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.

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Let Me Tell You A Story

Once There Was A Little Girl

Once there was a little girl from the Southern United States, and one day, she realized that at some point in her life, she was going to have to decide to be something. So she started to search. How do you decide what to be? she wondered. Money was important. This much she knew. So she searched online high-paying professions, though in more words because she wasn’t yet sure what such “being” was called. A veterinarian, she decided. This is what I should be. She liked animals. (They were cute.) And it made her sad when they were hurt. So why not be the person who fixed them? But one day, she accidentally caught a glimpse of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and decided that being any sort of doctor was too gruesome for her (but again, not using such a big word).

Now this little girl’s favorite uncle was an author and illustrator of children’s book, and he was her favorite because he was cool and would draw her pictures and sneakily put her name and her cousins’ into his books. I like drawing, too, the little girl thought when her uncle came over once. Maybe I should be an author and illustrator like my uncleSo she tried this too. Her art teacher at school taught her basic book binding and she would write stories and draw pictures. But she never seemed to have the patience to finish these stories or pictures enough to develop her craft, and soon this pursuit was dropped as well.

Much of the little girl’s life continued like this. She thought about many professions, including news anchoring, website designing, and being the lead singer of an alternative rock band (which was eventually discarded as a result of her waning interest in alternative rock). It wasn’t until early high school that the little girl found what she really wanted to be–this time knowing to call it profession.

She had another uncle–one who had married into the family and who she also deemed “cool.” Unlike her other uncle, this one was pursuing the profession of authoring books for adults, but he also had an extensive knowledge of film (the critical side, not the technical). He would talk to her about film every time she was visiting and tell her all the amazing new films coming out and why they were important. She hadn’t realized before that film could be so intricate–that it could reach so many people in such a deep way. I want to do that, she decided once and for all. I want to make movies and share my thoughts and feelings and experiences with the world around me.

Since then, the little girl has been trying her best to learn all she can about film, and she has come to find how related it is to many of the other things she tried to pursue and many of the things she now enjoys. She’s not where she wants to be yet (and as she’s learned from her recent viewing of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, she probably never will be) but that’s okay because there will always be room for improvement. All the girl hopes to do now is take what she loves and do it, and she’s decided that maybe she’ll write about it along the way. Maybe like once a week. (But really, she will. That’s what this blog is for. Just FYI.)

I don’t think I need to tell you: that little girl was me.