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Karen Carpenter:  Public Stage Versus Private Reality

In her public life, Karen Anne Carpenter was a legend in pop music. Her rich vocal tones were unique and inspiring. She was Shakespearean in her ability to give deep meaning to the words she sang. To this day, her songs define the expanse of love, from soaring joy to the depths of pain and anguish. 

In her private life, Karen Anne Carpenter was a mental maelstrom of emotions that led to a self-destructive path resulting in her death just weeks before her 33rd birthday. In an age that believed that women are frail creatures, it was easy to blame Karen Carpenter for her own problems.

However, since her death in 1983, a growing awareness of the causes of mental and emotional stress might suggest hidden issues of abuse that could explain Karen Carpenter’s behavior. In the 21st century, any other woman afficted with Karen Carpenter’s symptoms might indicate a trauma in her personal life. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Karen Carpenter was emotionally or sexually abused. There is no evidence or testimony to suggest abuse. What I am suggesting is that many of her symptoms and behaviors might be cause for further investigation of possible abuse.

The ‘Good’ Family Version

In multiple retrospectives and biographies of the famous singing duo, Karen Carpenter was identified to have several flaws. Among them were:

  • She was never happy coming out from behind the drums and becoming the focus of attention.
  • She couldn’t handle the pressure of fame.
  • She was desperate for the affection of her mother.
  • She saw herself as a failure and/or inadequate.

The Carpenter family blocked efforts of biographers to learn or tell any account of her life that would be seen as negative to the family. In the 1989 movie, The Karen Carpenter Story, her brother, Richard, had close oversight on the production and demanded that scenes be rewritten to avoid possible embarrassment.

Her Symptoms and Environment

Of what has been revealed about Karen Carpenter’s personal life we know the following:

  • She had low self-esteem
  • Her life was mostly devoid of romantic relationships
  • She felt a strong sibling rivalry for her Mother’s affection
  • She was three and a half years younger than her brother, Richard
  • Karen engaged in self-destructive behavior
  • She seemed to be subservient to her brother’s wishes
  • Despite her brother being in primary control of music and business management, Richard was not the star of the act
  • In her songs, she portrayed a deep connection to the emotions of a relationship despite having little or no experience of love in her life

In the #MeToo age, many of these symptoms would be reflective of a person who has experienced some type of emotional and/or sexual related trauma. Again, there is no evidence that Karen Carpenter was a victim of emotional/sexual trauma; however, many of these behaviors are noted by victim-support groups as warning signs.

Victim Behaviors and Responses to Sexual Abuse

Abuse of a victim can occur in many forms, but usually involves a power and/or control aspect of the abuser over the victim. One type of sexual abuse is incest and a victim may manifest several types of dysfunctional reactions to the abuse.  In an article published in Counseling Today, David M. Lawson states: 

…incest is associated with secrecy, betrayal, powerlessness, guilt, conflicted loyalty, fear of reprisal and self-blame/shame. It is of little surprise then that only 30 percent of incest cases are reported by survivors.

He also maps out three types of possible ‘disturbances’ to incest victims:

  • Disturbances in emotions: Affect dysregulation, heightened emotional reactivity, violent outbursts, impulsive and reckless behavior, and dissociation.
  • Disturbances in self: Defeated/diminished self, marked by feeling diminished, defeated and worthless and having feelings of shame, guilt or despair (extends despair).
  • Disturbances in relationships: Interpersonal problems marked by difficulties in feeling close to others and having little interest in relationships or social engagement more generally. There may be occasional relationships, but the person has great difficulty maintaining them.

In some cases of sibling incest, parents may lay blame on the victim rather than consider the abuser responsible. Dr. Richard P. Kluft also suggests a tragic response to incestual abuse:

The victim becomes accustomed to linking mistreatment with a perverse form of caring.

Was Karen Carpenter Sexually Abused?

There is no evidence that Karen Carpenter was sexually abused. There is reason to stop accepting that she was simply a person with severe personality flaws that led to her tragic death. If the #MeToo movement is to move forward, we can no longer ignore dysfunctional mental and emotional behavior in women as their failure, nor can we accept the male interpretation of a woman’s behavior as fact.