Last month, I came across a Carpenters Christmas special on TV. I found myself watching Karen Carpenter, thinking, “Oh yeah. Didn’t she die from anorexia?” She had such a pretty voice. I decided to learn a little more, and so I read Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter.
If you’re my age or older, you most likely remember the Carpenters, made up of Richard Carpenter and his younger sister, Karen. They were a hugely popular musical group in the 1970s, with hits like “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and “On the Top of the World.” I remember singing that last one in our sixth grade community choir concert, held in the junior high gym each spring. What a fun, peppy song it was. And yet — what a sad, tragic life its singer led.
Karen Carpenter was born in 1950. She started out as a drummer, and despite her later fame as a vocalist, she took voice lessons for only a short time. The lessons she took were from brother Richard’s choir director, and he decided to leave her voice “as is” rather than do much training to it. Over the years, many were surprised to hear how quietly Karen sang. Her voice’s power came from microphones. I know, from playing for voice lessons, that most teachers want to teach singers to project and develop a powerful voice. This was never Karen’s method.
Even though she was so famous for her singing, Karen felt insecure during most of her life. The book details her brother frequently calling her “Fatso” as a child (she retaliated by calling him “Four Eyes”). The most hurtful treatment, though, seemed to come from mom Agnes Carpenter. Agnes always preferred Richard over Karen, and made no secret of this. Karen’s dad, Harold, said, “Agnes kind of has a mean streak in her sometimes,” and a friend said, “Agnes was a bulldozer.”
Over the years, Karen and Richard both were tightly controlled by their mother. As they achieved success and earned money, they bought a house for themselves. However, their parents moved in too, and refused to leave! Even in her 20s, Karen was eccentric and childlike — never allowed to really grow up. When she finally married, around age 30, it was a disaster. The guy she married (Tom Burris) was interested in her only for her money, and despite the fact that she had made it clear that she wanted to have children, he informed her just weeks before the wedding that he did not want kids. When Richard married, around age 40, it was to a cousin. He had never been allowed outside friends and influences by his mother. In several ways, this dynamic between parent and child reminded me of TV’s Duggar family.
In the late 1970s, Richard became addicted to quaaludes and had to be institutionalized for a time. This shook Karen deeply, and around then she became anorexic. The thinking is that, since her life was so controlled by her mom, Karen most likely developed anorexic as a way of controlling something in her life — her weight. She eventually weighed less than 80 pounds.
It’s hard to watch her now and wonder why those around her didn’t recognize her condition and do something. But I remember the early ’80s. Anorexia was just then becoming a “thing.” It seemed like the most popular topic among girls for their English research papers my senior year, which was 1983. And no wonder, because in February 1983, Karen Carpenter died from anorexia. Ironically, she weighed over 100 pounds at the time, and those around her hoped she was on the path to recovery. But an autopsy determined that she had been taking large amounts of laxatives and ipecac syrup, which induces vomiting and also (unbeknownst to most at the time) eats away at the heart. She was 32.
I felt sad for Karen as I read, seeing the irony of a newspaper statement that “Karen is the kind of girl every mother could love” contrasted with reality.
A Trip to the 1970s
It was definitely a trip into the past to read the ’70s lingo in the book — “just flipped,” “out of sight,” “I don’t dig that,” etc. In one interview, when asked about her frail appearance, Karen replied, “I was just pooped,” When’s the last time you heard that?
The book, and more accurately the listing of Carpenter songs, evoked lots of memories. I remember hearing “Goodbye to Love” as a teen and thinking it was such a sad song. And knowing Karen’s story makes it even more poignant.
While I found the book interesting overall, I have to say that the writing wasn’t the greatest. I was hoping for lots of insight into Karen and her personality, yet she was hardly touched on for the first hundred pages. What you’ll find is every possible detail about the Carpenters’ recording career — people they worked with, sales figures, etc. I really wasn’t that interested in those details, and wasn’t expecting them either, given the book’s title.
Do you have any memories of the Carpenters or their music?