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Book Review: Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter by Randy L. Schmidt

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If the disease that led to her untimely death at 32 was exacerbated by anything, as a new-in-paperback biography suggests, Karen Carpenter suffered from deep-seated feelings of inferiority and loneliness.

In Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, author Randy L. Schmidt chronicles the often-troubled and ultimately tragic life of one of popular music’s most gifted voices.

In one particularly telling passage, the author notes that when Carpenter started making records and touring with her older brother, Richard, she considered herself foremost a drummer, then a vocalist. At the time she was, if anything, a bit overweight. Yet by all accounts Carpenter seemed either content with her curves or indifferent to them altogether. However, as the duo’s success necessitated that she step into the spotlight — literally, as concert audiences had difficulty discerning the five-foot, four-inch singer behind her drums and cymbals — her self-esteem and health began to deteriorate.

The author gives much consideration to Carpenter’s personal (mostly familial) relationships. While her father is rendered as being genial and supportive, her mother comes across as overbearing at best and, at worst, dictatorial. Richard Carpenter seems to fall somewhere between these two extremes, appearing as a musical perfectionist yet also a protective if, at times, condescending older brother. And yet even accounts of some rather heated arguments between the two can’t diminish the overriding impression that Richard loved his sister to no end.

In depictions of the behavior and various tactics she resorted to in maintaining and masking her illness — and over time she acknowledged she was indeed contending with something more than low self-esteem and poor eating habits — Karen Carpenter never comes across as willfully self-destructive. Her actions were, it seems, a means to cope with circumstances in which she felt helpless or inadequate. Anorexia nervosa instilled in Carpenter a false sense of security, providing her a means of control, the only kind she believed she had.

Though the author wrote Little Girl Blue without the Carpenter family’s participation or blessing, the narrative is nevertheless well-substantiated, insightful, and riveting to read. Karen Carpenter’s story, of course, remains heartbreakingly sad.

 

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About Donald Gibson

Donald Gibson is the publisher of www.writeonmusic.com and a freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in such publications as No Depression, Spinner, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cinema Sentries, Blinded by Sound, and Blogcritics, where he was the Senior Music Editor (2011-2012) and Assistant Music Editor (2008-2011). He has interviewed and profiled such artists as Tony Bennett, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Boz Scaggs, Charli XCX, Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Susanna Hoffs, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Jonny Lang, Alan Parsons, Bill Frisell, Joan Armatrading, Christina Perri, Don Felder (The Eagles), Jimmy Webb, Katie Melua, and Buddy Guy, among many others.
  • Diane Sampson

    A very good review of an excellent book!

  • Kenny Peters

    This is a very worthy buy, especially for a paperback. Karen’t story is told in full, for the first time, without the Carpenter filter and the book read very well – much as a novel would. I highly recommend this book.

  • zatoli30

    thank A very good review of an excellent book!

  • Bassetpapa

    I have followed this writer for some time in the music section and in that arena he certainly excels. It is refreshing to see him expand his talent to other venues and to be taken seriously in doing so. This is an excellent review of a very sad and important story of a great artist. Well done sir!

  • Greg Barbrick

    I am going to have to get this.

  • Margaret

    I have to differ from this assessment of a very talented, lonely lady.
    Having grown up in a very dysfunctional family that used their children to promote their esteem I really relate to Karen.
    Control can be so overwhelming that you loose your self esteem and identity and I believe this is exactly what happened to Karen. She was looking for herself by thinking she had to be like other performers. She didn’t know who she was and could not conceive that she was really loved no matter how much she weighed.
    For her anorexia was not a disease it was a desperate cry to be free and recognized. All the drugs in the world would not have helped her, but walking away from her family might have saved her life. It is sad she never received the advise that might truly have helped.

  • Kit O’Toole

    I’ve heard about this book and was curious whether it was worth a read. I think I’ll pick it up after reading your review!

  • Suzy…..

    Cannot believe l have only just heard about this book, a definite buy for me……
    Why was the film the Karen carpenter story allowed to be shown if it was not a true account…….