To Kill Those Who Kill: A Meditation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

When I was in early high school, I impulsively bought a DVD copy of the Bennett Miller film Capote from a Half Price Books store. Shortly after, I watched the film with my father, who found it beautiful and engaging; it was the first time I remember him complimenting a film I had chosen for its important moral and intellectual content.

I eventually returned the same store and bought the book on which the film was based, Capote’s In Cold Blood. Little did I know, it would be close to seven years before I actually read that book, and it wouldn’t even be the same copy. (I ended up lending the book to a friend, who never returned it.)

I finally committed to reading the book this semester. It took close to two months, as I had to force myself to read in the late hours after I had finished poorly composed counterpoint assignments from my music theory class and weekend filming for my senior documentary project, but it did not take long for the book to get me invested in its subject matter and prose.

I am honestly nervous to write about In Cold Blood. It’s already been written about in so many different ways. I’m sure just as many–if not more–conversations have been had about it that have said even more. A short while before I finished the book, I actually had a friend discuss it with me, saying he had read it for a class on crime & punishment (the acts of, not the novel) three years ago.

This essentially is what Capote was writing about. In an quasi-revolutionary way for the time in which the book was written, he humanized men that, in my opinion, we would still find difficult to sympathize with today, if we were as invested in the case as those in the story (and possibly, even if we were not). He questioned the death penalty and asked whether we could truly consider ourselves “the better people” for killing men who had killed.

In this age of social media, I imagine myself scrolling down my Facebook Newsfeed and happening upon a short video on the death of the Clutters. I’d watch it momentarily before thinking, How could anyone do such a thing? and continue down the feed, almost forgetting about it before someone else, who had seen the same video, would bring it up to me later that day. We’d talk about it and agree that These were horrible men, and maybe why do they still get to live when that poor family was dead. (Side note: I feel that I should say that I am–and always have been–against the death penalty.)

But from this video, I would have gained as little understanding of the defendants as many of the people who called for their deaths in Kansas. That is not to say anything they did was right, but what Capote wanted, I think, was not to absolve them of their guilt but, rather, to make their accusers understand, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it many years before in The Great Gatsby:

‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one’… ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’

Despite their crimes, Perry Smith & Richard Hickock were still people. Both of them came from a life that none of the jurors–not even the judge–knew about. Whether or not this information would have made them more sympathetic, I do not know, but Capote argues that without it, they were not in a place to ‘criticize’ (read: ‘judge’) the defendants.

[SORT OF SPOILER ALERT] The part of the book that, in my opinion, most powerfully conveyed this, was the questioning of the psychiatrist Dr. Jones. Limited to answering each question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without elaboration, Jones was not allowed to share his more detailed findings, which may have gotten both men out of their death sentences on cases of mental instability. [END OF SPOILER]

I think Capote’s message is timeless. Whether it is deciding someone’s life during a trial or simply treating a person differently  because of your perception of who they might be, we all need to remember that there are facts we will always be missing about that person’s life and where they come from, so we must always question when and if ever it is our place to judge.

Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” States A Problem But Fails to Confront It

It’s not Harper Lee’s fault that her book has been the subject of so much controversy since it came out. As many have said before me, it should not have been published in the first place. It is not clear if Lee, who is so well remembered for her novel To Kill A Mockingbird that effectively addressed the issue of race at the time of its release, had much, if any, say in the publication of her unedited novel, and we may never know the definite facts, especially considering Lee is a more secretive celebrity.

The main complaint concerning Go Set A Watchman revolves around Atticus Finch, known for his almost perfect ideals in support of the black population in his small town of Mobile, Alabama. He was the white savior–although many didn’t think of him this way before contemporary times–in To Kill A Mockingbird, but in GSAW, Finch has become  supporter of segregation, and it seems abandoned many of the principles he held in Lee’s other novel. This change is explained away by Henry, the love interest of Atticus’ infamous daughter Scout, when he asks, “Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?” (230)

Scout, as the novel’s subject, has a multitude of issues with the character change in her father, supporting Lee’s well-known anti-segregationist mindset and her disdain toward the racism of the South; however, so much of the novel is focused on Scout’s relationship to Henry and her inability to deal with his and Atticus’ now segregationist attitudes that it avoids discussing the real issues at hand–what creates such a mindset in people and what can be done to combat it?

Especially now, problems of race are especially prevalent. There are discussions about political correctness and the larger issue of blatant racism that still exists in the United States and many places in the world. Unfortunately, the racial tensions of today are much to close to those that existed in Lee’s time. One particularly haunting image of this is the new documentary Welcome to Leith, which looks into the aspirations of White supremacist Craig Cobb, who attempts to convert a town in North Dakota to his more-than-questionable principles.

With stories like this on the rise, the world was not in need of a book that simply told us there was a problem. That is a fact widely known by people with any sort of inclination toward social justice. What we need is someone or something to excite change–active participation in creating a world that does not stand for the widespread prejudice that still exists. Yes, human nature teaches us to be judgmental, but that does not justify our inability to move past our human flaws. Yes, individuals cannot change the world alone but a collection of individuals fighting for the same cause has some effect on the society in which they live. As David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas character Adam Ewing, in response to his father-in-law’s claim that his life “amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean,” so brilliantly responds, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

In Go Set A Watchman, Scout so actively wallows in the pain of her discovery that she teaches Lee’s audience to become numb when the they realize the imperfections of the world, but knowing the active role Atticus takes against racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, this is not something that Lee believes in at all.

Unless she has changed in the way her character Atticus has in the time between To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, I can hardly believe that Harper Lee wanted to publish this “new” novel. There must have been a strong reason she decided not to have it published back when she first wrote it, and I don’t think there’s much evidence to say that she would have changed her mind between then and now. So I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

A woman so well-known for a story that so clearly condemned the prejudice of the South against the population of black citizens who lived there, in my opinion, would not have published a book that so actively avoids telling her audience that they must stand up against the problems of race in the world today. While I believe Go Set A Watchman should not have been published (now or ever), I do not think it is a fault we ought to pin on Harper Lee, a nearly blind 89-year old woman, but rather, we should question the decisions of her publisher and the other forces that worked to get the novel published as their motives may have been less than the best intentioned.