Mr. Karen Carpenter

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Just days before her wedding, Karen Carpenter discovered her fiancee was a liar.

Karen had been dating high profile men for years, sometimes casually and sometimes seriously. Alan Osmond and Steve Martin and Tony Danza. She was 5’4”, petite and small with an enormous smile. She looked healthy and strong at around 115 lbs, but she was hard on herself, often starving herself while using laxatives to empty her system and uppers to boost her metabolism and energy, and her weight would sometimes drop to 90, 85, or even 80 pounds, giving her the look of a skeleton covered in skin.

Her voice, though, her voice was unchanging. She kept an impossible schedule, touring the world and making music with her smoky and sultry voice in its lower register, somehow conveying the emotional weight of every word, whether she sang of falling in love or of being desperately lonely or of being heartbroken.

Talking to myself and feeling old, sometimes I’d like to quit, nothin’ ever seems to fit, hanging around, nothing to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down

and

why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? just like me, they long to be close to you

and

what to say to make you come again, come back to me again and play your sad guitar, don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?

Karen’s mother, Agnes, ruled the household with strong words and harsh expectations. She saw her son, Richard, as a musical prodigy who would have a successful career playing the piano, and she saw Karen as a talented young woman who could support Richard in his rise to fame and then perhaps Karen could become the wife and mother she was meant to be. Karen started her music career behind a set of drums, playing for her brother’s band, but when they heard her sing, she was moved out in front as the lead singer. She was the one everyone saw and heard and remembered.

Karen and Richard were dubbed the squeaky-clean rock stars, full of innocence and virginity, during their era, and their personal lives matched that at first; they even lived at home with their parents until they were in their mid-20s, for years after they had become famous. In time, Richard struggled through drug addiction while Karen fell in and out of love, hoping to find a unicorn of a man, who could love her, give her a family, be independent and devoted, and be able to handle her fame.

Karen met Tom Burris during a difficult time in her life. She had just tried launching her own musical career, her own solo album. She had smiled and beamed through the hard work of making her disco album, but after a year of hard work, her family and friends had discouraged her from releasing it, hearing the tracks and telling her it would be unsuccessful. And so she shelved the album, and it would only be released years after her death.

Tom had appeared perfect, and he came at just the right time. He was handsome with a flashy smile and a nice career and stories of vast wealth, and he was blonde and blue-eyed and seemingly devoted to Karen. He claimed he had never heard of her, though she was world famous. A decade older, Tom rushed a divorce with his current wife and proposed to Karen, promising to give her everything she ever wanted, and Karen, hesitant at first, said yes. Then, weeks before the wedding, Tom told her that he had had a vasectomy and that he couldn’t give her children. Karen was heartbroken and furious. He had lied to her. She called off the wedding, but her mother had already sent out the invitations and Karen was pressured into continuing.

And so, Karen Carpenter married Tom Burris married on August 31, 1980. She cut the honeymoon short, immediately unhappy, and then Tom began asking for money, having lied about his personal fortunes. He bought her a car, but they later repossessed it for missing payments. After months of unhappiness, Karen began working on the divorce proceedings, changing her will to keep Tom mostly out of it.

Karen’s health was failing, her body unable to operate without food and sustenance, abused by pills and laxatives. She started treatment and wanted fast results. The therapist was rough on her and Karen began facing harsh truths, especially in a therapy session where her mother could admit love for Richard but not for Karen, not out loud at least.

And so Karen was 32 when she woke up one morning, started a cup of coffee, and then collapsed naked on the floor in her room in her mother’s basement, her heart giving out on her. She died minutes later. It was 1983.

I was five when Karen died. I grew up listening to her amazing voice. It was heavenly, and it made me feel all the feelings. And now, I’m 38, older than she was at the time of her death, and I’m learning about her life. I’ve played her music for the week while I’ve read about her, and I’ve watched her old interviews as she denied having an eating disorder late in her career. I’ve watched her awkward singing behind a set of drums early in her career, and her extreme confidence as she flirted with the audience masterfully in the middle of her career. And this morning, I sit and type about her sad story, one talented and beautiful young woman who wanted love and happiness just like anyone else. And  I realize, it’s a rainy day and a Monday, and I’m feeling down.

But good Lord, that voice…

 

 

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