A Brother Remembers
Nine months 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 of 32. 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.
Although he had 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.
Determined 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 so sophisticated these days that it sounded as if she were right there,” Richard says. In October, 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 of 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 recorder she wanted to buy.
I was 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 barely understand what she said. As soon as I could grasp what happened, I tore 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.
Mom and Dad and I sat in the waiting room [at Downey 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….
The 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 fat. 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 best weight—between 115 and 120—until 1975, when the illness first became serious.
That year we had to cancel a European and Japanese tour because her weight was way down. She was tiring easily—she was exhausted. We’d gone 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.
People 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 with Terry Ellis [an executive with Chrysalis Records], which didn’t work out, but they remained friends.
When 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 of love.
Karen 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 was never 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.
In late 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 were 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 it out.
I have 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.
Karen 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 rituals in eating. In a restaurant, there were certain things she wouldn’t order and other things—like eggs and potatoes—that she left untouched.
To have stayed in a hospital for seven weeks, then come home and take it easy—that wasn’t for Karen. After she 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.
There 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 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 those 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…. There’s 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.