Recently, I watched a video done about Karen Carpenter by YouTube shrink, Dr. Todd Grande. Dr. Grande does videos about mental health topics in a trademark “flat” kind of way. When I first encountered him on YouTube, I didn’t like his videos that much because his delivery was so dry. But I kept coming back, because he chose interesting topics. After awhile, I realized that I enjoy his videos and even his “flat” style… especially when he throws shade in kind of a bland way. In the video he made about Karen Carpenter, Dr. Grande remarked that in terms of her musical talent, Karen was “like a Ferrari stuck on a go cart track”. He implied that she was much more talented than her brother, Richard, is. I got a kick out of that observation.
Personally, I disagree with Dr. Grande that Karen’s talent was that much more impressive than Richard’s is. They had strengths in different areas. Richard is a fantastic pianist, and he’s a great arranger. He knew what songs went best with Karen’s vocals. Karen was a magnificent singer and drummer. Together, they worked well. Both of them worked apart with somewhat less success. I do think that Karen and Richard had a very controlling mother, and personally, I think if anyone should be blamed for what happened to Karen Carpenter, it could be her mom that deserves the most shade. Agnes Carpenter was overbearing and overreaching… and she didn’t want her children to be independent adults. Moreover, she obviously favored Richard, which probably took a toll on Karen’s self esteem. Maybe that had to do with her development of anorexia nervosa. I don’t know.
Anyway… I enjoyed watching Dr. Grande’s video about Karen Carpenter and realized he’d done a bunch of similar videos about other celebrities. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on Christy Henrich, a brilliant 80s era gymnast who famously perished from anorexia nervosa in 1994. So I left him a comment. Maybe he’ll read and heed it. I really think it would be interesting to hear Dr. Todd Grande’s deadpan views about Christy’s public struggle with anorexia. She had a tremendous work ethic, which extended to her illness. At one point, Christy’s weight fell to 47 pounds. It’s not that I admire her for being that emaciated. It’s more of a comment on her sheer will power and relentless pursuit of her goals, self-destructive as they were. I’m sure a mental health expert would have a lot to say about her.
In the meantime, below is a repost of an article I wrote in February 2014 about Christy Henrich for my original blog. It was inspired because Bill and I went on a “hop” to Spain and Portugal in January of that year. On the way back to Texas, we landed in Missouri and drove through Christy’s hometown of Independence, Missouri. I thought of her as I realized how much Missouri reminds me of Virginia. As usual, the repost appears “as/is”.
Remembering Christy Henrich
Back in the late 1980s, I had a brief but intense obsession with watching gymnastics. I would catch meets on ESPN or Home Team Sports. In those days, ESPN only had one channel and I believe HTS is now defunct. I remember seeing very old footage of Shannon Miller when she was just 12 years old. I remember watching Brandy Johnson and Phoebe Mills. I could never so much as turn a cartwheel myself, but I really enjoyed watching the tiny girls compete. I admired them for being so tough and strong. I was into horses myself, though.
I also remember Christy Henrich, who was less than a month younger than me. When I first saw her, she reminded me a bit of a soccer player. Short and muscular without an ounce of fat on her, she didn’t have the long, graceful limbs of the Russian or Romanian gymnasts. But she was very strong and had an amazing work ethic. Her coach, Al Fong, even called her E.T. for extra tough. Sometimes, that extra tough work ethic worked against her, as you can see in the video below.
Not being privy to anything going on in gymnastics that wasn’t aired on TV, I didn’t know about Christy Henrich’s eventual slide into anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Back in those days, I had a bit of an obsession about eating disorders, too. I knew a lot about them and even flirted with them. If I had known about Christy, I might have even admired her for her anorexia. That’s how dumb I was at 16.
I remember watching the very intense 1988 Summer Olympics gymnastics trials. I was kind of rooting for Kristie Phillips, an adorable strawberry blonde who had seemed poised for gymnastics stardom. A growth spurt and weight gain had sidelined her in 1987 and she was back to try to win a spot on the team. She placed 8th and was named a second alternate. She would not be going to Seoul unless someone got hurt. Christy Henrich missed the team altogether by .0118 of a point. There was no hope for her at all, unless she set her sights on 1992 in Barcelona.
In 1990, a judge supposedly told Christy Henrich after a meet in Budapest, Hungary that in order to be a serious contender for the Olympics, she would need to lose weight. At 4’11” and 93 pounds, Christy didn’t have much weight to lose. But she took the judge’s words to heart and went on a serious diet, quickly shedding five pounds. She was praised for the weight loss at first, but then she slid headlong into a battle that would eventually cost her her life.
By January 1991, she had lost so much weight that her coach, Al Fong, kicked her out of the gym. A week after he kicked her out, she came in to tell him she was quitting the sport. Though she had a loving family and a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, the eating disorders had taken hold of her. On July 26, 1994, she died of multiple organ failure. She had just turned 22 years old and she weighed less than 60 pounds. At one point, her weight was just 47 pounds.
I remember reading Joan Ryan’s book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. In fact, I read an excerpt of it in the Washington Post just days before I left the country for Armenia to serve in the Peace Corps. When I got home in 1997, I bought the book and read it. It was about female gymnasts and figure skaters. In 2000, Ryan updated the book, including discussion about Dominique Moceanu’s desire to be emancipated from her parents because her father was spending her money.
I don’t know what made me think of Christy today. It’s not her birthday or the anniversary of her death, though in July of this year, she will have been dead for 20 years. That amazes me. It seems like yesterday, we were 22 years old. The older you get, the faster time flies.
Last month, as Bill and I worked our way back to Texas from our trip abroad, we drove through Christy’s hometown of Independence, Missouri. We stayed a night in Kansas City, which is where Christy died. For some reason, I even thought about Christy’s mother as we passed through. It was frigid during our brief time there and, looking around, it didn’t look like the kind of place that would excite me. On the other hand, I did notice how nice and folksy everyone seemed to be. It seems like the kind of place you could get to know your neighbors.
I’m sure that the last twenty years have been tough for all who knew and loved Christy Henrich. What happened to her was just gruesome. I still like watching gymnastics today, but remember Christy’s story reminds me that the sport has a bit of a dark side. To read more about Christy Henrich, I recommend the book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.
Edited to add: in 2014, I still had no idea how dark gymnastics can be… that was before we knew about John Geddert and Larry Nassar.
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