Karen Carpenter’s Death, 30 Years On: The Tipping Point For Eating Disorder Awareness

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

When Karen Carpenter 's death shocked the world on Feb. 4, 1983, awareness of the life-threatening severity of eating disorders had truly "only just begun." And though she hardly could have foreseen or wanted a messianic role, the notion that self-starvation could kill even the biggest of superstars has contributed to saving countless lives in the 30 years since that jaw-dropping day.

In the interim, dozens of mostly female stars have spoken up about their past or sometimes ongoing bouts with bulimia or anorexia. Jane Fonda dealt with her 30-year battle with eating disorders in her memoir, My Life So Far. Former teen stars Justine Bateman and Tracy Gold became activists on the issue. Others who've been candid about their own struggles include singers Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Lily Allen, Fiona Apple, Katherine McPhee, Nicole Scherzinger, and Paula Abdul, along with other celebs like Katie Couric, Mary-Kate Olsen, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Calista Flockhart, Kathy Griffin, and even the late Princess Diana.

Such a list did not exist in 1983. There were no well-known cautionary tales to speak of. "If this had happened in today's world I think Karen would have lived," said Frenda Franklin, Carpenter's best friend, in a 2010 biography of the singer. "I think we would have had a good shot. They know so much more. We were dancing in the dark.”

"Anorexia was not something that was talked about or known in those days," pal Olivia Newton-John said in Little Girl Blue, Randy L. Schmitt's excellent biography, the only major one unauthorized by the Carpenter family. "People were very thin, but you didn’t realize what it was…"

Unless you were part of the wink-wink sorority of binge-and-purgers, that is. "In that era we all had little bouts of it," said Carole Curb, Mike Curb's wife and another friend of Carpenter's. "It was really in vogue then.” But it was only Karen, in her circle, who took it to the extreme. "Her face was all eyes," Curb recalled.

At the time, Carpenter had one friend who'd dealt with anorexia nervosa and come out the other side—Cherry Boone O'Neill, daughter of Pat Boone, who was then at work on a landmark book, Starving for Attention, that came out a few months after Karen died. "The fact that I had blazed the trail of recover before her gave her hope to think she could do the same,” O'Neill said, although Carpenter's denial ran much deeper.

O'Neill theorized that, like herself, Carpenter developed her disorder as a means of exercising some kind of self-authority while meekly chafing under authoritarian parents. "Such a person does not rebel," O'Neill told People magazine—except by remaking her own image. In Karen's case, she had a particularly domineering and affection-withholding mother who often seemed to run her daughter's life while reserving all her approval for her supposedly more talented brother, Richard. Said Cherry: "When you start denying yourself food, and begin feeling you have control over a life that has been pretty much controlled for you, it's exhilarating. The anorectic feels that while she may not be able to control anything else, she will, by God, control every morsel that goes in her mouth."

O'Neill recalled her own pre-recovery routine: "For quite some time I was taking 60 laxatives at once," she told Schmitt, "mainly because that was how many came in the box. I would ingest the entire contents so as not to leave any evidence.” But Carpenter made that shocking dosage look like child's play, revealing to a therapist in the final year of her life that she'd been taking 80-90 Dulcolax a night.

That wasn't all. She was taking 10 Synthroid pills a night, even though she didn't have the thyroid problem for which those are prescribed, to speed up her metabolism. The well-known eating disorder specialist who treated her over a period of several months in late 1982 said he'd never seen of his clients cop to abusing thyroid pills before, on top of everything else.

And there was more. Her therapist wasn't aware until hearing the results of her autopsy that she'd been taking medicine designed to make people who've accidentally ingested poison vomit in an emergency. Although this particular self-abuse was apparently a late development and not a constant in her life the way the laxatives had been for years, by O'Neill's telling, "she said she could never make herself throw up, so she resorted to using syrup of ipecac to throw up.”

It was hardly just family-of-origin issues that had Carpenter depressed in her final couple of years. In 1981, she entered the studio with famed producer Phil Ramone for her first solo album, which was intended to break her image out of the Carpenters' bubblegum ghetto and establish her as a mature woman. But A&M execs were aghast when they heard its sensual lyrics and post-disco sound—as was brother Richard, who disapproved of the solo move from the start—and their chagrined reaction led her to shelve the project. (It was finally released in 1996.)

Her personal life was in greater shambles. On a blind date, she'd instantly fallen for a handsome man who claimed never to have heard of the Carpenters and to be independently wealthy, and while friends were suspicious of the former claim, the latter definitely turned out not to be the case. Within months, they were married—even though Karen's mother was in the position of insisting she had to go through with it on the morning of the ceremony—and after another three months they were split up, with Karen allegedly complaining that she was being used as "a bank."

In the midst of her devastation, she was convinced to seek treatment for her disorder—which she would intermittently acknowledge and deny—for the first time in years. The therapist she went to consult with in New York had some initial luck in convincing her to give up the diuretics, but she made up for that, to some degree, by taking vigorous two-mile walks in Central Park and loading up on pills designed to make people shed water weight.

In September of 1982, she was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital on the upper east side of Manhattan for intravenous feeding. She weighed 77 pounds at the time and had a critically low blood potassium level. A catheter was implanted in her heart. By early November, she was menstruating for the first time in a year, and was discharged, with her weight now up over 100 pounds. But that was largely the result, of course, of being fed intravenously, and friends fretted that the formerly chubby teenager still looked like skin and bones.

On the morning of February 4, 1983, staying with her mother at the family homestead in Downey, California, she went upstairs from making the coffee to get dressed, and then—from appearances—lay down on the floor of her bedroom, naked, robe in hand. After her mother discovered her, paramedics were called and found her severely damaged heart beating only once every 10 seconds. By the time they got to the hospital, she was in full cardiac arrest. Her blood sugar was 10 times the norm, and ipecac poisoning was listed as a cause of death.

The disorder had not been a recent development. A friend told People magazine that, even at the beginning of the Carpenters' success circa 1971, she had been "psychotic about her weight... She had a classic pear-shaped figure—she was chubby, and she was very self-conscious about it." By the mid-'70s, the pear shape was gone... and so, perhaps, was any hope of Karen living a normal life.

Like many who share the condition, Carpenter usually seemed to want to hide her body more than flaunt her skinniness. "Karen began layering her clothes to disguise her skeletal frame," wrote Schmitt. "She would tell others she was cold and then add a sweatshirt to a turtleneck sweater.” But when her therapist told her to buy a bikini to pose in, when she weighed about 80 pounds—for shock treatment—Carpenter seemed proud of how she looked as she posed in the mirror.

Loose clothing like the kind Carpenter usually draped herself in inspired the title of "Tunic," a song that the alt-rock band Sonic Youth recorded about Carpenter on the 1990 album Goo. Sample lyrics: "Another green salad, another ice tea...I feel like I'm disappearing, getting smaller every day. But I look in the mirror, I'm bigger in every way ." The song has a chorus in which her mother tells her "You ain't never going nowhere," but Karen, the ostensible narrator, does go somewhere—to heaven, where she finally starts playing the drums again.

In 1995, Sonic Youth contributed their cover of the Carpenters' "Superstar" to If I Were a Carpenter, a tribute album that also included remakes by Shonen Knife, Sheryl Crow, the Cranberries, Matthew Sweet, Cracker, and other alt-rockers of the moment. Much debate ensued over whether the sudden appreciation of the duo by hepsters constituted kitsch or a genuine affection that was belatedly allowable at last.

Meanwhile, "Tunic" is far from the only rock song to have dealt seriously with eating disorders, though it may be the only one so far to specifically address Carpenter's personal tragedy. The list of other tunes that take it on as a topic include the Foo Fighters' "Skin and Bones," Fiona Apple's "Paper Bag," Silverchair's "Ana's Song (Open Fire)," Ted Leo & the Pharmacists' "Me and Mia," Manic Street Preachers' "4st albs," Garbage's "Bleed Like Me," Superchick's "Courage," Stacie Orrico's "Dear Friend," Jill Sobule's "Lucy at the Gym," Lisa Loeb's "She's Falling Apart," and Juliana Hatfield's "Feed Me." That's a playlist that ought to offer some support, or at least understanding, to anyone grappling with the issues that Carpenter could face only with silence three and four decades back.