The Lasting Power of Trauma

Through both an in-depth analysis of Dick’s and Perry’s traumatic pasts and an unflinching look at the ramifications of the Clutters’ murders, Capote explores the lasting power of trauma. The Clutters’ murders are an unprecedented act in the small town of Holcomb, and the town is irreparably changed because of it. The crime introduces a culture of fear and suspicion into what used to be a close-knit community. Families who used to leave their doors open begin to lock them, townspeople begin to question who among them might be responsible for the atrocity, and children and adults alike become frightened of common things, from being in the dark to going to the bathroom alone. Families like the beloved Ashidas even move out of Kansas altogether. Beyond the immediate impact of ending four innocent lives, the trauma from the crime alters the fabric of life in the communities of Holcomb and Garden City, introducing, as it did, an unshakeable awareness in locals that senseless, unimaginable acts of violence could happen to innocent people. 

This portrait of trauma is complicated by the histories of the perpetrators of the crime, as Dick and Perry’s past suffering may have led to their terrible actions. Dick had a traumatic brain injury from a car accident, one which left lasting physical pain, and his psychiatrist wonders whether this injury made it difficult for Dick to modulate his behavior. Perry’s childhood was marked by instability, malice from caregivers, and abandonment. As a child, Perry was physically abused in an orphanage, used as a pawn in his parents’ relationship, witnessed domestic abuse, and was indentured to his father to help with physical labor, which kept him out of school. This upbringing left Perry both insatiable for affection and venomously resentful of all the care and resources he lacked. Indeed, throughout the book, Perry constantly seeks attention and belonging, only to be thwarted by his own antisocial behavior. Perry says that, though the Clutters didn’t hurt him, they may have been the ones who paid for all the pain that others caused him in his life. His fury at his family may have found its outlet in the crime he committed, illustrating how trauma can be passed on again and again.

People and Systems that Don’t Inherently Value Life Cause Great Suffering

By examining the lives of the murderers, alongside the workings of a dehumanizing legal system, Capote highlights the disturbing consequences of devaluing human life. The murder is notable for its sheer depravity, as investigators are shocked to learn that there is no real motive for the killings. As details emerge, the awful truth becomes clear: Dick and Perry had so little regard for the Clutters’ lives that they killed them almost as an afterthought. Townspeople and investigators are left to contemplate how someone could do such a thing without a clear motive. The disregard that each murderer has for his own life provides a clue. Perry, for example, is frequently suicidal and regards his impending execution with curiosity rather than with terror. Lowell Lee Andrews, on Death Row for killing his family, shows a similar disregard for his own life, displaying little emotion as he’s hanged. Ronnie and Jimmy, whose murder spree lands them on Death Row, claim that the world is too cruel to live in and that murdering people is actually a favor. What the men on Death Row have most in common is a disregard for life, be it their own life or the lives of others. 

However, the irony of murderers being put to death by a system that condemns murder is lost on none of them. Variations on the titular phrase “in cold blood” are used only twice in the book: once to refer to Dick and Perry’s acts of murder and once to refer to their execution. Dick’s parents mourn for the loss of their son, as any parents might. Religious leaders, such as Reverend Cowan who gave the Clutters’ eulogy, and political leaders such as the governor of Kansas, speak to the immorality of capital punishment, the governor simply stating he doesn’t like to kill people. These dissenting voices on capital punishment pair with an in-depth analysis of how Perry and Dick’s trial was prejudiced from the start against the defendants to suggest that killing the killers may do more harm than good. The nonchalant attitude of witnesses to the executions, who watch the hangings as though watching a sporting event, drives this point home. The macabre scene suggests that when the justice system is in the business of killing people, everyone takes part in a society that has little regard for the value of human life.

Empathy Can Be Both a Powerful Good and a Dangerous Distortion

Empathy has a tricky function in In Cold Blood, serving to both humanize the murderers and to insulate those close to Dick and Perry from the horror of their actions. Many people throughout the book have empathy for Dick and Perry. Dewey is often depicted as feeling empathy for Perry, feeling for how hard his life was. Though Dewey’s empathy doesn’t interfere with his perception of the case, however, others are not so clear-eyed. The Hickocks’ empathy for Dick blinds them to his depravity. For example, when Mr. Hickock testifies, the prosecutor illustrates how he and his wife fail to understand how dangerous their son is. Mrs. Meier, the undersheriff’s wife, grows close to Perry, caring for him like a mother might, feeding him and praising him for doing his chores well. Like Dewey, Mrs. Meier’s empathic nature causes her to see the best in Perry, something childlike in him, and she concludes that he’s not that bad. This draws a rebuke from her husband, who reminds her of the violence he’s capable of. The empathy that people have for both men suggests that, while empathy can generally be good, it can also become slippery when it causes others to overlook or ignore danger to others.