Perry Smith’s Culpability in ‘In Cold Blood’
In Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock were convicted of murdering the entire Clutter Family. When proven guilty, both Perry and Dick were sentenced to death. Though Perry had been the one to murder the members of the family, Dick had planned the whole thing. Without Dick’s planning, Perry would have never thought to kill that innocent family. Throughout the novel, the audience is given a look at the backgrounds and inner thoughts of the criminals. Dick was perfectly capable of determining right from wrong, yet he proceeded with the murders, keeping complete control of the situation. On the other hand, Perry (whom we learned later in the novel could have been a paranoid schizophrenic all along) had lost all control in the situation. Perry’s childhood and mental health leads to the conclusion that he should be spared, and treated for his mental instability.
Authors often lead readers to feel compassion for the criminal- maybe regarding a mistreated, abusive childhood, or challenges and struggles they’ve had to face. Even though people understand the consequences of the crime, they feel sympathy for someone who’s had so much pain in their life. They assume that the “evil” was rooted in something that truly affected the criminal. Perry Smith is no exception. Capote not only included Perry’s thoughts, but his father’s as well. Perry’s father wrote a manuscript called “A History of My Boy’s Life”, trying to mollify the Kansas State Parole Board so that they could allow his son, Perry, to be obtain parole. Mr.Smith writes about his drunkard wife (Perry’s mother), who had taken Perry and his siblings from their father at a very young age. “My children all cried at the top of their voices” wrote Perry’s father, “and she only cursed them saying they would run away to come to me later.”(Pg.126). Just as his mother had then said, Perry tried to run away from his mother. She had then send poor Perry to a Catholic orphanage. There, Perry was mercilessly beat by nuns who punished him for small things like wetting his bed. After such an experience, Perry began to resent nuns, religion and God, altogether. He was kicked out of the Catholic orphanage and sent “somewhere worse…A children’s shelter operated by the Salvation Army.”(Pg.132). The nurse at the shelter had no love for him either–for wetting the bed and for having a Native American mother. The “evil bastard” would fill a tub with ice-cold water and hold helpless Perry under the water “until he turned blue”. He inevitably got sick with pneumonia (Pg.132). Perry’s childhood was filled with abandonment, abuse and neglect. His horrible mother constantly “threw him away” from orphanage to shelter (the next one being worse than the previous) –trying to get rid of him somewhere so she wouldn’t have his “burden”. No one should be treated like that. He had grown up in a very dysfunctional world, with an almost non-existent sense of self-worth or self-respect. It led to an emotional imbalance in his life, leading to cause bigger problems for him as an adult. This ultimately led to affect his mental health, resulting in his loss of control during the murders.
Throughout the novel, we read about Perry being a child trapped in a grown man’s body. Perry dreams of “buried treasure” and adventures around the world. His ever active imagination even attracts Dick’s attention. Even he seems to notice something strange about his partner in crime. “There was something wrong with Little Perry” said Dick, “always wetting his bed and crying in his sleep…sit for hours just sucking his thumb and poring over them phony damn treasure guides”. Dick also noticed his emotionally instability. He would describe Perry to be “spooky as hell…ready to kill you, but you’d never know it”(Pg. 108). Perry’s childhood had indubitably led to concerning, questionable actions in his adult years. Throughout the whole novel, Perry just seemed as though he was making sure he had Dick’s respect and approval. He wanted nothing more than to feel accepted, even to someone like Dick. Perry develops a story about a murder in which he beats a “nigger” to death while in Las Vegas (Pg.109). He tells Dick this life in hope of Dick’s approval. Feeling like an outcast for all of his life, Perry was determined to get respect and positive attention from Dick. Dick essentially picked Perry as his partner to “settle the score” because he had believed Perry’s lie about killing a man. Perry— lost and desperate – was more than willing to gain a friend (finally feeling important to someone) and possibly go to Mexico, the place he has been dreaming to go since he was younger, at the price of a dirty conscious. To Perry, the feeling of self-worth could now only be accomplished if he gained respect from Dick.
Though someone might say “murder is murder”, and that in the end, both men deserve to die. They believe that even though Perry could be clarified as a paranoid schizophrenic, this deranged psychotic motivation can’t be to blame for the murders. Dr. W. Mitchell Jones had even said that Perry Smith was “oriented, hyper-alert to things going on about him…showing no sign of confusion.”(Pg.296). While it all could be true, Dr. Jones still concluded that Perry could not determine right from wrong at the time of the murders. “Perry shows definite signs of severe mental illness… a childhood marked by brutality and lack of concern on the part of both parents… he has a ‘paranoid’ orientation toward the world.”(Pg. 297). Dr. Joseph Statten of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas consulted with Dr.Jones and supported his concluding evaluation of Perry. Statten recommended that “only the first murder matters psychologically… when Smith attacked Mr.Clutter he was under a mental eclipse…a schizophrenic darkness, for it was not entirely a flesh and blood man he ‘suddenly discovered’ himself destroying, but a key figure in some past traumatic configuration (his father? the orphanage nuns?)” (Pg.302). This evidence/theory surely proves Perry’s mental instability. Though he had committed the crime, he could not be fully to blame. He lived a lifetime of confusion and despair, only leading up to instability and problems as an adult— and that’s where the ability to murder had rooted from.
“In Cold Blood” entangles the reader in the dark depths of Perry Smith’s life. The reader has made a heavy judgment of Perry throughout the book. The reader has reviewed his thoughts and actions. One could only sympathize when hearing the horrid life he had been through. The reader could determine that Perry was not in good mental health. Every aspect of his life had led up to that point, that moment in time where he decided he would kill Herb Clutter. From the beginning, his life had been nothing but a feeling of no self-worth. Perry’s mother, the nurses and the nuns did not know that their actions could affect someone so deeply. They probably then did not realize that their abuse and neglect cause everlasting consequences for Perry. He should not be put to death because he could not be fully blamed for what he had done. His life had left him with serious mental instability, something that he could not be held responsible for.
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In Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock were convicted of murdering the entire Clutter Family. When proven guilty, both Perry and Dick were sentenced […]