Day Four of Forty

So, for 40 days and 40 nights—one or the other—I intend to post here in word counts in increments or multiples of 40, so from 40 words to 1,600, but probably somewhere in between most days. My intention is to “write through the Divide”—we all know…the one that we Americans apparently are split between. But I call bull on that, because we are not so divided as we think we are. I’ll keep this paragraph of my intro for each post, so if you’re seeing this for what feels like the bazillionth time, sorry, but someone else may be seeing it for the first time.

For All Who’ve Ever Felt Unworthy

Today marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of singer/drummer Karen Carpenter’s death. Carpenter, who with her brother, pianist/arranger Richard Carpenter, formed The Carpenters, suffered from anorexia nervosa which, in time, weakened her heart.closetoyou

I don’t recall much about February 4, 1983, other than how shocked everyone was, especially my father, who loved the Carpenters’ music. (Karen’s death also would come up later that year and in 1984, when it became known that a few students in my dance classes had the same illness—beautiful girls and kind. I’d often wonder, How can that be?) Karen had such a warm, resonant voice and made singing look so easy and her apparent wholesomeness masked much of her turmoil.

The 1989 biopic The Karen Carpenter Story reveals a slow-motion wasting away of her life. In her situation, once the illness took hold, it seemed she could rationalize it as one of those things that she consciously chose, one of the few areas over which she had control. In the film, her mother, Agnes, comes across as favoring Richard and as being unaffectionate toward her daughter.

Women who suffer with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, as well as those who treat them, say women with eating disorders all have one thing in common: low self-esteem. That cause plays itself out in the film.

Every light has a shadow and Karen’s was right there in her voice—always a certain sadness (even in the upbeat songs), which, besides the quality of her vocals, may have been what drew people to her. Not the sadness per se, but the emotional depth. It’s too bad that her illness was long unrecognized, even though the people around her and her fans knew something was wrong.

A Generational Paradox

When I consider people’s lives—my own as well as others’—I wonder what the lessons are. Karen Carpenter may have been unique in her musical talents, but she was—is—far from alone in her illness and in her sense of self.

People are quick to point to her mother’s treatment of her as a cause. In fact, it’s almost always a matter of course to scapegoat parents. From a generational standpoint, I hope we are moving toward ever greater love among parents and children, because love is a cornerstone in whether someone develops a strong or weak sense of self. As I’ve observed, many mothers, though not all, who were themselves children in the Great Depression and the years of World War II tend to come across as stoic and less likely to share affection with their children. I think this is because for them, life was about life and death, about surviving. When childhood is about surviving, nuance, especially emotional nuance, is less likely to be explored.

Since the advent and dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, life feels all the more fragile and it feels important to make the most of every connection in every moment. I say this not about the generations that lived through those years, but about the offspring of those people as well as others who followed. Someone living in London, whose family meals were constantly interrupted by the German Luftwaffe probably is not going to care a lot about nuance, but about survival itself—making sure they get downstairs to the shelter until the day comes and they’re worn out and say, “Eh! I want to eat my soup while it’s warm. I’m staying put.” Sense of self in that situation is less important than just getting through each day alive.

But given post-war prosperity and a bit of distance on the century’s earlier catastrophes, people in subsequent generations have had space to develop qualities that maybe could be more easily developed only during times of relative peace. From a hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis point of view, the bombs would loom large in the collective psyche of that generation; they would, in essence, blow out someone’s sympathetic-dominant system, lay down a lot of cortisol, and then for that person, it would be like trying to fit into sweat pants after one’s boyfriend has borrowed them and stretched them out; the elastic doesn’t return to its original shape. The fight/flight/freeze response probably would have hampered development of the prefontal lobes whose task, according to Joseph Chilton Pearce in The Biology of Transcendence, “is to turn the unruly reptilian brain, old mammalian brain, and neocortex into one civilized mind that it may access later.” This is because the children’s caregivers and models would have been focused on survival, not the job of nurturing, and this can’t but help affect the caregivers’ offspring.

Altering Biology through Appreciation

I believe each person is here for a particular purpose and we learn about that purpose and we learn best through what feels good and what doesn’t feel good. For me, developing trust in what feels good has been a long time coming because what was “right” was always whatever my head pushed me toward. Head = safety. It didn’t matter that my head’s diktats amounted to a long list of do’s and don’ts that increased my stress; I had to follow them—or else! My heart may have been screaming at me to take different actions, ones that would have benefitted me even more, but I tuned it out because trying to access it didn’t feel safe.

Still, I’m grateful that what my head pushed me toward was continuous learning about many subjects, whether the arts or sciences, religion and spirituality, or legal history and governance. That’s long been my safe space. Like a lot of teens, including Karen Carpenter, my self-esteem was in the toilet. Like her, I was obsessed with perfection. I felt I was only as good or worthy as my next “A” in whatever class, my next successful project, my next dance recital or choral performance. But I was lucky in that, there was no end to what I could learn. I enjoyed learning new things and my curiosity—following my head, in other words—was probably my salvation. I was lucky, too, that I put more stock in my intellect than in my looks; I didn’t crave the attention that I might have otherwise if I’d been into plays or music and so much of America’s celebrity culture, which has only become more extreme since I was a teen. The downside, if it really is one and I have doubts that it is, is that it’s taken me years to realize that I am worthy just by being here at this time, that I am lovable and worthy of being loved.

I’d like to say to anyone—preadolescent, teen, middle-aged person or elder—who suffers a poor sense of self, that little by little, the “inlook” can become better. It’s too much of a bromide to say, “Hang in there.” Though I hope anyone down on herself or himself would do that, it didn’t feel too good when people told me the same thing. Frankly, it takes a lot of work to shift out of feeling unworthy. But as I said in previous post, focusing on appreciating those things one enjoys, taking pleasure in simple things, can really help. That feeling of appreciation, as I keep developing it and focusing on it, multiplies.

I wish Karen Carpenter would have known that. She is part of my late sister’s generation of post-Depression/post-war babies who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a hard time with all the changes. I appreciate them, for they’ve made it easier for those who’ve followed to do the often-challenging self-work that’s needed to have a fulfilling life.

(Documentaries about the Carpenters include the BBC’s The Carpenters’ Story: Only Yesterday [2007] and A&E Biography: The Carpenters—“Harmony & Heartbreak” [1999].)

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