The Tragic Death Of Karen Carpenter

Karen Carpenter is perhaps best remembered as second half of the '70s brother-sister musical duo The Carpenters. Her brother, Richard Carpenter, was a piano prodigy and considered a great musical talent, and it was he who proposed starting a band with his sister. Richard might have been the driving force behind the band, but it was Karen who people remember best. It was Karen's drumming skills and her contralto vocals that won praise from fans and critics everywhere. When people think of The Carpenters today, it's Karen's voice they remember. 

Tragically, Karen Carpenter is also remembered as the celebrity who drew the nation's attention to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. At that point in time, few had any true understanding the mental and physical complexities of the disorder. And sadly, it took seeing the young, fragile Karen Carpenter wither and waste away before the world's very eyes that made people stand up and take serious notice of the condition. 

Karen Carpenter Suffered From Anorexia Nervosa

In the '70s, the world didn't know or understand much about eating disorders the way we do today. That's why many couldn't figure out what precisely was wrong with Karen Carpenter when she started to appear so abnormally frail. Anorexia can be rooted in control issues, and it would appear that's where Karen's problems came from. He brother was always their mother's blatant favorite and considered him the more talented sibling. The young Karen also was considered a little heavy when she was young — and she didn't like it. If she couldn't have her mother's love, she could certainly control her weight. After high school, Carpenter lost 20 lbs on the low-carb Stillman Diet (described at LiveStrong) — and her family and friends praised her for it. But it didn't stop there. 

Carpenter still continued to meticulously count calories and plan her daily food consumption, dead set on trying to lose just a little more weight. Family and friends started to notice Carpenter's peculiar eating habits. According to The Guardian, at mealtimes, she would push and rearrange her food around on her plate to make it appear that she was eating. She would offer tastes of her meal to others at the table, strategically clearing her plate without actually eating anything. When Karen's weight went down to 80 lbs, it was obvious that there was a serious problem. To her friends and family, the solution seemed simple — just eat. 

Karen Carpenter Continued to Deteriorate, and Fans Noticed

Although she was achieving great success in her singing career, Karen Carpenter's health continued to go downhill. She was constantly fretting about her weight and her appearance. Not only was she not eating, but she was also taking a vomit-inducing drug called ipecac, reports Time Magazine. She was so exhausted between shows that all she could do was lie down — sometimes sleeping 16 hours per day. In an interview with People, Karen's brother, Richard, tried to urge her to eat and keep to their schedule. "She didn't eat enough for the schedule we were keeping — she lived on salads, maybe dry toast for breakfast," he said. "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."

It wasn't just Karen's family who saw how much she was declining — her fans were noticing, too. When she came out to perform, many were shocked by her skeletal appearance. No one guessed anorexia nervosa. Many speculated that Karen might have cancer or some other terrible disease. According to The Guardian, a Variety reviewer had nothing but high praise for Karen's performance, but couldn't help but comment on her appearance at one of her shows: "She is terribly thin, almost a wraith, and should be gowned more becomingly."

Karen Carpenter Tried To Get Better

In 1981, Karen Carpenter finally admitted that she had a serious problem and desperately needed help. According to The Guardian, the first step was to start treatment with a New York psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders. Her family wasn't enthusiastic about her seeing a therapist — it was a time in American culture when mental health problems were viewed as embarrassing. Not understanding the health aspect of anorexia nervosa, Karen's family considered therapy essentially worthless. Richard thought his sister should check into an inpatient facility and get treatment as someone with a substance abuse problem. 

Although Karen seemed dedicated to getting well, she continued to vigorously exercise to work off calories, or force herself to throw up. In 1982, she started to lose weight again and became severely dehydrated. Karen ultimately had to be admitted to Lennox Hill Hospital, where she was placed on an intravenous drip. While this treatment did help her, and Karen was ultimately able to get herself up to 110 lbs, her heart was under a great deal of strain.

On February 1, 1983, at the age of 32, Karen Carpenter collapsed and died in her bedroom at her parents' house — her heart simply gave out. According to the autopsy, there was no indication of a drug overdose. Still, there was evidence that her dependence on the vomit-inducing drug ipecac was the primary contributor to her heart failure, along with the physical toll that anorexia took on her body.