book reviews, celebrities, music

Repost: Two book reviews about Karen Carpenter’s life…

These two related book reviews, written for Epinions in 2007 and 2010, are both about books written about Karen and Richard Carpenter. They appear here as/is.

The almost complete Carpenters story…

The cover for the paperback version of this book. I have the hardcover edition.

For years I’ve enjoyed listening to music by Richard and the late Karen Carpenter, popularly known as The Carpenters. The Carpenters will forever be known for their ability to create and cover 70s era pop confections like “Top Of The World”, “Close To You”, and “Superstar”. Richard Carpenter provided his considerable arranging talents and piano playing. Karen Carpenter contributed her unforgettable voice. Together, the Carpenters were a musical force who reached fame and fortune while they were still in their 20s.

In April 1994, the late Ray Coleman published an authorized biography called The Carpenters: The Untold Story. I was quick to purchase a hardcover copy of this book and I’ve read it several times. Unfortunately, it seems that Coleman’s very comprehensive and informative biography is no longer in print. Nevertheless, I think it’s a must read for anyone who is interested in the Carpenters’ careers.

Coleman includes brief information about Karen and Richard Carpenters’ ancestry and childhood, as well as information about the time they spent in New Haven, Connecticut before they moved to Downey, California to pursue their music careers. The biography continues with the story of how the Carpenters were discovered, their meteoric rise to fame, and Karen’s and Richard’s legendary demons. Karen Carpenter was, of course, afflicted with anorexia nervosa, whereas Richard developed a drug addiction which led to a stay at the Meninger Clinic in Kansas. There are two photo sections with pictures of the Carpenters as kids and adults. There’s even a copy of an essay Karen Carpenter wrote for school.

The Carpenters’ story has been told and retold by different sources. The television movie The Karen Carpenter Story was shown for the first time in 1989. There is also an independent unauthorized film called Superstar available, which was made with Barbie dolls. Check out YouTube and you’ll find plenty of news and interview clips documenting the rise and fall of the Carpenters. In my mind, Coleman’s book is the only source that really provides a glimpse into who Karen and Richard Carpenter were as people. Although this book was written with the Carpenter family’s cooperation, it doesn’t cast the family in a perfect light. Though Karen had the voice of an angel, she didn’t always behave like one, especially when it came to Richard’s love life. And Richard Carpenter, talented as he is, also comes across as a bit stodgy and demanding.

This is not a short book, but I always enjoy reading it; Ray Coleman had a way with words. The only drawbacks I can think of are that this book is not as easy to find as it once was and the story ends in 1994. Richard Carpenter is still around, having married his cousin Mary Rudolph (she was the adopted daughter of his aunt) in 1984 and fathered five children. He still performs and he’s always tweaking the Carpenters’ sound and repackaging their music. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who wants the lowdown on the Carpenters’ career.

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And now, my review of Randy Schmidt’s book, Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter…

Karen Carpenter’s life and death…

The cover of Randy Schmidt’s book.

It’s hard to believe that Karen Carpenter, who had one of the most recognizable voices of the 1970s and early 80s, has now been dead for 27 years. I remember quite clearly the day she died, February 4, 1983. I was ten years old and riding in a car with my dad to visit my sister, who was at that time a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University. An announcer came on the air and said that Karen Carpenter had died that morning. I asked my dad what had killed her and he said “Starvation.” He didn’t elaborate, but it wasn’t much longer before I first heard about anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder that plagued Karen Carpenter’s final years and eventually led to her sudden death at age 32.

Karen Carpenter was, of course, part of the brother-sister pop duo the Carpenters. The other half of that duo was her older brother, Richard. While Karen had that magical voice that made their music so appealing to so many listeners, it was Richard who was known as the “brains” behind the outfit. He wrote and arranged songs, occasionally sang, and played piano like a genius. And in their very close-knit family, Richard was apparently the most important child, especially to their mother, Agnes Carpenter.

Author Randy Schmidt has just published Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter (2010). I happened to find it two days ago, while playing with the Kindle my husband Bill just gave me for my birthday. Karen Carpenter’s story has always fascinated me and I do enjoy the Carpenters’ music, saccharine as it often is. I downloaded it and managed to finish it within several hours of dedicated reading. Considering the fact that this book is well over 300 pages long, that was quite a feat and a testament to my interest in the book.

Overlapping biographies

Back in 1994, the late author Ray Coleman wrote The Carpenters: The Untold Story. Coleman was a well known biographer of rock worthies as well as the editor-in-chief of Melody Maker magazine. Coleman’s book about the Carpenters was very comprehensive, so I was somewhat surprised to find Schmidt’s new book. Having read Little Girl Blue, however, I did notice that Schmidt had consulted many of Coleman’s works in Melody Maker and Coleman’s biography of the Carpenters in order to write this book. In fact, I even recognized a couple of paragraphs that appeared to come verbatim from Coleman’s book, which I have read several times since 1994. Coleman’s biography of the Carpenters, which Schmidt does list in a very comprehensive bibliography, obviously served as a major source for Schmidt’s Little Girl Blue. Why, then, if Ray Coleman had already written the Carpenters’ story, did Randy Schmidt need to write another book specifically about Karen Carpenter?

What I think Little Girl Blue offers…

What sets Little Girl Blue apart from The Carpenters: The Untold Story is that Schmidt managed to get information from sources other than those approved by Richard Carpenter. In particular, Randy Schmidt interviewed Karen Carpenter’s close friends, Frenda Franklin, Olivia Newton-John, and Karen Ramone. Karen Ramone was also interviewed for Coleman’s book, but from what I gathered in Little Girl Blue, Schmidt got more details, particularly about the time period when Karen Carpenter was in New York City in 1979-80, recording her one and only solo album, Karen Carpenter, with Karen Ramone’s husband, Phil Ramone.

Schmidt also updates Carpenters fans on things that have happened since Coleman’s book was published. For one thing, Karen Carpenter’s solo album, which had been shelved back when it was created, was finally released in 1996. For another thing, Richard Carpenter has become the father of five children– only three of them had been born when Coleman’s book was published. Schmidt also writes about why the Carpenters’ remains have been relocated from their original resting place at Forest Lawn in Cypress to Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California.

What’s good about Little Girl Blue

Besides the fact that Schmidt updates fans on all things Carpenters, this book includes some photos– a few of which I had not seen before in Coleman’s book. Schmidt writes well and I appreciated the fact that he spoke to a lot of different people in order to give readers a less whitewashed version of events. Schmidt provides more details about Karen Carpenter’s ultimately doomed marriage to Tom Burris, making him out to be an enormous gold-digger.  If what Schmidt writes about Burris is completely true, it’s tragically ironic that she married him.  One of Karen Carpenter’s biggest fears was, allegedly, marrying a man who was a gold-digger.

Schmidt also makes Karen Carpenter’s mother out to be an extreme control freak, who refused to let either of her children grow up and be normal adults. Schmidt even interviewed actors Mitchell Anderson and Cynthia Gibb, who famously played Richard and Karen Carpenter in a 1989 movie of the week called The Karen Carpenter Story, which played on CBS on January 1, 1989.

What’s not so good about Little Girl Blue

Like I mentioned before, Ray Coleman had already written a superior biography about the Carpenters. I am very familiar with Coleman’s book, which is unfortunately now out of print. I do think there’s room for two biographies about the Carpenters– but– it was pretty clear to me that Randy Schmidt leaned on Ray Coleman’s work quite heavily. In fact, there were a couple of instances in which it appeared to me that he’d actually copied some paragraphs or at least paraphrased them to the point at which I knew I had read them several times before. I didn’t have Ray Coleman’s book next to me as I read Schmidt’s efforts on my Kindle, but I feel pretty confident that I’d be able to find the text in question. Reading Schmidt’s work pretty much felt, to me, like the literary equivalent of a re-run.

Should you read Little Girl Blue?

If you are a diehard fan of the Carpenters’ music, you may already know a lot of the information Randy Schmidt reveals in his biography, especially if you’ve already read Coleman’s work. However, if you missed Coleman’s book and can’t get a copy of it, Little Girl Blue is definitely worth reading. Personally, I think I liked Coleman’s book better, though Schmidt does offers some new information, particularly on things that have happened since 1994. And I do think his interviews with Frenda Franklin give this book a perspective that is lacking in Coleman’s book. I do wish, however, that I didn’t feel like I had already read parts of Little Girl Blue.

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athletes, celebrities, mental health, psychology, tragedies, YouTube

Partial repost: Christy Henrich and Karen Carpenter, and discovering Dr. Todd Grande…

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.

Karen Carpenter… Dr. Grande implies that her wings were clipped by her brother… Frankly, I think her mother was more of a wing clipper.

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.

A video a YouTuber made about Christy Henrich.

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.

This may have even been the first meet I ever saw Christy in… This performance was not very good. The commentators say she “looks tired” and “doesn’t look right”. They also mention that she was warming up way before everyone else was.

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.

Christy Henrich at 17

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.

About Kristie Phillips, who also suffered from an eating disorder.
Kristie Phillips was on Oprah, along with Christy’s mom and boyfriend. Here, she talks about her suicidal ideation after she missed the Olympic team.

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.

Christy Henrich in 1990

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.

A clip from a 1995 episode of Oprah in which Christy’s mother and boyfriend talk about her struggles with eating disorders.  

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.

Christy Henrich in 1987.

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.  

An eye opening read.

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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LDS, lessons learned, mental health, music

Turn it off!

Yesterday, after I finished my hated vacuuming chore, it was time for lunch. Bill had dressed for work, as he spent the morning teleworking and planned to go into the office for a few hours. We often have lunch together before he goes, and he was making me a sandwich. Just as he was about to bring it to me, he dropped some of it on the floor, which I had just dry vacuumed with the Dyson and cleaned with the Tineco wet/dry vacuum (a new toy I just bought).

“FUCK!” Bill yelled in a very annoyed tone of voice. “Goddammit! You just cleaned the floor! Shit!”

I don’t know why, but that little explosion of profanity just struck my funny bone so hard and I started laughing hysterically. Arran came up and cleaned the floor for me. He did a good job, too. You’d think I would have been upset about the mess and the cursing, but I actually think it’s hilarious when Bill swears. When I met him, he was a Mormon. Now he’s a heathen like me.

I asked Bill if his still devout Mormon daughter ever swears. He said no, when she feels like cussing, she starts thinking of Jesus or humming Mormon hymns. I remember hearing this the one time I met the girls. They said that whenever they have any “bad” thoughts, they sing a hymn. That supposedly squelches the “bad” impulse to use a word that some people had declared “naughty”. That brings to mind a song from The Book of Mormon, which rather brilliantly sums up how members of the LDS church “turn off” inappropriate or “bad” thoughts or impulses.

This song is so perfect… and so accurate.

Funny… I just watched the above performance of “Turn It Off” by this very talented group of young men. The song is often hilarious, yet it’s also so poignant on many levels. As they finished their number, I sat here with real tears in my eyes. I can just tell that a lot went into making this performance what it is– everything from the little movements as if they were “turning off” switches to the show stopping dance moves and solos. But the lyrics to this song are so very true for so many of us, but particularly those who are dealing with very difficult life situations that might cripple anyone else.

I remember years ago, reading a book about the late Karen Carpenter, who famously grew up in very close-knit and controlling circumstances. In every book or documentary I’ve seen about the Carpenters, I’ve heard that she had a very overbearing mother who was involved in everything Karen did. And one person who knew Karen had said that if she’d just let loose with a good “fuck you!”, maybe she wouldn’t have gotten so sick with anorexia nervosa, which ultimately led to her premature death at age 32.

Hell, I remember reading in that same book about how, after Karen made a self-titled solo album in 1979, she asked if she was allowed to swear. When she was granted permission, Karen reportedly gleefully said to the producer, Phil Ramone, “That album is fucking great!” Karen’s solo album had a disco song on it called “My Body Keeps Changing My Mind”, which is supposedly a big hit at gay bars. People go fucking nuts when it comes on. Why? Because Karen Carpenter, who was a study in putting out heartfelt, deeply emotional, very serious, and even sad songs was having fun. She was letting loose with something kind of ridiculous, and it was obviously something she enjoyed doing.

Someone cleverly set Karen’s song to clips of her when she was alive.

Unfortunately, Karen’s album never saw the light of day until 1996, when it was finally made available for sale. That was 13 years after her death. Her brother, Richard Carpenter, had been in rehab at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas (it’s since moved to Houston, Texas) for Quaalude abuse, while Karen was making her album. Richard had asked Karen not to do disco. He and the rest of the Carpenters’ handlers hadn’t liked Karen’s album, so they scrapped production of it. Maybe if they had let Karen spread her wings a bit– utter a few swear words and cut loose– she might not have become so ill. Or maybe she still would have. Unfortunately, the world will never know what might have happened. Still, I don’t think a hearty “fuck you” from Karen, particularly toward those who tried to squelch her authentic voice and control her, would have done her any harm.

Famed German psychiatrist, Hilde Bruch, wrote a book about anorexia nervosa called The Golden Cage. I think the idea of a “golden cage” is an excellent description of what it’s like to be oppressed, yet living in comfortable circumstances. The cage might be beautiful and comfortable– comprised of a mother’s love, an audience’s respect, or lots of money, but when it comes down to it, it’s still a cage. And while being physically comfortable is a very important part of enjoying life, being able to be one’s true self and cut loose a bit, without being pressured to “turn it off” and pretend, is a major stepping stone to true happiness. It takes a lot less effort to simply relax and be oneself, than be fake and constrained by convention, only doing what is socially acceptable and “correct”. But being too “free” can lead to some consequences, as well as lots of pressure to conform to the status quo.

I read Dr. Bruch’s book, The Golden Cage, many years ago. I wasn’t that impressed with the book, even at a time when I was fascinated by eating disorders. I found it a dull read, at best. However, I do think the title is excellent. It’s probably the best thing about the book, and I think it describes a lot of people who are kept from living their best lives because they are afraid to give up comfort and safety. The mortifying idea of upsetting the apple cart, or doing something embarrassing, “inappropriate”, or “offensive to God” keeps a lot of people from experiencing all they could… or should. Imagine what would happen if people simply allowed themselves to feel the bad things instead of crushing them down or numbing them with drugs, alcohol, or bullshit speak. I think we might have a lot more mentally healthy people and even more happiness.

In any case, I did laugh heartily at Bill’s profane outburst yesterday. I don’t always like it when he cuts loose with cursing. That will surprise some people, since I cuss like a sailor. But in my case, I don’t think it’s the cursing that bothers me as much as hearing him being angry. It reminds me of my dad.

I had a dream about my dad this morning… I dreamt I had decided to go to a nice hotel in my hometown (which probably doesn’t actually exist), sit in the bar, and drink. Then, I decided to stay the night. But I remembered thinking that I should call my dad to tell him and maybe even ask permission! Even in my dream, I knew that I shouldn’t have to ask permission. I remembered thinking to myself that I was a 48 year old woman, and if I wanted to stay the night, I could… and I didn’t have to have anyone’s approval. I even remember thinking that they were going to charge me for the room, anyway, so I didn’t have to go home (my parents’ home that I grew up in). My thrifty dad wouldn’t have wanted me to waste the money, either. Still, I was hesitant, even though the hotel was an oasis of mask free people enjoying life.

When I woke up, I realized that my dad is dead and I was in my own bed, and, when my dad was alive, I had actually said the word “fuck” in front of him. He almost knocked me into the next week when I did so, but that was also the time in which I told him that if he ever laid a finger on me again, I’d have him arrested. And I realized that I became a lot more contented when I started realizing that not being liked by everyone isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it’s freeing as hell not to have to worry about what other people think of me, even if I do sometimes fall back into that habit. I figure, if people don’t like me for who I am, they won’t like the fake version of me, either. And really, it’s not my problem if they don’t like me. It’s more their loss than mine… or, if you prefer, “it’s not me; it’s them.” As long as a person isn’t trying to be cruel or hateful or doing something obviously harmful to others, I think they should be allowed to be who they are, even if they cuss in the process. Being authentic is what makes people unique and interesting… and free.

Bill is one of the kindest, gentlest, most genuinely decent people I’ve ever known. He’s always a gentleman, and would never intentionally hurt anyone, unless it was a matter of life and death for himself or someone he loved. But even he sometimes has to go off with a little cussing spree. I’m glad that no one was ever able to turn him into someone who feels compelled to “turn it off” like a light switch. Or, if he ever did feel that way, he’s learned to break the switch.

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bad TV, mental health

The tasteless dramatization of self-starvation…

This post may be triggering for anyone suffering from an eating disorder. Reader discretion advised.

A couple of days ago, I decided I couldn’t stand to watch any more old episodes of Snapped. I actually find Snapped very interesting, but I can barely stand to listen to the former narrator, Sharon Martin, who (to me) has an annoying, over-the-top, salaciousness about her that bugs. I read that Sharon Martin was replaced as the narrator on Snapped. Having looked her up online, I know I’m not the only one who finds her irritating. She must also have her fans, though, because she was the narrator for many years, and there was even a Change.org petition to bring her back.

Because I needed to break away from Snapped, I went on a downloading binge. I ended up buying the box set of Growing Pains, which was a popular show, starting when I was a pre-teen. That show famously starred the late Alan Thicke, Joanna Kerns, Kirk Cameron, Tracey Gold, and Jeremy Miller. I’ve just now started the second season and am unexpectedly delighted by how well written and funny the early seasons are. Kirk Cameron was legitimately cute and funny before he became a Christian evangelist nightmare. Jeremy Miller was seriously adorable when he was a little kid. And then there’s Tracey Gold.

I’ve always had kind of a love/hate fascination with Tracey Gold. I think she is a talented actress, although the roles she’s played have often annoyed me. I remember seeing her on shows like Trapper John, MD and any number of movies of the week. She truly has a gift for acting, especially the kind of acting required by shows of the 70s and 80s, which was the height of my childhood. I probably know her best from her time as Carol Seaver, though… and I remember all too well how she was often made fun of on the show for being fat, ugly, and nerdy. Then, when she was in her late teens/early 20s, she developed anorexia nervosa and had to leave Growing Pains for treatment.

In 1994, Tracey Gold even made a TV movie about her real life eating disorder. For the Love of Nancy is one of maybe a dozen or so television movies about the horrors of eating disorders. For all I know, Tracey has recovered from her illness. I haven’t seen her on TV lately, but then I also haven’t been in the United States since 2014.

Yesterday, as I was watching old episodes of Growing Pains, I started thinking about all of the eating disorder themed movies of the week and after school specials. Next thing I knew, I started searching Google and promptly fell down a rabbit hole. My search was prompted by a guest star on Growing Pains by an actress named April Lerman (now known as April Haney). She played an annoying, pretentious girl named Juliet on Growing Pains. In 1987, she also played a girl named Cindy Greco on an after school special called Little Miss Perfect. On that show, she was second banana to Mary Tanner, who played the lead role– a bulimic girl named Debbie Welker.

I remember watching that special and being a bit shocked by it. On that special, Debbie (Mary Tanner) was upset because her mother remarried and forced her to leave her old neighborhood. She finds herself in a new school, where she has to prove herself as a budding musical theater star and high school cheerleader. I distinctly remember the cheerleading coach making comments about how the high school cheerleaders needed to make the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders “jealous” of them.

The hourlong show culminated with a scene showing Debbie stuffing her face with tons of junk food and then throwing up. She ruptures her esophagus and ends up in the hospital, where her mother lectures her about her habits. Cindy Greco (April Lerman) is there doing a horrible Humphrey Bogart impression as Debbie’s mom promises her that they will “lick” (see what they did there?) this problem together.

I went looking to see if I could find that particular cringeworthy special on YouTube. I have seen it there before. Alas, it’s one of the lost episodes that isn’t currently on the popular video platform. I’m sure it will show up again at some point. What I did find, however, was a hilarious article about movies and shows about eating disorders. This snarky piece, written by Claudia Eve Beauchesne, makes the very astute observation about the the media’s portrayal of eating disorders. She writes:

Between 1981 and 2003, at least a dozen cookie-cutter movies and after- school specials about eating disorders were broadcast on North American television. Nearly all of those films had titles combining the words “Dying,” “Perfect” and “Body” (Little Miss Perfect, Perfect Body, Dying to be Perfect, etc.) or including the word “Secret” (Kate’s Secret, The Secret Life of Mary Margaret, A Secret Between Friends, etc.) Save for a few exceptions, they all followed the same recipe:

A white, upper-middle-class teenage girl with mommy issues and a name that ends in a “y” sound (Casey, Debbie, Nancy, Lexi, etc.) secretly begins to “scarf and barf,” or stops eating altogether, in an effort to excel at a performing art or competitive sport, to emulate a popular new friend, or to regain a sense of control after a move or her parents’ divorce. A few dramatic incidents later—often messy binges involving chocolate icing, desperate midnight workouts and/or laxative theft—her friends and family start to tell her that she looks too thin, yet fail to notice that she now also sports ghoulish purple eye shadow and beige lipstick.

Eventually, our heroine faints in public and wakes up in the hospital, her mother asks herself out loud, “What did I do wrong? What did I miss?!” and a doctor gives the worried parents a complete rundown of the possible causes and effects of eating disorders. After a failed attempt to run away from the hospital, our heroine learns that her enabler friend or sassy hospital roommate has died of heart failure or committed suicide. The news sends her on a downward spiral until she hits rock bottom and resolves to get better. Cue the tearful reconciliation with mom.

I sat there chuckling, because Claudia is so right. I’ve seen most of those movies. Some of them are better than others, but they all do follow that basic formula. And they all kind of make it out that the only real eating disorders are anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and they’re only “real” if someone winds up in the hospital on the brink of death. Also, one thing Claudia doesn’t mention, but I’ve noticed, is that they always show the heroines jogging through beautiful neighborhoods, as if they are so healthy and wholesome… but underneath, there’s a bucket of crazy!

The first movie about eating disorders. It’s loosely based on the novel by the same name.

The actors portraying the victims sometimes actually look the parts they play. Jennifer Jason Leigh portrayed Casey Powell in The Best Little Girl in the World, an ABC movie of the week loosely based on the book of the same name, written by famed eating disorder therapist Steven Levenkron. I read that Jennifer Jason Leigh lost about 22 pounds to play Casey. She’s also a legitimately good actress. But they still used an emaciated body double in a doctor’s office scene. You can tell, because Jennifer Jason Leigh had really beautiful, thick, natural hair, and in that scene, it’s obvious the body double is wearing a godawful wig. But the shot only lasts a few seconds.

In For the Love of Nancy, there’s a similarly revealing scene. Tracey Gold, who actually did have anorexia nervosa, comes into a Christmas party looking like death warmed over. In that scene, it really looks like they mostly used her real body, although she was reportedly in recovery when that film was made.

Like The Best Little Girl in the World, For the Love of Nancy starts with a jogging scene…

I’ve seen For the Love of Nancy a bunch of times. This is the first time I’ve actually stopped to look at this scene closely. It’s probably because this movie kind of grates. Even though it has a somewhat decent cast, there’s not a lot of chemistry among the actors. Jill Clayburgh and William Devane are not convincing as a couple and the siblings all look like they came from different gene pools. But now that I look at it this infamous scene in slow motion, I think they used body doubles for this film, too. Tracey Gold probably no longer had the super skinny body that would deliver the requisite shock value to viewers, since she had been in recovery. I’m sure this film was not easy for her to make. It was probably pretty triggering for her.

Nowadays, movies of the week aren’t as common as they used to be. We have so many outlets for entertainment now. All of the streaming services make their own content now– Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu all have their own shows, and there are so many dramatic subjects that can be tackled that shock even more than anorexia nervosa does. Personally, I think these kinds of movies, which entertain in a way akin to that of horror movies, do a disservice to people.

There are a lot of different kinds of eating disorders. They are all soul crushing and devastating in their own ways. But no one wants to see an obese woman with compulsive overeating disorder stuffing her face and not vomiting, even though compulsive overeating is, in fact, a dangerous eating disorder. Ditto to orthorexia, which is an obsession with “clean” or “healthy” eating. Even though it’s unhealthy and destructive, it’s not as dramatic or sexy a subject as is anorexia or even bulimia. Maybe a really gifted screenwriter and director could make a compelling film about the lesser acknowledged eating disorders, but they probably wouldn’t stir as much interest, even though informing the world about those problems would probably be a public service. At most, people with compulsive overeating or binge eating disorders will get spots on a “freak” show aired on The Learning Channel (TLC).

This movie is pretty obscure these days. I’m not sure I could “stomach” it today.

The one film that probably came closest to such an ideal was the 1990 comedy-drama film, Eating, which starred Mary Crosby. And that movie, which I have seen, is not that great. I remember there was another show– it was an actual series that quickly got axed– that was called Starved. It attempted to put a comic spin on eating disorders and, quite predictably, was deemed in poor taste.

Yes, the episodes of Starved are on YouTube. No, I haven’t watched all of them. Maybe I will, though.

I seem to remember Tracey Gold tried to do a series about eating disorders, too. Her show was more of a documentary/talk show format. I think I saw it once or twice before it was canceled. It didn’t have the best time slot.

Tracey’s show– Starving Secrets. Who came up with that name?

One of my favorite movies about eating disorders remains the totally horrifying Karen Carpenter Story. Premiering on CBS on New Year’s Day 1989, this film starred Cynthia Gibb as Karen Carpenter and Mitchell Anderson as Richard Carpenter. Neither actor looked much like the person he or she was portraying, which meant there were really awful wigs used. There was also lip synching aplenty. I read that Cynthia Gibb actually had to wear Karen’s clothes, per Richard Carpenter’s insistence. Later, I read that Richard hated the movie and was sorry he’d had anything to do with making it. It’s a pretty campy movie and I’m not sure it holds up well against the test of time, however I will always love it for the music. I am an unabashed Karen Carpenter fan.

The Karen Carpenter Story…

Cynthia Gibb also portrayed an anorexic on the old TV show, Fame. Her character on that show, Holly Laird, becomes anorexic when her parents divorce. Of course, since it was 80s TV, Holly gets sick and is completely recovered by the end of the show, even after a hospital stay. It’s never mentioned again. Naturally, this is a pretty unrealistic characterization of eating disorders. They don’t magically go away.

Cynthia Gibb plays Holly Laird, anorexic for exactly one episode. This episode totally follows the “cookie cutter” plot line Claudia Eve Beauchesne refers to in her article, right down to a heroine with a name that ends in “y”.

Below are a few screenshots from the dramatic fainting scene… these are supposed to be high school students!

Perhaps the best portrayal of anorexia nervosa I’ve seen yet– and perhaps as much because of accuracy as sheer entertainment value– was that of Emma Rigby’s portrayal of anorexic teen, Hannah Ashworth on the British soap, Hollyoaks. I enjoy British TV anyway, but these scenes are so over the top compelling. And as an American, I find the concept of “sectioning” someone kind of fascinating. Yes, one can be committed in the United States, but Brits make it sound so much more caring when they do it. That kind of warms the cockles of any drama queen’s heart.

You could spend hours watching this shit… Fans of this particular genre have uploaded every scene.

Emma Rigby is also a good actress and the writers seem to have really done their homework about the most dramatic aspects of anorexia nervosa. They even mention the putrid breath one gets when one is in ketoacidosis from eating nothing but protein with no carbs. I was impressed by that. It’s not a very sexy aspect of anorexia and I have never seen it mentioned on any other dramatized program about eating disorders. It looks like Hollyoaks has gone there again more recently with a character named Cleo. I haven’t actually watched Cleo’s story, so I can’t comment too much about it yet…

Oh dear!

I could continue writing about this, but it would take all day. I haven’t even scratched the surface. However, just to bring this back to the original topic that caused me to fall down this rabbit hole, I will mention the dreaded Cameron family again. Remember, I got on this subject because of Tracey Gold, who famously starred with Kirk Cameron on Growing Pains? Well, his real life sister, Candace Cameron Bure, is also an actress. And she also portrayed someone with an eating disorder on the family friendly show, Full House. Her character, D.J., diets compulsively for one episode in which she decides to lose weight for a pool party at Kimmy Gibbler’s house.

You can find clips on YouTube, but I prefer this Funny or Die video… They do a good job summing things up. I like it when Jesse (John Stamos) tries to lay down the law.

Anyway… I figure I’ve prattled on long enough about this subject today. Maybe I should write about politics again, but to be honest, I never enjoyed writing about politics that much. I only felt like doing it when Trump was in charge. My original blog was less about politics, anyway, and I’d kind of like to get back to that content… which is less depressing.

Is watching old episodes of Growing Pains better than watching “murder porn” shows like Snapped? Especially when it leads me to looking up movies and TV shows about eating disorders? I don’t know. I used to be pretty obsessive about dieting when I was young, which is why I know about this genre in the first place. I am less obsessive about this subject now, although it’s not something that ever totally goes away. I know I’m not alone, though, which is why I’m writing about this now.

Time to practice guitar before I completely lose my motivation and watch more bad TV from the 80s.

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