‘She could take 90 laxatives at once’: Karen Carpenter, the star consumed by an illness that was little understood

A new biography of the artist, who died at the age of 32 from complications stemming from anorexia nervosa and bulimia, reveals details about her health problems and how she tried to overcome them in her final days

Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter at a Carpenters concert in 1975.Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

The news story that was published in the Culture section of this newspaper barely contained two paragraphs: “Karen Carpenter, who became famous in the world of songs during the 1970s in the duo The Carpenters she formed with her brother Richard, died yesterday at the age of 32. Her death occurred half an hour after the singer was admitted to the medical center due to heart failure.” It was on February 4, 1983, when Karen Carpenter’s mother found her daughter passed out in her room at the family home. She arrived at the hospital alive, but her heart couldn’t take much more. For years she had been fighting bulimia as well as anorexia nervosa, an illness that at that time was largely unknown. According to the forensic report, the artist’s body contained large doses of ipecac, a medication to induce vomiting in cases of poisoning, but which is usually used by people suffering from eating disorders. In cases of chronic abuse, ipecac can cause arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, shock, and eventually death.

Karen and Richard Carpenter officially formed The Carpenters in 1969, when they signed to the A&M record label. A year later, they reached number 1 on the Billboard chart with their second album, Close To You. From there, they became a success, managing to reach the top of the sales charts with each new single. Two years later, in 1972, they were invited to play at the White House by President Richard Nixon, a self-confessed fan of the group. Karen and Richard Carpenter, two sober and talented siblings raised in California, became America’s children. A forceful (and somewhat conservative) response by the establishment to the musical stars who emerged in the sixties and who sang in protest of the Vietnam War and the U.S. government.

Despite their success and their pristine public image, both siblings were fighting their own private battles. Richard had become addicted to sleeping pills, and Karen suffered from an illness that, at that time, was not well understood. As their fame increased, the group’s drummer and lead vocalist appeared in public looking more and more exhausted. In 1975, at the peak of her career, she weighed only 88 pounds. Now, a new biography aims to reposition the artist in the pop imagination, viewing her through a new prism, as a pioneer in an industry that is unkind to women, and a sick woman who tried, by all means possible, to overcome her illness.

The Carpenters First Japanese Tour
The Carpenters in a promotional photograph in Tokyo, 1972.Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music (Getty Images)

In Lead Sister: The Story of Karen Carpenter, author Lucy O’Brien reveals new details about the singer’s struggle. The Hollywood Reporter reveals perhaps one of the most heartbreaking excerpts. It details how, just a year before she died, Karen Carpenter went into treatment. “Anorexia had become a tyrannical force in Karen’s psyche, telling her that food was an enemy to be fought,” O’Brien writes in the new biography. Karen put herself in the hands of Steven Levenkron, an eminent psychologist who was well known for his research on anorexia nervosa and self-harm. His methods were somewhat controversial. During treatment, Karen would be dependent on Levenkron, so as to become independent of her illness, until she could establish herself on her own. “In January 1982, Karen flew to New York and moved into a suite at the City Regency Hotel near Central Park, taking 22 suitcases of matching clothes and shoes.” She invested a lot in that therapy: $6,000 a month for the hotel room, and $100 for each session with Levenkron, which would mean a total of $2,000 a month, to be exact.

Undergoing treatment was a step toward a cure, but the singer remained ill. As her biographer reveals, the artist walked to the doctor’s office every day, with the intention of burning calories during the trip. Similarly, while in the office, she moved constantly from one side to the other, instead of being at rest. But Levenkron was not a novice, and he knew that all those compulsive behaviors had their origins in the disease, and he intended to deactivate them one by one: “In one of his first sessions, [Levenkron] spoke with Karen about what he took to expel food, and she owned up, saying that she could ingest more than 90 ducolax [laxatives] at once.” She also admitted taking 10 Synthroid pills a day, since the thyroid medication would have the effect of speeding up her metabolism. Levenkron was horrified. An overdose of thyroid medications could cause coma, seizures, and heart attacks.

Over the next three months of intensive therapy, Karen began to realize how her illness had become her way of dealing with her own problems, giving her a false sense of control over events that were out of her control. She had a conflictive relationship with her family: a controlling mother and an excessively perfectionistic brother who put pressure on her. She also had an unhappy marriage: she married real estate developer Tom Burris in 1981, and divorced just 14 months later. Friends close to the artist acknowledged that Burris showed abusive behavior towards her, and implied that the businessman had an interest in her fortune. “This was a turning point for Karen, when she recognized how much she had been an attentive friend and daughter, skilled at nurturing other people, but unable to nurture herself. She agreed with Levenkron that he would stop taking laxatives,” O’Brien writes.

‘My heart does strange things’

After a few months of intensive therapy and a firm determination to stay healthy, Karen Carpenter returned to her routine. She resumed a project that she had started in 1979: a solo album that she launched at the time when her brother had been admitted to a drug rehabilitation clinic to get rid of his addictions. In 1982 she would record her last song, titled Now. Soon, her illness got worse again. It didn’t help that the people in her circle didn’t understand Karen’s illness, and didn’t know what to do to help her. It was again Dr. Levenkron who raised the alarm. It was after she went to his office, warning him of a new symptom: “My heart does strange things.” She weighed 75 pounds when, on her doctor’s orders, she was admitted to the intensive care unit at Lennox Hill Hospital in New York. Her digestive system was so damaged that she could only be fed intravenously. In October, while in the hospital, she signed a divorce petition. “It was her statement of independence,” writes her biographer.

The Carpenters, Richard & Karen Carpenter
The Carpenters performing on 'The Carol Burnett Show' in Los Angeles in 1972.CBS Photo Archive (Getty Images)

Karen Carpenter was discharged before Thanksgiving. She seemed better and declared herself cured. She left her doctor, but not before giving him a painting in which she herself had embroidered a message: “You win, I win.” In the last months of her life, she resumed her social life and her musical projects with her brother. She had plans to return to New York. She never did. On February 4, 1983, Karen got up, but did not go down for coffee. Her mother found her in her room and she was taken to a nearby hospital. She died at 9:41 that morning.

Her brother, Richard, overcame his own addiction. On March 3, he shared a tribute to his sister on his Instagram account: “Today marks 73 years since the birth of my amazing sister Karen. At some moments, it seems that “time flies.” This is not one of them. It does seem like 40 years have passed since her death. It is comforting to know, however, that her timeless voice has proven to be […] the perfect present for her special day.”

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