The Effects of Ones Environment in In Cold Blood On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, a family of four was brutally murdered by shotgun blasts only a few inches from their faces. The protagonist of the story, Perry Smith, a man with a troubled past, is the one responsible for committing these murders. In framing the question nature versus nurture, Capote’s powerfully written account of the Clutter family killings asks whether a man alone can be held responsible for his actions when his environment has relentlessly neglected him; Perry Smith is a prime example.
He is an intelligent, talented, and sensitive human being, who has been warped and rejected by society and his environment, and therefore cannot be held accountable for his actions. Throughout his life Perry suffers through many circumstances including abuse, having a limited education, and family difficulties. It is through these circumstances, which are beyond his control, that send him down a path of crime.
Throughout his childhood Perry is beaten and abused on many occasions by numerous individuals.
He spends most of his childhood living in orphanages, children’s shelters, and detention homes where he is beaten not only for being half – Indian, but for wetting the bed as well. While spending time in a California orphanage run by nuns Perry is beaten ruthlessly for wetting his bed: “She woke me up. She had a flashlight, and she hit me with it. Hit me and hit me, and when the flashlight broke, she went on hitting me in the dark” (Capote 93).
After a couple of months, Perry is tossed out of the orphanage and his mother places him in a children’s shelter operated by the Salvation Army. Here he is once again beaten brutally by the nurses: There was this one nurse, she used to call me ‘nigger’ and say there wasn’t any difference between niggers and Indians…What she used to do, she’d fill a tub with ice-cold water, put me in it and hold me under till I was blue. Nearly drowned…I caught pneumonia. I almost conked. I spent two months in the hospital. Capote 132) As he grows older Perry repeatedly gets into trouble and starts to associate with gangs. He is in and out of Detention Homes many times for stealing and running away from home and at one such place he was, Severely beaten by the cottage mistress, she had called [him] names and made fun of [him] in front of all the boys…She would throw back the covers & furiously beat [him] with a large black leather belt – Every night was a nightmare. Later on she thought it was very funny to put some kind of ointment on [his] penis.
This was almost unbearable. It burned something terrible. (Capote 275) As a result of these terrible experiences Perry is reluctant to confide in others and when he does, he expects to be misunderstood or even betrayed. This abusive environment he is subjected to as a child and the hateful people he is surrounded by influences how Perry grows and develops. When it comes to killing the Clutters he does not murder Mr. Clutter for any personal reason or gain; he murders him because he believes he is killing one of the hated figures from his past.
The orphanage nun, the evil nurse, the hated cottage mistress, any or all of them, could be the ones Perry believes he is acting revenge on while he is killing Mr. Clutter. According to Dr. Joseph Satten of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, in an article of his, Murder without Apparent Motive – A Study in Personality Disorganization, he states, “When Smith attacked Mr. Clutter he was under a mental eclipse, deep inside 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” (Capote 302).
The disorder that Dr. Satten believes Perry suffers from, called schizophrenia, “is a mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, to think logically, to have normal emotional responses, and to behave normally in social situations” (Merrill). All of the previously stated symptoms are ones that relate to Perry and his actions, and therefore proves that the murders were a result of Perry’s traumatic environment as a child. The Clutter family never harms Perry in any way, unlike other people throughout his life, however the Clutters are the ones who have to pay for it.
As a child Perry grew up with a limited education. When he is young and after his parent’s divorce Perry is living with his dad and is going to school. He finishes grade three but after that he never returns. Perry’s father moves from state to state throughout his childhood and prevents Perry from returning to school. Perry’s father wants Perry to stay with him instead of going to school so he can do work and take care of him. As Perry grows older however he understands that his father kept him out of school and Perry becomes extremely angry with him. Smith stated, “That bastard never gave me a chance.
He wouldn’t let me go to school…. he didn’t want me to learn anything, only how to tote and carry for him. Dumb. Ignorant. That’s the way he wanted me to be. So that I could never escape him” (Capote 185). However, Perry is an intelligent and talented man with great potential. He has natural music ability, he likes to read and improve his vocabulary, and he also knows how to draw. In spite of this he never received encouragement from his father or anyone else: “Oh, the man I could have been! … But the time came I begged to go to school. I happen to have a brilliant mind. In case you didn’t know.
A brilliant mind and talented” (Capote 185). What would have happened to Perry if he had obtained an education? Would he still live a life of crime, and would he still kill the Clutter family? He has significant potential for a normal and constructive life had he not been kept out of school and had he lived in a proper environment for a child his age. Had he been taught the things he loved, music, art, literature, he may have found an alternative to crime and a place to escape his traumatic experiences. Perry has a very difficult home life and endures many family issues as he is growing up.
When he is a child his parents go through a messy and violent divorce. They are constantly fighting and Perry’s father often beats his mother. In an autobiographical statement for the court Perry explains about his parents divorce stating: My mother was ‘entertaining’ some sailors while my father was away. When he came home a fight ensued, and my father, after a violent struggle, threw the sailors out & proceeded to beat my mother. I was frightfully scared, in fact all us children were terrified. Crying I was scared because I thought my father was going to hurt me, also because he was beating my mother (Capote 274).
The disruptive family environment and the abuse within his family may have resulted in a mixed sense of morals for Perry. He may have believed it was normal for people to treat each other violently and never was told otherwise. Perry also has to cope with several traumatic events within his family. His mother, an alcoholic, choked to death on her own vomit, his brother and sister committed suicide, and another sister disowned him. Perry explains to the reader about his family stating, “Jimmy a suicide. Fern out the window. My mother dead. Been dead eight years. Everybody gone but Dad and Barbara” (Capote 138).
Not only does Perry have to cope with the deaths of three family members, but the only family members he has left alive, his sister Barbara and his father, do not love or care for him. Perry’s sister never wants to see him again, and Perry and his father had gotten into a fight and have not spoken to each other in years. After living together for a few years the love and respect between Perry and his father gradually begins to diminish until they can no longer stand each other: “My hands got hold of his throat. My hands – but I couldn’t control them. They wanted to choke him to death… He tore loose and ran to get his gun.
Came back pointing it at me. He said, ‘Look at me, Perry. I’m the last thing living you’re ever gonna see’ ” (Capote 136). These family experiences that Perry suffers through as a child begs the question whether his crimes stem from inherent criminal tendencies, or whether he was sent down this path through circumstances beyond his control. Perry’s sister Barbara wrote to Perry when he was in jail before the murders, and she stated, “It has been proven at the age of 7 most of us have reached the age of reason – which means we do, at this age, understand & know the difference from right & wrong.
Of course – environment plays an awfully important part in our lives” (Capote 139). Due to the environment Perry grew up in and the circumstances he suffered through, the way he was nurtured, it makes sense that he may have never learned or understood the difference from right and wrong. Dr. Jones, a physician specializing in psychiatry, speaks about Perry’s childhood and says, “His childhood, related to me and verified by portions of the prison records, was marked by brutality and lack of concern on the part of both parents.
He seems to have grown up without direction, without love, and without ever having absorbed any fixed sense of moral values” (Capote 296). A prime example of this is when Perry is living in San Francisco with his mother: “I had started to run around with a gang, all of which were older than myself. My mother was always drunk, never in a fit condition to properly provide and care for us. I run as free & wild as a coyote. There was no rule or discipline, or anyone to show me right from wrong” (Capote 275).
Due to the harsh family environment Perry is raised in, which includes the recurring absence of both parents, a chaotic family life, and outright rejection, he may have never understood the difference between right and wrong and was therefore sent down a path of crime. Not having his parents there to guide him through life may have resulted in Perry never learning the difference between right and wrong. Perry Smith is driven down a path of crime due to circumstances beyond his control. These circumstances include, the abuse he received as a child, having a limited education, and the family troubles he has growing up.
Due to the traumatic environment Perry lives in and the detrimental circumstances he experiences, Perry has difficulty telling the difference between real and unreal experiences, he is never given the opportunity to succeed, and he is never taught the difference between right and wrong. All of these detrimental experiences Perry has to cope with, all of which were beyond his control, contributed to the Clutter family murders. Perry has no intentions of physically hurting the Clutter family. He has never met the Clutter’s before and thought they were nice people.
However, it is believed that in killing Herb Clutter, Perry was most likely exacting revenge on a, “key figure in some past traumatic configuration” (Capote 302), not Mr. Clutter himself. In fact, Perry himself admits, “maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it” (Capote 302), it being a lifetime of neglect. Works Cited Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Random House, 1965. Merrill, David. Schizophrenia. February 7, 2010. National Centre for Biotechnology Information. June 19, 2010. <http://www. ncbi. nlm. nih. gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001925/>.