For one reason or another, this song evokes strong emotions from so many of us. For me, it’s the extreme contrasts between an absolutely beautiful song, sung by a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, who struggled with demons all her life.
Demons so many of us knew nothing about.
Karen Carpenter was only 20 years old when she recorded this song in 1970. Thirteen years later, she died from heart failure as a result of her lost battle with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that, when I was in high school, was something nobody was yet talking about. Karen’s death changed all that.
The early and mid-80s were filled with things we didn’t talk about. The fight against drugs (Just Say NO) and against drinking and driving were just being introduced to us. These were big issues that didn’t require a lot of focus on any one individual. It was a campaign to keep people alive from harmful substances that you put into your body.
Talking about eating disorders or mental illnesses, however, was still very much taboo. These were individuals who had problems, and we didn’t want to put much emphasis on things we couldn’t feel good about combating. Tragically, reporting rapes and other horrific crimes against individuals fell into this same category. We were just beginning to grasp the courage to “come out” and share some of these deeply personal stories that were always swept under the carpet to be dealt with privately, if they were dealt with at all. Unfortunately, many individuals lost these internal battles because they did not have the support to help them through identification, treatment, and recovery.
The death of Karen Carpenter in 1983 was a turning point for discussing such battles when her disorder, anorexia nervosa, was finally exposed as a nationwide problem affecting nearly 40,000 individuals, primarily girls between the ages of 15 and 19. We were all in shock, of course. Not that she struggled with an eating disorder, but that such a beautiful individual could be struggling with anything at all.
That wasn’t the way things were supposed to be.
Slowly, other individuals with eating disorders began to seek out help, and their courageous steps helped others confront their problems and find the treatment they needed. The stigma attached to anorexia was being chipped away — ever so slowly — and those in need were learning that it was okay to seek help. Others suffered too. They were not alone.
Since I graduated from high school, this song has been that wonderful, yet depressing tune that reminds me we too often present to others a better side of ourselves, sometimes masking our pains and struggles. We’ve come a long way since Karen’s death 26 years ago, but we have so far to go.