factors of her eating disorder embedded in her career, it is safe to say that Karen’s success is one of the primary components of her life that ultimately led to her downfall.


Works Cited

"Carpenters Bio." Richard and Karen Carpenter. Richard Carpenter, 08 06 2008. Web. 30 Apr 2010.