Little Girl Blue

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I read a book recently that touched me deeply. The book was “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter.” To be honest, I knew nothing about Karen Carpenter other than she died of anorexia. I suppose I just missed that generation being born in 1980 and never heard the music either.

What drew me to this book was the “why?”–why was she anorexic? What happened to her? The book was a very fast read because it was so fascinating. It started with her upbringing and how The Carpenters came to be, including their successes and failures. The story I really wanted to know was what happened to such a talented, young woman that seemed to have the world in her hands. This book went into detail and explained it, the best anyone really can.

I could tell right away that the “why” was probably her mother. Her mother was an overbearing control-freak who never showed her daughter love and propped her brother, Richard, up like he was a king. Even after it was clear that Karen was the talent and the star, she was still treated like a second-class citizen and neither kids moved out of their parents home until their late 20’s! Honestly her brother wasn’t much better. He was an egotistical prima donna and probably jealous of Karen’s success. There was also something a little weird about their brother-sister relationship (they both tried to sabotage each other’s romantic relationships).

Perhaps controlling her food and appearance was the only in her life she could be in charge of. And I imagine stepping out from behind the drums to become the singer made her even more self-conscious of her curvy figure.

What was most interesting to me was that this happened in a time period when “anorexia nervosa” was nearly unheard of. People just didn’t know. They didn’t know what the disease was, they didn’t recognize the symptoms, they didn’t know how to help.

” ‘Anorexia was not something that was talked about or known about in those days,’ her friend Olivia Newton-John said. ‘People were very thin, but you didn’t realize what it was.’ [pg 246]”

At one point, Karen was taking 80 laxatives a day and was using ipecac to purge. She was doing the classic things that anorexics do: not eating food but pushing it around on the plate to make it look like she was, telling her friends to take bites of her “amazing dinner” to give the food away, wearing layers and layers of clothing to hide just how skinny she was.

“She rearranged and pushed her food around the plate with a fork as she talked, which gave the appearance of eating. Another of her strategies involved offering samples of her food to others around the table…By the time dinner was over, Karen’s plate was clean, but she had dispersed her entire meal to everyone else. [pg 129]”

“She loved to go lay out in the sunshine. I don’t know whether it was to get a tan or to get away from her mother. Anyhow, I happened to go out to the kitchen for something and I saw her out there. She just had on her little bathing suit shorts. You couldn’t tell whether it was a girl or a boy. She had absolutely no breasts. [pg 131]”

She had to buy a new wardrobe for a tour and opted for several low-cut gowns, some were strapless or backless. The manager commented: “…[I] was horrified to see her bony shoulders and ribs. Even her hip bones were visible through the thin layers of fabric. [I] asked Karen to rethink the wardrobe choices before going on stage. ‘I talked her into putting a jacket on over the bare back and bare arms, but the audience saw it.’ There was a collective gasp from the audience when Karen would take the stage. [pg 137]” People wondered if she had cancer.

At the end of 1981, Karen expressed her realization to her family: “Richard, I realize I’m sick and I need help. [pg 245]” She went to New York to see a therapist and ended up living in a hotel for nearly a year while she got weekly counseling–not inpatient care like she needed. Eventually she went to the hospital for a feeding tube and put on 30 pounds. But that was just too much strain on her heart.

She eventually returned to LA “cured” and stayed with her parents. One morning her mother found her unconscious. The medics were called. It was really too late, but they took her to the ER and tried to revive her. The paramedic said: “Karen looked frail and very thin. A faint pulse was detected with her heart beating only every ten seconds. This is a sure sign of a dying heart. [pg 276]”

32 years old. 32 and she died of a heart attack and dehydration due to years of anorexia. I’m 32 years old. It’s shocking to see photos of her right before her death because she looks like she was 70 years old, not 32.

There really isn’t a “why” that can satisfy anyone. “Why” would someone who was beautiful and talented NOT see it? “Why” would she let herself get so skinny and still think she was fat? Despite the tragic topic, the book was really, really good. I’d give it 5/5 stars.

QUESTION: Were you a fan of The Carpenters? Do you remember when Karen passed away?

23 Responses

  1. I was a BIG Carpenters fan! (I’m a little older than you, so remember their music well. In fact, the first “45 single” I bought was their song “Superstar”. OMG, I’m SO dating myself! 🙂 ) I was VERY sad when Karen Carpenter died. I really didn’t understand about eating disorders back then, but it sure made me aware of them after that. So sad!!! I STILL love her voice to this day, and have “graduated” from LP’s and singles to CD collections. Thanks for sharing the book insight with us Lisa. Have a great day.
    Roz@weightingfor50 recently posted..Confucius says……

    1. The book was really, really good. You should read it, especially since you were a fan of hers. I find it fascinating that you said you didn’t understand eating disorders back then. I think that was the norm. Now everyone is probably hyper aware of eating disorders.

      1. Unfortunately, it took Karen Carpenter’s death to bring anorexia nervosa to the forefront. Although they hadn’t had a hit record for a few years, she was very well known and it hit us just as hard as the Robin Williams or Whitney Houston deaths did. So sad.

  2. I can’t say I am familiar with her, or her story, but its such a heartbreaking thing to hear of someone hating their body so much that they would kill themselves over it.

    I picked up some new books yesterday via Amazon- looking forward to some of them quite a bit. The one I’ll read first is on brain chemistry.
    Deb recently posted..Day 255

  3. Sounds like an interesting read, I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

    In those pictures she looks 60, not 30! So sad, and such a waste of talent. I am familiar with her music (my mum is a fan), and it is very catchy.

  4. I was a HUGE Carpenters fan though I don’t really remember where I was when I heard she’d died. Looks like I was in high school when it happened. I finally got up enough nerve to watch The Karen Carpenter Story and just sobbed my eyes out. Anorexia is such a horrible disease. A girl from my high school died of it a few years ago. In high school we just thought she was thin. I think it got much worse later, and eventually took her life. So completely tragic and avoidable. I think anorexics start doing it to themselves but the disease takes over and then they truly become a victim. Of course, I think all eating disorders are caused by early trauma or sexual abuse but maybe that’s painting it with a broad brush.

    1. I think that analysis of the disease is pretty insightful. In the end of the book, Karen realized she was sick and needed help but it was too late. I haven’t seen the TV show, I’ll look for it on netflix.

  5. I can’t say that I am a Carpenter fan, but I do like some of their songs. Due to working in retail with Muzak playing 24/7, year-round, I am really good at mocking a couple of their Christmas songs 🙂
    She died the winter after I started attending an all-girls school, and there were many girls there who had eating disorders. Prior to her death (and after her death), there was about one girl a year who would have to be hospitalized due to low weight/eating disorder issues. Luckily, no one died. I also remember there was a boy at the summer camp I attended who had anorexia. He went every year, stayed all summer, but I think he was 14 or 15 when the counselors noticed something was wrong. He’d lost a lot of weight during the year, but then he evidently wasn’t eating while at camp. I have no idea what was done, but realized then that anorexia and bulemia wasn’t just a girl problem.
    Karen Carpenter’s death was a big deal because of my environment and the spotlight it put on eating disorders.
    Did the book discuss her marriage or why it ended? That part of her life story always seemed curious to me.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience at the all-girls school. I imagine eating disorders were rampant there. Thinking back to my own childhood, I had no idea what anorexia was until I was in the 5th grade and my good friend at the time was anorexic. She was hospitalized many times in the winter because she’d get frostbite.

      The book briefly mentioned her marriage but it sounded like it was just that the guy wasn’t a good guy. The friends who were interviewed implied that he was kind of a boy toy or playboy type.

  6. I was a huge fan of the Carpenters. I think Karen Carpenter had the voice of an angel. I must have been a senior in high school when she died and I was devastated. Anorexia had only been in the public eye a bit by then but perhaps it became more noticed after that. My college freshman roommate had quite advanced anorexia–she was supposed to be in recovery but she was extremely thin and it was clear from her behaviors that she still had issues. She went home after the first semester and I hope she got some help. I will have to read the book, although I expect it will be very sad….
    Kristin recently posted..Weekend double

    1. I am so sorry to hear about your friend. I hope she did get help with her issues. The book is definitely worth a read. I wasn’t even a Carpenters fan, had no idea really about them, and I was sucked in immediately. Good book. And not all sad.

  7. I am the author and thank you for your kind words. I am glad to hear you were moved by Karen’s story… next step — buy a Carpenters “Hits” collection and get to listening!!!

    1. Thank you for leaving a comment! Like I said in my review, I had limited knowledge of the Carpenters and didn’t know their music but your writing was spectacular and it sucked me in. I definitely want to check out her music now.

  8. I have been a fan of the Carpenters since I was about 9 years old and my grandmother bought me their Singles album in a little record shop. Even at that young age I was so taken with the emotion in Karen’s voice and the musical quality of their recordings. I have lots of good childhood memories of the mid to late ’70’s just being a kid and listening to the Carpenter’s music, even when it wasn’t cool!! I was a freshman in college when one of my best friends called and told me Karen had passed away. I remember listening to radio tributes and crying that evening. I still listen to Carpenter’s music to this day although sometimes it is hard not to feel sad that Karen’s life ended so tragically and wonder what could have been if treatment was readily available at that time. I think many variables contributed to her complicated disease – it was not just her controlling mother, although she certainly didn’t help the situation.

    BTW, just found your blog and am inspired by your weight loss success. I’m on the journey now to become more fit and healthy and have enjoyed learning about your story. Good Luck!

    1. Hey Tricia–thanks for leaving a comment. I’m glad you enjoyed my blog on your first visit and I appreciate your story. The consensus from everyone is that Karen had a beautiful voice that’s never been matched. My boyfriend–who is into metal music–even said she had the voice of an angel.

      I understand your emotions. When I was 14, living in Seattle, my most favorite singer died. It was absolutely devastating. It was the music I listened to in my teen angst and it made me feel better. It made it hard to listen to Nirvana after Kurt died.

  9. This book is amazing. Even if Karen had not been famous, it would still be a fascinating and sad story. Someone here asked about her husband. The book does give a lot of info about the marriage. He was a real con artist, and I believe that her marriage was the final nail in her coffin. Buy this book! : )

  10. I grew up listening to Carpenter’s music. I remember listening to Greatest Hits albums on family road trips. I am 50 currently, and would have been a Junior in High School in Monroe Oregon when she died. I don’t specifically remember the news broadcast /brief at the time-back then we only had the 3 major networks, PBS and HBO. The knowledge of her death was more of a gradual awareness. I recall a friend in New Jersey dubbing a couple of cassette tapes for me around 1992 or 1993. I would then have my own copy of a musical sound I loved so much. I remember discussing my pride in having my own copy of the Carpenters music with my dad (who died in 2012). He retorted “I never liked the Carpenters.” I then realized it was my mom who liked their sound. (The two had divorced in 1985). It makes sense that my mom is a fan: she teaches and plays piano. I don’t even think I realized until the last 5-10 years (not sure why)-that the “Carpenters” were essentially a brother-sister pairing. I just assumed she was the lead singer of a band with a random name (not the family name.) Conversely, I somewhat disagree with the notion that anorexia nervosa was not well known at the time of her death. I remember seeing a documentary movie in health class in 1982 regarding bulimia/anorexia. By the way, I am a marathoner (200 lifetime marathon runs)–and I am/have been conscious of a thin build, but I always ate “like a horse” to replace the calories. Isn’t this kind of a “sexist” disease in that sense? I haven’t heard of males under eating/under nourishing by choice/ or to gain attention.

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