I thought I could’ve saved Karen Carpenter’s life had we been friends. But after slogging through this biography, I can’t imagine being friends with the woman Randy Schmidt depicts.
Carpenter lived a complex life ruled by secrets, familial fear, and obligations, and she died a hideous, early death from complications due to anorexia and bulimia. In Schmidt’s hands, Carpenter’s story becomes a mundane, run-of-the-mill, blame-it-on-the-mother cliché, one in which Karen’s mother is evil, her father is barely mentioned, and her brother, Richard, is loved and revered by the whole family. Schmidt also covers only the most commonly known aspects of her life: the Carpenters’ rise to success, the fact that Karen was a talented drummer, that she was obsessed with looking good, that she had a grueling recording and concert schedule and little time for love. It’s also well known that she had an overbearing mother whom she feared, but Schmidt glosses over other explanations for Carpenter’s self-destruction, like the decades-old rumors of sibling incest and Carpenter’s tomboy (read: lesbian) tendencies. Although maybe untrue, these rumors deserve some exploration; even false rumors, after all, often lead to a different truth. And in his banal version of the story, Schmidt offers no insight into what caused this tremendously talented and successful woman to starve herself to death. Until that happens, the real story of Karen Carpenter will not have been told.