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The real reason Karen Carpenter was driven to anorexia


Karen Carpenter was the instantly recognisable smooth voice of the wholesome 1970s brother-sister band, The Carpenters. Together, they sold 100 million records and had 17 hits before Karen's shocking death from anorexia at the age of 32 in 1982.

In those days, eating disorders like anorexia were little-heard of and even less understood. Today, an estimated 200,000 people suffer from eating disorders in Ireland.

For years, biographers and filmmakers tried to tell the Karen Carpenter story but were thwarted by a family who were both grieving the loss of their daughter and very controlling about how they were viewed.

In the 1989 CBS film The Karen Carpenter Story, screenwriter Barry Morrow was blocked at every turn from telling the true story of Karen's desperate desire for her mother's affection. Karen's mother Agnes and brother Richard insisted on scenes being rewritten as they were being filmed. Anything that reflected badly on the family was excised.

Now a new book by Randy Schmidt reveals the emotional problems at the core of Karen's eating disorder, her relationship with her mother and Agnes's inability to show the love and affection that Karen so desperately craved. Karen was adored by millions, her circle of friends loved her dearly but it was her mother's love she never received.

Schmidt spoke to hundreds of friends and colleagues when writing Little Girl Blue and the picture that emerges of the Carpenter family is one of a controlling matriarch concerned with outward appearances.

Agnes is portrayed as stressed and uptight and was known among Karen and Richard's musical acquaintances as the dragon lady. At Karen's worst, her family insisted she had no emotional problems and that her 'overdieting' was something they could sort out by themselves.

In Little Girl Blue, Karen's disorder is described as having started out innocently enough, when she wanted to lose a few pounds after leaving high school.

She had been a chubby teenager and in 1973, she saw a photo of herself that prompted her to take action. She had put on weight and didn't look good in her stage outfit so she hired a personal trainer who put her on a carbohydrate-based diet.

Naturally, she began to bulk up. She fired her trainer and took her own extreme measures. She lost 20lbs and "looked fabulous", said a sister of an old boyfriend. But unfortunately she didn't stop there.

Her manager Sherwin Bash was horrified when he saw her new skeletal body. She hid by day beneath multiple layers of blouses and jumpers but at night, when she took to the stage in low-cut slinky gowns, there was often a collective intake of breath from her fans. They thought she was dying of cancer.

Friends were at a loss as to what to do. Karen was always a strong character when it came to getting others to face up to their problems (not least when her brother Richard suffered a Quaaludes addiction) but she refused to admit that her weight loss was anything more than stress-related.

At restaurants, Karen pushed her food around her plate or urged her friends at the table to try her meal, stealthily getting rid of her food whilst giving the impression she was enjoying her meal so much she wanted others to try it too.

Anorexia was a new disease and certainly not one with the high profile it has today. People were not aware of how to deal with it. They thought it could be cured by eating.

One friend read an article in a copy of Reader's Digest and passed it on to Karen's mother but as far as she could tell, Agnes never showed it to Karen.

Sherwin Bash also confronted Karen's parents about her weight but they again took the stance that it was private family business. They thought psychiatrists were for crazy people.

In 1975, Karen was admitted to hospital, physically and emotionally exhausted from two years on the road and years of extreme dieting. This particular occasion got her mother's attention and she nursed Karen. She even regained some weight -- the singer, who was 5ft4in tall, now weighed 7st 6lb.

Despite the disastrous effect Karen's weight loss had on her periods, she had always wanted children and in 1980 she met a handsome property developer called Tom Burris. Two months later they decided to marry.

This set off alarm bells for Karen's friends and as the wedding date neared, Karen discovered some devastating news. Tom had had a vasectomy before he had met her and had neglected to tell her, despite her wishes to have children as soon as possible. He offered to have the operation reversed but Karen decided to call off the wedding.

When she told her mother, Agnes said she would do "no such thing" and ordered her to go through with the wedding because friends and family were travelling especially for it and it had already been paid for. And Karen did.

The marriage to Burris was a disaster. While Karen assumed he had his own money -- he drove flash cars -- it became apparent he was broke. He spent her money, asking for anything up to $50,000 at a time until she had nothing but investments left. He was cruel and impatient with her, calling her a "bag of bones" and telling her he would never have a child with her. Karen filed for divorce in 1981.

It was clear to Karen's friends that her problem was emotional and that year she went to New York to get treatment from a psychotherapist called Steven Levenkron, who had written a book on eating disorders.

Karen had found new ways to keep weight off. She was taking huge volumes of laxatives -- 80 to 90 tablets a night. She was also on thyroid medication to speed up her metabolism, despite the fact that she had a normally functioning thyroid. She was still exercising on her daily two-mile walk to Levenkron's office and it later emerged that Levenkron was not even a real doctor.

After a few months in therapy, Levenkron called Karen's parents and Richard to a family session, where they were urged to tell Karen they loved her. Richard readily told her but Agnes, whose love Karen really craved, chastised Levenkron for addressing her by her first name and informed him that was not how their family did things.

When Karen's heart began beating unusually, she was admitted to hospital with dehydration and fed through a tube. She gained weight, stopped seeing Levenkron and returned to California.

By 1982, Karen was physically and emotionally depleted. On one occasion, her maid found her asleep on the floor of her wardrobe. On February 4 that year, Agnes found Karen naked, face down in her wardrobe, dead. She was 32 years old.

She had died from 'ipecac poisoning'. Ipecac is a drug used to induce vomiting in overdose cases and Karen had been using it as another way of controlling her weight. She was not aware of its side effect of slowly dissolving the heart's muscles and had been taking it every day.

In the final scene of The Karen Carpenter Story, Agnes Carpenter's character gazes affectionately up the staircase at her daughter for the last time and says, "And Karen ... I love you."

Karen says, "I love you too, Mom. Goodnight."

That final conversation on the eve of Karen's death was unfortunately created by CBS "for the purpose of dramatic effect".

Little Girl Blue: The Life Of Karen Carpenter is published by Omnibus Press.

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