Perry Smith is a complex figure in In Cold Blood, at once a heartless killer and a broken, childlike man who elicits both empathy and fear in those around him. Capote takes an unflinching look at Perry, never averting his gaze from the incomprehensible cruelty at the center of Perry’s brutal murder of the Clutters, while also meticulously articulating the circumstances in Perry’s life that lend insight into his crime. Perry’s childhood was marked by abandonment, violence, and severed belonging, which created an immense amount of resentment within Perry toward his family and toward those who harmed him. Perry’s relationship with his father, in particular, is complex. He does not allow himself to express the rage he feels generally toward his family at his father, whom Perry still longs for up until the very end of his life. Perry’s longing for a father who cares for him only adds to his profound sense of loneliness. Dick describes Perry as “one of the most alone people that ever was”—more alone, even, than the other condemned men on Death Row.  

As a result of his loneliness and traumatic upbringing, Perry spends his life searching for belonging. He forms fierce attachments with men, and it is through these attachments that his motivations are most comprehensible. For example, Perry goes to Kansas initially because he hopes to meet up with Willie-Jay, the assistant chaplain he befriended in jail. Perry longs for this reunion because Wille-Jay corroborates Perry’s internal myths. Willie-Jay sees Perry as he sees himself, a thwarted poet with an artistic soul who is imminently savable. In Willie-Jay, Perry has a father figure who believes he is “special” and wants the best for him. Perry also has a strong connection with Dick, whom he admires for being “totally masculine,” pragmatic, and decisive. Importantly, this mirrors descriptions of Perry’s father as “a real man,” a man of action who could accomplish tasks well. When Perry recounts the moments before he murders the Clutters, his primary emotional experience is disappointment with Dick. Perry perceives cowardice in Dick and becomes disillusioned. It is this severed connection, this metaphorical loss of another father figure, that spurs Perry to murder Herb. Unable to destroy his own family, Perry takes the lives of the Clutters instead.