November 21, 1983
Written by Richard Carpenter
brother remembers -
An account of Karen Carpenter's brave
battle over the years against anorexia nervosa
ago singer Karen Carpenter fell victim to heart failure
after an eight-year battle with anorexia nervosa. She seemed
to be on the verge of recovery when she died at the age
After spending almost all of 1982 undergoing treatment
for the eating disorder, the 5'4½ Carpenter had
managed to pump her weight from a frail 80 pounds to a
nearly normal 110.
he bad been witness to her long struggle, Richard her mentor
and sole sibling, was stunned by Karen's sudden death.
Shortly before, the two singers had been at work on Voice
Of The Heart, their 12th album.
not to let their final project sink into limbo. Richard
returned to the recording studio last March. The months
long task of adding tracks to her completed vocals proved
poignant: "Recording's sophisticated these days that
it sounded as if she were right there". Richard says.
as Voice Of The Heart was being released (and he departed
on a promotional trip to Japan and Australia). Carpenter,
37, sat with Correspondent Suzanne Adelson in the sunny
living room on his suburban Downey, Calif. home and talked
for the first time about Karen's troubled final years and
about his effort to deal with her death. There's no preparation
for that kind of loss. It would have been enough of a shock
if she had been an invalid, but I had spoken with Karen
the day before she died, and she sounded absolutely fine
- she called me from her condo in Century City to ask about
a new videocassette recorded she wanted to buy.
still asleep when I got the telephone call from Mom the
next morning. [Karen collapsed in the bedroom that parents
Agnes and Harold kept for her in their home. Since she
needed a new wardrobe after gaining weight, Karen had planned
a shopping trip with her mother and had slept over that
night]. Mom was so hysterical I could hardly understand
what she said. As soon as I could grasp what happened.
I lore out of here and drove to my parents, just a few
miles away. I arrived just as Karen was being brought out
of the house on a stretcher.
Dad and I sat in the waiting room [at Spends Community
Hospital] after Karen was taken into emergency. After about
45 minutes we were told she was gone. My Immediate reaction
was anger - anger at the waste of her life and the loss
of her talent. Then the grief set in.
shock was tremendous -I knew she was ill, but not that
ill. But the more I look back on her life, the more I can
see the indications. Karen had been a little overweight
as a teenager -she loved tacos and chili. But we never
teased her - to us, she wasn't that far. When she was 17,
she went on the Stillman Diet with a doctor's guidance,
and she lost between 20 and 25 pounds. She was at her beat
weight - between 115 and 120 - until 1975, when the illness
first became serious. That year we had to cancel a Europe
and Japanese tour because her weight was way down. She
was tiring easily - she was exhausted.
from recording our Horizon album straight on the road for
the summer tour, then on to Las Vegas, where we did two
shows a night. Finally she went into the hospital for five
days of bed rest and then spent almost two months in bed
at our parents. It was right around that time that we heard
about anorexia. I don't recall how we learned about it
- mainly we all just encouraged her to eat more. Mom cooked
good healthy meals. Karen was never into binge eating -
she merely picked at her food.
are always trying to find a link between Karen's illness
and a single heartbreak, but I don't associate it with
anything. It definitely wasn't related to a tragic romance,
as has been implied. [Before her brief marriage to Tom
Burris] she did have a romance win Terry Ellis [an executive
with Chrysalis Records], which didn't work out, but they
her anorexia appeared, things were going well in our careers
and she was apparently happy. Still, she didn't eat enough
for the schedule we were keeping - she lived on salads,
maybe dry toast for breakfast. From early 1975 on I tried
every method I knew to get her to eat. I would scold her,
and she would say I was getting upset over nothing. There
were times I did lose my temper, but it was always out
was always worried about the way she looked, so I tried
to appeal to that. I told her she was too thin and that
people were noticing it. And that she wouldn't be able
to continue our schedule if she didn't, get more fuel.
Although her voice never was affected, you could hear gasps
from the audience when she came onstage, and there was
considerable mail from fans asking what was wrong. Eventually,
though, my parents and I realized that there was nothing
we could do except state what was on our minds. We never
knew how to help her.
1981, she reached the stage where she came to me and said, "Richard,
I realize I'm sick and I need help". It was then that
she decided to go to New York... someone - I don't know
who - had recommended this treatment to her, and it seemed
the only way. She'd never been In therapy before nor felt
the need - none of us great believers in it. She made the
trek to New York, which was quite a move, leaving everything
behind and living alone for months at the Regency Hotel
while she was in therapy. She would call home frequently
and talk of being homesick, but she was determined to stick
to be honest - I'm bitter about the treatment she received.
While a therapist is working with an anorexic it takes
months, if not years, to overcome the illness. And during
the therapy the person is literally starving herself. That
does a lot of damage to the body.
had been in therapy for nine months or so, and the therapist
was getting nowhere. She wasn't putting any weight on -
if anything, she was losing. I was extremely upset about
that. Finally Karen was put into Lenox Hill Hospital [checking
in under an assumed name] for force feeding to put some
weight on her. We all went to see her in the hospital.
She had been down to 80 pounds, and she was about 110 when
she came home to L.A. for Thanksgiving 1982, when we had
turkey and all the trimmings. She was definitely improved,
but there were signs that she wasn't 100 percent turned
around - she was picking at food, and there were certain
things she wouldn't order and other things - like eggs
and potatoes - that she left untouched.
have stayed in a hospital for seven weeks, then come home
and take it easy - that wasn't for Karen. After he was
released from the hospital, she was running around, socializing,
shopping. She seemed bent on walking as much as she could.
[Her therapist reports that she bought "at least 30
pairs" of jogging shoes in New York]. Obviously that
wasn't good for her.
never was a point where she acted like she was sick. She
was her bubbly energetic self right to the end, and she
ate well in her last weeks. For the 25th anniversary of
the Grammys [the month before her death] we showed up at
CBS Television City for alumni pictures. Afterward I took
her to St. Germain (an elegant L.A. restaurant) for dinner.
She had as an appetizer French bread, wine. The entree
and everything that came with it. I knew she had gotten
an urge for tacos earlier and that she was eating chili
again - one of her favorites. I don't know that we'll ever know
everything about Karen's illness, but I think all those
years of starvation took their toll - she put weight on
too fast in these weeks in the hospital, and it put an
undue strain on her heart. I've been told by doctors that
getting that many calories shot into your system in a comparatively
short period of time does that. I did a lot of soul-searching
after her death, and I realize now that I did as much as
I could have done. All of us who loved her did. But I still
can't believe she's gone. We spent so much time together...
a void there now I miss her more and more each day. There's
a natural insulation at first - a barrier that comes up
for a time - but you never get over a loss like this. You
simply have to deal with it. And I'm doing the best I can.
months before her heart failed, 104 pound Karen Carpenter
left the New York hospital where she had gained 24 pounds
after being fed intravenously for six weeks. She
was triumphant and presented therapist Steven Levenkron
with a needlepoint banner that read: "You win - I
gain" . "The terrible tragedy of Karen's death",
says Levenkron who treated the singer for a year, "is
that she had recovered from anorexia nervosa when she died.
She had gained the necessary weight, and after she left
the hospital she never abused laxatives or misbehaved in
any anorexic ways. She fought a tough battle and she had
first consulted the New York therapist (author of The Best
Little Girl in the World, a novel about anorexia that was
the basis for a 1981 TV movie) in December 1981. His practice
was, and is, devoted to the treatment of anorexic women.
They come to him regularly (sometimes daily, as in Karen's
case) for hour-long sessions devoted to exploring the emotional
basis for their inability to take nourishment. For most
anorexics, Levenkron says, the refusal to eat is a control
mechanism: Often overwhelmed by family demands and their
own desire for perfection, anorexics focus on consumption
- or refusal - of food as a means of control. Part of Karen's
therapy involved discussing her family problems as well
as her self-destructive eating patterns, since "the
weight loss and curbed eating are a symptom that you can't
separate from the patient's life", he says. Occasionally
Karen and her therapist even lunched together - an event
that would have been stressful for most anorexics, who
typically are "frightened of being observing eating",
he says. For them, "it's very private... there's a
lot of cutting and taking minuscule bites and other peculiar
things aimed at not eating".
Levenkron declines to detail the specific problems that
the two discussed, he observes that "entertainers
are the most vulnerable people in the world. They're caught
in a world that's flying by. Controlling what you eat is
a way of controlling that". For some anorexics, counseling
alone can lead to a weight gain. For others, Including
Karen, therapy helps vanquish the fear of putting on pounds,
but hospitalization is needed before the weight will come
back. In September 1982, Karen went into Lenox Hill Hospital,
where, according to Dr. Gerald Bernstein, she was "terrified
but determined". She regained her periods, which meant
that she had improved emotionally and nutritionally, "The
extent of her bravery has to be stressed", adds Bernstein. "These
patients have enormous fear as they look at the pounds
course of her hospitalization, Karen's intravenous feedings
(which originally provided about 2000 calories a day) were
gradually decreased as she increased her consumption of
food. By November (her self-imposed deadline for conquering
anorexia), Karen was eating three meals a day and adjusting
to her filled-out form. She used to look at her arms and
say, "I'll just have to keep remembering that they're
supposed to look like this", says Levenkron, who adds
that erstwhile wraiths often must learn to cultivate the
proper body image. (He recommends that they survey their
bodies in a full-length mirror and tell themselves," This
is an acceptable appearance and I should fight to keep
Karen was released from the hospital on Nov. 8 and remained
in New York for two more weeks. "She was very positive",
Dr. Bernstein remembers. "She was a little anxious
about the future, but also very eager to get back to L.A.
and sing". She agreed to keep In touch with Levenkron
when she left for the West Coast late in November. Thanksgiving
could have been a tough time for her:
"Anorexics are anxiety-filled", during such holidays,
the therapist says. "They feel as if they have to do
an eating performance with the whole family watching".
was different: " I never sensed she had any anxiety
about Thanksgiving", Levenkron says. She telephoned
him two or three times weekly until the week she died,
and her mood was "very up".
death claimed Karen last Feb. 4, Levenkron and Bernstein
examined her records for oversights or omissions in her
treatment. "Every way we could measure her heart we
did, and It was normal", Levenkron says. He theorizes
that the long years of self-imposed starvation, along with
her addiction to laxatives (unlike many anorexics Karen's
wasn't known to have used self-induced vomiting to control
her weight), simply took their toll.
Karen had decided to share her story with the world via
talk-show appearances and the like but died before she
could reach a wider than the anorexics she knew at Lenox
Hill. "In L.A. she used to call up the kids she'd
met in the hospital to tell them she'd gained the weight
and that they could, too", says Levenkron. "She
wanted people to know anorexia could be cured"
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